I am saddened by those among us who think that the end of the ‘American-Western Civilization’ is near, and I find those who think that our own culture will replace theirs laughable.
There is no doubt that the civilization of the current age differs from previous ones, as it stretches its influence across the entire globe with its medicine, industry, inventions, discoveries, space explorations, beside a set of values and ideals that are unprecedented in human history. For instance, it is the only civilization that put an end to the enslavement of human beings which lasted for thousands of years, and the role played by British cannons in achieving this is worth recalling. It is also the civilization that brought forth the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is no point in denying or underestimating these achievements. Meanwhile, it is important to distinguish between the peoples of the West and some of their governments that had committed crimes the monstrosity of which is hard to forget.
Samuel Huntington thinks that this current global civilization is Western par excellence, not just due to the depth of its influence, but because of its ability to produce ‘the free man’. Meanwhile, those who claim that it is the product of previous civilizations might be partially right, but the current civilization dominates scores of languages and countries in an unprecedented phenomenon in human history, and one of its particular features is its capability and willingness to provide to others out of its humanitarian obligation.
Hence, when our refugees invaded the coasts of the West in millions - in a worrying humanitarian phenomenon - searching for food and security, they were able to find their needs only by the West; the sole side that was and is capable of providing.
Some tend to disregard the fact that the sciences and productions of previous civilizations were bound by the eras during which these civilizations existed, and that no state has benefited from them in a substantial and significant manner. This has changed when the Western civilization started to emerge with Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, and with other Western explorers and inventors who generated a qualitative scientific leap and made its fruits available to everyone. Such a development has no match in the previous five thousand years, except for the invention of the alphabet.
It is true that the opinions and accomplishments of Averroes, Avicenna, al-Farabi and scores of other philosophers, scholars, and thinkers were at the disposal of all. However, no one in our world took notice of their production, let alone that some of them have been shunned and held for heretics by their societies, and some others have even been tortured and killed. On the other hand, the Western civilization came to embrace their legacy and make use of their accomplishments. Hence, on what basis dare we voice our boast of credit while the West was the only side that valued and benefited from those scholars?
Nothing of these historical developments is haphazard, as the construct of the West has particular factors that made it observe while the others were blind, innovate while the others were monotonous, and succeed while the others were failing. These western foundational factors are original rather than imported, and thanks to their driving force the West managed to become civilized to that current exceptional historical level.
These factors were specified by Huntington, and illustrated by my colleague Saudi columnist Muhammad al-Mahmud in his brilliant article titled “The Western Cultural Exceptionalism” last September, as follows:
1) The classical legacy which the West has inherited, including the Hellenic philosophy and rationalism, the Roman Law, and the Latin and Christian tradition.
2) The Catholic and Protestant traditions which are – historically speaking – the most particular feature of the Western civilization that distinguishes the Europeans from peoples of other continents.
3) The multiple European languages that specify each European nation from the others, whereas other previous cultures used to have one language.
4) Secularism, or the separation between the religious authority and the mundane authority, since the concept of a deity and its role differs from one religious creed to another.
5) The supremacy of law, which the West has inherited from the Roman civilization, along with the concept of regulating human potential through an external standard - which is still prevailing in the Western culture, serving as the basis of the state constitution and the safeguarding of human rights.
6) Historically speaking the Western society got accustomed to being pluralistic to a great extent, also combining the pluralism of social classes, and this condition has prevented totalitarianism and encouraged the emergence and success of new and independent communities that are not based on blood ties or marriage.
7) The emergence of representative councils, which was the result of social pluralism has resulted early on in the creation of social classes, parliaments, and councils that represent the clergy, the aristocrats, the traders, and other groups – which altogether produced the institutions of modern democracy.
8) Individualism, which is a result of several of the previous factors that helped in producing one’s sense of his own individual character - along with the traditions of individual rights and freedoms that distinguish the Western culture from other ones.
These are the factors that contributed to the formation of the modern West. It is noteworthy that they are features that never combined together in that manner in any previous civilization, and it was their combination and interaction that granted the West its particular privilege that distinguishes it from the other cultures.
Al-Mahmud opines that the Arab and Muslim tradition lacks many of these factors, let alone their combination. He adds that fundamentalist ideology, whether religious or nationalistic, will not be able to move its people across the borderline that separates between backwardness and progress, since there is nothing in the Arab or Islamic tradition with its loads of hollow phrases that might assist modern Arabs and Muslims in the acquisition of the positive factors that help them shift to the modern culture, or in other words any factors that might assist them in becoming able to belong to the current global culture of humanism.
Hence, it is no wonder that most of our regional countries have rejected Western culture, a tendency that brought a lot of catastrophes upon us, let alone that even our partial and conditional acceptance of that culture was not less harmful. We have a historical example in Japan, which had adopted a similar position of suspicion of the Western culture and rejection of it since the early contact with it between the years 1542 and 1868. Sometime later, the Japanese realized that knowledge is power, and that the West is the source of that knowledge, so they acquired a position of ‘conditional acceptance’ of that culture, allowing in only technological advancements and rejecting Western institutional values. This stance led to catastrophes that were manifested in a number of wars, culminating in the ugliest manner when atomic bombs were dropped upon the Japanese.
Soon later, they drew their lessons very well, and embraced the entire set of Western cultural values. Ultimately, they managed to turn to an entirely new nation compared to that of their predecessors.
To sum up; the entire globe has been subjected to a pandemic that was capable of annihilating half of the human race, but it was the West in general, and the United States in particular, that deserves credit for saving the lives of billions of people – and this is the key significance of modern civilization.