In 2010 I read a book that will probably remain one of my favorite works of all time, Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation. The book is a first-hand narrative account of basically every major event in the history of the Middle East (and many major events in Afghanistan and Iran). The title of the book was taken from an inscription on the back of a World War I campaign medal awarded to Fisk’s father, a veteran of the first “Great War for Civilisation.”
I am now going to adopt this phrase to describe my assessment of the culture war the human race is currently engaged in, not simply in America or the Middle East, but on a global level. I live in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and have for the past three years, so naturally much of what I write is in the context of my extended residency in this country.
First, let’s talk about the word “civilization.” In Jordan, the word cannot be used without arousing a kerfluffle amongst both Arabs and Western liberal academic types. As a former colony and then quasi-colony of the British Empire, Jordanians assume that if I label a part of the culture here as “uncivilized” (e.g. honor killings), then I must automatically believe, as a white American, that my own race of people (the pale faces) and country (Amurca) represent all that is civilized. This could not be farther from the truth.
I define “civilization” as the desired endgame in the human race’s long, stumbling battle to conquer our most basic, primal human instincts. I am speaking of the instincts of men to dominate women. The instincts to fear what you don’t understand. The instincts of humans to form collectives based on religion, race, or nationalism and use that strength to project power on others.
For all my American friends out there who think you are from a “civilized” country. I am here to tell you that you are not. While you may be swimming in a sea of iPhones and have your First World problems, I have some mind-blowing news; your country is not only NOT exceptional (Stephen Walt, do tell), but also, examined region by region, not yet fully civilized.
Let’s work on defining “civilization” a bit more, shall we. Civilization is not based on race. It is not based on religion. It is not based on clothing. It is not based on the type of food you eat or how you eat it. To get into specifics, the following is a non-exhaustive list of the traits of civilization:
1.) Groups that are historically vulnerable are protected by a governing entity (the State). Such groups include (but are not limited to) women, children, the LGBT community, persons with disabilities, and religious minorities.
2.) People are allowed to change their religion at will without repercussions.
3.) People are allowed to choose their spouses with full freedom, without being constrained by family or community pressure.
4.) Individuals settle issues on a one-on-one individual basis, whether through discourse or the legal system, without using family/tribal connections to settle matters extra-judicially, e.g. targeting innocent, un-involved persons who may be from the rival’s tribe/sect/etc..
5.) Religious/ethnic/tribal majorities are not allowed to project power on minority groups.
Are we clear? Great, now I shall continue . . .
The Great War for Civilization is being fought in every country and in every community in the world. It is being fought in France, where Muslim schoolgirls cannot wear their headscarfs when attending public schools. It is being fought in Norway, where the atrocities of Anders Breivik punctuated the rise of a savage, Islomophobic, intolerant right-wing movement (inspired in part by savage right-wingers in America, mind you). In rural, underdeveloped communities in Jordan, women can be killed and raped with minimal punishment when the word “honor” is involved.
In my homeland, America, the war is being fought on multiple fronts. The American Jewish community agonizes over its support of Israel – the world’s last apartheid state – based on its primitive, tribal affiliations to their Israeli co-religionists. American Christians – especially in the half-civilized Deep South – continue to try to flex their muscle by trying to impose their views on abortion, alcohol purchase, and LGBT rights on non-Christians.
These so-called Christians burn the holy texts of others, advocate for the wholesale destruction of other countries, and attempt to demonstrate their dominance in their communities with religious displays on public property. They call for fundamentalist Christian teaching of the origin of the universe in public school curriculums, while scoffing at the scientific method and the theory of evolution.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, on the ideological left, the products of liberal Middle Eastern Studies Departments (justly) rail against Israeli crimes against humanity, though conversely draw red lines in the sand around the Arab/Muslim world. They warn critics that there are topics that non-Arabs (the pale faces) are not permitted to speak about. They bandy about words like “racist” and “bigot,” though their own views on who can and cannot speak are purely based on ethnicity and skin color.
These are the cultural relativists and apologists, the ones who say that we, as Westerners, are not permitted to make judgments or critical remarks on such things as so-called honor crimes or gender-discriminatory nationality laws. We (the pale faces) cannot comment on other people’s culture, no matter how repugnant some practices may be. Besides, claim the cultural relativists/apologists here in Jordan, Jordanian society will eventually reform itself, incrementally. Jordanian women will ‘one day’ succeed in securing their own rights, with outside pressure from non-Arabs deemed – subjectively – unhelpful. Teenage Jordanian girls will ‘one day’ not have to worry about getting kidnapped, raped for three days straight, and then having to marry their rapist (this really happened, fyi). One day . . .
I could not disagree more with these relativists and apologists. I am saying that we need to step beyond race, beyond religion, beyond nationality. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, I am saying that every struggle in the world for basic human rights is every other human being’s problem. I am saying that there is no monopoly on criticism; critics of Israel must not be labeled anti-semites, while non-Arab critics of so-called honor killings must not be labeled racists or bigots.
The Great War for Civilization isn’t one of the West vs. the barbaric hordes of the developing world; it is a war that is taking place on every continent, in every country, in every community, in every individual. It is a war against our very own instincts, our very own impulses, our very own human nature to hate and destroy. It is the human instinct to build power in numbers based on religion, race, or nationality and then project that power using force or the threats of force.The path to civilization starts with recognizing that the world is not held back by Arab, White, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, American, or Jordanian problems, but rather by human problems. We need to fix them together.