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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 3/28/19

Why Civilizationism Is Biggest Threat to Human Rights in the 21st Century

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Civilisationalism is frequently based on myths erected on falsification and rewriting of history to serve the autocrat or authoritarian's purpose. Men like Trump, Orban, and Erdogan project themselves as nationalist heroes who protect the nation from some invading horde. In his manifesto, Brenton Tarrant, the perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks, bought into the notion of an illusionary invader. Muslims, he wrote, "are the most despised group of invaders in the West, attacking them receives the greatest level of support."

He also embraced the myths of an epic, centuries-long struggle between the white Christian West and Islam with the defeat of the Ottomans in 1683 at the ports of Vienna as its peak. Inscribed on Tarrant's weapons were the names of Serbs who had fought the Ottomans as well as references to the battle of Vienna. To Tarrant, the Ottomans' defeat in Vienna symbolized the victory of the mythical notion of a world of inviolable, homogeneous nations. "The idea that (medieval societies) are this paragon of unblemished whiteness is just ridiculous. It would be hilarious if it weren't so awful," said Paul Sturtevant, author of The Middle Ages in the Popular Imagination.

Much like popular perception of the battle for Vienna, Tarrant's view of history had little relation to reality. A multi-cultural empire, the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna in cooperation with Catholic French King Louis XIV and Hungarian Protestant noble Imre Thokoly as well as Ukrainian Cossacks. Vienna's Habsburg rulers were supported not only by Polish armies but also Muslim Tartar horsemen. "The Battle of Vienna was a multicultural drama; an example of the complex and paradoxical twists of European history. There never has been such a thing as the united Christian armies of Europe," said historian Dag Herbjornsrud. Literary scholar Ian Almond argues that notions of a clash of civilizations bear little resemblance to the "almost hopelessly complex web of shifting power-relations, feudal alliances, ethnic sympathies and historical grudges" that shaped much of European history. "The fact remains that in the history of Europe, for hundreds of years, Muslims and Christians shared common cultures, spoke common languages, and did not necessarily see one another as 'strange' or 'other,'" Almond said.

That was evident not only in the Battle of Vienna but also when the Ottomans and North Africa's Arab rulers rallied around Queen Elizabeth I of England after the pope excommunicated her in 1570 for breaking with Catholicism and establishing a Protestant outpost. Elizabeth and her Muslim supporters argued that Protestantism and Islam were united in their rejection of idol worship, including Catholicism with its saints, shrines and relics. In a letter in 1579 to Ottoman sultan Murad III, Elizabeth described herself as the "most mighty defender of the Christian faith against all kind of idolatries." In doing so, she sought to capitalize on the fact that the Ottomans had justified their decision to grant Lutherans preferred commercial treatment on the basis of their shared beliefs.

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Similarly, historian Marvin Power challenges the projection of Chinese history as civilizational justification of the party leader's one-man rule by Xi Jinping and Fudan University international relations scholar Zhang Weiwei. Amazon's blurb on Zhang's bestselling The China Wave: Rise of the Civilizational State summarizes the scholar's rendition of Xi Jinping's vision succinctly: "China's rise, according to Zhang, is not the rise of an ordinary country, but the rise of a different type of country, a country sui generis, a civilizational state, a new model of development and a new political discourse which indeed questions many of the Western assumptions about democracy, good governance and human rights." The civilizational state replaces western political ideas with a model that traces its roots to Confucianism and meritocratic traditions.

In his sweeping study entitled China and England: The Preindustrial Struggle for Justice in Word and Image, Powers demonstrates that Chinese history and culture is a testimony to advocacy of upholding individual rights, fair treatment, state responsibility to its people, and freedom of expression rather than civilisationalism, hierarchy and authoritarianism. Powers extensively documents the work of influential Chinese philosophers, writers, poets, artists and statesmen dating back to the 3rd century BC who employed rational arguments to construct governance systems and take legal action in support of their advocacy. Powers noted that protection of free speech was embedded in edicts of the Han Emperor Wen in the second century BC. The edicts legitimized personal attacks on the emperor and encouraged taxpayers to expose government mistakes. The intellectuals and statemen were the Chinese counterpart of contemporary liberal thinkers.

In a lot of ways, Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church have understood the utility of civilisationalism far better than others and made it work for them, certainly prior to the Russian intervention in Syria. At a gathering several years before the intervention, Russia achieved a fete that seemed almost unthinkable. Russia brought to the same table at a gathering in Marrakech every stripe of Sunni and Shiite political Islam.

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The purpose was not to foster dialogue among the various strands of political Islam. The purpose was to forge an alliance with a Russia that emphasized its civilizational roots in the Russian Orthodox Church and the common values it had with conservative and ultra-conservative Islam. To achieve its goal, Russia was represented at the gathering by some of its most senior officials and prominent journalists whose belief systems were steeped in the values projected by the Church. To the nodding heads of the participating Muslims, the Russians asserted that Western culture was in decline while non-Western culture was on the rise, that gays and gender equality threaten a woman's right to remain at home and serve her family and that Iran and Saudi Arabia should be the model for women's rights.

They argued that conservative Russian Orthodox values like the Shariah offered a moral and ethical guideline that guarded against speculation and economic bubbles.

The Trump administration has embarked on a similar course by recently siding in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women with proponents of ultra-conservative values such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq and several African countries. Together they sought to prevent the expansion of rights for girls, women, and LGBT people and weaken international support for the Beijing Declaration, a landmark 1995 agreement that stands as an internationally recognized progressive blueprint for women's rights.

The US position in the commission strokes with efforts by conservative Christians to reverse civilizational US courts decisions in favour of rights for women, minorities, members of the LGBT community, Muslims and immigrants and refugees. It is what conservative historian and foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan describes as the war within traditionally liberal society. It is that civilizational war that provides the rationale for Russian meddling in elections, a rational that goes beyond geopolitics. It also explains Trump's seeming empathy with Putin and other autocrats and authoritarians.

The US alignment with social conservatives contributes to the rise of the civilizational state. Putin's elevation of the position of the church and Xi's concentration of absolute power in the Communist Party strengthens institutions that symbolize the rejection of liberal values because they serve as vehicles that dictate what individuals should believe and how they should behave. These vehicles enable civilisationalism by strengthening traditional hierarchies defined by birth, class, family and gender and delegitimizing the rights of minorities and minority views. The alignment suggests that the days were over when Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov trumpeted that the West had lost "its monopoly on the globalization process" because there was a "market of ideas" in which different "value systems" were forced to compete.

Similarly, conservative American author Christopher Caldwell asserted that Orban's civilizational concept of an authoritarian Christian democracy echoed the kind of democracy that "prevailed in the United States 60 years ago" prior to the civil rights movement and the 1968 student protests. Orban's Hungary epitomizes the opportunism that underlies the rise of the civilizational state as a mechanism to put one's mark on the course of history and retain power. In Orban's terms, civilizational means not Christianity as such but those Christian organizations that have bought into his authoritarian rule. Those that haven't are being starved of state and public funding.

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Civilisationalism's increased currency is evident from Beijing to Washington with stops in between. Trump's and Steve Bannon, his former strategy advisor's beef with China or Russia is not civilizational, its about geopolitical and geo-economic power sharing. In terms of values, they think in equally civilizational terms. In a speech in Warsaw in 2017, Trump declared that "the fundamental question of our time is whether the west has the will to survive" but assured his audience that "our civilization will triumph." Bannon has established an "academy for the Judeo-Christian west" in a former monastery in the Italian town of Collepardo. The academy intends to groom the next generation of far-right populist politicians.

It is initiatives like Bannon's academy and the growing popularity of civilizational thinking in democracies, current and erstwhile, rather than autocracies that contribute most significantly to an emerging trend that transcends traditional geopolitical dividing lines and sets the stage for the imposition of authoritarian values in an emerging new world order. Interference in open and fair elections, support for far-right and ultra-conservative, family-value driven Western groups and influence peddling on both sides of the Atlantic and in Eurasia at large by the likes of Russia, China and the Gulf states serve the purpose of Bannon and his European associates.

Civilizationalists have put in place the building blocks of a new world order rooted in their value system. These blocks include the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) that groups Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The grouping is centred on the Chinese principle of non-interference in the sovereign affairs of others which amounts to support for the region's autocratic regimes. The SCO's Tashkent-based internal security coordination apparatus or Regional Antiterrorist Structure (RATS) has similarly adopted China's definition of the "three evils" of terrorism, extremism, and separatism that justifies its brutal crackdown in Xinjiang.

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