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Europe and the Clash of Civilizations

Is the West ready to engage the East in a future enlightenment process?

March 15, 2004

Is the West ready to engage the East in a future enlightenment process?

I take it as a certainty that almost all Europeans and Russians share a vital interest in avoiding a "clash of civilizations" with Islam.

This is because hundreds of millions of Muslims are living in places that are geographically very close to Europe and Russia, as well as millions living inside Russian borders — and even more living inside London, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Amsterdam and so on.

Whether we believe in Samuel Huntington’s analysis or not, nobody can rule out the possibility of an almost global conflict between Islam and the West.

It might not happen in the form of a great war. It seems thinkable that in an atmosphere of lasting general animosity on both sides armed conflicts or wars — particularly terrorist activities and guerrilla activities — may be triggered time and again.

Of the nearly 200 states on our globe, Muslims populate almost 60. Most of these states are poor. Some of them are utterly poor — and, at the same time, difficult to govern.

Very few of them enjoy boundaries with historical legitimacy that goes back further than World War I or II. Very few of them have historically evolved boundaries.

Even fewer of these states enjoy a functioning democracy. Most of them can now — and since their beginning — only be ruled in an authoritarian or dictatorial way.

The Western public — and the Western political elites — has only a very limited knowledge of Islam and its history. We tend to forget, for instance, the concepts universal individual rights and democracy are Western achievements of just the last two centuries.

Thomas Jefferson did have slaves, just like Pericles in ancient Athens tow millennia earlier. The Torah, the New Testament — and also the Koran — have given all of us commandments, but not rights.

It needed the Age of Enlightenment 250 years ago, to conceive of equal rights for any human being under a rule of law and democracy. These concepts evolved step-by-step in England, America, Holland, France and elsewhere — and quite a bit later in my own country.

Yet, they did not develop in Arab regions, the Middle East, in Iran, Indonesia, India or China. Enlightenment has not as yet reached most Muslim people. And it particularly has not reached the Islamic masses, altogether about one-fifth of the global population.

It is rather unlikely that one could condense the process of enlightenment — which in the West has needed centuries — into a short period of years and bring it about in the Islamic world by military power.

I often wonder about our Western attempts to proselyte the Muslim masses into democrats. They will easily accept television, automobiles, Coca Cola — and Western technologies that we export to them.

But to convert them into democrats will take generations — and it will take understanding and economic aid as well as tolerance.

I believe it would already be an enormous success if we could bring all their states and governments to acknowledge and obey the rule of international law — and to obey the Charter of the United Nations.

But alas, in the meantime, we sell weapons and military technologies to them.

I would hope that arms limitation is to remain on the international agenda. Poverty, population explosions, and migrations will probably make for future armed conflicts — and not to forget petrol and natural gas.

For all of these reasons, not only the Middle East will remain a region of unrest and conflict — but great parts of Africa and central Asia as well.

More than one-fifth of the total population of the globe is made of Islamic believers — and their share is growing. Therefore, I take it as a certainty that Europe will try to resist any inclination towards a general clash with Islam.