Is the world moving apart or coming together?

by Hazem Saghiyeh
Two projects aimed at viewing the world as a unified entity appeared in the twentieth century. American President Woodrow Wilson represented one, by dragging the United States into the very heart of the world with his obsession for a universe governed by all-inclusive laws and values. The Russian leader Vladimir Ilyich Lenin represented the other. He strived toward one universality, through an internationalist revolution led by the proletariat that would end capitalism and imperialism.

A century later, the mission continues to be arduous. The American project has encountered major setbacks, the most important of which may have been the Cold War. It assumed its most vicious form in Indochina, but no continent was safe from its repercussions. It left its impact on the heart of America, as indicated by the emergence of McCarthyism and the "military-industrial complex," and later, by the capture of the Republican Party by the radical right, represented in the eighties by Ronald Reagan.

The Soviet project, before its demise, gave birth to Stalinism and a number of vicious totalitarian regimes, causing sufferings that could fill volumes. Marxism lost its unified impetus and became widely used to provide
an additional ideological justification for anti-American traditionalists and religious elements.

When the Cold War ended, the need for a facade for modernity, which claims it builds nations, liberalization and development, crumbled, and the only players left were religion and ethnicity. The responsibility of the "super
powers" was colossal, but the "third world" did not respond effectively to the challenges arriving from the West, either. It is not sufficient to say that colonialism bears responsibility, despite the partial truth in such an evaluation; communist parties, though they were very active in opposing imperialism, never made any popular progress worth mentioning in the third world. Those communist parties who achieved influence and assumed authority used nationalism and the rhetoric of the peasantry as a tool to gain power,
with no real connections to western Marxism.

The same is true regarding regimes that supported the West during the Cold
War: their support was restricted to political and strategic dimensions, without being attracted by the western way of life, the culture of enlightenment or the true meaning of liberalism (and the West, in its concentration on the Cold War, did not give much attention to this side of the matter, either). "Non-European" societies did not produce any worthwhile methods for adopting liberalism in politics and culture.
Dictatorial and totalitarian regimes succeeded, through the confiscation of
their societies and the atomization of their groups and individuals, in drying up social vigor.

Despite all this, some progress was made. Parties throughout the world began to accept some international and comprehensive legal standards, and modernist elites formed in all regions. Fascism, at least in its Hitlerite
version, became no longer an option in the West or anywhere else.
Meanwhile, Russia and Eastern and Central Europe veered towards some shade of democracy.

But economic and cultural transformations are not, by themselves, sufficient to empower modern elites, particularly in some third world countries, where they continue to survive as enclaves, surrounded by an ocean opposing modernity. These groups need much courage to proclaim their identity and prepare to confront primordial and backward values and relations that oppose enlightenment. For this, it is essential that they attain encouragement from the West, which should do its part through fairer economic policies, and by helping to sort out complicated regional problems, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet there is serious doubt as to whether the West will undertake this challenge. The war on terrorism has started to obliterate almost everything else, and grow at the expense of attention to issues of poverty, the environment, development, disease, education and nations' independence and freedom. The war between Russia and Chechnya is a recent strong example.

Add to this the growth of the more religious and reactionary elements in the US, and the fact that the war on terrorism has weakened some democratic rights, and you have a dangerous, self-propelled dynamic. The devastating human and economic effects for what is happening in Iraq and Palestine contribute to enlarging the gap and intensifying the fever of animosity towards the US. There is also a real danger that few recognize: the lessening of sensitivity regarding racism and anti-Semitism. Some now oppose racism alone, and ignore anti-Semitism, while others oppose anti-Semitism and ignore all other forms of racism.

The third world and in particular the Arab world is forced to face to the new realities brought on by the 9/11 tragedy, in addition to the challenges of modernity in general. In some cases, this is causing people to dig-in behind the barricades of ethnic or religious identities. The loudest voice
today is that of unity among brothers in faith and ideology; it is loud enough to decrease the numbers of those willing to condemn terrorism and suicide operations, if not actually enlarge the circle of supporters. The space for tolerance becomes evermore thin, and groups previously secular and leftist join ethnic and religious forces, justifying their actions as acts of opposition to

The Lebanon case is an example of retreat. That country, which was, at the outset of the final chapter of the Cold War, a middle ground between progress and underdevelopment, today is annexed by Syrian military regime at the expense of its democratic evolution. After that country produced both a parliament and the largest middle class in the region, and nurtured a number of unionist, partisan and media freedoms, its foremost function now is to produce "martyrs" and literature for martyrdom and resistance.

Wars are factories of morbid thoughts, where "destinies" prosper as the most wanted commodities. As soon as World War One ended, the ideas of Spingler and the histories of Toynbee shone brightly. And as the Second World War came to a close, the anthropology of Levi-Straus and the existentialism of Sartre reigned supreme. The question today is whether the
ideas of the "neo-conservatives" and the ethnic and religious fundamentalisms, old and new, are the offspring of the end of the Cold War, or whether the issue is more complicated and intricate.

What causes concern is that the distance separating ideas and policies this time seems shorter than it was before. And if this is one of the after-effects of globalization and democratization, then the distance between policies and generalized death is, in itself, shorter than what it
was before.

Should we, then, be optimistic about the future because ideas and concepts have become more influential while ideas are cosmic by definition, or should we be pessimistic for the same reason, because local identities have captured a much bigger portion in the process of idea production?

- Writer, commentator, and columnist for the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat in London, and author of books on Pan-Arabism and Political Islam. This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).


Source: CGNews, November 12, 2004

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Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata