INDIA DEFENCE CONSULTANTS
A Voice of Sanity
New Delhi, 26 November 2001
Sen, Nobel laureate and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge is not only a
famous economist but also a philosopher who has brought the third world
into world focus, with a hope for its development. IDC has great pleasure
in reproducing below an essay by him, which bridges the divide between
Eastern and Western civilizations and contests the black and white version
of Hutington’s forecast –– nothing but adversity and clash.
the first war of the millennium now being fought in Afghanistan which has
the grave possibility of spilling over into other parts of the world, Sen
provides thought for reconciliation and sanity. This piece appeared
recently in the New York Times.
World Not Neatly Divided
people talk about clashing civilizations, as so many politicians and
academics do now, they can sometimes miss the central issue. The
inadequacy of this thesis begins well before we get to the question of
whether civilizations must clash. The basic weakness of the theory lies in
its program of categorizing people of the world according to a unique,
allegedly commanding system of classification. This is problematic because
civilizational categories are crude and inconsistent and also because
there are other ways of seeing people (linked to politics, language,
literature, class, occupation or other affiliations).
befuddling influence of a singular classification also traps those who
dispute the thesis of a clash: To talk about "the Islamic world"
or "the Western world" is already to adopt an impoverished
vision of humanity as unalterably divided. In fact, civilizations are hard
to partition in this way, given the diversities within each society as
well as the linkages among different countries and cultures. For example,
describing India as a "Hindu civilization" misses the fact that
India has more Muslims than any other country except Indonesia and
possibly Pakistan. It is futile to try to understand Indian art,
literature, music, food or politics without seeing the extensive
interactions across barriers of religious communities. These include
Hindus and Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Christians (who have
been in India since at least the fourth century, well before England's
conversion to Christianity), Jews (present since the fall of Jerusalem),
and even atheists and agnostics. Sanskrit has a larger atheistic
literature than exists in any other classical language. Speaking of India
as a Hindu civilization may be comforting to the Hindu fundamentalist, but
it is an odd reading of India.
similar coarseness can be seen in the other categories invoked, like
"the Islamic world." Consider Akbar and Aurangzeb, two Muslim
emperors of the Moghul dynasty in India. Aurangzeb tried hard to convert
Hindus into Muslims and instituted various policies in that direction, of
which taxing the non-Muslims was only one example. In contrast, Akbar
revelled in his multiethnic court and pluralist laws, and issued official
proclamations insisting that no one "should be interfered with on
account of religion" and that "anyone is to be allowed to go
over to a religion that pleases him."
a homogeneous view of Islam were to be taken, then only one of these
emperors could count as a true Muslim. The Islamic fundamentalist would
have no time for Akbar; Prime Minister Tony Blair, given his insistence
that tolerance is a defining characteristic of Islam, would have to
consider excommunicating Aurangzeb. I expect both Akbar and Aurangzeb
would protest, and so would I. A similar crudity is present in the
characterization of what is called "Western civilization."
Tolerance and individual freedom have certainly been present in European
history. But there is no dearth of diversity here, either. When Akbar was
making his pronouncements on religious tolerance in Agra, in the 1590's,
the Inquisitions were still going on; in 1600, Giordano Bruno was burned
at the stake, for heresy, in Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
the world into discrete civilizations is not just crude. It propels us
into the absurd belief that this partitioning is natural and necessary and
must overwhelm all other ways of identifying people. That imperious view
goes not only against the sentiment that "we human beings are all
much the same," but also against the more plausible understanding
that we are diversely different. For example, Bangladesh's split from
Pakistan was not connected with religion, but with language and politics.
of us has many features in our self-conception. Our religion, important as
it may be, cannot be an all-engulfing identity. Even a shared poverty can
be a source of solidarity across the borders. The kind of division
highlighted by, say, the so-called "antiglobalization"
protesters — whose movement is, incidentally, one of the most globalized
in the world — tries to unite the underdogs of the world economy and
goes firmly against religious, national or "civilizational"
lines of division.
The main hope of harmony lies not in any imagined uniformity, but in the plurality of our identities, which cut across each other and work against sharp divisions into impenetrable civilizational camps. Political leaders who think and act in terms of sectioning off humanity into various "worlds" stand to make the world more flammable — even when their intentions are very different. They also end up, in the case of civilizations defined by religion, lending authority to religious leaders seen as spokesmen for their "worlds." In the process, other voices are muffled and other concerns silenced. The robbing of our plural identities not only reduces us; it impoverishes the world.