by Gabriel Marranci

Opening prayer rooms, mosques, Muslim schools, or even kebab shops is becoming an issue of ‘values’, and I am not referring here to economic ones. The values are often referred to as ‘western values’ and they appear to come in various shapes and colors (Italian, Australian, American, British and so on). Yet all have at least one similarity – feeling threatened by so-called ‘Islamic values’. In other words, much of the current debate on ‘values’ in western countries is today shaped by the rediscovered presence and practices (they have been in the West for centuries) of Muslims living in what an increasing number of people perceive as a sort of secular Christendom. Each day we can discover one place or another claiming to be the last bastion against the ‘Islamization of the West’.Camden is today, at least for some of its few souls, such a place: the OZ version of Poitiers, it is the site of the last fight against the barbaric Saracen. The Saracen army, this time, is formed by about 900 children who may one day (though I strongly doubt it) attend a controversial proposed Qur’anic school. The project was initially rejected for ‘urban planing’ reasons, but an appeal was later granted and today we are waiting for the final decision. I am not so interested, as an anthropologist, in what can only be described as a provincial fracas. It is clear that some protagonists, such as Kate McCulloch have found a quick way to have their ten (or possibly more) minutes of fame (not easy when you live in a rural town of 3000).

Instead, I am more interested in the conceptualization and development of the idea of ‘values’ and how these kinds of incidents are shaping them. To do so, we need to look at some of the statements made to the press to justify the opposition not just against the school but clearly also against Australian Muslims in general. A letter submitted to Camden’s council and signed by some Christian churches describes Islam in general as ”a private religion . . . driven by a powerful political agenda” and also as “an ideology with a plan for world domination”.

I am particularly interested in the definition of Islam as a ‘private religion’. I am curious about how the writers of the letter arrived to this conclusion and how they define a ‘public’ and ‘private’ religion. Also interesting is the accusation that Islam is driven by a political agenda – especially as this assumes the Christian movements and churches in Australia do not have a ‘political agenda’, which, in reality, the very letter they wrote demonstrates. Indeed, to a call by Reverend Glenda Blakefield (the associate general secretary of the Uniting Church’s national assembly) to understand the Camden affair from a multifaith perspective, the Right Reverend Bruce Meller (whom vehemently opposes the Muslim school) has replied, ‘we are a Christian organisation and we want to see the teachings of Jesus be pre-eminent’.

Of course, I would be very surprised if a committed Christian would not have wished that the ‘teachings of Jesus’ were pre-eminent, and of course his/her own church hegemonic to a level that could perhaps even induce the state to obey ’God’s Will’. There is nothing strange about it. Christianity, as any other religion (monotheistic or not) is about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and how to promote ‘good’ and forbid ’evil’. Hence, in this respect, committed and outspoken Muslims are no different from their ‘brothers and sisters in faith’ as Reverend Glenda Blakefield would say.

As we have seen, one of the reasons for which the Qur’anic school (and by extension all Muslims) is perceived as alien and dangerous to the Australian ‘way of life’ and ’society’ is that, according to the critics, Islam does not recognize ’secular law’. I have discussed elsewhere the fact that there is no ‘Islam’ per-se (other than in the mind of God), and there are instead only Muslims to embody it. Thus, opinions about human law and God are many and diverse. The heart of the issue here is that all monotheistic religions declare a superiority of the divine over the worldly.

Islam of course is much more scrutinized today than others, and a Catholic Cardinal recently clearly expressed this very same idea and asked (successfully) that a state (Italy) would legislate according to ‘God’s Law’ (of course, the Catholic version in this case). Could you imagine if, instead of a Cardinal, the same request was made by an imam? So, we have to go back to the real reasons behind the opposition to the school and scrutinize what is a more complex, and today more global, issue: what I have called the clash of civilizers. This means that to understand the phenomenon (including the Camden affair) we need to discuss the (in this case western) genealogy of ‘civilization’. However, we cannot do so if first we do not look at the concept of the ‘West’ in itself.

Bonnet (2004) in his book The Idea of the West has provided an interesting, and provocative, reading of ‘the west’ as a concept. He has suggested that the historical development of the modern idea of the West cannot be understood in isolation, but rather as part of the cultural and political effort to differentiate human society. The key, according to Bonnet, is to observe the change in fortune of another powerful European myth, the superiority of the white race. If today the expression ‘Western civilization’ is widely used and accepted, ‘one only has to look back some hundred years or so to find that something called “white civilization” was once also taken for granted’ (Bonnet 2004: 14). Bonnet, through an analysis of works written between 1890 and 1930 in Britain, has observed that literature that supposedly had to celebrate white identity highlighted in reality the vulnerability of such a social category. By the 1930s, ‘with hindsight, its decline and eclipse appears foretold in its own propaganda: for even the most ardent advocates of white solidarity found the idea inadequate’ (2004: 23).

One of these vulnerabilities was the lack of a proper history; the myth, in this case, had to be rooted within nature and the scientific domain. Bonnet is very careful not to directly connect the decline of whiteness and white solidarity with the development of the modern idea of the West. He has, however, rightly observed that the fading of the former has made the latter central to the European discourse of superiority since, ‘the idea of the West helped resolve some of the problematic and unsustainable characteristics of white supremacism’ (2004: 36).

When Western colonialism was at its height, it was said that the West was in its death throes. When communism spread in East Asia, and as Asian and African countries achieved independence, it was said, perhaps with more justification, that the West was in retreat. Yet even minor phenomenon, like the rise of youth culture or the decline of classical music, have been interpreted as signalling the end of Western civilization. (2004: 36)

As we shall see, such vulnerability of the idea of the West has been recently reinforced through a new powerful myth, the progressive and theological Judeo-Christian roots of the western civilization. The roots of the West are normally sought in the history of the Roman empire and the subsequent Christian Byzantine empire as well as the so-called Sacrum Romanum Imperium (The Holy Roman Empire), which represented the ‘Western Christendom’. It is in this conjecture of colonialism and European expansion that the idea of the West met the idea of civilization.

‘Civilization’ was fully conceptualised only starting from the second half of the eighteenth century — as different from the simple distinction between ‘being civilised’ and ‘being barbarian’. The first usage can be found in 1758 in Mireabeau’s L’Ami des hommes: Traitè de la population (Mirabeau 1758). The term indicated the progress from a society under military law towards a civil administration as well as people who were ‘polished, refined and mannered as well as virtuoso’ (Mazilish 2004: 7). It is interesting to note that Mireabeau suggested that the main source of civilization had to be found in religion, which has the power to educate individuals to politeness and respect (Starobinski 1993).

The new concept spread quickly and increasingly became part of, and adapted to, the European of understanding the others, and particularly the Islamic other, which at that time was the Ottoman Empire. For Europe it was a time of expansion and revolutions, including the industrial one (Weinner 1973). Although with a new connotation, which included the idea of good manners, status of women and secular values, ‘the concept of civilization provided a standard by which to judge societies, and during the nineteenth century, Europeans devoted much intellectual, diplomatic, and political energy to elaborating the criteria by which non-European societies might be judged’ (Huntington 1996: 41).

As tensions between European nations would continue to grow during the 1930s, the popularity of the term civilization shifted from the intellectual to the political sphere. More than the simple idea of the West, civilization provided politicians and nations with a ‘verbal arsenal of praise and blame’ (Starobinski 1993: 29). If European intellectuals, convinced of Enlightenment-type values of endless progress and scientific achievement, used the concept to evaluate the ‘progress’ of cultures and societies (see Tylor 1958), Starobinski has correctly observed that then, ‘Civilization itself becomes the crucial criterion: judgement is now made in the name of civilization. One has to take its side, adopt its cause. For those who answer its call it becomes ground for praise. Or, conversely, it can serve as a basis for denunciation: all that is not civilization, all that resists or threatens civilisation, is monstrous, absolute evil’ (1993: 30).

The consequences of the transformation of civilization from a social scientific analytical tool, strongly rooted in a unilinear understanding of culture, to an ideological weapon of superiority did not need much time to express its the most terrifying potential. In the 1930s Nazism illustrated the nightmare which humanity can endure when the concept of a pure, totally superior—since representative of the human apogee—civilization becomes a shared value and belief of a nation and entire society

The Second World War ended the Nazis’ ‘civilizing’ delirium, but opened a new confrontation between the western and eastern superpowers. The Cold War, which would shape global history for the next fifty years, became a new space for claims of civilization and accusations of barbarism. This time, however, religion played an important role in the differentiation between the perceived evil and good of future ‘Western civilization’, and its defence became a powerful expression, and ‘Christianity was constantly appealed to as something that helped define the West against the atheistic menace of communism’ (Bonnet 2004: 3).

Starobinski has so finally noticed:

because of the connection with the ideas of perfectibility and progress, the word civilization denoted more than just a complex process of refinement and mores, social organization, technical progress, and advancing knowledge; it took on a sacred aura, owing to which it could sometimes reinforce traditional religious values and at other times supplant them. The history of the word civilization thus leads to this crucial observation: once a notion takes on a sacred authority and thereby acquires the power to mobilize, it quickly stirs up conflict between political groups or rival schools of thought claiming to be its champions and defenders and as such insisting on the exclusive right to propagate the new idea. (Starobinski 1993: 17)

I could not agree more with Starobinski. A clash surely exists; after my research on the usage of the term ‘civilization’, I cannot deny such an evident truth. But the clash is not between or among, as Huntington has suggested, civilizations. The clash is both between and among aspiring civilizers! The Camden affair is only a provincial product of the global clash of civilizers which exists today because of the prize at stake: the power of defining how to be human and consequently who is the real human being.

This post was first published on April 29, 2009 on Islam, Muslims and an Anthropologist.