‘A Convergence of Civilizations’

Writers often discuss culture and politics and religion and misery in mostly Muslim countries in terms of exceptions and global civilizational or ideological competition with ‘the west’ or ‘secularism’. Such things make world history simple and validate their target audiences’ preconceptions and even religious convictions. They can even help provide as sense of certainty, superiority and identity. Many people have written against such things from various perspective. Many observers struggle to place the recent Arab uprisings in this framework of clashing civilizations and Eurabias. In A Convergence of Civilizations: The Transformation of Muslim Societies Around the World (Columbia, trans. 2011) Youssef Courbage and Emmanuel Todd write:

Changes in literacy rates and fertility make it possible to define and track the general movement of history empirically, to locate each country in relative time, to define the degree of advancement of various parameters, and to explain the existence of ideological, religious, and political points of fracture. Crises of transition defined in this way, however, have very diverse content. The French, Russian, and Iranian revolutions did not have the same goals and were not based on the same values. The first was liberal, the second totalitarian, and the third religious, unlike the two others that were explicitly against religion. But there is nothing specifically Muslim about this, because the English revolution of 1640 — coming out of the Protestant Reformation — like its Iranian counterpart, led to the overthrow of a monarchy in the name of God. The Iranian revolution did share with the French and Russian revolutions an egalitarian dimension, whereas the English revolution resisted the idea of equality. Protestantism, which does not believe in the equality of prospects for salvation, does not have as a postulate the idea of a universal man.

Transition crises can also take on openly inegalitarian and ethnocentric forms, as the examples of Germany, Japan, and Rwanda demonstrate. The notion of transition crisis thus leaves open the question of ideological content, the values violently asserted by disoriented populations. Why do some proclaim equality and the nonexistence of God, others accept God and inequality, and still others, God and equality? Many other combinations are also possible and have been realized in history, from Nazi inegalitarian atheism to the unspeakable Cambodian nihilism.

To understand the origin of these differences, it is necessary to explore the mental structires of various societies in depth. Analysis of cultural movements does not suffice to understand the crisis. Family structures have to be considered: The value systems that organize them are very diverse, liberal or authoritarian, egalitarian or inegalitarian, favorable or hostile to openness of the group. Depending on what sort of value is activated by the growth of literacy, one kind of crisis of transition or another will rock a culturally emerging country.

Courbage and Todd position their book in direct opposition to the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis and argue that ‘consideration of profound social and historical indicators points rather to the idea of a “meeting of civilizations.”’. They reject a view of the ‘Muslim world’ in which ‘Islamic fundamentalism is the expression of an essential antagonism between Islam and the West.’ For the authors, a ‘large scale’ analysis of demographic data ‘reveal not a divergence but a wide and rapid convergence of models’ in which ‘the Muslims world has embarked on the demographic, cultural, and mental revolution that in the pas made possible the development of the regions that are now the most advanced.’ Courbage and Todd observe that fertility rates in predominantly Muslim countries will decline coming years (evidence of ‘a disruption of traditional social arrangements’) which they link to rising literacy rates among women in these societies, religious divisions and patrilineal family structures as related to ‘religious crises’ (as opposed to religious attitudes toward patrimony for example) and political transition. On the whole the authors make a convincing argument as far as placing demographic and religious-political trends in predominantly Muslim countries. On the whole their outlook is less gloomy than one would gather from the popular (and related) theses on Islamic exceptionalism and clashing civilizations.

The early sections on literacy and fertility and public secularization are especially interesting. The authors view the surge in Islamism and fundamentalism in the Muslim countries as indicative of religious crisis, a reaction to an overall trend toward secularization: ‘The coincidence in time of the ebbing of religion and an upsurge in fundamentalism is a classic phenomenon.’ The authors note that in Europe the scientific revolution took place as its very agents struggled with the clash between science and religious convention. Iran and the Maghreb countries are the focus of particular attention in this regard where Iranian revolution and the Algerian crisis follow the historic path described in the long quote above: both events came after male and female literacy had just reached a majority and where declines in fertility tracked closely with regime crisis. The literacy threshold brings revolutions in popular thought and ideology and given that the major Muslim polities came to this point relatively recently, the authors write

It is therefore not at all necessary to speculate about some particular essence of Islam in order to explain the violence now stirring the Muslim world. That world is disoriented because it is undergoing the shock of the revolution in modes of thought associated with increased literacy and widespread birth control. In a certain number of non-Muslim countries that have experienced similar revolutions, one can observe massive political disturbances, sometimes more intense than anything seen in the Islamic world.

The notable examples are Nepal and Rwanda in this regard. They argue that ‘the fundamental mistake consists of presenting ideological or religious crises as signs of regression’ and remind readers ‘Westerners would like to forget that their demographic transitions were also strewn with many disturbances’ and that such change ‘disorients populations and destabilizes political regimes.’ The political upheaval seen in middle twentieth century Indonesia, Egypt and Turkey come from the into the same structural and demographic causes of religious disturbances that continue in many predominantly Muslim societies today. These crises, the authors argue, also have the same basic characteristics of the violence of Euro-American history from the Reformation through World War II, deriding the ‘surprise and condescension’ marking much western commentary on violence among Muslims which ‘reveals the very low level of historical awareness in Europe and the United States,’ writing causticly that ‘our era celebrates memory but practices amnesia.’ They stress in numerous ways that ‘cultural progress destabilizes populations.’ One suspects the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ as a concept or as a phenomenon would not come as much of a surprise to the authors (the book was originally published in French in 2007; pity it was not translated sooner; their commentary on the Arab uprisings has been especially worthwhile; see their demographic arguments applied here). So much for historic exceptionalism:

In the Muslim world, the demographic, cultural and spiritual revolutions which are currently underway, are the same as those which once formed the basis for the development of those regions that are now seen as the most modern in the world.

A Convergence of Civilizations is aggressively comparative and the very thorough sections on South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa attest to this where the authors put far more effort into understanding Muslim polities in human context than those of larger and more base volumes on the same subject. The authors draw comparisons based on data with non-Muslim and non-Christian societies in Asia and Africa as well as with Europe and allow for a far wider range of nuances than its length would suggest. Readers learn, for example, that Islam is perhaps the most tolerant of contraceptives the great monotheistic religions, placing no special obstacle to its use, which is widespread though they also note that virtually all major religious are nevertheless quite favorable toward reproduction. The book is a careful study, with some predictable and brief lines of invective against the proponents of alternative views which are well known. These do not come as a distraction because the bulk of the thing is concentrated at providing a mostly convincing empirical rebuttal to views based on identity politics or essentialist narratives rather than rigorous thought.

A Convergence of Civilizations is especially devastating for vulgar partisans of pop-clash theory in news paper columns and ideological periodicals whose writing often relies on exactly the superficialities the authors insult in passing and debunk systematically. Indeed, it has the potential to destabilize a whole slew of popular narratives found in western media about the ‘Islamic world’ and Arab societies, even at the centrist core. It is brief, just over 130 pages, counting the notes and introduction and front pages, and highly readable. It is a serious work accessible to a mass and specialized audience. One hopes, but doubts, many people will read Courbage and Todd’s book in America.

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3 comments

  1. I would suggest studying the epistemology of Sophism vs. epistemology of religion. The problem ultimately stems from metaphysical differences between a religious metaphysics vs. a sophist metaphysics; in the Greek sense. The clash of civilizations is real in that what Sophists want is incompatible with what religious people want. To put it simply traditional values of religious people are in direct conflict with the liberal, importunity seeking values of Sophists. Also, historically Sophists will because of their interest in opportunity and wealth come out on top in comparison to any civilization which values tradition and social normative goals rather than goals of seeking profit and fulfilling individual desire.

  2. Want to add that will Muslim populations become more Sophists over time, embracing the values of the so-called Sophist West? It’s possible, but what it seems is that there is an incapability of many Muslims, even liberal ones, from extricating themselves from this traditional meta physics… which leads to fundamentalist or at least religiously inspired political factions from taking over the political process. Which leads to a politics inspired by religious meta physics. Which over time becomes more and more polarized and keeps Sophists institutions that would seek profit and opportunity from effectively operating. It further gives those people that are enemies of the people for historical reasons, room to create rhetoric and thereby policies against those inspired or controlled by politically religious ideology.

  3. I always recommend reading Emmanuel Todd. I began reading him when I registered for the Science Po exam, 20 years ago, and I have always been impressed by the seriousness of his sociological and historical work. Coming from a mathematics background, I have always considered his approach an excellent one for social sciences. Unlike many phony French intellectuals, he uses massive amounts of historical data to prove his point and has also been pioneering geolocated data way before it became fashionable.

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