I was pleasantly surprised when visiting the new Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi, magnificently designed, and created by the great French architect Jean Nouvel to prove the creative force of the world’s diverse civilizations. All of them are represented in this imaginative space on the island of Saadiyat overlooking the Persian Gulf.
For me, the most important thing about this visit was not to confirm the value of each of the representative pieces of every civilization on display, but the fact that almost all of them were created at the same time with no possibility of human, creative, and/or cultural contact that may explain why —thousands of kilometers away — artists and creators conceived pretty similar artworks.
The pieces were reunited in Abu Dhabi, and their message is clear and simple: we are one, “sole humanity”. There have been and there are many civilizations, but in the end, there is more binding us together than drawing us apart.
This is the main takeaway from visiting the Abu Dhabi Museum. Again, its message is straightforward: there are many civilizations and cultures, but we are one, “sole humanity”.
We should ask ourselves why this discussion about civilizations has been downplayed lately while, to the contrary, it was very present during the 20th century.
More than 100 years ago, in 1918, Oswald Spengler published his famous book “The Decline of the West”, the first alarm signal that resounded heavily in a Western world convinced of its technological, scientific, political, and moral superiority. Years later, another renowned European thinker, Arnold Toynbee, started to devote his studies to the history of civilizations and concluded his review stating that all of them had a similar cycle duration: commencement, peak, and decadence.
Therefore, he did not find it surprising that Western civilization showed the consequences of this process common to every civilization.
The Spanish thinker José Ortega y Gasset addressed the matter in his book “An Interpretation of Universal History.” No one knew better than him, who accurately and with a premonitory vision depicted that “rebellion of the masses” we are experiencing worldwide right now.
During those post-World War times, the study and rationale of civilizations dominated to a large extent the political-intellectual debate. However, since the end of the Second World War, the Soviet American ideological-political-military rivalry led to the abandonment of reflections mainly centered on historic-cultural thinking and a focus on how to overcome the confrontation of two worlds: one capitalist and the other communist. The discussion was not in terms of civilization but in terms of geopolitics; it was about the so-called liberal-capitalist and authoritarian-communist systems. The international community was established based on these two ways of thinking and organizing the future of humankind.
“Civilizations” were expressions of the past, and the world of the 21st century should be built on practical foundations, where technological-scientific advances and economic financial answers should transcend the old historic-cultural approaches where different civilizations could have determined the speed of the train of humanity throughout history.
It was not until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the rise of American hegemony that the issue of “civilizations” was reintroduced in the political-economic agenda. Along with the statement of the American thinker Francis Fukuyama, who announced with great fanfare the “end of history,” professor emeritus at Harvard University Samuel Huntington introduced, at his well-known conference in October 1992 at the American Enterprise Institute, his famed thesis called “Clash of Civilizations.”
This American politician, immersed in a conservative political and academic world, could not resist the temptation to explore the fields that could threaten American-Western hegemony. Once the West, i.e., the U.S., managed to defeat—in the political, economic, financial, military, and ideological fields— its sole opponent, the U.S.S.R., there only remained a space where the West could be subject to rivalry or conflict: culture or religion. None of these two fields could be eliminated or controlled by the “hyperpuissance”, notwithstanding the multiple major attempts to build an “American cultural model” where the three Macs could prevail (McDonald, Macintosh, McLuhan).
Religion and, as the case may be, cultural identities and civilizations were tough elements to eradicate. They did not seem to be willing to be blurred in favor of a general homogenization by way of a one-dimensional world.
Accordingly, the Harvard professor states at his renowned conference, subsequently developed in his article in “Foreign Affairs”, his thesis that in the future, any new source of conflict would be cultural or religious. Thus, the West should prepare to defend its “civilization” against the remaining civilizations in the international community that refuse to submit to Western proposals unconditionally.
This entire political-intellectual foundation of American conservativism reached a pinnacle following 9/11, when the Twin Towers in New York collapsed before the bewildered eyes of the world. The Islamic-Jihadist terrorist attack placed Islamic and Muslim civilization in direct confrontation with the West. “The Clash of Civilizations” was thus automatically justified, and an entirely new brand of geopolitics was set in motion to continue ensuring the West’s moral, political, and cultural supremacy.
These approaches sparked reactions from many analysts and politicians, including the Spanish government itself, which had just endured the worst terrorist attack in its entire history on March 11th, 2004. This led the newly elected executive power to propose a UN initiative called the Alliance of Civilizations in order to counter, in a collective and jointly responsible manner, the threats from sectaries or extremists determined to justify their terrorist actions under religious-cultural veils.
September 2024 will mark the 20th anniversary of the launch of this initiative by Spanish President José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, which was later supported by the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and it has become crystal clear over the course of these two decades that there is no such thing as a “Clash of Civilizations.” There may have been a clash of ignorance or a fight for geopolitical power that sought to use culture, religion, or civilization as a guise for its objectionable aspirations. But there was never a “Clash of Civilizations.”
Unfortunately, the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York and subsequent attacks perpetrated throughout the world (London, Madrid, Bali, etc.) radically polarized the confrontation against Jihadist Islam, and overnight the Muslim world became the big enemy to be defeated. The Western answer to the Afghan, Iranian, and Syrian crises and the huge threats in the African Sahel did not help to dismantle this perception about a “replacement” theory where new Muslim generations wish to eliminate and/or replace the Western world.
Ultimately, the war in Ukraine has awakened from their traditional slumber most of the countries of the so-called global south, where they remained marginalized under the Western dominion, and has led them to put an end to their dependence and demand new leadership in the Concert of Nations, where their cultural and civilizational heritage is respected and they are treated on an absolutely equal footing.
Therefore, we are living in a new world where ignored, defeated, and excluded civilizations are claiming a new role in the future of humankind.
For this reason, it is not surprising that a country-civilization like China has decided to propose a “global civilization initiative.” In the face of Western inaction, the new Chinese political direction has understood the significance and relevance of cultural and/or religious matters. The need to respect other identities and the willingness to mold a new frame of understanding so that each may find his
own place and realize his fullest creative potential.
Given the circumstances, it seems imperative to reconsider the novel goals of the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations as well as its framework of action adapting to a new international context.
To articulate this new task, it may be necessary to clearly examine and rigorously define what is conceived as “civilization” and what its appropriate role may be in world governance going forward.
Encyclopedia Britannica defines the term “civilization” as a “set of customs, knowledge, acts, and traditions constituting the forms of life of a given human society.” This clear definition requires us to distinguish the concept of “civilization” from others we usually employ with very similar expressions, such as identity or culture.
In this regard, “identity” is the first space of personal conscience where the utmost intimate and essential sense of the individual is revealed. It can be extended to a collective and speak of collective or national identity, but its structure is simpler and is not expected or intended to include in its other dimensions of our complex existence.
With identity comes culture or cultures. These are expressions and experiences which are added to identity and essentially incorporate elements of creation and aesthetics. Likewise, they are cataloged to build part of the collective memory. Customs and cultural traditions accompany us in the vital development of our human development and naturally permeate into our deep identities.
Finally, “civilizations” are one more step in the complex journey of organizing our societies. Some analysts have examined the term “civilizations” and have come to the conclusion that it is the “representation of a complex society,” as Edgar Morin would say. Its more sophisticated form of organization, which includes institutions to organize its social structure and available technology in addition to how it uses resources, reflects a more systemic and complex reality than simple identities and cultures.
These features are present in all civilizations: they all propose a vision of the world. Each has its beliefs, values, and customs cataloged.
Furthermore, all civilizations have maintained a profound relationship with nature and the environment. Even some that seem to have lost the train of history now re-emerge with greater legitimacy for their references and attitudes towards Mother Nature in these times in which we must all save the planet.
However, civilizations have not always coexisted in peaceful and respectful terms. Their history shows us that in most cases there were periods of confrontation and domination. What’s worse, many of them intended to impose themselves and replace preexisting ones. The most relevant case is that of Western civilization.
The etymology of this concept in the Western world may better explain its rationale. The term “civilization” comes from the Latin root “civis,” but above all, civilization is opposed to barbarism. Those who are not civilized are not part of that citizenship that seeks a higher degree of evolution. For a vast majority of European and Western people, Western civilization represents the most advanced stage of development. There is only one civilization, which means there is only one “superior civilization,” hence our Western civilization is presented as that which counters savagery and barbarism, seeking to reach a final vision better than all previous civilizations.
However, in other languages, the term “civilization” does not reflect these elements. For example, in China its translation allows us to better understand this country’s philosophy (文明 = culture and enlightenment /illustration). There, “civilization” is the sum of cultural elements as well as a new vision that may illustrate the future of society.
This is today’s major dilemma: no “civilization” has succeeded in imposing itself on all others. This ideal dream that “our civilization” is the most advanced stage in the development of humankind has proven to show its own limits.
Nowadays we are able to state with full legitimacy and certainty that there is no such thing as a “civilization superior” to others, that the ultimate destiny of humankind is not about succeeding in the creation of a new “universal civilization”, but that we live as one sole humankind where “multiple civilizations” coexist.
Ultimately, the goal is not so much to create an “ideal civilization”, i.e., a “final civilization”, but to make contributions based on the numerous positive inputs of multiple civilizations, elements, principles, values, customs, creations, artworks, scientific discoveries, etc. In other words, one sole humankind that feels proud as it moves towards the future, with respect and solidarity among diverse cultures and civilizations.
The 21st century will be known as the century marking the end of imposition and dominion of one block or vision over others. The 21st century must become the century of cooperation, respect, and collective construction of a better world.
In this first third of the 21st century, it is not the supremacy of two or three powers that is at stake, but the survival of the planet and of humanity.