Summary of "Civilizational Imagination and Ethnic Coexistence"

Summary of

Civilizational Imagination and Ethnic Coexistence

By Ahmad Sadri

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff 

Ahmad Sadri, "Civilizational Imagination and Ethnic Coexistence," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 82-93.

Sadri argues that the usual sociological methods cannot produce a full understanding of events such as the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Such events must be understood against a broader backdrop of cultural and civilizational change. He notes that in general the modern world is being pulled in two opposing directions. One the one hand communication and transportation advances are creating the global village. The world is moving toward increased unity. Liberal democracy is becoming the universally preferred form of government and capitalist economics predominate. On the other hand there is a global upsurge in tribalism, with its accompanying tendencies toward violence and even genocide.

In order to explain these contradictory movements, Sadri draws on the notion of civilization. Sadri defines the term at some length.

Civilization is the accumulation of organized and institutional rational responses of city-dwelling human societies to the challenges of their internal order (e.g. political legitimacy, social administration, economic system, religious cosmology, legal maxims, and libido economy) , environment (e.g. technologies of food production and architecture), and external enemies (technologies and organization of war and international relations). The practical and instrumental side of these rational responses comprise the 'material culture' (e.g. art, architecture, and technology) of a civilization while their substantive and normative aspects amount to its 'nonmaterial culture,' which imparts meaning to the natural and social world and informs the patterns of social, political, and economic behavior. Thus civilizations contain the sedimentation of two layers of collective rationality: a normative and substantive 'core' and a practical and instrumental 'crust.' (p. 83-4)

Civilizations are characterized by contradictions between basic core values -- between for instance, its basic ethical, political, or religious values, or between its ideals and practical constraints. Civilizations are created and carried by an intellectual class who specialize in elaborating, articulating and rationalizing the raw matter of culture-as-response. Cultures do have distinctive characters, which derive from the civilization's stylized pattern of life and worldview. To some extent the idea of "a civilization" is a heuristic device, that is, a useful if somewhat arbitrary classification.

Sadri argues that this understanding of civilizations allows us to make sense of both the unifying and divisive forces at play in the modern world. He observes that "The instrumental crust of all world civilizations has practically merged. Consequently the distance between the inherently unstable substantive civilizational cores has been dangerously reduced."(p. 86) Improved technology and political (liberal democracy) and economic (capitalism) innovations have been enthusiastically adopted by many civilizations and have drawn the world together . However the exchange and adoption of core values has lagged far behind. In this regard civilizations remain distinct. Tribalism is then a defensive response to the perceived threat of new and foreign norms and values, an attempt to wall off the encroaching tide of different civilizational cores.

Intercultural understanding

One way to reduce the perceived threat of posed by other civilizations is to improve intercultural understanding. The author describes three forms or stages of intercultural understanding. The first might be described as tunnel vision. At this stage the observer has a limited, one-sided view of the other culture. Evaluations are made in terms of the observer's home culture. The other culture is seen as exotic and different, with little similarity to the observer's own culture, and may be judged savage or barbaric.

The second form of intercultural understanding can be described as double-vision. This is the cultural relativist approach of modern anthropologists. Observers take a broader view of the many aspects of the other culture, and attempt to understand that culture on its own terms. Observers generally refrain from making value judgments about that culture.

At the last stage of intercultural understanding our view gains depth perception. At this point the observer begins to integrate her own culture's history with that of the observed culture. She examines how each culture has described common historical events in their history, and re-examines each history in the light of the other. The observer explores how common situations and problems have been played out in different civilizations, and extends her understanding by asking "What if" events had occurred differently.

The case of the Islamic Revolution

Sadri illustrates the depth perceptual approach by examining the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He begins by observing that Judaism, Christianity and Islam all share a same basic incompatibility in their core values. This is the tension between Abrahamic religion and Greek philosophy. One of the results of this tension is to foster a temptation toward theocracies--ideal political states under the authority of the one true God. Sadri sees the Islamic Revolutions as Islam's response to this temptation, and argues that we can gain important insight to Iran's situation by considering how Christian and Jewish groups have dealt with this temptation.

Christianity has succumbed to the temptation toward theocracy in the past. Ultimately however such states failed. The end result, Sadri argues, was to purge the temptation from Western Christian cultures and establish secularism as a core value. As a result of those earlier failed experiments, theocracy is no longer a possible option within this civilization. Judaism seems to have jumped over the temptation toward theocracy and instead established a democratic, secular state. The presence of strong right-wing political groups shows, however, that the temptation to theocracy is not quite extinguished in Jewish civilization.

Iran has now succumbed to the temptation, and is, as the Christians before them, beginning to enter a period of disillusionment. Sadri explains that "We must try to see apparent conflicts less as arising from essential racial and cultural differences and more as a function of common civilizational or intercivilizational problems. With the use of civilizational imagination we nay see others at the same historic crossroads that we have faced and vice versa."(p. 90) Depth perception may allow Iranian scholars to learn from the experience of other civilizations, particularly from Christian approaches to theology and western political science. In turn, applying depth perception may allow non-Iranian observers to better understand and empathize with Iran's situation.

Evaluating Civilizations

Judgments made by tunnel-vision tend to exacerbate ethnic tensions by imposing the standards of one culture on another. These sorts of judgments simply increase the perceived threat of encroachment by another civilization's norms and values. The relativism of double vision, which refrains from making judgments, does not exacerbate ethnic tensions. But neither does it help diminish them. Indeed in many cases the relativist stance simply serves to suppress tunnel-vision judgments.

Sadri argues that the danger in making judgments about other cultures is alleviated if those judgments are made in the context of an ongoing dialog between civilizations. "If we agree that the task of knowing the other is not the solitary 'burden of the white man,' but a process in which different parties exchange glances, we might also assume that distortions, mistakes, misperceptions and misjudgments will be corrected in time during the process of an intercivilizational dialog."(p. 91) Judgments are less threatening when they are revisable, and when the judged have the chance to shape that revision. Within this dialog the relativists' suspension of judgment is still useful in developing an initial view of the other.

Sadri also notes that judgment should begin with self evaluation. The observer must begin by examining her own prejudices, both to make her judgments seem more fair, and to make her act of judging others seem more fair. Ultimately we must proceed to cross-cultural comparisons and evaluations, always keeping in mind our limited points of view, and being open to revision and new perspectives. In this way civilizations may gain better understanding of one another, and so craft an acceptable coexistence.