How to Combat Decivilizing Terrorism


TORONTO — Feeling French today is not about being a citizen of France or having French identity; it’s not even only about sharing sympathy with the families of all those brutally murdered around Paris. No, being French today is to believe in the true value of civilization. The true value of a civilization is embodied by the process of taming violence. Without it, any society would fail to be recognized as dialogical and civilized.

The idea of dialogue has been at the heart of French society for centuries. Its omission or oblivion simply means that French history, and beyond it human history, has lost all its meaning for us. Civilization, like democracy, is an unfinished project. We are deluding ourselves if we claim to have arrived at an achieved human civilization. Civilization is not about imposing one’s cultural or religious identities on others. Each culture or religion may have its strong and significant particularities, but this does not justify their being imposed on others. Even more, to impose one’s religious or cultural identity on others implies that one does not concede to that other the same human dignity one grants to oneself. The constitution of a “we” and a “they” as a distinction between the “authentic self” and the “unauthentic other” is the key for understanding the violent self-protecting response of a decivilized terrorism.

As in the case of the recent killings in Paris, where we are left with only the two concepts of “might is right” and “the survival of the fittest,” we are not talking anymore in terms of “civilization,” as a dialogical mode of living together, but in terms of “decivilization,” as a mode of destroying one another. As such, the civilizational approach to the central values of human dignity is based on the basic conviction that all cultures and traditions are imperfect and corrigible, that humans see the world differently and that violence denies the civilizing process of humanity.

“Violence denies the civilizing process of humanity.”

More than a hundred years ago, in his foundational book, “Hind Swaraj,” Mahatma Gandhi expressed the idea that the measuring rod of civilization is moral progress. When Gandhi refers to moral progress, he understands spiritual advancement, which should help mankind reach the goals of compassion, righteousness and living together. For that matter, civilization is considered by Gandhi as a path of progress toward the respect of human dignity. Respecting human dignity is respecting the otherness of the other without forcing everyone under the same cultural, religious or political banner. Civilization is when one thinks and acts in terms of the otherness of the other. The barbarian, therefore, is not someone who rejects me and my cultural values. It is someone who rejects humanity in general. Here is where the decivilizing process resides, and it does not depend on the strategic positioning of a religion or a culture in today’s world, but on the total absence of empathy for the otherness of the other human being.

In 1550, the King of Spain, Charles V, ordered a group of jurists and theologians to meet at Valladolid in order to hear the arguments in favor and against the use of forceto incorporate the “Indians” into Spanish America. On the one side was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a prominent humanist and scholar who justified conquest and evangelization of indigenous peoples of the Americas. On the other was Bartolomé de Las Casas, who advocated for the rights of the Indian nations and was in favor of a peaceful conversion. Las Casas managed to represent the Indians at the royal court, and thus, to call the attention of the Church and the Spanish government to the terrifying disparity between the missionary purpose of the encounter between Christians Europeans and Native Americans and the brutal exploitation of the second by the first. Las Casas succeeded in proclaiming the humanity of the indigenous peoples, their rationality and their collective freedom. For Sepúlveda, the Indians were a barbarian race, whose natural and inferior condition entitled the Spaniards to wage war on them. On the contrary, Las Casas came to conclude that since the Indians were rational and civilized human beings, Spaniards had no right to subject them to slavery or to war. Therefore, the effect of the Valladolid controversy was to keep the human rights of the Indians in the minds of the Spaniards.

From this perspective, thus, the Valladolid controversy had a great impact on the theoretical attempts by Europeans to understand the diverse native cultures of the New World and inaugurated a new debate on the concept of “civilization.” Its legacy lies in the idea of “civilization” as understanding and addressing the conditions of the “other” from the other’s perspective.

Today, after the tragic events in Paris, humanity is faced with the same value of civilization as opposed to decivilizing violence. Should we follow the argument of Sepúlveda, as the members of the Islamic State do, and place our civilizational arguments in the context of a polarized framework, where those considering themselves to be part of the civilized world find themselves in war with the uncivilized? Or should we ask the morally legitimate question, which is: “who is to say who has human dignity and who does not?”

Empathy is a sensibility that allows us to recognize the particular avenues of human flourishing.

Six thousand years of human history haven’t produced very much “civilization.” We still confront poverty, tyranny and fanaticism behind civilized facades of our cultures, religions and modes of being. But there is one “civilizing force” that has always brought humanity together: “empathy.” Empathy is a sensibility that allows us to recognize the particular avenues of human flourishing. Being “civilized” is not only about tolerance, but also about a moral of empathy that is opposed to homogeneity and exclusivism. Despite their vast differences of values, cultures can grasp an understanding of one another, by “empathy.” This “empathy” is universally shared not only because it is humanly recognizable but mainly because it constitutes a moral standpoint for human interactive plurality. It’s our “shared human horizon” which avoids moral anarchy and relativism while acknowledging the plurality of modes of being human. Being French today is the belief in this shared human horizon of empathy.

If Muslims feel involved in the French destiny and France has nothing to fear from Islam, the result of this shared human horizon of empathy could be the acknowledgement of the “otherness” of each other, and the acceptance of the fact that the price of a plural and democratic France is neither a strategy of fear nor a politics of hatred. It is the affirmation of the empathic nature of French civilization and the criticism of the monist stance of a group like the Islamic State. As such, we are all French today, because we still have the potential to make of our empathy for the victims of Paris attacks a powerful weapon against the monisms of our time.


The writer is an Iranian philosopher and as well as a Research Fellow at the Strategic Center for International Relations and a member of the Editorial Board of its quarterly publication.


 The Afghan Tribune | Ramin Jahanbegloo |Published: November 19, 2015 06:59 PM

This article originally appeared on  The World Post.

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