Hegemony and Civilisational Interaction

Hegemony and Civilisational Interaction

I shall begin with some general observations about the concept of civilisational interaction. How hegemony impacts upon civilisational interaction will become clear in the course of my analysis.

Civilisations as such do not interact with one another. It is groups and individuals within one religious or civilisational community that interact with groups and individuals within another religious or civilisational community. Most of the time these interactions have been peaceful. Indeed, they often revolve around concerns which are not religious or civilisational in the way in which these terms are understood. In most multi-religious societies for instance it is the ordinary transactions of life which almost always engage the attention and the energies of individuals and groups from different religious backgrounds as they interact with one another in the private realm or in the public square.

Even when religions or civilisations appear to be in conflict, the conflicts seldom stem from matters pertaining to religious doctrine or religious practice. In fact, what have been described as `religious conflicts’ are often rooted in political or economic causes. If anything, they seem to centre around power and perceptions of power. Hence, the main thesis of this presentation : to understand the relationship between one religion or civilisation and another, one has to understand their power relationship. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the encounter between Islam and the West : that one civilisational encounter which has had and which will continue to have the greatest impact upon the destiny of the human race.

Emerging Power

To grasp the dynamic of the encounter between Islam and the West, one has to begin at the beginning. When Islam emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the early part of the seventh century, it questioned some of the principal tenets of the Christian faith such as the Trinity, the status of Jesus as the son of God, the crucifixion and the resurrection and yet there was no bloody conflict between the two religions. On the contrary, the Prophet Muhammad (May peace be upon him) through the famous Charter of Medina recognized that Christians had rights and responsibilities that were equal to those bestowed upon the Muslims. He also offered protection to the Christian monks living in the midst of the nascent Muslim community, and their monastery, in a treaty he forged with them called the Treaty of Najran.

It was only a hundred years or so after the Prophet’s death in 632 A.D. that Christian attitudes towards Islam began to change dramatically. Islam had defeated the Eastern Roman Christian Empire and replaced Christianity all along the Mediterranean and North Africa right up to Spain. The new religion was now a world power and this created anger and bitterness within the elite stratum of the vanquished Christian community. By the end of the eighth century as the late scholar-diplomat, Erskine Childers once observed Islam was already being portrayed in Christian literature as a violent religion spread by the sword. Of course, such a distorted portrayal camouflaged the real reasons for the rapid spread of the religion.

According to the British writer, H.G. Wells, Islam prevailed, “because it was the best social and political order the times could offer. It prevailed because everywhere it found politically apathetic peoples, robbed, oppressed, bullied, uneducated and unorganized and it found selfish and unsound governments out of touch with any people at all. It was the broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea that had yet come into actual activity in the world and it offered better terms than any other to the masses of mankind.”

The Crusades

But the power and potency of Islam reflected in its accomplishments in medicine and the sciences, commerce and culture, only served to further fuel the hatred and antagonism of Christian elites especially in Europe towards the religion. It reached a crescendo with the crusades that Church leaders, backed by kings and princes, dukes and barons in Europe launched against Islam and Muslim lands. Starting in 1095 and stretching for almost two hundred years, the primary objective of the crusades was to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity. However, except for a period of 92 years, Jerusalem remained in Muslim hands until the early part of the twentieth century. The failure to regain control over Jerusalem and indeed, the failure of the crusades as a whole, exacerbated negative feelings towards Islam within Christian Europe to a point where religious prejudices became deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people. It was obvious that by the end of the thirteenth century, the phenomenon that is known in modern parlance as `Islamophobia’ was very much a part of the European worldview.


It was partly because of the fear of Islamic power and the desire to crush it at all costs, that European elites embarked upon their colonial conquests. From the end of the fifteenth century till the middle of the twentieth century, European colonial powers now scientifically and militarily more advanced than the Muslims—conquered and ruled one Muslim country after another. Colonial dominance, needless to say, widened the chasm between the coloniser and the colonised. The subjugated Muslims who were now powerless began to develop antagonistic attitudes towards Europe and Christianity.

In the Middle East in particular, colonial subjugation generated feelings of betrayal and humiliation among the Muslims which had no parallel elsewhere. Under the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, the British and the French colonizers decided to carve out significant chunks of Arab territory for themselves after the British had promised the Arabs that they would be given Independence if they helped them to defeat the Ottoman Empire. It is a betrayal that the Arabs have not forgotten. Neither have they forgotten the humiliation that they suffered when the British through the 1917 Balfour Declaration promised the Jews of Europe that they would be given `a Jewish Home’ in Palestine—a land which the indigenous Palestinians had tilled for thousands of years. It is this betrayal and humiliation that Osama bin Laden referred to in a video tape broadcast over Al-Jazeera shortly after September 11. In his words, “Our nation has been tasting this humiliation and this degradation for more than 80 years.”


Even in the post-colonial era, Western dominance of much of the Middle East has continued. The United States, as a case in point, exercises inordinate control over the oil producing Gulf Sheikhdoms. There is no need to emphasise that it is oil, more than anything else, which has driven Washington to exercise hegemonic power over the region. Its invasion and occupation of Iraq and even its war on Afghanistan and the extension of its tentacles over the Central Asian republics and the Caspian Sea are proof of this. Of course, Israel and Zionism have also played a major role in pushing US foreign policy in the Middle East in the direction of greater hegemonic control.

Since occupation of territory is the starkest expression of hegemonic power, one can argue that both the Israeli occupation of Palestine and now the US occupation of Iraq, have created tremendous anger and resentment against the occupying states among Arabs in the Middle East and Muslims in general. So has the establishment of US military bases in various countries in the region. Remember, it was the establishment of a US military base in Dharan, Saudi Arabia, following the 1991 Gulf War which triggered off Osama’s hostility towards the US a nation with whose Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) he enjoyed close ties in the eighties when they were both working together to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. In a sense, even the other dimensions of US hegemony, especially its cultural manifestations, have evoked strong negative reactions from significant segments of the community. Here again, let us recall the way in which one of the leading Bali bombers, Amrozi, inveighed against Western cultural imperialism during his recent trial in Indonesia.


A fringe within the global Muslim community has chosen to respond to US hegemony and Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people through violence and terror. In the reckoning of these fringe elements, killing civilians is legitimate as long as it serves their cause. Even if their strategy brings some immediate gains, what they do not realize is that it will not succeed in destroying the structures of power that sustain global hegemony. More specifically, by destroying the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York on 11th September 2001, Osama and the AL-Qaeda have not made a dent upon the global economic system. By damaging the Pentagon , they have not been able to curb the expansion of US global military power since 911. Similarly, the bombing of a night-club in Bali on 12th October 2002 has not stemmed the tide of so-called `decadent Western cultural influences’ from overwhelming Indonesia and other Asian countries.

Besides, the deliberate killing of civilians in pursuit of one’s political goals is anathema to Islamic teachings. For in Islam even when one is resisting aggression and oppression one should not harm non-combatants, or children or women or the elderly or the infirm. Indeed, the religion demands that Muslim soldiers engaged in warfare protect even livestock and vegetation. This is why leading Muslim theologians had condemned not only 911 but also the Bali Bombing and other such episodes. In this regard, it is important to recollect that at the height of the struggle against colonialism, most Islamic oriented movements had refrained from murdering the innocent because of their fidelity to Islamic ethics. Even when they captured soldiers of the colonial army, they often treated them with decent respect. In this connection, we should remind ourselves of an episode in the film `The Lion of the Desert’ when the followers of Umar Mukhtar, the morally upright leader of the Libyan resistance against Italian colonial rule, seek his permission to apply to the Italian soldiers they had taken captive, the same torture techniques that the Italians had meted out to the Libyans. Umar rebukes his followers with these words, “Why should you emulate your conquerors? They are not your teachers.”

It is not just the terror tactics of militant groups such as Al-Qaeda that make them so abhorrent. These groups subscribe to a Manichean worldview which divides the inhabitants of the planet into `virtuous Muslims’ who will triumph in their struggle against `evil infidels’ who should be eliminated. Their views on women, law, culture and pre-Islamic history are equally repugnant and retrogressive. The Taliban regime in Afghanistan for instance which hosted Al-Qaeda epitomized this sort of bigoted, extremist, atavistic approach to Islam which was why it was shunned by the Muslim world. Only 3 out of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) namely, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) recognized the Taliban regime when it was in power from 1996 to 2001.

Just Relationship

But the tragedy is that in a hegemonic global system in which gross injustices have become so pronounced, terror groups like Al-Qaeda have a constituency especially when peaceful, non-violent ways of combating hegemonic power have yet to capture the popular imagination. No Arab or Muslim government or leader has come up with a viable alternative to the viciousness of violence. What is worse, the vast majority of them are totally subservient to Washington’s dictates. The UN too has been utterly helpless in the face of US hegemony. Even global civil society, for all its potential, could not stop the US and Britain from going to war against Iraqa war which the late Edward Said described as “arguably the most unpopular and unjust war in history.”

Nonetheless, it is within global civil society that there is greatest awareness of, and the strongest determination to act against, hegemonic power. There are scores of activists and intellectuals all over the world who realize that hegemony is inimical to inter-religious and inter-civilisational amity and accord. For hegemony breeds imperial hubris which in turn induces the hegemon to adopt a condescending, often supercilious, attitude towards those who are the victims of its dominance and control. Besides, there is always a tendency on the part of the hegemon to use its dominant power to coerce others to submit to its might. Though the victims of hegemonic power often surrender to the will and the wish of the hegemon, it creates resentment, anger and hatred among them. What this means is that if the hegemon has no respect for its victims since they are subservient to its will, neither do the victims have any regard for the hegemon whom they view as a bully and even as a tyrant. Needless to say, these negative attitudes on both sides do not conduce towards the building of bridges between religions and civilisations. There is no need to emphasise that it is only when the power relationship between religions and civilisations becomes more equal and therefore more just, that the encounters between them will also become less antagonistic and more amicable.

This is why the US should cease to be a hegemonic power in the Middle East and elsewhere. There is no reason why a nation which has size and strength on its side should be hegemonic. It is important to observe in this connection that past and present leaders of China have always understood and appreciated this point. A little more than a year before his death, the distinguished Chinese scholar-statesman, Chou En Lai, reiterated his opposition to hegemony in a memorable conversation with the Japanese intellectual, Dr. Daisaku Ikeda. He remarked, “China will never become a superpower, I believe &But if some day in the future it should and if it seeks to dominate the world, I would hope that the people of the world would join hands with the people of China to topple that regime.”

Transforming Religion.

Of course, if hegemonic relationships cease to exist between religions and civilizations there is no guarantee that genuine peace and harmony will prevail if by peace and harmony we mean a condition that goes beyond the lessening of inter-religious antagonisms or the mere reduction of global tensions. Religions in particular will have to undergo a profound transformation if they are to play a major role as a positive force for global peace. All religionsor more precisely their interpreters and adherents—without exception will have to become less exclusive and more inclusive, less sectarian and more universal, less ritual oriented and more values based in their approach and orientation.

The imperative need for a more inclusive, universal, values based approach to religion is underscored by the increasing influence of the exclusive, sectarian, ritual oriented interpretation of religion in the contemporary world. This is one of the most formidable challenges confronting almost every religion. In Hinduism for instance the narrow Hindutva ideologues with their chauvinistic articulation of the religion are seeking to repudiate the inherent universalism of the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita. In Buddhism, a small segment of the clergy is now attempting to present the religion in dogmatic terms thus betraying the all-embracing enlightenment of its founder. Within the Jewish community there are Rabbis who have adopted a bellicose stance towards the `infidels’ without any regard for some of the universal notions of justice contained in Judaism. Some Christian evangelists today are trapped in a distorted, perverted understanding of the religion which negates Jesus’ central message of love and mercy for the whole of humanity. Likewise, among Muslims, as we have seen, there are bigoted elements who are trying to hijack a religion whose very name is linked to peace and which describes God as `The Compassionate and The Merciful’ in every Chapter of the Quran.

It is only too apparent that there is a struggle of singular significance unfolding within each and every religion. It is a struggle that has serious implications for inter-religious encounters. For those who subscribe to an exclusive view of religion have very little interest in communicating with the religious `other’ let alone establishing empathy with her. Those who espouse an inclusive approach to religion, on the other hand, are willing to transcend religious boundaries and embrace the whole of humanity—especially in their quest for universal justice and dignity.

This shows that the encounters between religions and civilizations in the future will be determined to some extent at least by the struggles taking place within religions and civilisations today. There is no reason to doubt that this will also be true of the encounter between Islam and the West.

*A presentation prepared for ASEM 5 People’s Forum held in Hanoi, Vietnam from 6 9 September 2004.

Theme 1 Peace and Security : Dialogue of Civilisations, Cultures and Religions in Europe and Asia

`Hegemony And Civilisational Interaction’

Originally published on the International Movement for a Just World Website at http://www.just-international.org/