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Prof Ali Mazrui2. Prof Ali Mazrui
Pretender to Universalism: Western Culture in the Globalising Age
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Keynote for the Royal Society of Art and the British Broadcasting Corporation, to be delivered in London, England, on June15, 2000. This lecture is indebted to the author's earlier work on globalization and the politics of culture change.

A Yugoslav from Montenegro once taught an African from Mombasa, Kenya, at Oxford University. Among the lessons which the professor from Montenegro taught the young African was a simple proposition:

"The sins of the powerful acquire some of the prestige of power."

The Yugoslav was John Plamenatz who was at the time a distinguished Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, and who later became a professor of political theory at Oxford. The student was Ali Mazrui.

In that simple proposition John Plamenatz captured the importance of power in universalizing the culture of the powerful. Even the very vices of Western culture are acquiring worldwide prestige. Muslim societies which once refrained from alcohol are now manifesting increasing alcoholism. Chinese elites are capitulating to Kentucky Fried Chicken and MacDonald hamburgers. And Mahatma Gandhi's country has decided to go nuclear.

Western civilization is a pretender to the status of universal validity. Yet there are three forces which contradict that claim. One force is within the West itself. This is the force of historical relativism. What was valid in the West at the beginning of the twentieth century is not necessarily valid in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century. If validity is changeable in the West itself from generation to generation, how can the claim to universalism be sustained?

Another challenge to the West's claim to universalism is not historical but cross-cultural. This latter challenge is the old nemesis of cultural relativism. We may even reverse the order of the challenge to Western universalism - the cross-cultural challenge first and the historical challenge second.

But in addition to historical and cultural relativism, there is relativism in practice, or comparative empirical performance.
Is Western practice at variance with Western doctrine? Indeed, are Western standards better fulfilled by other societies than by the West? In some respects, is either Africa or Islam ahead of the West by Western standards themselves?

But let us first explore globalization before we return to the three areas of relativity -- historical, cultural and empirical.

What is Globalization?

What is "globalization"? It consists of processes which lead towards global interdependence and increasing rapidity of exchange across vast distances. The word "globalization" is itself quite new, but the actual processes towards global interdependence and exchange started centuries ago.

Four forces have been major engines behind globalization across time. These have been religion, technology, economy and empire. These have not necessarily acted separately, but have often reinforced each other. For example, the globalization of Christianity started with the conversion of Emperor Constantine I of Rome in 313 C.E. The religious conversion of the head of an empire started the process under which Christianity became the dominant religion not only of Europe but also of many other societies thousands of miles from where the religion started.

The globalization of Islam began not with converting a ready-made empire, but with building an empire almost from scratch. The Umayyads and Abbasides put together bits of other people's empires (former Byzantine Egypt and former Zoroastrian Persia, for example) and created a whole new civilization.

Voyages of exploration were another major stage in the process of globalization. Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus in the fifteenth century opened up a whole new chapter in the history of globalization. Economy and empire were the major motives. There followed the migration of people symbolized by the Mayflower. The migration of the Pilgrim Fathers was in part a response to religious and economic imperatives. Demographic globalization reached its height in the Americas with the influx of millions of people from other hemispheres. In time the population of the United States became a microcosm of the population of the world - with immigrants from every society on earth.

The industrial revolution in Europe from the eighteenth century onwards was another major chapter in the history of globalization. A marriage between technology and economics resulted in levels of productivity previously unknown in the annals of man. Europe's prosperity whetted its appetite for new worlds to conquer. The Atlantic slave trade was accelerated, moving millions of Africans from one part of the world to another. Europe's appetite also went imperial on a global scale. The British built the largest and most far-flung empire in human experience. Most of it lasted until the end of World War II.

The two World Wars were themselves manifestations of globalization. The twentieth century is the only century which has witnessed globalized warfare - one from 1914 to 1918 and the other from 1939 to 1945. The Cold War was another manifestation of globalization (1948-1989) - because it was power-rivalry on a global scale between two alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Pact. While the two World Wars were militarily the most destructive empirically the Cold War was the most dangerous potentially. The Cold War carried the seeds of planetary annihilation in the nuclear field.

The final historical stage of globalization came when the industrial revolution was mated with the new information revolution. Interdependence and exchange became dramatically computerized. The most powerful single country by this time was the United States. Pax Americana mobilized three of the four engines of globalization - technology, economy and empire. Pax Americana in the second half of the twentieth century did not directly seek to promote a particular religion - but it did help to promote secularism and the ideology of separating church from state. On balance, the impact of Americanization has probably been harmful to religious values worldwide - whether intended or not. Americanized Hindu youth, Americanized Buddhist teenagers or Americanized Muslim youngsters are far less likely to be devout to their faiths than non-Americanized ones.

Between Hegemony and Homogeny

This brings us to the twin-concepts of homogenization and hegemonization, however ugly the words may be!! One of the consequences of globalization is that we are getting to be more and more alike across the world every decade. Homogenization is increasing similarity.

The second accompanying characteristic of globalization is hegemonization - the paradoxical concentration of power in a particular country or in a particular civilization. While "homogenization" is the process of expanding homogeneity, "hegemonization" is the emergence and consolidation of the hegemonic centre.

With globalization there have been increasing similarities between and among the societies of the world. But this trend has been accompanied by disproportionate global power among a few countries.

By the twenty-first century people dress more alike all over the world than they did at the end of the nineteenth century. (Homogenization). But the dress code which is getting globalized is overwhelmingly the Western dress code (Hegemonization). Indeed, the man's suit (Western) has become almost universalized in all parts of the world. And the jeans' revolution has captured the youth dress culture of half the globe.

By the twenty-first century the human race is closer to having world languages than it was in the nineteenth century if by a world language we mean one which has at least three-hundred million speakers, has been adopted by at least ten countries as a national language, has spread to at least two continents as a major language, and is widely used in four continents for special purposes. (Homogenization)

However, when we examine the languages which have been globalized, they are disproportionately European - especially English and French, and to lesser extent, Spanish. (Hegemonization)

Arabic is putting forward a strong claim as a world language, but partly because of the globalization of Islam and the role of Arabic as a language of Islamic ritual.

By the twenty-first century we are closer to a world economy than we have ever been before in human history. A sneeze in Hong Kong, and certainly a cough in Tokyo can send shock waves around the globe. (Homogenization)

And yet the powers who control this world economy are disproportionately Western. They are the G-7: The United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Canada and Italy in that order of economic muscle. (Hegemonization)

By the twenty-first century the Internet has given us instant access to both information and mutual communication across large distances. (Homogenization) However, the nerve center of the global Internet system is still located in the United States and has residual links in the United States Federal Government. (Hegemonization)

The educational systems in the twenty-first century are getting more and more similar across the world - with comparable term-units and semesters, and increasing professorial similarities, and similarity in course content. (Homogenization)

But the role-models behind this dramatic academic convergence have been the educational models of Europe and the United States, which have attracted both emulators and imitators. (Hegemonization)

The ideological systems of the world in the twenty-first century are also converging as market economies seem to emerge triumphant. Liberalization is being widely embraced, either spontaneously or under duress. Anwar Sadat in Egypt opened the gates of infitah, and even the People's Republic of China has adopted a kind of market Marxism. India is in danger of traversing the distance from Mahatma Gandhi to Mahatma Keynes. (Homogenization)

However, the people who are orchestrating and sometimes enforcing marketization, liberalization and privatization are Western economic gurus - reinforced by the power of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United States and the European Union. Indeed, Europe is the mother of all modern ideologies, good and evil - liberalism, capitalism, socialism, Marxism, fascism, Nazism and others. The most triumphant by the end of the twentieth century has been Euro-liberal capitalism. (Hegemonic Homogenization)

Islam: Victim or Victor?

At the moment the Muslim world is a net loser from both homogenization and hegemonization. However, will Islam one day gain from homogenization? Only if Muslim values penetrate the global pool. Can people share Muslim values without sharing the Muslim religion?

For example many U.S. Muslims find themselves sharing social values with Republicans in the United States:

  • in favour of prayer at school
  • against easy abortion
  • against too much homosexual permissiveness
  • in favour of family values and stable marriages.

One can be in agreement with Islamic values without being a Muslim. Indeed, the US after World War I briefly agreed with the Muslim value against alcohol - and passed the Eighteenth Constitutional Amendment in 1919 outlawing alcohol.

But not enough Americans were convinced. More than a decade later (after Al Capone's adventures) the Twenty-first Constitutional Amendment was passed in 1933 allowing alcohol. Will Muslim values in the 21st century once again gain favour in the United States?

There was a time in history when the Muslim presence in the Western world once carried great intellectual and scientific influence. These were the days when Arabic words like algebra and cipher entered Western scientific lexicons.

One of the remarkable things about the twentieth century is that it has combined the cultural Westernization of the Muslim world, on the one hand, and the more recent demographic Islamization of the Western world, on the other. The foundations for the cultural Westernization of the Muslim world were laid mainly in the first half of the twentieth century. The foundations of the demographic Islamization of the Western world are being laid in the second half of the twentieth century. Let us take each of these two phases of Euro-Islamic interaction in turn.

In the first half of the century, the West had colonized more than two thirds of the Muslim world - from Kano to Karachi, from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur, from Dakar to Jakarta. The first half of the twentieth century also witnessed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the more complete de-Islamization of the European state-system. The aftermath included the abolition of the Caliphate as the symbolic center of Islamic authority. The ummah became more fragmented than ever and became even more receptive to Western cultural penetration.

Other forces which facilitated the cultural Westernization of the Muslim world included the replacement of Islamic and Qur'anic schools with Western style schools; the increasing use of European languages in major Muslim countries; the impact of the Western media upon distribution of news, information and entertainment, ranging from magazines, cinema, television and video, to the new universe of computers.

Homogenization was responding to the forces of hegemonization. Finally, there has been the omnipresent Western technology - which carries with it not only new skills but also new values. The net result has indeed been a form of globalization of aspects of culture. However, this has been a Eurocentric and Americocentric brand of globalization. An aspect of Western culture is eventually embraced by other cultures - and masquerades as universal. An informal cultural empire is born, hegemony triumphant.

The globalization of two pieces of Eurocentric world culture may tell the story of things to come: the Western Christian calendar, especially the Gregorian calendar, and the worldwide dress code for men, which we mentioned earlier.

Many countries in Africa and Asia have adopted wholesale the Western Christian calendar as their own. They celebrate their independence day according to the Christian calendar, and write their own history according to Gregorian years, using distinctions such as before or after Christ. Some Muslim countries even recognize Sunday as the day of rest instead of Friday. In some cultures, the entire Islamic historiography has been reperiodized according to the Christian calendar instead of the Hijjra.

From the second half of the twentieth century, both Muslim migration to the West and conversions to Islam within the West have been consolidating a new human Islamic presence. In Europe as a whole, there are now twenty million Muslims, ten million of whom are in Western Europe. This figure excludes the Muslims of the Republic of Turkey, who number some fifty million. There are new mosques from Munich to Marseilles.

Paradoxically, the cultural Westernization of the Muslim world is one of the causes behind the demographic Islamization of the West. The cultural Westernization of Muslims contributed to the "brain drain" that lured Muslim professionals and experts from their homes in Muslim countries to jobs and educational institutions in North America and the European Union.

The old formal empires of the West have unleashed demographic counter-penetration. Some of the most qualified Muslims in the world have been attracted to professional positions in Europe or North America. It is in that sense that the cultural Westernization of the Muslim world in the first half of the twentieth century was part of the preparation for the demographic Islamization of the West in the second half of the twentieth century.

But not by any means are all Muslim migrants to the West highly qualified. The legacy of Western colonialism also facilitated the migration of less-qualified Muslims from places like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Algeria into Britain and France - again post-colonial demographic counterpenetration. There have also been occasions when, in need of cheap labor, the West has deliberately encouraged immigration of less-qualified Muslims - as in the case of the importation of Turkish workers into the Federal Republic of Germany in the 1960s and 1970s.

As another manifestation of the demographic Islamization of the Western world, there are now over one thousand mosques and Qur'anic centers in the United States alone, as well as professional associations for Muslim engineers, Muslim social scientists and Muslim educators. There are over six million American Muslims - and the number is rising impressively. Muslims now outnumber Jews in the United States since the end of the twentieth century. Islam is currently the fastest growing religion in North America.

In France, Islam has the second-highest number of adherents; Catholicism has the most followers. In Britain, some Muslims are experimenting with their own Islamic parliament, and others are demanding state subsidies for Muslim schools. The Federal Republic of Germany is realizing that importing Turkish workers in the 1970s was also an invitation to the muezzin and the minaret to establish themselves in German cities. Australia has discovered that it is a neighbor to the country with the largest Muslim population in the world (Indonesia). Australia has also discovered an Islamic presence in its own body-politic.

Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three Abrahamic creeds of world history. In the twentieth century, the Western world is often described as a Judeo-Christian civilization, thus linking the West to two of those Abrahamic faiths. But if Muslims already outnumber Jews in countries like the United States, perhaps Islam is replacing Judaism as the second most important Abrahamic religion after Christianity. Numerically, Islam in time may overshadow Judaism in much of the West, regardless of future immigration policies.

The question has thus arisen about how Islam is to be treated in Western classrooms, textbooks and media as Islam becomes a more integral part of Western society. In the Muslim world, education has got substantially Westernized. Is it now the turn of education in the West to become partially Islamized?

The Euro-Islamic story of interpenetration continues to unfold. Is this a new threshold for globalization? Or is it just another manifestation of the postcolonial condition in world history? In fact, it may be both.

The counterpenetration of Islam and Muslims into Western civilization will not in itself end Western hegemonization. But an Islamic presence in the Western World on a significant scale may begin to reverse at long last the wheels of cultural homogenization. Values will begin to mix, tastes compete, perspectives intermingle, as a new moral calculus evolves on the world scene.

Empirical Relativism and Moral Performance

Let us now return to the three forms of relativity with which we began -- historical, cultural and empirical. Hegemonic and homogenizing as Western culture has been, it has not been without its contradictions and serious shortfalls. Its claim to universalism has been up against the relativity of history (temporal), of culture (cross-cultural) and of implementation (the logic of consistency). Let us begin with this third area of relativity -- the tests of empiricism and performance.

Empirical relativism has two aspects. One aspect concerns whether in practice Western civilization lives up to its own standards. The other aspect concerns situations in which Western ethical standards are better implemented by other civilizations than by the West itself.

When a famous Jeffersonian Declaration of Independence pronounces that "all men are created equal" and then the founders build an economy in America based on slavery, that is a case of Western culture failing by its own standards.

On the other hand, if during the same historical period we study economies without either slavery or caste among the Kikuyu in East Africa or the Tiv in West Africa, we are observing societies which were more egalitarian than the liberal West.

The Western Christian ethic of the minimization of violence has repeatedly been honoured by Westerners more in the breach than the observance. In the last hundred years Christians have killed vastly more people than have followers of any other religion in any single century. Many of the millions of victims of Christian violence in the two world wars were themselves fellow Christians -- though the Holocaust against the Jews and the Gypsies stand out as special cases of genocide perpetrated by Westerners in otherwise Christian nations.

If minimization of violence is part of Christian ethics, it is a standard which has not only been violated by the West. It has also been better implemented by other cultures in history. In the first half of the twentieth century India produced Mohandas Gandhi who led one of the most remarkable nonviolent anticolonial movements ever witnessed. Westerners themselves saw Gandhi's message as the nearest approximation of the Christian ethic of the first half of the twentieth century.

Mahatma Gandhi's India gave birth to new principles of passive resistance and satygraha. Yet Gandhi himself said that it may be through the Black people that the unadulterated message of soul force and passive resistance might be realized. If Gandhi was right, this would be one more illustration when the culture which gives birth to an ethic is not necessarily the culture which fulfills the ethic.

The Nobel Committee for Peace in Oslo seems to have shared some of Gandhi's optimism about the soul force of the Black people. Africans and people of African descent who have won the Nobel prize for Peace since the middle of the twentieth century have been Ralph Bunche (1950), Albert Luthuli (1960), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Anwar Sadat (1978) Desmond Tutu (1984) and Nelson Mandela (1993). Neither Mahatma Gandhi himself nor any of his compatriots in India ever won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Was Mahatma Gandhi vindicated that the so-called "Negro" was going to be the best exemplar of soul force? Was this a case of African culture being empirically more Gandhian than Indian culture?

In reality Black people have been at least as violent as anything ever perpetrated by Indians. What is distinctive about Africans is their short memory of hate.

Jomo Kenyatta was unjustly imprisoned by the British colonial authorities over charges of founding the Mau Mau movement. A British Governor also denounced him as "a leader into darkness and unto death." And yet when Jomo Kenyatta was released he not only forgave the white settlers, but turned the whole country towards a basic pro-Western orientation to which it has remained committed ever since. Kenyatta even published a book entitled Suffering Without Bitterness.

Ian Smith, the white settler leader of Rhodesia, unilaterally declared independence in 1965 and unleashed a civil war on Rhodesia. Thousands of people, mainly Black, died in the country as a result of policies pursued by Ian Smith. Yet when the war ended in 1980 Ian Smith and his cohorts were not subjected to a Nuremberg-style trial. On the contrary, Ian Smith was himself a member of parliament in a Black-ruled Zimbabwe, busy criticizing the post-Smith Black leaders of Zimbabwe as incompetent and dishonest. Where else but in Africa could such tolerance occur?

The Nigerian civil war (1967-1970) was the most highly publicized civil conflict in postcolonial African history. When the war was coming to an end, many people feared that there would be a bloodbath in the defeated eastern region. The Vatican was worried that cities like Enugu and Onitcha, strongholds of Catholicism, would be monuments of devastation and blood-letting.

None of these expectations occurred. Nigerians -- seldom among the most disciplined of Africans -- discovered in 1970 some remarkable resources of self-restraint. There were no triumphant reprisals against the vanquished Biafrans; there were no vengeful trials of "traitors".

We have also witnessed the phenomenon of Nelson Mandela. He lost twenty-seven of the best years of his life in prison under the laws of the apartheid regime. Yet when he was released he not only emphasized the policy of reconciliation -- he often went beyond the call of duty. On one occasion before he became President white men were fasting unto death after being convicted of terrorist offences by their own white government. Nelson Mandela went out of his way to beg them to eat and thus spare their own lives.

When Mandela became President in 1994 it was surely enough that his government would leave the architects of apartheid unmolested. Yet Nelson Mandela went out of his way to pay a social call and have tea with the unrepentant widow of Hendrik F. Verwoed, the supreme architect of the worst forms of apartheid, who shaped the whole racist order from 1958 to 1966. Mandela was having tea with the family of Verwoed.

Was Mahatma Gandhi correct, after all, that his torch of soul force (satyagraha) might find its brightest manifestations among Black people? Empirical relativism was at work again.

In the history of civilizations there are occasions when the image in the mirror is more real that the object it reflects. Black Gandhians like Martin Luther King Jr., Desmond Tutu and, in a unique sense, Nelson Mandela have sometimes reflected Gandhaian soul force more brightly than Gandhians in India. Part of the explanation lies in the soul of African culture itself -- with all its capacity for rapid forgiveness.

It is a positive modification of "the Picture of Dorian Gray.' In Oscar Wilde's novel, the picture of Dorian Gray is a truer reflection of the man's decrepid body and lost soul than the man himself. The decomposition of Dorian's body and soul is transferred from Dorian himself to his picture. The picture is more real than the man.

In the case of Gandhism, it is not the decomposition of the soul but its elevation which is transferred from India to the Black experience. In the last one hundred years both Indian culture and African culture have, in any case, been guilty of far less bloodletting than the West. Christian minimization of violence has been observed more by non-Christians than by ostensible followers of the Cross. Empirical relativism continues its contradictions.

But Western claims to universalism are challenged not just by the forces of empirical contradictions. They are, as we indicated, also challenged by the relativism of history and the relativism of culture. Let us now elaborate on these two areas of history and culture.

Between Cultural and Historical Relativism

If under cultural relativism, cultures differ across space (from society to society), under historical relativism cultures differ across time - from epoch to epoch or age to age. In Western society premarital sex was strongly disapproved of until after World War II. In the 19th century it was even punishable. Today sex before marriage is widely practiced with parental consent. This is historical relativism.

Are laws against gays and lesbians a violation of human rights? Today half the Western world says "yes". Yet homosexuality between males was a crime in Great Britain until the 1960s - though lesbianism was not outlawed. Now both male and female homosexuality between consenting adults is permitted in most of the Western World. This is historical relativism. On the other hand, in most of the rest of the world homosexuality is still illegal in varying degrees.

We are confronting a clash between historical relativism in the West and geo-cultural relativism in the Third World. In Africa the two extremes on homosexuality are the neighboring countries of Zimbabwe and South Africa. Zimbabwe's President Mugabe is a personal crusader against homosexuality. South Africa, on the other hand, has legalized it.

Almost everywhere in the Western World except the US capital punishment has been abolished. The United States is increasing the number of capital offenses for the time being. But it is almost certain that capital punishment even in the US will one day be regarded as a violation of human rights. This would be historical relativism within the Western civilization. In Africa South Africa has tried to lead the way against the death penalty. Has it outlived its rational utility?

Sometimes cultural relativism and historical relativism converge. This is especially true when Muslim and African countries want to revive legal systems which go back many centuries. Such countries attempt to re-enact the past in modern conditions. Sudan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are among the examples where cultural and historical relativism converge.

Can you have polygyny or polygamy by consent? In the US the term "pro-choice" is reserved for the issue of whether a woman wants a baby or not. In the Muslim world and in Africa a woman's right to choose may include her choice to marry a man who already has another wife. "I would rather share this man than not have him at all". At least one of Moshood Abiola's multiple wives in Nigeria had a Western Ph.D., a measure of polygamy by consent.

In the West a woman may choose to become a mistress of a married man but she is not allowed to marry the same man and have equal rights as a second wife. That is cultural relativism in sexual mores.

Are human rights sometimes trapped between the sacredness of art versus the sacredness of religion? As the West has got more and more secular, it has looked for new abodes of sacredness.

By the late twentieth century the freedom of the artist was more sacred to Westerners than respect for religion. Hence the clash which occurred from 1988 onwards between the Western world and the Muslim world in relation to Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses.

The book makes fun of the Holy Scripture of Muslims, the Qur'an - suggesting that perhaps the verses were a fake or inspired by the Devil. The novel strongly suggests that the prophet Muhammad was a fraud and not a very intelligent one at that. The book puts women bearing the names of the Prophet Muhammad's wives in a whorehouse - prostitutes called Hafsa, Aisha, Khadija, the historic names of the Prophet's wives. The names of the prophet's wives were supposed to be aphrodisiac for sexual excitement. Iran issued a fatwa or legal judgment accusing Rushdie of a capital religious offense and sentenced him to death in absentia.

Iran was the only one of some fifty Muslim countries to pass the death penalty on Rushdie. But there were popular Muslim demonstrations against Rushdie from Kaduna to Karachi.

Rushdie has had to spend most of his life since then in cautious hiding. The bad news is that a number of airlines refused at times to have him as a passenger because he is a security risk. The good news, on the other hand, is that he is a millionaire several times over from the book and related products. He is more wealthy but less secure.

Westerners have argued that as a novelist Rushdie had a right to write anything he wanted. Muslims from Lamu to Lahore have argued that he had no right to hold up for obscenity and ridicule some of the most sacred things in Islam. The sacredness of the artist has been in collision with the sacredness of religion over Salman Rushdie's novel. The West's claim to universalism sometimes extends from Western values to Western custodial claim to the defense of those values. Even if Western values are universal, is Western practice an implementation of those values?

One of the most remarkable coincidences of the year 2000 concerns how democracy collided with two people called Haider -- one a Syrian and the other Austrian, one liberal and the other extreme right-wing, one a writer and the other an activist and politician.

In Austria Dr. Jorg Haider was Deputy Governor of Carinthia and Chair of the neo-Nazi FPO party which joined the government coalition in the year 2000. The coalition was the outcome of electoral democratic forces in Austria. And yet pro-Democracy fellow members of the European Union have turned against the government of Austria and have tried to squeeze Haider's party out of the democratically elected governing coalition. Was democracy fighting against democracy in the European Union over the Austrian question? Certainly most members of the European Union have decided that there is a limit to freedom of political participation.

The other Haider is Haider Haider, the Syrian, who published in Cyprus in 1983 a novel entitled BANQUET OF SEAWEED. Lebanon republished the novel in 1992 without any earth tremor. In November 1999 Egypt's Ministry of Culture followed suit. It published the volume among the major works of modern Arabic literature. There was delayed reaction -- until EL-SHAAB, a pro-Islamist newspaper, published extracts ostensibly insulting to the Prophet Muhammad and Islam.

Was the Syrian Haider as much of a threat to the fundamentals of his own Arab civilization as the Austrian Haider had been to his own European civilization? When individuals threaten the fabric of civilization, should democracy give way? If Arab and Islamic civilizations are threatened by a Syrian Haider, should democracy be subordinated to higher values? If Western civilization is threatened by the Austrian Haider, should Austrian democracy be subordinated to European civilization?

In reality both Islam and the West have put limits to freedom of expression and indeed to democratic outcomes. Over Austria the European Union has decided that the values of Western civilization are more important than the outcomes of Austrian democracy. Should the novel BANQUET OF SEAWEED be judged by the standards of Islamic civilization or by the criteria of democracy? The dilemma is crucial and unresolved.

Empirical Relativism and Comparative Censorship

The third area of relativism is once again empirical. How do cultures behave in practice? Our discussion has already entered the arena of Western civil liberties. In what sense is the cultural distance between the West, Africa and Islam narrower than often assumed? One compelling illustration concerns the issue of censorship and the implementation of values. Here we are again dealing with empirical relativism.

A book may be censored because of the moral repugnance of its contents. Most Muslim countries and some African ones have banned Salman Rushdie's novel, The Satanic Verses, because they viewed it as blasphemous and morally repugnant.

Alternatively, a book may be censored or banned because of the moral "repugnance" of its author. St. Martin's Press was going to publish in 1996 a book entitled Goebbels, Mastermind of the Third Reich. Enormous international pressure was put on St. Martin's Press to withdraw the book. Most of the pressure came from people who could not possibly have read the manuscript of that particular book. The moral objection was to the author of the book, David Irving, who was viewed as an anti-Semitic revisionist historian of the Holocaust. In the case of the particular book on Goebbels, it was probably the singer (David Irving) rather than the song (Mastermind of the Third Reich) which finally made St. Martin's Press change its mind and withdraw the book. David Irving has since been legally condemned in Britain as anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denier.

But a book may also be censored or banned out of fear of its consequences - the equivalent of "clear and present danger". When India gave this kind of explanation for banning Rushdie's Satanic Verses - that the book would inflame religious passions - the West was less than sympathetic. Certainly Rushdie's publishers paid no attention to prior warnings from India before publication that he book was inflammatory. The publication of the book even in faraway London did result in loss of life in civil disturbances in Bombay and Karachi in 1989.

In contrast, distinguished Western publishers have been known to care enough about the safety of their own staff to make that the reason for rejecting a manuscript. One prominent case is Cambridge University Press's rejection of the book, Fields of Wheat, Rivers of Blood by Anastasia Karakasidou. The book was about ethnicity in the Greek province of Macedonia. Cambridge rejection was directly and frankly linked to its fear for the safety of its staff members in Greece.

If Viking Penguin Inc., the publishers of The Satanic Verses, had cared as much about South Asian lives as Cambridge University Press cared about its own staff in Greece, the cost in blood of The Satanic Verses would have been reduced. The issue here is still empirical relativism. Does Western practice meet Western standards?

Let us now turn more closely to comparative methods of censorship as an aspect of empirical relativism. Censorship in Muslim countries is often crude, and is done by governments, by Mullahs and imams, and more recently by militant Islamic movements. Censorship in the West, on the other hand, is more polished and more decentralized. It is done by advertisers for commercial television, by subscribers to the Public Broadcasting System, by ethnic pressure groups and interest groups, by editors, by publishers and by other controllers of means of communication. In Europe it is sometimes also done by governments.

The law in the United States protects opinion better than almost anywhere else in the world. In 1986 my television series The Africans: A Triple Heritage was threatened with legal action by Kaiser Aluminum because I had described the company's terms for the construction of the Akosombo Dam in Ghana as exploitative. Both my own personal lawyer and the lawyers for Public Broadcasting System (PBS) were unanimous in their opinion that Kaiser Aluminum did not stand a chance under American law. We called Kaiser's bluff, showed the offending sequence, and Kaiser Aluminum did nothing.

The threat to free speech in the United States does not come from the law and the Constitution but from non-governmental forces. The same PBS which was invulnerable before the law on the issue of free speech capitulated to other forces when I metaphorically described Karl Marx as "the last of the Great Jewish prophets." The earlier British version of my television series had included that phrase. The American version unilaterally deleted it out of fear of offending Jewish Americans. I was never asked for permission to delete. Ironically many viewers in Israel saw the British version complete with the controversial metaphor.

What PBS had done was a case of decentralized censorship. The laws of the United States granted me freedom of speech and freedom of opinion - but censorship in the country is perpetrated by editors, financial benefactors and influential pressure groups. It is a special kind of empirical relativism.

On one issue of censorship the relevant PBS producing station did consult me. WETA, the PBS station in Washington D.C. was unhappy that I had not injected enough negativism in my portrayal of Libya's Muammar Gaddafy in a sequence of about three minutes. I was first asked if I would agree to change my commentary and talk more about "terrorism". When I refused to change my commentary, WETA suggested that we changed the pictures instead - deleting one sequence which appeared to humanize Qaddafy (the Libyan leader visiting a hospital) and substituting a picture of Rome airport after a terrorist attack (which would re-demonize the Libyan Leader).

After much debate I managed to save the positive humanizing hospital scene, but surrendered to the addition of a negative scene of Rome airport after a terrorist attack. My agreement was on condition that neither I nor the written caption implied that Libya was responsible for the bomb. But ideally WETA would have preferred to delete the sequence about Libya altogether.

Two years later I was invited to Libya after the Arabic version of my television series was shown there. It turned out that WETA had more in common with the censors in Libya than either realized. Although the Libyans seemed pleased with my television series as a whole, the three-minute sequence about Muammar Qaddafy had been deleted from the version shown in Tripoli. If WETA had regarded the sequences as too sympathetic to Qaddafy, perhaps the Libyans decided they were not sympathetic enough. And since the Libyans were not in a position to negotiate with me about whether to change the commentary or add to the pictures, they decided to delete the sequence altogether.

In the United States the sequence about Qaddafy had also offended Lynn Cheney, who was at the time chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The sequence was a major reason why she demanded the removal of the name of the Endowment from the television credits at the end of the series. Much later, after she stepped down as Chair, she demanded the abolition of the National Endowment for the Humanities itself altogether. She cited as one of her reasons precisely my own television series, The Africans: A Triple Heritage, using it as an example of the type of objectionable liberal projects which the Endowment had tended to friend.

Another illustration of decentralized censorship and empirical relativism which has affected my own work involved my book Cultural Forces in World Politics. Originally it was to be published by Westview Press in Colorado. They were about to go to press when they declared that they wanted to delete three chapters. One chapter discussed The Satanic Verses as a case of cultural treason; another chapter compared the Palestinian intifadah with the Chinese students' rebellion in Tienemann Square in Beijing, China, in 1989; and the third objectionable chapter compared the apartheid doctrine of separate homelands for Blacks and Whites in South Africa with the Zionist doctrine of separate States for Jews and Arabs.

Clearly the Westview Press wanted to censor those three chapters because they were the most politically sensitive in the American context. I suspected that I would have similar problems with most other major US publishers with regard to those three chapters. I therefore relied more exclusively on my British publishers in London, James Currey, and on the American offshoot of another British publisher, Heinemann Educational Books. My book was published by those two in 1990.

This is the positive side of decentralized censorship in the West. At least with regard to books, what is under the threat of censorship by one publisher may be acceptable by another. Or what is almost unpublishable in the United States may be easily publishable in Britain or the Netherlands.

With national television the choices are more restricted even in the West. Many points of view are condemned to national silence on the television screen. The West does not meet its own democratic standards.

What conclusion do we draw from all this? The essential point being made is that strictly on the issue of free speech, the cultural difference between Western culture and Islamic culture may not be as wide as often assumed. In both civilizations only a few points of view have national access to the media and the publishing world. In both civilizations only a few points of view have national access to the media and the publishing world. In both civilizations there is marginalization by exclusion from the center. But there is one big difference. Censorship in Muslim societies tends to be more centralized, often done by the state, though there are also restrictions on free speech imposed by Mullahs and Imams and militant religious movements.

In the United States, on the other hand, there is no centralized political censorship by governmental or judicial institutions. Censorship is far more decentralized and is exercised by non-governmental social forces and institutions.

The Relativity of History

Let us now return to the issue of historical relativism between the West and the world of Islam. Popular images of Islamic values in the West tend to regard those values as "medieval" and hopelessly anachronistic. In reality most Muslim societies are at worst decades rather than centuries behind the West - and in some respects Islamic culture is more humane than Western culture.

The gender question in Muslim countries is still rather troubling. But again the historical distance between the West and Islam may be in terms of decades rather than centuries. In almost all Western countries apart from New Zealand women did not get the vote until the twentieth century. Great Britain extended the vote to women in two stages - 1918 and 1928. The United States enfranchised women with a constitutional amendment in 1920. Switzerland did not give women the vote at the national level until 1971 - long after Muslim women had been voting in Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Indonesia.

British wives earned the right to own independent property in 1870. Muslim wives had always done so. Indeed, Islam is probably the only major religion which was founded by a businessman who was in commercial partnership with his wife, Khadija. What we are dealing with here is the practical implementation of values. Even if Western values were universal, is Western practice compatible with the values? Is the West the best embodiment of its own values? Empirical relativism reveals glaring Western contradictions.

The United States, the largest and most influential Western nation, has never had a female President or Head of Government. France has never had a woman President either, or Germany a woman Chancellor. On the other hand, both the second and third Muslim societies in population (Pakistan and Bangladesh) have had women Prime Ministers more than once each. Pakistan has had Benazir Bhutto twice as Prime Minister and Bangladesh has had Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina Rahman Wajed consecutively in power. Indonesia has a female vice President - Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Turkey, another Muslim country, has also had a woman Prime Minister - Tansu Ciller. Turkey is a Muslim society which inaugurated a secular state as recently as the 1920s, but has already produced a woman Chief Executive. The United States has been a secular state for two hundred years - and has still not produced a woman president.


In this lecture we started from the premise that "the sins of the powerful acquire some of the prestige of power". The West has become powerful over the last five to six centuries. Western culture and civilization became influential, and attracted widespread imitation and emulation. Western hegemony precipitated widespread homogenization of values, styles and institutions. Much of the world became Westernized.

The Westernization of the world has been part and parcel of the phenomenon which we have come to refer to as "globalization". The economic meaning of "globalization" refers to the expansion of world economic interdependence under Western control. The informational meaning of "globalization" refers to the triumph of the computer, the Internet and Information Superhighway. The comprehensive meaning of "globalization" refers to all the forces which have been leading the world towards a global village. Globalization in this third sense has meant the villagization of the world.

In the economic and informational meaning of globalization, the West has been the primary engine of global change. However, in the comprehensive meaning of globalization (leading towards the global village) some other civilizations have been equally crucial at other stages of history.

The West's triumph in the last two or three centuries has led to the claim that Western civilization has universal validity. Such a claim faces three challenges -- the challenge of historical relativism (what was valid in the West a hundred years ago is not necessarily valid today), the challenge of cultural relativism (what is valid in the West may not be valid in other cultures and civilizations) and the challenge of empirical relativism (not only does the West fail to meet its own ethical standards, but those standards are sometimes better fulfilled by other cultures than by the West).

In comparison with the West this lecture has used mainly illustrations from Islam and Africa (two overlapping civilizations), with some important lessons from India's Mahatma Gandhi.

We can conclude that, in distribution, Western civilization is the most globalized in history. No other civilization in the annals of the human race has touched so many individual members of that race, or so many societies in the world. But global distribution is not the same thing as universal validity. After all, Marxism was once globally distributed to almost a third of the population of the world. That did not give Marxism "a third of universal validity". Indeed, we now know that Marxism and communism have shrunk in distribution almost overnight.

If there is a universal ethical standard in the world, we have not yet discovered it. It is certainly not the Western ethical standard -- otherwise the United States would not be wondering whether the death penalty is moral or not. Nor would racism still be prevalent in the Western world.

This lecture continues to assume that human history is a search for the Universal. The Western world has not found it -- but it has certainly taken us a step or two towards it. The West has also helped to create the conditions not only for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but also conditions for the pursuit of the Universal for generations to come.