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States of civilisation
Written by Alex Massie
20 August 2020
Earlier this month Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, visited the northern city of Ayodhya, birthplace, Hindus believe, of the god Ram and the location for a highly symbolic, and hence revealing, struggle for the soul and future of India.
Modi was present to lay the foundation stone for a new temple honouring Ram on a site previously occupied by a 16th-century mosque, demolished by Hindu fanatics in 1992. Since then, the future of the temple site has been a matter of significant controversy and legal wrangling. Last year, a court ruling at last permitted the construction of a Hindu temple and Modi was present to bear witness to what he deemed an important historical moment. “Tens of millions of Indians cannot believe this day has come”, Modi declared. “The fight for the temple is like the fight for freedom” and “the construction of the Ram temple is an instrument to unite the country,” he said.
A week before Modi celebrated in Ayodhya, Recep Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, marked a triumph of his own. In 1934, Kemal Atatürk, founder of the modern, secular, Turkish state decreed that the Hagia Sophia mosque in Istanbul should henceforth be a museum. Last month, a Turkish court ruled it could be reconverted to a mosque and Erdoğan was present to bear witness to his own cultural victory. “This is Hagia Sophia breaking away from its chains of captivity” Erdoğan said, marking the consummation of “the greatest dream of our youth”. Again, the symbolism was both significant and revealing.
Just as the Islamification of Turkey is a work in progress, so the Hindufication of India is not complete, but in each instance the direction of travel is obvious. Last year, Modi abolished Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, stripping India’s only Muslim-majority state of the privileges and protections it had previously enjoyed. As in Ayodhya, this was hailed by Hindu nationalists as a long overdue measure that would, in time, lead to a more coherent, united, Hindu-based India.
Meanwhile, in Istanbul, the idea that the future might be European is dead. Turkey will not be joining the European Union, partly because Europe does not wish it to and partly because Turkey has reimagined its future in response to this. It does not seem coincidental that the reconversion of the Hagia Sophia took place on the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Ottoman empire and gave birth to a Turkish republic. Four years ago, Erdoğan declared that “Turkey is larger than Turkey” and the country “cannot be imprisoned in 780,000 square kilometres” for “the borders of our hearts are elsewhere”. Ethnic Turks from Mosul to Skopje “may be outside our natural boundaries, but they are within the borders of our hearts, at the epicentre of our hearts”.
In this fashion, Turkey is reimagining itself as what has become known as a “civilisational state”. It is not the only one. Vladimir Putin thinks of Russia in the same way; part European, part Asian, eternally Russian. It may be a multi-ethnic state but there is never any doubt about who is in charge. Modi’s India shows some signs of moving in the same direction, albeit more slowly and subject to the inconveniences posed by an independent judiciary and an independent media. Indeed, as Christopher Coker argues in The Rise of the Civilisational State, India’s history is “too diverse and diversified to become a Brahminical project”. Perhaps so, but there seems every reason to think that Modi would like to prove Coker wrong.
China, unavoidably, is the purest incarnation of the civilisational state. It is, as Coker puts it, “the most culturally self-sufficient [civilisation] on the planet”. Publicly, it proclaims its peaceful intentions while also insisting upon its regional prerogatives that, buffered by Beijing’s “belt and road” initiative, actually extend far beyond China’s actual borders. These in turn are supported by more than 500 Confucius Institutes, including some in Scotland, that are part of the project of both advancing and protecting Chinese interests.
The civilisational state is not necessarily imperial in terms of territorial conquest – though as Crimea, Taiwan, and Kashmir remind us, it is not free from such concerns either – but as an imaginative matter it is very much imperial. It is a kind of reawakening; a recapture of past greatness for what once was may be so again.
It is nearly a quarter of a century since Samuel Huntington published The Clash of Civilisations, a book that gained a certain notoriety in the aftermath of 9/11. Huntington’s thesis – that, broadly, an age of ideological dispute would give way to one of cultural conflict – now seems increasingly prescient. If this is not a case of “the west and the rest” it is, perhaps or in part, because the concept of “the west” is increasingly nebulous. In the absence of American leadership, does “the west” even exist? And can Europe be anything other than, at best, yesterday’s man, and America’s satellite? On current trends, the answer to that would seem to be ‘no’. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, is one of the few European politicians capable of – and significantly, comfortable with – talking in civilisational terms.
To that end, a divided Europe is a house divided against itself. But there remains, as the old saw has it, no telephone number to dial when you wish to call “Europe”. No wonder, Europe’s responses to Russia, to China, to Turkey and, indeed, to everyone else often appear fragmented, ambivalent, and all but impotent. The continent feels, and often in fact is, tired.
None of which is to deny that “western” values have a universal appeal. As a matter of individual liberty and dignity, the values of democratic liberty have much to commend them. Few people outwith China would wish to live under the all-seeing gaze of the Chinese Communist Party. But opportunity may in the future wear different clothes: serving a civilisational ideal, however fabricated it may be, is a great and grand project beside which individual aspirations suddenly seem trivial and even selfish. Ask not what your country may do for you; ask what you may do for your civilisation. No wonder Adrian Pabst, author of The Demons of Liberal Democracy argued recently that “cultural exceptionalism is once again challenging, and arguably replacing, liberalism’s claim to universal validity”.
All of which leads to this conclusion: just as the world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting south and east, so too will its geopolitical flashpoints. In that respect, the rise of civilisational states, albeit of varying power and possibility, is also the harbinger of what may, in the longer term, be seen as a fresh “new world order”. Little of this is comforting; much of it is happening anyway.
About Beyond the Street and Alex Massie
We are all guilty of being too inwardly focused sometimes, especially as we navigate these changed times. It is all too easy to be caught up in the problems close to home, and for overarching trends to pass us by.
To remedy that short-sightedness, Charlotte Street Partners has enlisted the ingenuity and talent of the writer and commentator Alex Massie. As our new correspondent at large, Alex will look at the bigger picture. We have challenged him to come up with something a bit different: broad, lateral thinking, thematic insights and a more global perspective.
Alex is a freelance journalist and commentator based in Edinburgh. Not only is he Scotland editor of The Spectator, but he also writes a political column for The Times and The Sunday Times. He features regularly on the BBC as a political commentator and has written in the past for The Telegraph, Politico, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, the New Statesman, The Observer, and TIME magazine, among others. He was also the Washington correspondent for The Scotsman and assistant editor of Scotland on Sunday.
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