Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Amartya Sen on a "Clash of Civilizations"

Asia Times has published an interesting interview with economist Amartya Sen, “A language for the World,” conducted by Sanjay Suri of Inter Press Service.

The following is an excerpt from the interview, specifically Sen’s response to a question about the now popular notion of a “clash of civilizations”:

IPS: So is the idea of a clash of civilizations misplaced?

AS: It's a wholly wrong expression. For at least three different reasons.

One, that these divisions of civilization are done on grounds of religion. But we don't have only religious and civilizational identity. When I talk with a Muslim friend, I happen to come from a Hindu background ... whether in India or in Pakistan or in Bangladesh, or for that matter in Egypt or Britain, it's not a relation between a Hindu civilization and a Muslim civilization. It could be two Indians chatting, or two sub-continentals chatting. Or two South Asians chatting, or it could be two people from developing countries chatting. There are all kinds of ways in which we have things in common. So the civilizational division is a very impoverished way of understanding human beings. In fact, classifying the world population into civilization and seeing them in that form is a very quick and efficient way of misunderstanding absolutely everybody in the world.

Second, as these cultures have grown, they have had huge connections with each other. Indian food drew the use of chilli from the Portuguese conquerors. British food is deeply influenced by Indian cooking today. Similarly maths and science and architecture travel between regions. So does literature. So, civilizations have not grown into self-contained little boxes.

The third mistake is to assume that somehow they must be at loggerheads with each other. It is just one division among many. And there are others; there are men and there are women. The gender division. Now if that leads to hostility between them, that will be a different thing. And then one has to see what kind of rhetoric has made that possible. And if there is lack of justice to women, how both men and women may have a joint commitment in overcoming that quality.

It's the totality of neglect of these issues; the multiplicity of identities, the non-insular interactive emergence of world civilization which is increasingly a united one, and the absence of the reason for a battle just when a classification exists, these are the ways in which the rhetoric of a clash of civilizations is not only mistaken, but is doing an enormous amount of harm today.

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