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I'm Right, You're Wrong, Go To Hell: Religions and the meeting of civilization

Bernard Lewis

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For a long time now it has been our practice in the modern Western world to define ourselves primarily by nationality, and to see other identities and allegiances--religious, political, and the like--as subdivisions of the larger and more important whole. The events of September 11 and after have made us aware of another perception--of a religion subdivided into nations rather than a nation subdivided into religions--and this has induced some of us to think of ourselves and of our relations with others in ways that had become unfamiliar. The confrontation with a force that defines itself as Islam has given a new relevance--indeed, urgency--to the theme of the "clash of civilizations."

At one time the general assumption of mankind was that "civilization" meant us, and the rest were uncivilized. This, as far as we know, was the view of the great civilizations of the past--in China, India, Greece, Rome, Persia, and the ancient Middle East. Not until a comparatively late stage did the idea emerge that there are different civilizations, that these civilizations meet and interact, and--even more interesting--that a civilization has a life-span: it is born, grows, matures, declines, and dies...

The first writer to make the connection was the German historian Oswald Spengler. Perhaps influenced by the horrors of World War I and the defeat of imperial Germany, he looked around him and saw civilization in decline. He built a philosophy on this perception, captured in the phrase "the decline of the West"--Der Untergang des Abendlandes. His two volumes under this title were published in 1918 and 1922. In these he discussed how different civilizations meet, interact, rise and decline, and fall. His approach was elaborated by Arnold Toynbee, who proceeded with a sort of wish list of civilizations--and, of course, also a hit list. Most recently Samuel Huntington, of Harvard University, has argued that the clash of civilizations, more than of countries or governments, is now the basic force of international relations...

Bernard Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, Emeritus, at Princeton University. He is the author of many books on Islam, including "The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror" (2003).

Other books by Bernard Lewis.

Read the entire article on the Atlantic Online website.



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Copyright 2001-2014 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.


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