Reclaiming Civilisational Identity

The 20th century marked the triumph of nationhood and the idea of nation-state driven by national self-determination, inherited not by kings or royalties but by the chosen ones among the masses. Masses – which was formed and visualised more as entities within an administrative border than being scions of a continuing culture – changed the existing paradigm. India, too, after winning independence chose the same model of the nation-state – rather than returning back to the civilisational monarchy – and drafted a constitution, heavily influenced by similar nation-states of the contemporary world, to support it. 

Elites in the post-cold war world consistently preened themselves for creating and supporting a system of governance, the model of the nation-state, which had defeated all of its rivals. And it was true. Liberalism and secularism, as charted and nurtured by elites – disproportionate of them from the West – proved to be a successful export to other nations. All of such concepts from various other nations and cultures were dwarfed and sometimes ruthlessly mocked for not fitting into the bracket created by the West. Liberalism was now the big idea which was fawned by many as perfect for one single universal civilisation, without borders and full of freedom. All of this as imagined by Western elites, of course.

The very reality of multiple cultural and religious presence in the world is opposed to the notion of one universal civilisation. Whose natural result was a newer conflict? Sprouting almost at the same time, in the last two decades of the 21st century, international politics saw the ascent of civilisation power grow. Last few years have been uniquely tumultuous ones, whose acceleration resulted in the fading of West’s dream for another global and cultural dominance. Or in other words, of Andrian Pabst, “The ascent of civilisational states is not just changing the global balance of power. It is also transforming post-Cold War geopolitics away from liberal universalism towards cultural exceptionalism.” 

There’s little doubt that West’s influence is still intact. But the earlier merry ambitions for global dominance has already fallen down from its high grounds. West’s excessively individualistic politics is a disrelishing subject for other nations for its destructive anti-cultural quest and short-sighted ideas. Cartel capitalism, rampant individualism and corporate-driven politics is a hot recipe for societal weakening and cultural suicide. It’s like a strong inspiration for jumping in a deep quagmire without any outer support just for the sake of thrill of the adventure. 

From India, China, Russia and Turkey to France, Hungary, most of the great powers and middling states are reclaiming back their older state ideologies and cultures, remoulding their past identities to create a new system entirely unique to them and free from the burden of western universalism. It’s like how civilisational states were defined – a state, centred around a culture & religion encompassing all the regions of its dominance, whose paramount task is of protecting that culture rather than just material and capitalistic gains. 

PM Modi’s rule in India is a manifestation of the same Indian hunger for civilisational atavism, albeit in a newer form. Ram Mandir, CAA and the much-celebrated removal of Article 370 are healing long suppurating wounds of civilisation which seemed improbable just a decade ago. Modi and his government’s consistent accentuating of India’s global – ‘Vishwaguru’ – heritage, unique cultural values are indicative of its retreat from older palimpsests and a major kind of cultural kitsch which was imposed or adopted in past years. 

India’s previous state of desultory in absolute cultural politics on the global stage had existed since the day British left. It still exists, in other forms, but directions have changed and waves of universalism tamed. Now India is more concerned about its culture, its diaspora, its civilisational persona than it was ever in the past. Though the government still seems to be stuck between poles of global powers and has not found, yet, a stand of its own, which it desperately needs. Enemies and friends of a civilisation state are based upon other power perception of our own culture and religion. It can be safely said that this is not seen in India’s foreign policy yet, even under Modi. But this government has succeeded in its promise of projecting India as a civilisation on the global stage. This shift in the Overton window further paves way for more civilisation sensitive foreign policy.

The sensitivity which is seen clearly across the mighty Himalayas on India’s north in the policies of the Middle-Kingdom. China’s rise itself is a perplexing, half socialist half capitalist godless state with the responsibility of thousands of years old culture and a billion-plus people. Highly connected with the West yet uniquely distinct. Making it a league of its own. Its rise is impossible to disentangle from West’s fall. Rather connected, at points. Though the hard shift in China towards civilisation started with Hu Jintao in 2005, and few scholars like Martin Jacques already saw a civilisation state in it by 2012, it was under Xi Jinping – the big dreamer, creator of the new Chinese spirit, whose dreams S. Prassanarajan described as the most audacious after Mao – that the feeling was materialised on a grand scale.

As Ravi Dutt Bajpai, International relations scholar remarked “Xi believes that ‘a civilisation carries on its back the soul of a country or nation.’” China’s firebrand in global opinion is now of a fierce and brute expansionist state. Which is felt best in what Chinese state is doing in its Xinjiang province. Under Xi, China has made arduous, and sometimes pesky, efforts to reinstate Chinese trade with the world on ancient silk routes. Xi’s unbridled expansionism, both territorial and economical, is a reflection of new hunger for civilisational dominance in Chinese politics. Unlike previously with the USSR, America’s conflict with China fits far better in the Samuel P. Huntington bracket of ‘Clash of Civilisation’.

Russia, under Putin, has been consistently drifting away from the Western centralised liberal view of the 90s. Russian politics has evolved, quite a lot, from harking to run fast in a race set by the West or from adhering to the same model of the nation-state, devoid of civilisational responsibilities, which was mainstreamed by its rivals. “The breaking news is Russia’s epic westward quest is finally over. Repeated and invariably abortive attempts to become part and parcel of the Western civilization, to get into the “good family” of European nations have ground to a final halt” as observed by Putin’s former advisor Vladislav Surkov in his 2018 essay.

In a 2013 address to the Valdai Club, Putin remarked that Russia “has always evolved as a state-civilisation, reinforced by the Russian people, Russian language, Russian culture, Russian Orthodox Church and the country’s other traditional religions. It is precisely the state-civilisation model that has shaped our state polity.” His repeated emphasis that “the self-definition of the Russian people is that of a multi-ethnic civilisation” is also reflected in Surkov’s essay. Surkov described Russia as a ‘half-breed’ civilization that “has absorbed the East and the West. European and Asian at the same time, and for this reason neither quite Asian and nor quite European.”

Turkey’s leader Erdogan’s love for the Ottoman Empire – the Islamic caliphate – is often feted in public. The recent conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque – whose ceremony was symbolically held on the 97th anniversary of The Treaty of Lausanne which replaced the Ottoman Empire with the Turkish Republic – symbolises the surpassing of Ataturk by Erdogan, of state secularism with Ottoman Islamism.

On 24 July, Hagia Sophia opened for Friday prayers. “It is breaking away from its chains of captivity,” President Erdogan declared rhapsodically. “It was the greatest dream of our youth. It was the yearning of our people and it has been accomplished.” “The age of pleading to join Europe, as an impoverished supplicant, had ended; the age of conquest had returned,” he said at another instance. Turkey has renewed and has added a new spark to the old Christian-Muslim conflict across not just the Eurasian mountains but the whole of Europe. Which is his apparent reason when he tells Turks in Europe to make not three but five children because, he says, Turkish Muslims are future of Europe.

Even France’s Macron is not unaffected with this visible turn away from older paradigms. His fight against Jihadi terrorism, open defiance of the global Muslim ummah, the battering of Muslim Brotherhood in-home, praise of civilisational states and attempts at rallying Europe under one banner of civilisation are evident shreds of evidence of his retreat from liberal universalism. Lauding the civilisational projects of Russia and Hungary, which “have a cultural, civilisational vitality that is inspiring,” Macron declared that France’s mission, its historic destiny, was to guide Europe into a civilisational renewal, forging a “collective narrative and a collective imagination. That is why I believe very deeply that this is our project and must be undertaken as a project of European civilisation.”

Writing In TheGuardian, Macron remarked that “It is European civilisation that unites, frees and protects us.” He urged, “we are at a pivotal moment for our continent, a moment when together we need to politically and culturally reinvent the shape of our civilisation in a changing world. Now is the time for a European renaissance.” 

Acceptance of changed political spectrum and failed global ambitions in elite circles is not visible yet, at least as in the bold form it happened. But the lived reality has changed. International conflicts in the modern world are now exactly how Samuel P Huntington described in his earlier writings – not only about the underlying competition of states but also about the immeasurable ideological conflicts. There are indeed many elements common to all states across continents. However, the world now can be explained better in the light of the divisions among humanity, such as tribes, nations, and broader cultural entities. Which was absent in the past liberal or western projects as they, after all, were purely imperialistic in nature. 

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Columnist and undergraduate student from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Two-time state topper in Science and Art of Lecturing.

Columnist and undergraduate student from Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Two-time state topper in Science and Art of Lecturing.

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