Our Moment in History: The “Mirage of Immortality”

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The terrible events of the last few days have brought to the fore the great challenges now facing leadership, and peoples of our “Western Civilization.”

As with any great challenge, it is also accompanied by the greatest opportunity. Quite simply, it is the potential for renewal.

As Samuel P. Huntington writes in “Clash of Civilizations,” history ends at least once — and occasionally more often — in the time-line of every society. As a civilization’s universal state emerges, its people become blinded by what Toynbee once called call “the mirage of immortality,” convinced that theirs is the final form of human development. So it was with the Roman Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mughal Empire and the Ottoman Empire.

The citizens of such universal states “in defiance of apparently plain facts… are prone to regard it, not as a night’s shelter in the wilderness, but as the Promised Land, the goal of human endeavors.” The same was true at the peak of the Pax Britannica. For the English middle class in 1897, “history for them was over… And they had every reason to congratulate themselves on the permanent state of felicity which this ending of history had conferred on them.”

Societies that assume their own history is the very goal of human ideals, however, are usually societies whose history is about to decline.

Is our “Western Civilization” an exception to this pattern? Depending on what the ultimate goals of this conflict are, we will either be able to renew ourselves or suffer the same fate as previous empires.

If our short-term goal in this conflict is to maintain the status quo by not only crushing terrorism, but continuing to achieve political and economic domination, then it is very likely that what we call “Western Civilization” could lose — or win at such cost that its rapid decline would be inevitable.

Are we entering therefore into a conflict where our definition of “victory” includes one billion Muslims and others living in poverty and oppression without any hope of democracy, economic prosperity, or freedom? Is the elimination of terrorist networks, while maintaining our political and economic status quo, a true moral high ground? We cannot have it both ways, for in such a goal there is no vision. Not only will we further harden the resolve of those who are unleashing this terror, but the hearts of those in the region who are seeking salvation from hatred will also be turned against us with every bomb that falls. We will, in short, become what the terrorists say we are, and we will at the same time have lost the greatest long-term opportunity for ourselves and the people of Islamic civilization.

The opportunity to renew Western civilization is dependent upon our ability and desire to punish and root out the sources of terrorism in the short term, while at the same time offering to the one billion Muslims of the eastern hemisphere a radically different long-term vision of hope and reform for the future. Can we overcome the current retributive passion for a Western military-style Jihad, and instead offer a vision which includes a democratic “Marshal Plan” built on sharing peace and prosperity with all of the Muslim world? Are we prepared to embrace the vision of Islamic democracies in the region with the same fervour as we have the Jewish democracy in Israel?

Is there any reason why economic prosperity should not be a vision for all, including one billion Muslims who currently do not have it? Can we aspire to something greater than our own unending requirement to consume at the expense of the majority living in poverty and desperation? This hope and vision for the future must include an unfailing dedication to world peace. It must include all of us, working toward shared standards of international behaviour; a unifed compliance to the rules of U.N. peacekeeping resolutions and to the Geneva Conventions on human rights; and adherence to other international laws designed to eradicate injustice and inequity. In offering this hopeful vision, we will give “our” Western civilization the greatest chance of renewal by capturing the moral high ground, together.

This long-term vision for the region, and the world, strikes deeper fear in the heart of bona fide terrorists than any weapons of military might. They are counting on us not to offer anything other than the maintenance of the status quo. By supplanting their vision for the region we rob them of the hate they require. Embracing a greater vision for the future defuses terrorism, and offers hope both for the people of the region and for our own renewal.

Whether or not we are able to seize this great opportunity depends, as it so often does, on the enlightened leadership of a very few people. Therefore, I pray that American President George W. Bush will posses three essential attributes: first, Humility, in his option of force as a short term requirement; second, Generosity, to extend to the people of Arab nations a different vision of the West, not as the demonic enemy, but as a full partner in the development of democracy, economic prosperity, and freedom; third, Wisdom, to see that those whose only desire is to maintain the unworkable status quo are not allowed to define victory.

Failing the strength of these three key atributes, we in the West will all suffer and end up, as Toynbee described it, people blinded by “the mirage of immortality.”

Writer Steve Kalil is a private investment manager whose career has included 20 years as a stock broker and manager for the Calgary branch of a major North American investment firm.

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