Sitting in a packed Starbucks across from the Brandenburg Gate a few years ago, a Berlin-based friend pointed out the former Soviet embassy across the street, once the largest in the world. Sipping a frothy cappuccino in a café where the staff spoke English, I didn’t realise we were in the former East Berlin. The old heart of the repressive communist state is now crowded with pricey shops, American coffee chains and oblivious tourists. Starbucks, the shibboleth of ‘western’ civilisation, has replaced the politburo. In the days since IS attacked Paris, the word ‘civilisation’ has returned to public conversation. French President Francois Hollande called on us to defend it; more conservative leaders talk about a ‘clash’ between ours and theirs. Just what is this civilisation we’re all supposed to be fighting for?
The historian Niall Ferguson, who really should know better, wrote an article comparing the Paris attacks to barbarians sacking the Roman Empire, an unflattering comparison for all concerned. But Ferguson also wrote a book called Civilisation and anyone who reads it might fall into the trap of believing to be ‘civilised’ is to be Euro-American. Everything from the Holocaust to the US occupation of Iraq should warn us off that definition. Our civilisation, to use an unwieldy term, is broadly democratic in character, certainly affluent (at least for a large part of the population), unashamedly materialist and very used to getting its own way. Above all, our civilisation is bound up with certain core ideas that don’t fully apply in reality, though millions work hard to make them real. Democratic government, inalienable rights and high standards of living are the fundamental pillars of societies from Canada to Estonia, however varied the conditions on the ground. We are united by how we think things should be, or, as Czechoslovak president Vaclav Havel put it, living “as if” our highest values were tangible realities.
If we’re going to talk about the superiority of our civilisation, then it’s time we seriously addressed what that civilisation should be about. While we’re sending warplanes and possibly ground troops to defend our values, there is a chance western societies will ignore the need to press on with those values, abandoning the moral battle in its birth place. Individual rights, the foundation stone that extremists like IS want to destroy, should be strengthened. Discrimination against transgender people, underrepresentation of women, demonising Muslim refugees – these are just a few cracks in the edifice of our liberal civilisation. We’ve made immense progress in the last 20 years on issues of gender, race and sexuality, which separate us from countries where women are still forced into marriage, homosexuality is illegal and immigrants are treated little better than slaves. There has been a backlash against expanding legal protections and greater social acceptance, but those on the right who agree more with Saudi clerics than European courts should make us flinch.
The ‘battle for civilisation’ narrative has been used and misused before. For a long time, claiming any special place for western civilisation was taboo. If the time has come to reclaim the mantle of ‘the civilised world’, we have a long way to go before we earn the name. But the one thing that makes a civilisation great is when it strives to improve itself. There won’t be a Starbucks in Sinjar anytime soon. We can do better.