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Clash of Civilizations

History is the story of civilizations rising and falling, crashing and colliding, new ones emerging, old ones growing bigger and stronger, and some dying. The aggression of civilizations has been motivated by greed for resources and the power to subjugate, as well as by religious fervor. In ancient and medieval times, only neighboring countries could interact or go to war. With the advent of ocean-traversing sailing vessels came the dawn of imperialism and empire building, as white Europeans subjugated the native peoples of the world in search of riches, resources, and an ever-enlarging empire. The aboriginal races were treated as property without the right to freedom to live their lives by the ways of their choosing.

In Things Fall Apart, Achebe chronicles the clash that led to the disintegration of the Ibo culture during the British colonization of Nigeria in the late 1800’s. This story, repeated many times over in history throughout the aboriginal worlds, belies the arrogance and racism of white Europeans that allowed them the audacity to drive entire cultures to the brink of extinction. In a larger sense, these interactions between a dominant Western culture and a vulnerable native culture, were harbingers of the emerging world in which clashes between major civilizations would define global politics.

Aboriginal cultures were viewed as primitive or barbaric by white Europeans, and the people of these cultures were considered savages. The Europeans assumed that the people who inhabited the lands such as Africa and the Americas lacked intellect, culture, and civilization. On the contrary, the native peoples not only had equal intelligence and a greater connection to nature, but they also had well-developed highly complex societies. Achebe shows how the Ibo culture was a highly ordered civilization, rich in tradition. He describes many aspects of the Ibo culture that reveal the intricacy and depth of their civilization. They had their own language, with legends and traditions of oral storytelling to preserve the culture from one generation to the next. They had symbols of honor, titles, ceremonies, and rituals. They had a system for measuring time, using a four day unit. Their monetary system was based on natural resources such as yams and cowries. They had a religion that centered around worship of gods, sacrifices, and magic. The culture allowed all men to achieve success through hard work and bravery. There was a division of labor for survival of the village which strictly delineated men’s and women’s work In their system of government and justice, decisions made by Oracle, elders, and the general citizenry were highly respected. This culture evolved over centuries and had defined the identity of these people. Yet, the British, in their racist arrogance, looked down upon the traditions of these people. They could not recognize its beauty or its richness. They denied the Umuofians the right to exist as a sovereign people and usurped their freedom. One of Achebe’s reasons for writing this story was to showcase the effects of losing one’s culture. The results are destructive and tragic, both for the individual and for the world as a whole.)

The history of the colonization of Nigeria by the British in the 1800’s is described by the British district commissioner as “the pacification of primitive tribes of the lower Niger”. Ironically, this pacification often involved violence on the part of the British. The British had run a slave trade in Nigeria, viewing the natives as property and denying them basic human rights. When colonization began, missionaries were sent first to convert the Africans and “save their souls”. The British wanted to impose their religion and their culture on the Africans, believing they would be better humans if they were more like them. However, the British had ulterior motives as well, desiring land, power and valuable Nigerian resources such as palm oil, rubber, and cotton. The British achieved dominance by killing all Ibo opposition groups and imposing their own culture upon the natives.

The clash between the British and Umuofian cultures resulted in a systematic breakdown of the Umuofian society when confronted by the dominance of the British. After creating general fear and chaos within the society, the British colonizers then split families, divided tribal communities, destroyed the societal leadership, and undermined their religion. The coming of the British filled the Umuofians with fear and confusion. The Umuofians did not understand British language, customs, or intentions. They had heard that the white men were coming in great numbers, “like locusts”. This created chaos among the Umuofians, who did not know what to expect or how to defend themselves. When one British man came to Abame, the Africans killed him out of fear that if they allowed one, many would follow. In response, the British sent many soldiers to massacre the entire village. Historically, the Collective Punishment Ordinance, passed by the British in 1912, stated that if any of the Nigerians acted against a white colonialist, the entire village would be punished. This act sanctioned such atrocities as that which the British committed against the village of Abame. Next, after creating general fear among the people, the missionaries set about undermining their religion. When Christian missionaries arrived in Umuofia, one of the first converts was Nwoye, Okonkwo’s son. In response to this rejection of tribal tradition, Okwonkwo disowned him. Many families were split when members abandoned tribal religion to become Christian. When other Ibos converted to Christianity, they killed a sacred python. This act, which defiled their tribal beliefs, forced the tribe to ostracize the converts, further dividing the community. The Reverend James Smith antagonized the Umuofians further and set off a chain of events which ended in the destruction of the Umuofian societal structure and leadership. When one of his new converts, Enoch, ate a sacred python and unmasked an Egwugwu spirit in public, the Umuofians were enraged. The British retaliated by arresting their leaders, effectively accomplishing the systematic destruction of family, community, religion, and societal power structure. The Umuofian civilization was in chaos, and each individual member was left to decide for himself how he could best survive the onslaught of the British. Okonkwo chose to fight, but then ultimately, to die at his own hand. The subjugation, insult to his manliness, and loss of his very cultural identity, were too much for him to bear.

The introduction of Christianity was the first interface in the collision of the British and Umuofian cultures. Ultimately it divided families and disrupted their social customs. Christian missionaries convinced the Umuofians that their traditional beliefs were powerless. The loss of faith in their religion weakened the culture, as it was a cornerstone of their societal traditions and values. For example, Christians disrupted the social structure when they accepted women who had been scorned by the society. They even changed the Ibo’s measure of time, teaching them a seven day week to align with the Christian religion, again changing a basic structure of their society. The British did not want to learn about or keep intact any of the Ibo culture, because their arrogance blinded them from seeing the value in any but their own beliefs.

A tragedy similar to that which befell the Umuofians occurred in Australia in the 1900’s. The movie “Rabbit-Proof Fence” illustrates the effects of racist government policies toward the Australian aborigines. Set in 1931, the story of this film is based on the policy that required aboriginal children of mixed race to be taken by force from their mothers and placed in a boarding school to be trained to perform menial labor. This form of slavery existed in Australia, a western democracy, until 1970, more than a century after the U.S. had abolished slavery. The reasons for this policy stem from the clash of cultures brought about by Western imperialism. These mixed-race children, with aboriginal mothers and white fathers, had to be “rescued” from the black (native) society. Some whites feared that the infusion of white blood into these children would make them more intellectually superior, thereby giving aborigines the ability to cause trouble for the government. Inherent in the policy was the idea that the lighter-skinned children should marry each other so that the blackness could be bred out of them. Perhaps this racist attitude toward what the Australians considered an inferior people allowed them to justify taking their land and destroying their culture. Australia, essentially an outgrowth of the British empire, represents Western civilization. The story depicted in this movie exemplifies its use of military power and institutional resources to maintain Western political, cultural and economic values.

The historical evolution of conflict among humankind is outlined by Samuel Huntington in his article, “The Clash of Civilizations”. In the past, conflicts between nations and ideologies primarily occurred within Western civilization. Non-Western civilizations, such as the Umuofians in Things Fall Apart, were involved mainly as victims of Western colonialism. Huntington proposes that the fundamental source of conflict in the modern world since the end of the Cold War will be cultural. This cultural conflict between civilizations will supersede historical conflicts between nations and political ideologies. As we enter this era of conflict between major civilizations, the peoples and governments of non-Western civilizations will increasingly assume the role of shapers of history, rather than being its pawn. These non-western cultures will gain power as they unite under the commonalities of civilization. Civilizations, based on the commonalities of identity, such as language, history, religion, customs, and institutions, are the “broadest level of cultural identity” that people have. (Huntington 2) The most important of these characteristics that define a civilization is religion. Religion “provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations.” (Huntington 4)

The modern day war between America and Iraq epitomizes the clash between civilizations with religion at its center that Huntington predicted in his article. It represents a violent surfacing of the smoldering conflict between the Western world and Islam. The clash between these two civilizations is described in his article as “a historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.” (Huntington 9) While Americans may view the conflict as a war against the nation of Iraq, the Islam peoples of many countries see it as an attack by the West against all Muslims. Thus the war has taken on global proportions. This conflict underscores the lack of understanding between the two cultures. The Iraqi society is based on a religion diametrically opposed to almost all aspects of Western culture. The American belief in a secular government is alien to the Iraqis, whose leaders are the clerics of the Muslim religion. The American war against Iraq and the attempt to change their government to fit our beliefs can be seen as an example of the arrogance displayed by the British toward the Umuofians. After all, democracy and liberalism are not universal values, although America promotes them as such. Iraq’s cultural identity has developed over centuries, so it is no surprise that they are resisting the rapid change that is being forced upon them by the West. War is not the answer. Peaceful solutions require that, in our collision of cultures, both countries show mutual respect for their heritage and differences.

The world is still in flux and cultures are still colliding. Jets have replaced sailing vessels as international travel and global economics are shrinking the world and threatening the existence of distinct cultures. White Europeans are no longer the only dominant culture, as Islam and the growing Chinese population are showing their presence in the world. In the past, dominant cultures have overtaken, rather than embraced, the differences in smaller civilizations with rich cultures. There are lessons to be learned to prevent the tragedy of Umuofians and others from happening again. The stakes are even higher as we enter an era of conflict between major civilizations and global terrorism. The lessons to be learned include respecting other cultures and striving to preserve them, developing an understanding of the religious and philosophical beliefs on which other civilizations are based, honoring individual human freedom, and respecting the sovereignty of nations. Just as Okonkwo’s over-concern about manliness and pride led to his downfall, the same qualities of a nation may lead to its demise. Arrogance and racism blind man to the value of humanity and individual cultures. Ultimately the loss of each indigenous culture lessens us all as the world loses diversity. Rather than striving to achieve a universal civilization, modern civilizations based on cultural identity must work toward peaceful coexistence.