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The “Clash of Civilizations” Paradigm and the Portrayal of the “Other”

March 23, 2017 by  

Kaveh Farrokh & Javier Sánchez Gracia

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the 2015 US election campaigns is the popularization of certain concepts for portraying the “Other” such as “Muslims”, “Hispanics”, etc. It is important to note that terms such as “Muslims” and “Hispanics” are invented constructs to simplistically portray groups of (non-West European) peoples as the “Other”. This phenomenon now surfacing in the US election campaign is a dynamic that has run far deeper and over a longer period of time than most citizens may realize. To simplify, the dynamic of the so-called “East versus Paradigm” has been essentially recycled (or repackaged) as the “Clash of Civilizations”. It was the late Professor Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) whose New York Times Bestseller “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” proposed two main premises: (1) that all wars are the result of a “Clash of Civilizations” and that (2) there has been a hostile long-term “East (mainly “Islamic” & “Middle East”) vs. West” dynamic. Bernard Lewis, who first coined the “Clash of Civilizations” myth in his article “The Roots of Muslim Rage” (penned for the September 1990 issue of the Atlantic Monthly) defined the dynamic as thus: the “Islamic World” (itself a simplistic concept) has been at war with the “West” for centuries. Huntington simply takes Lewis’ argument by extending the so-called “war against the West” to antiquity; as if the “East” and “West” have always been isolated from one another (with no civilizational links) with their relations having only been warfare since the dawn of history.
Huntington and Lewis have reinvigorated the Eurocentric views of “Race” and how this “explains” the so-called “East vs. West” conflict with a nebulous but unitary “Eastern Other” as the primary villain. Essentially based on a British-West European Orientalist historical manipulation (if not deceit) of historical events, much of the argument made by Lewis and Huntington can be dismantled, a vast topic deserving of a full series of articles and even textbooks. Suffice it to say that the “Clash of Civilizations” paradigm has done much to revive Eurocentricism in entertainment, media political venues and academia. The Hollywood and entertainment industry has certainly played a significant role in the perpetuation of racial, cultural, etc. stereotypes, a vast topic that has elicited a cornucopia of research literature, textbooks and popular articles. Notable is the Guardian newspaper’s Rick Moody who noted in his November 24, 2011 article “… popular entertainment from Hollywood is – to greater or lesser extent – propaganda. And Miller has his part in that, thanks to films such as 300…”. The two “۳۰۰” movies and the Alexander epic are of interest in that all three have deliberately portrayed ancient Iranians and Greeks in caricatured views consistent with the “Other” notions of Eurocentricism.
Certainly, the “۳۰۰” movies have reproduced the old stereotypes and we can point to the time and the author(s) that built this catalogue of prejudices that, even today, we see pervading in comics, cinema, the media and even academia. The time is the Persian War, when Persia invaded Greece and was defeated by the always-proud ancient Greeks. The authors are, in tandem, two, belonging to different genres: a poet and a historian. Aeschylus, in his Persae (written in 472 BCE), speaks since the heart (because, according to the tradition, he fought in Marathon) and, in this tragedy, he places on the scene the three loci communes that, forever, are associated with the ancient Persians: cowardice (because they fought from afar with archers); effeminacy (for their clothes, more volatile and light than those used by the Greeks); and even sexual debauchery. Aeschylus wrote with passion and his tragedy is, in reality, what people wanted to see, and not the reality of historical events; but the crowd of the audience wanted to witness their bias and prejudices on the stage. Persia invaded Greece and was defeated, so, the Greeks, soon, became proud of themselves and began to consider themselves superior to the Persians. One arena where Greece and ancient Persia were markedly different was in the status of women. In Achaemenid Persia women worked for equal pay with men, acted as project managers and were also seen in military command, such as Artemesia who was one of Darius the Great’s naval commanders during the second Achaemenid invasion of Greece in 480 BCE.
Herodotus is the other face of the same coin. He participates in this popular feeling, but writes as a historian, that is, from a “scientific” point of view; disguised as neutral, and speaking as an erudite, he transmits the same negative image, which is not the product of its prejudices, but the “reality”, because he has investigated the history, traditions and customs of the Persians. However, the reality is different, and Herodotus is as fallible and biased as any human being. He speaks as a proud and victorious Greek and has in mind one idea: Greeks are superior to the Persians. It is this reason that propels him to search for the way to demonstrate his own (and contemporary Greek society’s) bias. So, we can see that this “Clash of Civilizations” is nothing new and is a continuum of a negative image created in the 5th century BCE.
Specifically, the “racial” aspects have been now resurrected in order to provide a clear delineation in the “East versus West” paradigm of the “Clash of Civilizations”. Central to that difference is the premise of a distinct skin tone or color prejudice in defining the “Other”. But the reality is that the vast plethora of Greco-Roman sources make no mention of a “color” bias; in fact the portrayals in Greek and late Roman arts do not portray the ancient Achaemenids, Parthians and Sassanians with different “Other” physiognomy.
Eurocentricism however provides a selective interpretation by superimposing a northwest European “racial” and/or “color” interpretation on the past conflicts between ancient Iran and Greco-Roman realms. This helps explain why virtually no Greek actors were used to portray the Greek characters in the Alexander and 300 movies with black and other non-Iranian actors hired by Hollywood to portray the ancient Iranians. Ethnic misrepresentations are not confined to Iranians of course. Jack Shaheen for example has noted in his books “The TV Arab” and “Reel Bad Arabs” of Hollywood caricatures of Arabs and in its selective hiring of actors to portray propagandistic images of (again) the “hostile other”. Interestingly, even ethnic groups within the Western civilizational orbit are also stereotyped, or more accurately, misrepresented, notably the Hispanics of the United States. Hollywood has often portrayed negative images of Hispanics, who as Spanish speakers, are often incorrectly assumed to be (or classified as) equivalent to the Iberian Spaniards of Europe.
The common denominator is again “race” or more specifically the complexion of the person, as if this were somehow a significant indicator of personality, character and intellect. Unfortunately however, the Eurocentrist pundits of the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis do believe in the existence of such correlations. It is difficult to comprehend how profoundly Eurocentrists believe in the link between skin tone, personality and intellectual characteristics.
If we turn our eyes, again, to the ancient world we can observe that this racial stereotype doesn’t exist (or, almost, it does not exist with the connotations of today). What we see in the Classical literature are the cultural stereotypes of the Greek authors; there are no indications of a “racial other”. To be clear, the biased Greek images were derived from cultural and religious differences, and not from “racial” perspective. When classical authors speak about, for example, Germans, there are consistent topics that are oft repeated: they are tall, with long (and blond) hair, glazed eyes; besides, they are also described as drunk, savage, living amidst the din of banquets and battles. This stereotype of the northern European reaches its climax – almost comical – in the description of a Celtic Gaul barman by Ammianus, who is described as a quarrelsome giant (as the Gauls of the popular Asterix and Obelix comics are today) rather than a local and Romanized inhabitant). But, on the other hand, these typically “racial” descriptions don’t exist with respect to the Persians (certainly, we can read some prototypical descriptions – for example, all Persians are thin, bearded and mild – but this view does not a pejorative purpose).
The main aspects producing the negative image of ancient Persia in Greece and Rome were of a cultural nature. Monotheism, the importance of the magi and the semi-divine character of the king are some of the aspects that underlie this negative image, and, as we can see, these are cultural, and not racial characteristics. Thus, the clash between Greece and Persia was not a racial war (indeed, in Classical Greece there was some kind of “ethnocentrism”, but not racism), it was a cultural battle.
However that racial image is the product of our current mentality and it is transferred to the Ancient World to justify it. So, for example the late John Philippe Rushton of the University of Western Ontario, produced volumes of studies claiming to have proven that persons of “whiter” complexion (and Chinese descent) are more intelligent than persons with darker complexion. Despite the fact that the scientific validity of Rushdon’s studies have been seriously questioned by top international experts in the field of intelligence studies, Eurocentrist and racialist activists continue to cite his works. What is significant is how works such as those of Rushdon are used by Eurocentrists to promote the “Clash of Civilizations” myth. Put simply this thinking system proposes that people of so-called “non-White” persuasion are “so different” (or inferior?) in terms of intellect and temperament that “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall Meet”. With this simplistic and dangerous fallacy the proponents of the “Clash” myth dismiss of role of economic and political factors in the promotion of conflicts in history.
As an example, the Greco-Persian wars (490-479 BCE) are explained by Eurocentrists as having been an ideological contest between the “Democratic” West versus the “Despotic and Barbarian” imperial East. But history is far from being that simple: the Greco-Persian and later Roman-Persian wars had as much to do with political rivalry as they did with economics: control of lucrative trade routes and commerce. As the Achaemenid Empire expanded into Western Anatolia and the Mediterranean Sea, the mainland Greeks now witnessed new rivals in their maritime commerce. The Greeks had already established settlements in much of the Mediterranean as far as southern France and the Black Sea. The shipping of the Persian Empire was in essence a threat to Greek economic dominance. In practice, ancient Greece had always had concerns with the rise a powerful economic and political entity along Western Anatolia long before the Achaemenids, notably the kingdom of the ancient Hittites. Eurocentrists of course ignore this aspect of history in order to portray the wars as early “evidence” of the “Clash of civilizations”.
There are also several positive references to ancient Iran in the Classical sources, such the role of Cyrus the Great in his governance and especially religious and cultural freedoms. Eurocentrists, notably in academia (with numbers of these now prominent in Iranian Studies venues), dismiss the ancient sources providing this information. This was amply expressed in the articles of Spiegel Magazine and the Daily Telegraph in June 2008: both papers citing several professors in Iranian Studies venues, called Cyrus the Great a despotic and brutal ruler.
These papers also made a point at dismissing all ancient sources citing Cyrus in a favourable light as “ancient propaganda”. Eurocentricism is thus able to trace the evolution of human rights exclusively to ancient Greece by claiming that the “East” (ergo: Persia) had no contributory role. Similar claims have been made with respect to intellectual and technological achievements, when in effect ancient Greece (and the later Roman Empire) were influenced by several innovations in Persia such as the postal system and Royal road, aqueduct systems, the water wheel, etc. Put simply: the “West” and “East” have mutually influenced each other in highly constructive ways over the millennia in the fields of arts, architecture, technology, communications, theology and mythology, and culture.
This information exposes the fraudulent nature of the Eurocentrist “Clash” myth, especially with its heavy emphasis on animosity and conflict since the dawn of history. It is an unfortunate fact that this view has dominated, not just in academia but also, as alluded to before, the movie and entertainment industries as well as the news media. Meanwhile a whole new series of simplistic terms (such as “Middle East”, “Muslim World”, etc.) have been appearing since the early twentieth century. Terms such as these, which are highly promoted in academia, serve to oversimplify vastly diverse regions, peoples, cultures and histories as if these were somehow monolithic since ancient times.
Yet the proponents of the “Clash” myth are quick to (correctly) point out the richness and diversity of the Western hemisphere, and are careful not to use simplistic terms such as “Christians” to lump together vastly different peoples (and regions) such as Filipinos, Europeans, Africans, Arabs, etc. who happen to practice Christianity’s highly diverse denominations.
Yet, thanks to Eurocentric dominance in much of academia, media and popular culture, a vast plurality of North Americans for example, now incorrectly believe that Iranians (and all “Muslims”) are Arabs who share the same language, history and culture. This exemplifies the success of the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative in oversimplifying the “Others” of the “East”. Educational discourse remains the most effective medium for elucidating a reality of history that has too often been ignored: civilizations of the east and west have often exchanged ideas, technologies, arts and learning. It is this process that has propelled civilization (both east and west) forwards to the present day.

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