The Tapestry of Counterpoint
“We must love one another or die.”
— W.H. Auden
“I believe there can never be a clash of civilizations between us,” Prince Saud Al-Faisal once said, “It is a contradiction in terms.” And he’s right. There’s nothing more uncivilized to my mind than for people to clash in the various ways that bring out the worst in humanity. Civilizations do not clash. Civilizations share creativity, invention, ingenuity, and all the best attributes of the universal human spirit. Clashes are a manifestation of the basest and most corrupt shades of our species; clashes break out into wars, violence, the construction of walls and the sequestration of nations into hoards of people each living in the cell of their own hate. Civilization is built on love. Clashes are founded on fear.
On one end of the emotional spectrum stands love. At its spiritual apex, love allows us to break all boundaries and embrace one another through the cultivation of a deeply rooted appreciation for the humanity of others. On a one-to-one level, this involves getting to know other people and admiring their traits, personal quirks, accomplishments, emotional dimensions, and minds.
When this feeling is particularly intense it can lead to a well-founded, healthy, and respectful devotion between two human beings. More generally, it leads to people getting along well: after all our social circles, cities, and (in our age) global societies are built as a result of the fact that human beings are creatures that rely on interdependence to function. When this interdependence deepens into mutual respect and happy acceptance — as opposed to simply tolerance between individuals eventually leading to a consensus of shared values in a society, then that is usually the catalyst for those societies to thrive.
Populations and nations that have been governed by the imposition of fear and the administration of cruelty have had transient lifespans at best. This is because of the fact that their fundamental practices collide with our social nature as human beings. Some have become nations and some have even gone on to become despotic empires but, because of the lack of a loving way of life, they can never truly become communities, cultures and, yes, eventually civilizations.
Take, for example, the Qin Dynasty of China. Under the despotic rule of Shi Huangdi, this period may have given us the Great Wall of China and the Terracotta Army but it was a relatively short-lived rule defined precisely by the building of walls, emotional and physical. The Great Wall remains known as the “wall of tears” because of the number of people who died in its creation. Contrast this with the Han Dynasty that followed. This period was defined by love. While Shi Huangdi may best be described as war-like, Emperor Gaozu (who established the Han Dynasty) was defined by his generosity. He lived by the proverb:
“The prince is the boat; the common people are the water. The water can support the boat, or the water can capsize the boat.”
The Qin Dynasty, held together by the tyranny of one man, fell apart a few short years after his death. The Han Dynasty, formed on the foundation of love and the support of its people, endured for four long centuries. And to this very day, many Chinese refer to themselves as “the children of Han.”
The key to loving is the cultivation of trust. Between nations, as between individuals, trust and confidence must be earned and upheld. No great trade route, cultural or scientific exchange, diplomatic treatise or economic partnership has ever been solidly built without a basic foundation of trust. This is in evidence throughout our global dealings today. Iran’s geopolitical behavior since 1979, for example, is the main challenge for Western nations and their allies in the Middle East in accepting the Iranian Nuclear Deal: it’s an issue of trust. When it came to the financial crises in Greece over the summer, my friend and colleague David Ignatius, writing in The Washington Post said it best:
“Commentators deride Germans (and Greeks, too) for mixing economics and morality. Sorry, but they are mixed. Money and finance require trust that the paper notes and electronic digits on the screen represent real value. When that trust vanishes, systems implode. Preservation of trust is in part a morality play.”
It all boils down to trust as a first step. Nations, like individuals, must work hard to plant the seeds of trust and watch them grow, developing good credit (financial, moral, and otherwise) along the way through a consistent and stable pattern of good, reliable behavior. Earning and upholding trust requires hard work.
Trust also requires knowledge. It’s easy to demonize the “other” if you don’t know them, and it’s oh-so-hard to dehumanize them if you come to know (and love) their culture, poetry, philosophy, history, food, customs, and their general contribution to the greater whole of human civilization. Since you have to dehumanize people in order to wage war on them, we can consider trust and knowledge the ultimate antidotes violence and wars. That there is a lack of understanding between the Middle East and the West today is no secret and this is why I am particularly inspired by the work of organizations such as Bridges of Understanding and others in doing the much needed work of educating Arabs and Americans about one another: laying the foundation of knowledge so that we can look forward to a day where we no longer speak of a “clash of civilizations.”
Even today, we should not speak of a “clash of civilizations” but rather a clash of barbarisms or a clash between barbarisms and civilizations. That streak of barbarism fueled by hate and ignorance is an essential piece of the puzzle if there is to be a clash. Just as ignorance is the first step towards fear, hatred, clashes, and war, knowledge is the beginning of trust, love, civilization, and, most sublime of all, peace. It is this beautiful passage from the 49th chapter of the Qur’an (The Rooms) in which God states:
“O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you nations and tribes that you may know one another.”
By knowing one another and learning from one another, we can take advantage of the unique opportunity before us in this unprecedentedly cosmopolitan and interconnected world: to create a truly global community. We can build a universal piece if we come to develop that deep appreciation, that knowing love, that feeling of interconnectedness and interdependence between all the people on this tiny, fragile planet. After all, we are all travelers on this small Earth as it floats through the vastness of the universe.
I’ll end where I began with Saud Al-Faisal, a wise man of the desert who said all this with the noble plainness of an ancient bedouin poet:
“Civilizations are not competing products in the marketplace but rather the collective effort of human genius built on cumulative contributions from many cultures. We are all indebted to the ingenuity of great men like Bacon, Locke, Rousseau, and Goethe. Who can deny the effects of the great Greek philosophers on our civilization, or the role of such Islamic thinkers as Avicenna, Al-Razi, Ibn Al-Haytham and Ibn Rushd in keeping the flames of human knowledge burning during the darkest ages, let alone the shining beacons of knowledge, from India and China? So civilization cannot be monopolized by any single nation or group.”
Look at the lesson of the symphony orchestra: a beautiful example of a community that is never monopolized by a single instrument or group of instruments. Instead, it is made up of diverse strands of instruments with their different colors, origins, and dynamics — an ideal collective of human beings who come together for the exalted purpose of creative labor. The ideal counterpoint of these different voices coming together but not losing their individuality (their own purpose for being) seems like an ideal model for the cultures of the world to live in counterpoint with one another. Rather than losing their individual voices, they enhance the whole collective; they form a beautiful tapestry of counterpoint.
Let’s make it part of our daily work to strive for universal love and, eventually, universal peace. Let’s make it part of our daily work to live in the counterpoint. The prayer may be far away or even unattainable, but let’s ignite the inner-spark in our souls today. Let’s begin the grand, long journey with even just one small act of kindness today and every day. Small acts may seem small and therefore inconsequential, but if they are based in love and compassion the ripple effect can have immeasurably beautiful consequences far and wide.
Civilization is built on love because peace is that vulnerable, unprotected state that allows us to give and receive love. To let go of living in a state of being besieged by the fear of attacks, we must take off our armor, both emotional and physical. We must become unprotected and open. When we achieve this state of spiritual openness, peace will follow and civilization will flourish. So let’s begin, each in our own way and within our own capacities. It’s the least we can do as a testament to the collective effort of human genius and the boundless potential of our shared human spirit.