When Samuel Huntington published his famous book The Clash of Civilisations (1996), a good friend, the late Noordin Sopiee, a leading Malaysian intellectual, countered that what the world needs is a “feast of civilisations”. In last month’s blog I stressed the need to preserve diversity in this world in all respects: not just biodiversity, but also cultural diversity. I bemoaned that a lack of curiosity seems to be leading to the paradox that in this global age we know less about the globe and its many civilisational dimensions.
As this blog appears just after Christmas I might expand on the point in the context of religious and cultural feast days. I commented to my wife that probably the most “Christmassy” card I got this year was from a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party! Indeed whereas it seemed that most of my Chinese, Muslim. Buddhist and Hindu friends wished me a merry Christmas, from most Europeans and Americans I got “season’s greetings” or other innocuous words along the same lines. Though I appreciate, of course, the thought and the gesture, I deplore the aesthetics and the spirit, or perhaps more accurately the lack thereof.
The beauty of religious feasts
Christmas is a beautiful religious feast. It may have been hugely commercialised and Santa Claus may be more familiar than Jesus, so be it, but the fact remains that it is at its origin a mystical event. I am not a religious person myself, at all, and believe that religions tend to divide people more than unite them – as we see in so many sectarian conflicts – but I also recognise that religions not only have their positive sides but have greatly contributed to global civilisation. Without the inspiration that Jesus gave to architects, painters, sculptors, composers, writers, poets, etc, the world would be an infinitely poorer place. Besides the “Christmas” tradition represents a moment of family, love and peace (to all men and women of goodwill).
So what difference does it make whether one is an agnostic (as I am), a Christian a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Zoroastrian, a Jain, a Sikh, or a Jew, when it comes to celebrating Christmas and extending Christmas greetings? The same logic applies to whether one is a Muslim or not in sharing the joy (even if vicariously) of seeing the end of Ramadan and the celebration of Eid al-Fitr? And how brilliantly rich the planet becomes when there is the great and joyous Hindu festival of lights, known as Diwali? This coming year (2013) the Chinese New Year will be celebrated on 10 February, thus ushering in the Spring Festival (春節 Chūnjié), a joyously raucous feast celebrated by the 1.4 billion citizens of the People’s Republic, by the citizens of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and by the millions of overseas Chinese communities extending throughout the world.
Celebrate the feast of civilisations
There seem to be three scenarios for the world. One is Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation. Another, which I raised in my previous blog, is the ending of civilisation through a sort-of global homogenisation where there is no longer a Christmas or an Eid or a Diwali or a Chûnjié, but just bland “seasons”. The third is to pick up the challenge set by Noordin and create a real joyous and colourful and rich Feast of Civilisations.