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Clash of cultures and speech

Global culture is the next frontier. We are witnessing the beginnings of what will be a lengthy struggle to shape global values. The violent protests and debates over free speech that recently convulsed many countries will turn out to be but one episode. And it will involve not just Muslims and Westerners.

As globalization has knitted the world into a singular space, including media, the Internet and the flow of markets, so we are shifting to a global context in the debate over cultural values. Increasingly, different parties will be seeking to determine the foundations of global norms.

Here in the United States we have presumed a national culture, or the common values that provide the foundation for the give-and-take of our civic and political life. Other countries have had their own cultural models. But the geographic scale of such cultural points of reference has shifted over history.

These shifts follow a particular trajectory. The arc of human history shows a continuous ratcheting up in the scale of community. Hunting bands were, if unevenly in geographic terms, replaced by agricultural societies. Agricultural societies coalesced into empires. From roughly the 17th century we see the emergence of centralized states and cohesive nations.

Yet all these shifts were accompanied by a good degree of violence and struggle. Why? As the scale of human community grew, so different groups struggled to shape the nature of these communities. These struggles were not only over economic advantage. They were about the culture and values of these newly developing communities and societies.

One has to just consider American history. As the United States was increasingly integrated through industrialization, so conflict over slavery grew more acrimonious. Indeed, the bloodiest war in this nation's history was the Civil War, not one with outsiders. Slavery represented a deep fissure, and invoked vastly different images of American political and cultural values.

The violent protests across parts of the Muslim world over insults to the Prophet Mohammed — a repetition of the Danish cartoon crisis — is just one example of a new stage in these struggles. That scale is now global.

The fight over speech, from free speech to regulating speech, is emblematic of this conflict. Some claim that we should limit free speech if it offends "human dignity." For example, a satirical portrait of President Jacob Zuma in South Africa generated calls for its banning as it offended the president's dignity. And, of course, we heard the same calls regarding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

For others the notion of the "abuse of free speech" — an argument one increasingly hears about some speech — is a contradiction in terms. How can one have free speech if it can't be disagreeable?

Yet today it is impossible to insulate speech across borders. The argument is inevitable. The desire to shape the rules of global discourse will follow. These kinds of fights are likely with us for decades, as global culture gets shaped.

The Chinese, Russians and Africans, not just Muslims and Westerners, will want their voices heard as well in this quarrel.

It is critical to understand this dispute is also internal to Muslim communities. Within Islam, hard-liners and the more conservative are favored in this exchange. Political Islam, from Iranian mullahs to the Muslim Brotherhood, is more organized to engage in the fight.

Less politically organized and more decentralized Muslim groups are being buffeted in this internal struggle. From Mali to Libya to Pakistan, centrist Muslims are under attack. Islamist fundamentalists have destroyed precious shrines of such Muslim groups in these countries. The fundamentalists consider these shrines idolatrous. Islamist militants have forced thousands of Tuareg, a moderate Muslim tribal confederation in western Africa, into exile. Sharia has been imposed on other Tuareg in a brutal fashion — including amputations and the stoning of supposed transgressors.

Those heart-wrenching setbacks for moderate people everywhere are barely noticed in the cacophony over videos and cartoons. But we need to take notice. This is not a clash of civilizations. It is a clash for the future of civil society, on a global scale. Protecting freedom of expression will be key.

David Jacobson is the author of "Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict," out in December. He directs the Citizenship Initiative at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

Clash of cultures and speech 10/31/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 3:47pm]
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