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There is just one civilisation in the world

While Mark Zuckerberg dreams of uniting humankind online, recent events in the offline world seem to breathe fresh life into the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. Many pundits, politicians and ordinary citizens believe that the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State, the Brexit mayhem and the instability of the European Union all result from a clash between ‘Western Civilisation’ and ‘Islamic Civilisation’. Western attempts to impose democracy and human rights on Muslim nations resulted in a violent Islamic backlash, and a wave of Muslim immigration coupled with Islamic terrorist attacks caused European voters to abandon multicultural dreams in favour of xenophobic local identities.

According to this thesis, humankind has always been divided into diverse civilisations whose members view the world in irreconcilable ways. These incompatible world views make conflicts between civilisations inevitable. Just as in nature different species fight for survival according to the remorseless laws of natural selection, so throughout history civilisations have repeatedly clashed and only the fittest have survived to tell the tale. Those who overlook this grim fact – be they liberal politicians or head-in-the-clouds engineers – do so at their peril.1 The ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis has far-reaching political implications. Its supporters contend that any attempt to reconcile ‘the West’ with ‘the Muslim world’ is doomed to failure. Muslim countries will never adopt Western values, and Western countries could never successfully absorb Muslim minorities. Accordingly, the USA should not admit immigrants from Syria or Iraq, and the European Union should renounce its multicultural fallacy in favour of an unabashed Western identity. In the long run, only one civilisation can survive the unforgiving tests of natural selection, and if the bureaucrats in Brussels refuse to save the West from the Islamic peril, then Britain, Denmark or France had better go it alone.

Though widely held, this thesis is misleading. Islamic fundamentalism may indeed pose a radical challenge, but the ‘civilisation’ it challenges is a global civilisation rather than a uniquely Western phenomenon. Not for nothing has the Islamic State managed to unite against it Iran and the United States. And even Islamic fundamentalists, for all their medieval fantasies, are grounded in contemporary global culture far more than in seventh-century Arabia. They are catering to the fears and hopes of alienated modern youth rather than to those of medieval peasants and merchants. As Pankaj Mishra and Christopher de Bellaigue have convincingly argued, radical Islamists have been influenced by Marx and Foucault as much as by Muhammad, and they inherit the legacy of nineteenth-century European anarchists as much as of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphs.2 It is therefore more accurate to see even the Islamic State as an errant offshoot of the global culture we all share, rather than as a branch of some mysterious alien tree.

More importantly, the analogy between history and biology that underpins the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis is false. Human groups – all the way from small tribes to huge civilisations – are fundamentally different from animal species, and historical conflicts greatly differ from natural selection processes. Animal species have objective identities that endure for thousands upon thousands of generations. Whether you are a chimpanzee or a gorilla depends on your genes rather than your beliefs, and different genes dictate distinct social behaviours. Chimpanzees live in mixed groups of males and females. They compete for power by building coalitions of supporters from among both sexes. Amid gorillas, in contrast, a single dominant male establishes a harem of females, and usually expels any adult male that might challenge his position. Chimpanzees cannot adopt gorilla-like social arrangements; gorillas cannot start organising themselves like chimpanzees; and as far as we know exactly the same social systems have characterised chimpanzees and gorillas not only in recent decades, but for hundreds of thousands of years.

You find nothing like that among humans. Yes, human groups may have distinct social systems, but these are not genetically determined, and they seldom endure for more than a few centuries. Think of twentieth-century Germans, for example. In less than a hundred years the Germans organised themselves into six very different systems: the Hohenzollern Empire, the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, the German Democratic Republic (aka communist East Germany), the Federal Republic of Germany (aka West Germany), and finally democratic reunited Germany. Of course the Germans kept their language and their love of beer and bratwurst. But is there some unique German essence that distinguishes them from all other nations, and that has remained unchanged from Wilhelm II to Angela Merkel? And if you do come up with something, was it also there 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago?

The (unratified) Preamble of the European Constitution begins by stating that it draws inspiration ‘from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe, from which have developed the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person, democracy, equality, freedom and the rule of law’.3 This may easily give one the impression that European civilisation is defined by the values of human rights, democracy, equality and freedom. Countless speeches and documents draw a direct line from ancient Athenian democracy to the present-day EU, celebrating 2,500 years of European freedom and democracy. This is reminiscent of the proverbial blind man who takes hold of an elephant’s tail and concludes that an elephant is a kind of brush. Yes, democratic ideas have been part of European culture for centuries, but they were never the whole. For all its glory and impact, Athenian democracy was a half-hearted experiment that survived for barely 200 years in a small corner of the Balkans. If European civilisation for the past twenty-five centuries has been defined by democracy and human rights, what are we to make of Sparta and Julius Caesar, of the Crusaders and the conquistadores, of the Inquisition and the slave trade, of Louis XIV and Napoleon, of Hitler and Stalin? Were they all intruders from some foreign civilisation?

In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries. Human groups are defined more by the changes they undergo than by any continuity, but they nevertheless manage to create for themselves ancient identities thanks to their storytelling skills. No matter what revolutions they experience, they can usually weave old and new into a single yarn.

Even an individual may knit revolutionary personal changes into a coherent and powerful life story: ‘I am that person who was once a socialist, but then became a capitalist; I was born in France, and now live in the USA; I was married, and then got divorced; I had cancer, and then got well again.’ Similarly a human group such as the Germans may come to define itself by the very changes it underwent: ‘Once we were Nazis, but we have learnt our lesson, and now we are peaceful democrats.’ You don’t need to look for some unique German essence that manifested itself first in Wilhelm II, then in Hitler, and finally in Merkel. These radical transformations are precisely what define German identity. To be German in 2018 means to grapple with the difficult legacy of Nazism while upholding liberal and democratic values. Who knows what it will mean in 2050.

People often refuse to see these changes, especially when it comes to core political and religious values. We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves. Consider, for example, Jewish attitudes towards women. Nowadays ultra-Orthodox Jews ban images of women from the public sphere. Billboards and advertisements aimed at ultra-Orthodox Jews usually depict only men and boys – never women and girls.4 In 2011, a scandal erupted when the ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn paper Di Tzeitung published a photo of American officials watching the raid on Osama bin-Laden’s compound but digitally erased all women from the photo, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The paper explained it was forced to do so by Jewish ‘laws of modesty’. A similar scandal erupted when HaMevaser paper expunged Angela Merkel from a photo of a demonstration against the Charlie Hebdo massacre, lest her image arouse any lustful thoughts in the minds of devout readers. The publisher of a third ultra-Orthodox newspaper, Hamodia, defended this policy by explaining that ‘We are backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition.’5 Nowhere is the ban on seeing women stricter than in the synagogue. In Orthodox synagogues women are carefully segregated from the men, and must confine themselves to a restricted zone where they are hidden behind a curtain, so that no men will accidentally see the shape of a woman as he says his prayers or reads scriptures. Yet if all this is backed by thousands of years of Jewish tradition and immutable divine laws, how to explain the fact that when archaeologists excavated ancient synagogues in Israel from the time of the Mishnah and Talmud, they found no sign of gender segregation, and instead uncovered beautiful floor mosaics and wall paintings depicting women, some of them rather scantily dressed? The rabbis who wrote the Mishnah and Talmud regularly prayed and studied in these synagogues, but present-day Orthodox Jews would consider them blasphemous desecrations of ancient traditions.6 Similar distortions of ancient traditions characterise all religions. The Islamic State has boasted that it has reverted to the pure and original version of Islam, but in truth, their take on Islam is brand new. Yes, they quote many venerable texts, but they exercise a lot of discretion in choosing which texts to quote and which to ignore, and in how to interpret them. Indeed, their do-it-yourself attitude to interpreting the holy texts is itself very modern. Traditionally, interpretation was the monopoly of the learned ulama – scholars who studied Muslim law and theology in reputable institutions such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar. Few of the Islamic State’s leaders have had such credentials, and most respected ulama have dismissed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his ilk as ignorant criminals.7 That does not mean that the Islamic State has been ‘un-Islamic’ or ‘anti-Islamic’, as some people argue. It is particularly ironic when Christian leaders such as Barack Obama have the temerity to tell self-professing Muslims such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi what it means to be Muslim.8 The heated argument about the true essence of Islam is simply pointless. Islam has no fixed DNA. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.9 Germans and gorillas

There is an even deeper difference distinguishing human groups from animal species. Species often split, but they never merge. About 7 million years ago chimpanzees and gorillas had common ancestors. This single ancestral species split into two populations that eventually went their separate evolutionary ways. Once this happened, there was no going back. Since individuals belonging to different species cannot produce fertile offspring together, species can never merge. Gorillas cannot merge with chimpanzees, giraffes cannot merge with elephants, and dogs cannot merge with cats.

Human tribes, in contrast, tend to coalesce over time into larger and larger groups. Modern Germans were created from the merger of Saxons, Prussians, Swabians and Bavarians, who not so long ago wasted little love on one another. Otto von Bismarck allegedly remarked (having read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human.10 The French were created from the merger of Franks, Normans, Bretons, Gascons and Provençals. Meanwhile across the Channel, English, Scots, Welsh and Irish were gradually welded together (willingly or not) to form Britons. In the not too distant future, Germans, French and Britons might yet merge into Europeans.

Mergers don’t always last, as people in London, Edinburgh and Brussels are keenly aware these days. Brexit may well initiate the simultaneous unravelling of both the UK and the EU. But in the long run, history’s direction is clear-cut. Ten thousand years ago humankind was divided into countless isolated tribes. With each passing millennium, these fused into larger and larger groups, creating fewer and fewer distinct civilisations. In recent generations the few remaining civilisations have been blending into a single global civilisation. Political, ethnic, cultural and economic divisions endure, but they do not undermine the fundamental unity. Indeed, some divisions are made possible only by an overarching common structure. In the economy, for example, division of labour cannot succeed unless everyone shares a single market. One country cannot specialise in producing cars or oil unless it can buy food from other countries that grow wheat and rice.

The process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: establishing links between distinct groups, and homogenising practices across groups. Links may be formed even between groups that continue to behave very differently. Indeed, links may form even between sworn enemies. War itself can generate some of the strongest of all human bonds. Historians often argue that globalisation reached a first peak in 1913, then went into a long decline during the era of the world wars and the Cold War, and recuperated only after 1989.11 This may be true of economic globalisation, but it ignores the different but equally important dynamic of military globalisation. War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce. In 1918 the United States was more closely linked to Europe than in 1913, the two then drifted apart in the interwar years, only to have their fates meshed together inextricably by the Second World War and the Cold War.

War also makes people far more interested in one another. Never had the US been more closely in touch with Russia than during the Cold War, when every cough in a Moscow corridor sent people scrambling up and down Washington staircases. People care far more about their enemies than about their trade partners. For every American film about Taiwan, there are probably fifty about Vietnam.

The Medieval Olympics

The world of the early twenty-first century has gone way beyond forming links between different groups. People across the globe are not only in touch with one another, they increasingly share identical beliefs and practices. A thousand years ago, planet Earth provided fertile ground to dozens of different political models. In Europe you could find feudal principalities vying with independent city states and minuscule theocracies. The Muslim world had its caliphate, claiming universal sovereignty, but also experimented with kingdoms, sultanates and emirates. The Chinese empires believed themselves to be the sole legitimate political entity, while to the north and west tribal confederacies fought each other with glee. India and South East Asia contained a kaleidoscope of regimes, whereas polities in America, Africa and Australasia ranged from tiny hunter-gatherer bands to sprawling empires. No wonder that even neighbouring human groups had trouble agreeing on common diplomatic procedures, not to mention international laws. Each society had its own political paradigm, and found it difficult to understand and respect alien political concepts.

Today, in contrast, a single political paradigm is accepted everywhere. The planet is divided between about 200 sovereign states, which generally agree on the same diplomatic protocols and on common international laws. Sweden, Nigeria, Thailand and Brazil are all marked on our atlases as the same kind of colourful shapes; they are all members of the UN; and despite myriad differences they are all recognised as sovereign states enjoying similar rights and privileges. Indeed, they share many more political ideas and practices, including at least a token belief in representative bodies, political parties, universal suffrage and human rights. There are parliaments in Tehran, Moscow, Cape Town and New Delhi as well as in London and Paris. When Israelis and Palestinians, Russians and Ukrainians, Kurds and Turks compete for the favours of global public opinion, they all use the same discourse of human rights, state sovereignty and international law.

The world may be peppered with various types of ‘failed states’, but it knows only one paradigm for a successful state. Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package. The Islamic State has recently stood out in its complete rejection of this package, and in its attempt to establish an entirely different kind of political entity – a universal caliphate. But precisely for this reason it has failed. Numerous guerrilla forces and terror organisations have managed to establish new countries or to conquer existing ones. But they have always done so by accepting the fundamental principles of the global political order. Even the Taliban sought international recognition as the legitimate government of the sovereign country of Afghanistan. No group rejecting the principles of global politics has so far gained any lasting control of any significant territory.

The strength of the global political paradigm can perhaps best be appreciated by considering not hardcore political questions of war and diplomacy, but rather something like the 2016 Rio Olympics. Take a moment to reflect on the way the Games were organised. The 11,000 athletes were grouped into delegations by nationality rather than by religion, class or language. There was no Buddhist delegation, proletarian delegation, or English-speaking delegation. Except in a handful of cases – most notably Taiwan and Palestine – determining the athletes’ nationality was a straightforward affair.

At the opening ceremony on 5 August 2016 the athletes marched in groups, each group waving its national flag. Whenever Michael Phelps won another gold medal, the Stars and Stripes was raised to the sound of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’. When Emilie Andéol won the gold medal in judo, the French tricolour was hoisted and the ‘Marseillaise’ was played.

Conveniently enough, each country in the world has an anthem that conforms to the same universal model. Almost all anthems are orchestral pieces of a few minutes in length, rather than a twenty-minute chant that may only be performed by a special caste of hereditary priests. Even countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Congo have adopted Western musical conventions for their anthems. Most of them sound like something composed by Beethoven on a rather mediocre day. (You can spend an evening with friends playing the various anthems on YouTube and trying to guess which is which.) Even the lyrics are almost the same throughout the world, indicating common conceptions of politics and group loyalty. For example, to which nation do you think the following anthem belongs? (I changed only the country’s name into the generic ‘My country’): My country, my homeland,

The land where I have shed my blood,

It is there I stand,

To be my motherland’s guard.

My country, my nation,

My people and my homeland,

Let us proclaim

‘My country unite!’

Long live my land, long live my state,

My nation, my homeland, in its entirety.

Build its soul, awaken its body,

For my great country!

My great country, independent and free

My home and my country which I love.

My great country, independent and free,

Long live my great country!

The answer is Indonesia. But would you have been surprised if I told you that the answer was actually Poland, Nigeria or Brazil?

National flags display the same dreary conformity. With a single exception, all flags are rectangular pieces of cloth marked by an extremely limited repertoire of colours, stripes and geometrical shapes. Nepal is the odd country out, with a flag consisting of two triangles. (But it has never won an Olympic medal.) The Indonesian flag consists of a red stripe above a white stripe. The Polish flag displays a white stripe above a red stripe. The flag of Monaco is identical to that of Indonesia. A colour-blind person could hardly tell the difference between the flags of Belgium, Chad, Ivory Coast, France, Guinea, Ireland, Italy, Mali and Romania – they all have three vertical stripes of various colours.

Some of these countries have been engaged in bitter war with one another, but during the tumultuous twentieth century only three Games were cancelled due to war (in 1916, 1940 and 1944). In 1980 the USA and some of its allies boycotted the Moscow Olympics, in 1984 the Soviet bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Games, and on several other occasions the Olympics found themselves at the centre of a political storm (most notably in 1936, when Nazi Berlin hosted the Games, and in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists massacred the Israeli delegation to the Munich Olympics). Yet on the whole, political controversies have not derailed the Olympic project.

Now let’s go back 1,000 years. Suppose you wanted to hold the Medieval Olympic Games in Rio in 1016. Forget for a moment that Rio was then a small village of Tupi Indians,12 and that Asians, Africans and Europeans were not even aware of America’s existence. Forget the logistical problems of bringing all the world’s top athletes to Rio in the absence of airplanes. Forget too that few sports were shared throughout the world, and even if all humans could run, not everybody could agree on the same rules for a running competition. Just ask yourself how to group the competing delegations. Today’s International Olympic Committee spends countless hours discussing the Taiwan question and the Palestine question. Multiply this by 10,000 to estimate the number of hours you would have to spend on the politics of the Medieval Olympics.

For starters, in 1016 the Chinese Song Empire recognised no political entity on earth as its equal. It would therefore be an unthinkable humiliation to give its Olympic delegation the same status as that granted to the delegations of the Korean kingdom of Koryo or of the Vietnamese kingdom of Dai Co Viet – not to mention the delegations of primitive barbarians from across the seas.

The caliph in Baghdad also claimed universal hegemony, and most Sunni Muslims recognised him as their supreme leader. In practical terms, however, the caliph barely ruled the city of Baghdad. So would all Sunni athletes be part of a single caliphate delegation, or would they be separated into dozens of delegations from the numerous emirates and sultanates of the Sunni world? But why stop with the emirates and sultanates? The Arabian Desert was teaming with free Bedouin tribes, who recognised no overlord save Allah. Would each be entitled to send an independent delegation to compete in archery or camel racing? Europe would give you any number of similar headaches. Would an athlete from the Norman town of Ivry compete under the banner of the local Count of Ivry, of his lord the Duke of Normandy, or perhaps of the feeble King of France?

Many of these political entities appeared and disappeared within a matter of years. As you made your preparations for the 1016 Olympics, you could not know in advance which delegations would show up, because nobody could be sure which political entities would still exist next year. If the kingdom of England had sent a delegation to the 1016 Olympics, by the time the athletes came home with their medals they would have discovered that the Danes had just captured London, and that England was being absorbed into the North Sea Empire of King Cnut the Great, together with Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden. Within another twenty years, that empire disintegrated, but thirty years later England was conquered again, by the Duke of Normandy.

Needless to say, the vast majority of these ephemeral political entities had neither anthem to play nor flag to hoist. Political symbols were of great importance, of course, but the symbolic language of European politics was very different from the symbolic languages of Indonesian, Chinese or Tupi politics. Agreeing on a common protocol to mark victory would have been well-nigh impossible.

So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.

One dollar to rule them all

In premodern times humans have experimented not only with diverse political systems, but also with a mind-boggling variety of economic models. Russian boyars, Hindu maharajas, Chinese mandarins and Amerindian tribal chiefs had very different ideas about money, trade, taxation and employment. Nowadays, in contrast, almost everybody believes in slightly different variations on the same capitalist theme, and we are all cogs within a single global production line. Whether you live in Congo or Mongolia, in New Zealand or Bolivia, your daily routines and economic fortunes depend on the same economic theories, the same corporations and banks, and the same currents of capital. If the finance ministers of Israel and Iran were to meet for lunch, they would have a common economic language, and could easily understand and sympathise with each other’s woes.

When the Islamic State conquered large parts of Syria and Iraq, it murdered tens of thousands of people, demolished archaeological sites, toppled statues, and systematically destroyed the symbols of previous regimes and of Western cultural influence.13 But when its fighters entered the local banks and found there stashes of American dollars covered with the faces of American presidents and with slogans in English praising American political and religious ideals – they did not burn these symbols of American imperialism. For the dollar bill is universally venerated across all political and religious divides. Though it has no intrinsic value – you cannot eat or drink a dollar bill – trust in the dollar and in the wisdom of the Federal Reserve is so firm that it is shared even by Islamic fundamentalists, Mexican drug lords and North Korean tyrants.

Yet the homogeneity of contemporary humanity is most apparent when it comes to our view of the natural world and of the human body. If you fell sick a thousand years ago, it mattered a great deal where you lived. In Europe, the resident priest would probably tell you that you had made God angry, and that in order to regain your health, you should donate something to the church, make a pilgrimage to a sacred site, and pray fervently for God’s forgiveness. Alternatively, the village witch might explain that a demon had possessed you, and that she could cast the demon out using song, dance and the blood of a black cockerel.

In the Middle East, doctors brought up on classical traditions might explain that your four bodily humours were out of balance, and you should harmonise them with a proper diet and foul-smelling potions. In India, Ayurvedic experts would offer their own theories concerning the balance between the three bodily elements known as doshas, and recommend a treatment of herbs, massages and yoga postures. Chinese physicians, Siberian shamans, African witch doctors, Amerindian medicine men – every empire, kingdom and tribe had its own traditions and experts, each espousing different views about the human body and the nature of sickness, and each offering their own cornucopia of rituals, concoctions and cures. Some of them worked surprisingly well, whereas others were little short of a death sentence. The only thing that united European, Chinese, African and American medical practices was that everywhere at least a third of children died before reaching adulthood, and average life expectancy was far below fifty.14 Today, if you happen to be sick, it makes much less difference where you live. In Toronto, Tokyo, Tehran or Tel Aviv, you will be taken to similar-looking hospitals, where you will meet doctors in white coats who learned the same scientific theories in the same medical colleges. They will follow identical protocols and use identical tests to reach very similar diagnoses. They will then dispense the same medicines produced by the same international drug companies. There are still some minor cultural differences, but Canadian, Japanese, Iranian and Israeli physicians hold much the same views about the human body and human diseases. After the Islamic State captured Raqqa and Mosul, it did not tear down the local hospitals. Rather, it launched an appeal to Muslim doctors and nurses throughout the world to volunteer their services there.15 Presumably, even Islamist doctors and nurses believe that the body is made of cells, that diseases are caused by pathogens, and that antibiotics kill bacteria.

And what makes up these cells and bacteria? Indeed, what makes up the entire world? A thousand years ago every culture had its own story about the universe, and about the fundamental ingredients of the cosmic soup. Today, learned people throughout the world believe exactly the same things about matter, energy, time and space. Take for example the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programmes. The whole problem is that the Iranians and North Koreans have exactly the same view of physics as the Israelis and Americans. If the Iranians and North Koreans believed that E = mc⁴, Israel and the USA would not care an iota about their nuclear programmes.

People still have different religions and national identities. But when it comes to the practical stuff – how to build a state, an economy, a hospital, or a bomb – almost all of us belong to the same civilisation. There are disagreements, no doubt, but then all civilisations have their internal disputes. Indeed, they are defined by these disputes. When trying to outline their identity, people often make a grocery list of common traits. That’s a mistake. They would fare much better if they made a list of common conflicts and dilemmas. For example, in 1618 Europe didn’t have a single religious identity – it was defined by religious conflict. To be a European in 1618 meant to obsess about tiny doctrinal differences between Catholics and Protestants or between Calvinists and Lutherans, and to be willing to kill and be killed because of these differences. If a human being in 1618 did not care about these conflicts, that person was perhaps a Turk or a Hindu, but definitely not a European.

Similarly in 1940 Britain and Germany had very different political values, yet they were both part and parcel of ‘European Civilisation’. Hitler wasn’t less European than Churchill. Rather, the very struggle between them defined what it meant to be European at that particular juncture in history. In contrast, a !Kung hunter-gatherer in 1940 wasn’t European because the internal European clash about race and empire would have made little sense to him.

The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements. What does it mean to be European in 2018? It doesn’t mean to have white skin, to believe in Jesus Christ, or to uphold liberty. Rather, it means to argue vehemently about immigration, about the EU, and about the limits of capitalism. It also means to obsessively ask yourself ‘what defines my identity?’ and to worry about an ageing population, about rampant consumerism and about global warming. In their conflicts and dilemmas, twenty-first-century Europeans are different from their ancestors in 1618 and 1940, but are increasingly similar to their Chinese and Indian trade partners.

Whatever changes await us in the future, they are likely to involve a fraternal struggle within a single civilisation rather than a clash between alien civilisations. The big challenges of the twenty-first century will be global in nature. What will happen when climate change triggers ecological catastrophes? What will happen when computers outperform humans in more and more tasks, and replace them in an increasing number of jobs? What will happen when biotechnology enables us to upgrade humans and extend lifespans? No doubt, we will have huge arguments and bitter conflicts over these questions. But these arguments and conflicts are unlikely to isolate us from one another. Just the opposite. They will make us ever more interdependent. Though humankind is very far from constituting a harmonious community, we are all members of a single rowdy global civilisation.

How, then, to explain the nationalistic wave sweeping over much of the world? Perhaps in our enthusiasm for globalisation, we have been too quick to dismiss the good old nations? Might a return to traditional nationalism be the solution to our desperate global crises? If globalisation brings with it so many problems – why not just abandon it?

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