By: Ramin Jahanbegloo
“We have no reason to be surprised at the defects, at the uncivilized and excessive customs which we may encounter among the Indian nations, nor to despise them for this. For most if not all the nations of the world have been even more perverted, irrational and depraved, and shown even less caution and wisdom in their manner of government and in their exercise of moral virtues. We ourselves have been much worse in the times of our ancestors and in the length and breadth of our span, as much by the excess and the confusion of manners as by our vices and bestial customs.” These phrases, written by fray Bartolomé de Las Casas in his book Apologetica Historia, reflect that the Spanish discovery and subsequent conquest of the New World inspired a serious, if not heated, intellectual controversy regarding the humanity and Christianization of the Indians. The debate reached its height in 1550, when the King of Spain, Charles V, ordered a junta, a group of jurists and theologians, to meet at Valladolid in order to hear the arguments in favor and against the use of force to incorporate the Indians into Spanish America. On the one side was one Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a prominent humanist and Greek scholar who justified conquest and evangelization of indigenous peoples of the Americas. Opposed to him, was Las Casas, who advocated the rights of the Indian nations and was in favor of a peaceful conversion. Las Casas, in spite of his failure to win his disputation with Sepúlveda, managed to represent the Indians at the royal court, and thus, to call the attention of the Church and the Spanish government to the terrifying disparity between the missionary purpose of the encounter between Christians Europeans and Native Americans and the brutal exploitation of the second by the first. Las Casas succeeded to proclaim the humanity of the indigenous peoples, their rationality, their personal and collective freedom. Moreover, his disputation against Sepulveda at Valladolid ensured that the 1542 New Laws, which were initially designed to abolish the encomienda, (a system whereby Indian workers were allocated to Spanish settlers on the understanding that they would be instructed in the Christian faith in return for their labor), were to remain in effect. Therefore, the effect of the Valladolid controversy was to keep the human rights of the Indians in the minds of the Spaniards. From this perspective, thus, the Valladolid controversy had a great impact on the theoretical attempts by Europeans to understand the diverse native cultures of the New World. The dispute of Valladolid inaugurated a new debate on the concept of “civilization”. In the third century B.C.E., the philosopher Aristotle had differentiated between human groups among whom reason dominated over passions, namely the civilized, and the barbarians, among whom passions prevailed over reason. For Aristotle, the latter were naturally subservient to the former. In 1500, Sepúlveda applied this theory to the Indians. According to him, the Indians were a barbarian race whose natural, inferior condition entitled the Spaniards to wage war on them. On the contrary, Las Casas came to conclude that since the Indians were rational and civilized human beings, Spaniards had no right to subject them neither to slavery nor to war. Though the jurists and theologians of Valladolid did not succeed definitely to recommend to Charles V to permanently stop all wars of conquest in the New World and to merely seek the peaceful Christianization of the Indians, it seems that the Las Casas-Sepúlveda controversy continues to be of a high significance for Europeans and Americans in the present debates on the rights of the “other”. Its legacy lies in the idea of understanding and addressing the conditions of the “other” from the other’s perspective.
Today the West is faced with a “new Valladolid controversy”. Not surprisingly, the debate on Islam and Muslims in Western countries is very often the reminder of Sepulveda’s argument that “the Indians, being uncivilized, barbarian and inhuman, they have to accept the rule of those civilized, the Spaniards,”. As in the case of Las Casas- Sepulveda controversy, the present debate on West and Islam presents itself in the context of a polarized framework, where those considering themselves to be part of the civilized world (the Europeans) find themselves in war against the new barbarians (the Muslims). Therefore, within this debate emerges the concept of a cultural duality, a polarized viewpoint between the culture of the civilized and the culture of the barbarians. The legitimate question to ask here is: “who is to say who is civilized and who is not?” Once, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” By that he meant that humanity has not yet finished his original civilizing mission. Ten thousand years haven't produced very much “civilization”. We still confront poverty, tyranny and fanaticism behind civilized facades of technology and capitalism. As for Europe, as a “civilizing force”, its very emergence as a civilizational possibility and potentiality, owes its existence to other cultures. The idea of an intercultural dialogue has been at heart of European soul for centuries. Its omission or oblivion simply means that European history is written and thought in mono-cultural terms. If that is the case, Europe would not be a “good idea” in the Gandhian sense of the word “civilization”, meaning a culture of diversity in making, but could remain after all as a “non-idea”. It is much more realistic to think of European civilization in the plural rather than singular. There are many European cultures but only one Europe and Europe is a good idea! Europe is a journey, not a destination. Like democracy, it is an unfinished project. We are deluding ourselves if we claim to have arrived at an achieved European civilization.
Civilization like democracy is an ideal worth striving for. Like a torch in a relay marathon, the process of civilization has been passed on from hand to hand, from one culture to another. Though the vision of modernity might appear to many as the final triumph of civilization in the singular, understood as a global projection of Western culture, nevertheless, it would be philosophically more adequate and ontologically legitimate to highlight the need in human history for a genuine pluri-civilizational approach. It is true that the current Huntingtonian analysis of culture wars against the West has renewed interest in the pluralistic problematic of civilization, but it goes without saying that the internal pluralistic dynamic of modernity suggests a self-problematizing, self-questioning and self-transformative cultural space opened up by democratic transformations. There is no denying that modern civilization has very often been rightly equated with the notions of progress, enlightenment and universalism. But this does not mean that remains a monolithic and undisputed cultural terrain.
Both Europe and Islam continue to be among the main pillars of human civilization. By recognizing this fact both Europe and Islam could engage in a dialogical exchange in order to bring common solutions to issues such as fundamentalism, terrorism, racism and integration and especially to be partners in belief, in action and in citizenship. If Muslims feel involved in the European destiny and Europe has nothing to fear from Islam, the result of the new Valladolid controversy would be, this time, not only an acknowledgement of the “otherness” of Muslims, but also the acceptance of the legitimacy of the cultural diversity of Europe. As such, one can be a Muslim living in Europe as well as a European Muslim. There is no contradiction in either of these two terms, and one should not be asked and forced to choose one against another. Let us not forget that the price of a plural and democratic Europe is neither a strategy of fear nor a politics of hatred. It is a political culture of moderation and deliberation that Las Casas formulated in his Apologetica Historia in these terms: “It clearly appears that there are no races in the world, however rude, uncultivated, barbarous, gross, or almost brutal they may be, who cannot be persuaded and brought to a good order and way of life, and made domestic, mild and tractable, provided . . . the method that is proper and natural to men is used; that is, love and gentleness and kindness.” If we fail to heed such voices as Las Casas, we could end up with Sepulveda's claim of civilizational benevolence backed up by the asserted need to control backward peoples, if necessary by military means.