Hasan Azad: It seems to me that as “humanity” finds itself at the brink of a precipice, which is entirely of its own doing – the threat of complete environmental collapse, and the sixth mass extinction (a group of scientists published a report in June that predicts that, given the unprecedented rates at which species are becoming extinct, the planet is entering the sixth mass extinction as a result of human-made disasters) – now, more so than ever before in history, the notion of difference vis-à-vis the natural world and other groups of human beings has to be turned on its head into a recognition of a fundamental unity between all of us. What are your thoughts on this?
Talal Asad: Referring to the great achievements of the modern world – I’m going back to just after World War II – people would write about the great achievements of “European civilization.” At that time, as I remember it, everyone talked about European civilization – and even “the crisis of European civilization” that the world had gone through at the defeat of European fascism. (“European civilization,” “modern civilization,” or simply “civilization” were used interchangeably.) This was how the distinction was made between the most advanced part of “humanity” and the other parts that hadn’t reached its level. This is an old, old story, of course, one which has been retold many times, and occasionally criticized. But it also had this implication: “We are able to achieve these wonderful things and defend these wonderful values, not you.”
A friend of mine long ago used to joke whenever we were confronted with something technically sophisticated, saying, “You see how clever the white man is!” And so I’ve used that phrase quite often ever since: “You see how clever the white man is!” My point is merely that this was a common posture, a serious claim in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, and even just after World War II. The idea of European racial superiority was quite commonly associated with claims to inhabiting European civilization, which was, of course, the “highest.”
Now, over the last few decades, as the various global crises have been accumulating – climate change, the threat of nuclear war as well as the dangers of nuclear energy, the uncontrollability of the global financial system, and so on – we now hear people saying things like: “Look at what humanity has done.” Now suddenly the subject is “humanity,” whereas originally Euro-Americans had claimed: “Look at the stunning achievements of the West.” Because if you reread the earlier writings you see that everybody talked endlessly – well, perhaps not everybody but intellectuals, politicians and colonial governors – about the great achievements of European civilization, of the West. And it seemed quite reasonable to talk in these terms – even many reformers in the Third World talked that way because they too had internalized the idea that growing scientific knowledge and military prowess were signs of moral worth. My point is simply that when it comes to global disasters, then it’s all of humanity. Suddenly we hear the claim that humanity is responsible – including, no doubt, the peasants in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the urban poor!