UNESCO: United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization

The Organisation


Dr. Cemil Aydin

Cemil Aydin (Ph.D. Harvard University, 2002) is Assistant Professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, teaching courses on the Middle East, Asia, and international history.
His book on International Politics of Anti-Westernism: Visions of World Order in Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian Thought is forthcoming from Columbia University Press (2006).
Cemil Aydin’s current research projects deal with “UNESCO and the Islamic World,” and the history of internationalism in post-WWII Asia.
His recent publications include “The Politics of Conceptualizing Islam and the West” (Ethics and International Affairs, Winter 2005), “Overcoming Eurocentrism? Japanese Orientalism on the Muslim World (1913-1945)” (Princeton Papers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, 2005).
“Before UNESCO’s Cultural Mission: The Debates over Civilization(s) and the Legitimacy Crisis of the World Order (1882-1945)”

UNESCO’s sponsorship, in the past several years, of a series of international conferences on the dialogue of civilizations recognizes the fact that identities, values and imaginations of multiple world civilizations matter in the establishment of a peaceful world order. The importance of the “discourse of civilization” in international affairs is not a peculiarity of the post-Cold War order. In fact, the discourse and question of “civilizations” was a crucial aspect of the international relations from the 1880s until WWII, and it shaped some of the expectations of non-Western intellectuals with regard to UNESCO’s cultural mission.

This paper examines the political significance of the various ideas on the conflict, harmony or dialogue of civilizations from the British invasion of Egypt (1882) to WWII, a period that was characterized by both an intense global circulation of ideas and a shared sense of crisis of the international order. Why did the identity of civilizations become a question of international politics in an age of realist power politics and rising nationalism? Why did so many Western and non-Western intellectuals perceive and critique the world order from the perspective of civilizational categories and imagined a better world order based on civilizational dialogue?

The paper will present a threefold historical periodization from the 1880s to the 1940s to outline the evolution of the discourse of civilization in international relations. In the first stage from the 1880s to 1905, non-Western intellectuals generally tried to prove that their own particular civilizational, religious and cultural legacy was not an obstacle for their societies to fulfill the universal (though Eurocentric) standards of a singular global civilization. The overwhelmingly apologetic and modernist literature on the incompatibility of the Islamic and Western civilizations is a good example of this period. The goal of this discourse was to challenge European imperial ideologies associated with “the white man’s burden” and its civilizing mission by emphasizing that non-Western societies in the Islamic world, India or China were either already civilized or had the potential to implement civilizational reforms. This meant that non-Western societies did not need imperialism or other forms of Western hegemony to realize their reforms and development. Hence, the genesis of the modern discourse of civilizational comparison has been intimately related to the process of legitimizing and delegitimizing the Eurocentric imperial world order in the last quarter of the 19th century. .
In the second stage from 1905 to 1914, the Russo-Japanese War strengthened the popularity of the notion of an alternative Eastern or Asian civilization against the West, because it was seen as the decisive intellectual victory over the European imperial discourses on race and Orient, and thus as a final proof of the illegitimacy of the imperial world order. Together with rising nationalism, three major “non-Western world religions,” namely Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, saw a “revival” in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War. In fact, slogans about the “rise” or “awakening” of the East associated with the Russo-Japanese War preceded the image of the “decline” or “retreat” of the West of the post-WWI period.
In the third stage after WWI, the image of the decline of Western civilization further eroded the political and cultural prestige of Western hegemony in Asia, strengthening the alternative civilizational discourses of Asian intellectuals. When the League of Nations was established, partly to overcome the limitations of the imperial diplomacy of the previous decades and to redesign the turbulent world order, the League had to function in a global intellectual context where civilizational discourses of East versus West were still very prevalent. For example, the very fact that Japan’s relationship with the League was intellectually framed either as a harmony of East and West during the 1930s or as a clash of civilizations during the late 1930s illustrates the salience and appeal of the civilizational thinking during the interwar period. Yet, the League’s intellectual cooperation activities were also framed by the nation-state system of the interwar period. Thus, there emerged a tension between civilizational thinking and ideas of East-West cooperation and dialogue on the one hand, and the emerging units of nation states that did not correspond to and could not represent a civilization.

The paper discusses how the history of civilizational discourses was interrelated with the legitimacy crisis in the normative principles of the globalizing international order. It also emphasizes how civilizational thinking became transformed during the transition from imperial world order to a nation-state based order. Before the emergence of UNESCO, there was already a larger worldwide interest in addressing the cultural and intellectual aspects of international issues by resolving questions of race relations, civilizational prejudice, anti-Westernism, historical memory and diversity of world cultural values. Remembering the political context and implications of the civilizational discourses in the first half of the 20th century will prepare the grounds for examining the activities, impact and unfulfilled expectations around the institution of UNESCO in the last sixty years.

Mail Address caydin@uncc.edu
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