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 seek 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.
shifts follow a particular trajectory. The arc of human history shows a
continuous ratcheting up in the scale of community. Hunting bands were
replaced by agricultural societies. Agricultural societies coalesced
into empires. From roughly the 17th century, we saw 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 -- not only over economic advantage but
also culture and values.
Just consider American history. As the
United States was increasingly integrated through industrialization, so
conflict over slavery grew more acrimonious. Indeed, the nation's
bloodiest war was the Civil War, not one with outsiders. Slavery
represented a deep fissure, invoking 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 -- exemplify 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 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.
We heard the same calls regarding the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.
others, the notion of the "abuse of free speech" is a contradiction in
terms. How can one have free speech if it can't be disagreeable?
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.
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.
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
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.
Jacobson is the author of "Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality
in Global Conflict," due out in December. He directs the Citizenship
Initiative at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Distributed by
Scripps Howard News Service,