June 3, 2008
‘Clash of Civilizations’ Fiction Hides Facts
Khaled Diab, The Guardian
The stubbornly persistent “clash of civilizations” theory ignores the abundant clashes within civilizations and the alliances that traverse them. They’ve been at it again. Those two middle-aged sons of dynasties anointed with the sacred oil of petroleum have been posing as God-inspired leaders of a titanic struggle between the forces of “good” and “evil”.
The first to take the world stage was George Bush. While his comments about appeasement caught the media’s attention, I found another part of his speech just as troubling. Addressing the Knesset on Israel’s 60th anniversary, he declared: “The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time. It is more than a clash of arms. It is a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle … This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is an ancient battle between good and evil.”
Not one to take such affronts quietly, Bush’s convenient nemesis delivered his own birthday message to Israel. Perhaps in a bid to bolster his mystical image, Osama Bin Laden released an audiotape instead of his more usual grainy, post-modern videos. In it, he claimed: “We will continue, God permitting, the fight against the Israelis and their allies … and will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on earth.”
The political scientist Samuel Huntington gave the idea of a monumental clash of civilizations intellectual credibility when he published, first an essay (1993), and then a book (1996), on the issue. Although Huntington popularized the term (and Bernard Lewis probably coined it), the notion of a clash of civilizations is certainly not new. It was a convenient cover for Soviet and US imperial expansionism during the Cold War, under the ideological covers of communism and capitalism — and the popularity of Huntington’s theory may reflect the desperate need to find a new enemy. Huntington divided the world into a number of vaguely defined civilizations, singling out the “Islamic” and “Sinic” civilizations as the main challengers to the “West”. In the intervening years, supporters of this thesis have seen the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as confirmation of this clash. And the current tensions with China might be viewed as an early dress rehearsal for a potential future confrontation with the Sinic civilization.
To his credit, Huntington does point out that a clash of civilizations is not inevitable. What baffles me is why he would propose one in the first place, seeing as there is scant evidence to back up his thesis. Two major failings in the clash of civilizations theory is that it glosses over or ignores the very real conflicts and potential conflicts within individual civilizations, and it overlooks the fact that political alliances are multiple, shifting, and often cut across civilizational boundaries. Take the Muslim world, one of the main theaters of the supposed confrontation. Viewed through the prism of Huntington’s clash, there seems to be no civilizational rhyme or reason to its geopolitical realities. For example, the first major conflict to emerge in the Middle East in the dying days of the Cold War involved not a clash between “Islam” and the “West”, but the invasion of one Arab country by another, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. In addition, the US-led international alliance which ended the short-lived occupation saw Arab and Western soldiers fight side by side. In the process, the consistently tyrannical Saddam Hussein metamorphosed from “our son of a bitch” into a tyrant of Hitlerian proportions. And from 1990 until the present, Iraq, the one-time ally against Iran, has suffered the crushing US-UK led wrath of bombings, crippling sanctions and occupation, which have helped transform it into a more theocratic state. If “Islam” were a single civilization capable of posing some sort of threat, should it not be capable of presenting some sort of united front, rather than its divided reality?
Huntington posits that: “Islam is less unified than any other civilization”. If it is so disunited and none of its countries have declared war on the West, who exactly will lead the charge: Al-Qaeda? Similarly, the West is not some unified civilization, as was amply demonstrated in European opposition to the Anglo-American military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which led Washington to accuse Germany, France and Belgium of being an axis of weasels.
One reason why a confrontation between Muslim countries and the West seems so credible to some is that it has an ancient, if long dormant, pedigree. However, the idea of Islam vs. Christendom was, in many ways, a convenient fiction perpetuated on both sides. Although many Christians and Muslims may feel a certain special connection with their co-religionists, realpolitik is more often the preferred guide. World War I — which was described by Henry James as the “crash of civilization” and demonstrates the ferocity of intra-civilizational conflict — is a telling example. The Arabs aided the British and French against the Turks, while one-time enemies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, fought on the same side. The British and the French fought together in both wars, despite the fact that they have been the bitterest enemies, despising each other more than they did Muslims. For instance, Adm. Nelson once told a crewmember: “You must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil.”
Similarly, ever since the dawn of Islam, Muslims have been at war with one another perhaps more than with Christians. The Shiite-Sunni schism appeared early on. In addition, Islam quickly acquired two caliphates as the Umayyads fled West when they were ousted by the Abbasids. In addition, Christian-Islamic alliances have an ancient history, although this is often forgotten. For instance, Islam’s entry into Europe was aided by local notables, such as Count Julian of Ceuta, and the local population did not aid their hated Visigoth overlords. Over the next seven centuries, Muslim and Christian kingdoms often found themselves fighting on the same side, despite the stated aims of the reconquista. This continued into Ottoman times. While Central and Eastern Europe feared and were overtaken by the Turks, many countries in Western Europe, such as France, England and the Netherlands forged alliances with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs or the Spanish.
With few exceptions, there has never really been an actual clash of civilizations, and to avoid one emerging as a self-fulfilling prophecy, we must dig deeper than narrow cultural reductionism and examine and address the complex underlying causes of tensions and conflicts, such as inequality, poverty and oppression. Our shrinking and threatened world needs us to reach beyond narrow ideological boundaries.