20 October 2004

The clash

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:46 pm

Thanks to Nick for this very interesting article by this year’s Erasmus Prize winner, Sadik Jalal Al-Azm, about the supposed war between Islam and the West.

For those who came in late, this whole thing was sparked off by Francis Fukuyama, who in his 1989 essay The End of History? predicted that the end of the Cold War marked some final chapter in the history of ideological struggle, and that, occasional skirmishes aside, history itself was in some sense over:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Samuel Huntington soon struck back with his 1993 essay The Clash of Civilisations, which asserted that what Fukuyama called the end of history was in fact just the end of Western history—that, now that it had sorted out its internal ideological divisions, the West was ready to return to the main game: the clash of civilisations. He said:

The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

Huntington’s thesis suggests that we’ve actually just been distracted from history—that the old battles between Islam and the West going back to the Crusades, and between all the other civilisations going back forever, will more or less take up where they left off, if in fact they left off. Huntington gives many examples of the old divisions between civilisations transcending more recent ideological and economic issues, and of course the old clashes have that flavour of ancient and implacable hatred, of bad blood and zealotry that we’re all so familiar with from history and literature and the movies—they do seem deeper and darker than our modern disagreements. It sounds frightening. Huntington’s is not an apocalyptic scenario, though. He concludes:

In the short term it is clearly in the interest of the West to promote greater cooperation and unity within its own civilization, particularly between its European and North American components; to incorporate into the West societies in Eastern Europe and Latin America whose cultures are close to those of the West; to promote and maintain cooperative relations with Russia and Japan; to prevent escalation of local inter-civilization conflicts into major inter-civilization wars; to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states; to moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia; to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states; to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests; to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests and values and to promote the involvement of non-Western states in those institutions.

In the longer term other measures would be called for. Western civilization is both Western and modern. Non-Western civilizations have attempted to become modern without becoming Western. To date only Japan has fully succeeded in this quest. Non-Western civilizations will continue to attempt to acquire the wealth, technology, skills, machines and weapons that are part of being modern. They will also attempt to reconcile this modernity with their traditional culture and values. Their economic and military strength relative to the West will increase. Hence the West will increasingly have to accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose power approaches that of the West but whose values and interests differ significantly from those of the West. This will require the West to maintain the economic and military power necessary to protect its interests in relation to these civilizations. It will also, however, require the West to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in which people in those civilizations see their interests. It will require an effort to identify elements of commonality between Western and other civilizations. For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others.

Huntington’s argument seems to have been extraordinarily influential, at least on the West, and particularly on the US. We’ve already seen most of the short-term responses listed above implemented in the last ten years—even the strengthening of institutions: obviously not the UN, but NATO and the international institution that the US and its ad hoc coalitions are fast becoming. The attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed to many people to be irrefutable evidence of the clash of civilisations Huntington had highlighted.

Except that the newly-terrorised West could not envisage “a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others&#8221—it exploded the tension between civilisations into a great last battle that would result in one side wiping out the other. There’s so much a paranoia around now—they hate us, they want to destroy us all, it’s us or them—and these are otherwise intelligent people saying this stuff, usually prefacing it with “make no mistake” or “have no illusions&#8221. It’s fed right into the US campaign to ignore entirely the long-term implications of the clash of civilisations (ie: we’re going to have to learn to live with each other) and stamp itself all over the world (ie: like hell we are).

But Al-Azm characterises the conflict somewhat differently. He subscribes to Joseph Conrad’s view that “terrorism is an act of madness and despair&#8221—and a quickly self-defeating act—and suggests that the September 2001 attacks marked the end, and not the beginning, of the clash of civilisations:

Despite current predictions of a protracted global war between the West and the Islamic world, I believe that war is over. There may be intermittent battles in the decades to come, with many innocent victims. But the number of supporters of armed Islamism is unlikely to grow, its support throughout the Arab Muslim world will likely decline, and the opposition by other Muslim groups will surely grow. 9/11 signaled the last gasp of Islamism rather than the beginnings of its global challenge.

Islamic terrorism, says Al-Azm, is an expression of fury and frustration that things aren’t going that well for Islam, that Islam’s rightful place in the world has been usurped by the West. Islamic contributions to the world have been significant—in science, in mathematics, and so on—and the West has taken these gifts and run with them, all while “history took a nap&#8221. Islamists believe—as many others do—that their civilisation is the best and brightest and deserves to spread to every corner of the world, that they deserve to be running things:

When this unexamined, unexorcised, highly potent, and deep-seated self-image collides with the all-too-evident everyday actualities of Arab-Muslim impotence, frustration, and insign
ificance, especially in international relations, a host of problems emerge: massive inferiority complexes, huge compensatory delusions, wild adventurism, political recklessness, desperate violence, and, lately, large-scale terrorism of the kind we have become familiar with all over the world.

So both paranoid Americans and reckless Islamists believe that there is a last-days kind of battle unfolding, which they have to win at all costs. But, says Al-Azm, that doesn’t mean there actually is one:

The two supposedly clashing sides are so unequal in power, military might, productive capacity, efficiency, effective institutions, wealth, social organization, science, and technology that the clash can only be of the inconsequential sort. As one literary metaphor says, If a stone falls on an egg the egg breaks, and if an egg falls on a stone the egg breaks too. From the Arab Muslim side of the divide, the West seems so powerful, so efficient, so successful, so unstoppable, that the very idea of an ultimate “clash” is fanciful.

This has to be right. Maybe radical Islamists do want to destroy us all. But so what? Does anyone really think they can? There are hardly any of them. Yes, they can hurt us. No, we don’t have to stand there and take it. We have to protect ourselves. But we don’t have to wipe every Muslim from the earth to achieve that; we don’t have to install little Americas throughout the Middle East, even if we could. It’s not that kind of fight.

Since the attacks, the US has pretty successfully painted itself as a victim, as a country besieged by evil. It doesn’t take a moment’s reflection to see how ridiculous that is. John Kerry got in loads of trouble for calling terrorism a “nuisance” (in fact he said he wanted to reduce terrorism to a nuisance), but let’s face it: in terms of the actual damage it can do to American civilisation, terrorism hardly is more than a nuisance.

That’s not to question the devastating human impact of terrorism. But Western civilisation has always had far more to fear from itself than from Islam. We’re all killing way more of ourselves than terrorists do. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t respond to attacks from outside—but we should respond effectively and proportionately, and not hysterically. But nobody ever won an election by whipping voters into a calm, did they.

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