Clash of civilizations: The great faction fiction

His theory still lives

Influential Harvard University politics professor Samuel Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve, is best known for his theory that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War meant future international conflict would no longer be between competing superpowers or economic ideologies but between groups of nations belonging to one of eight civilisations based loosely on culture and religion.

The principle clash would involve three civilisations — Western (the US and Europe), Confucian (based around China) and Islamic.

Huntington’s thesis appeared in a journal in 1993. Since the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, the theory has been co-opted by extremists seeking to impose their violent sectarian prejudices on the rest of us. The intricacies and nuances of his theory have been replaced by incoherent rants.

Tabloid columnists from New York to Sydney cite Huntington in support of the ridiculous notion that Europe will necessarily become “Eurabia”. Their equivalents in Karachi and Jakarta impose Osama bin Laden’s logic on Huntington when writing about the existence of a “grand crusader and Jewish conspiracy against Islam”.

Huntington’s original voice has become the distorted echo of cultural jihad. The reality is much more complex. It is impossible to divide people into neat categories of “Muslim” or “Western” or “Sinic” (Chinese). When visiting a mosque, I’m happy to join my brothers — and, in some Australian cases, sisters — praying towards Mecca. But I would rather learn my theology from American imams at the Zaytuna Institute in California than from the Saudi religious establishment. I also understand that not everyone who listens to the same music I have on my iPod necessarily supports Western hegemony.

Those of us sitting on the civilisational fence are often in a better position to view the terrain on both sides. Perhaps the most eloquent rebuttal of Huntington’s thesis (or at least its remaining echo) was written in 2004 by the man soon to be inaugurated as the next US president.

In the preface to the most recent edition of his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama writes about how “the world fractured” on September 11, 2001. The conventional wisdom in 2004 surely must have seen September 11 as part of a grand war between the allegedly monolithic Islam and the allegedly monolithic West.

But Obama didn’t see the hijackers as representing any religious culture, let alone the Kenyan and Indonesian Islamic cultures he had been exposed to. Instead he wrote of “the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still”. Terror is ultimately nihilist, not religious or cultural.

So where is the real clash? Obama says it is between “those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty towards those not like us”. Extremists on both sides find pluralism almost impossible to deal with.

Then again, we all have the capacity to generalise. As I read Obama’s introduction, I found it almost impossible to believe that a man who so boldly challenged the political orthodoxy of his day could within three years have won such a huge electoral victory. Perhaps I was wrong to assume America to be full of narrow-minded bigots, a people reluctant to vote for a man with Hussein as his middle name.

Much of the crude analysis emerging from Western observers of the November terrorist attacks on Mumbai reflected a similar tendency to generalise. The attacks were seen as another manifestation of some kind of monolithic “Islamic terrorism” against Hindus. Did our local “experts” bother reading Indian newspapers? Were they not aware that Hemant Karkare, the anti-terrorist squad chief in Maharashtra state gunned down with two colleagues by the terrorists, had earlier received death threats from followers of the Hindutva extremism that inspired Mahatma Gandhi’s assassins.

Karkare, himself a Hindu, had earlier launched an investigation into a Hindutva cell, uncovering evidence that implicated key supporters of pro-Hindutva opposition parties and even senior figures of India’s military. The Times of India on November 27 quoted one anti-terrorist squad official saying this cell “wanted to make India like what it was when it was ruled by the Aryans”.

Suketu Mehta writes in Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found, that religion in the city was treated as “merely a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle”. India, like America, has what Obama calls “teeming colliding irksome pluralism”.

India is also the world’s largest democracy and its second most populous nation. Its recent history has shown that the most dangerous clash isn’t between mythical civilisation monoliths. Rather, it is within nation states, between those who embrace pluralism, recognising it can only work with some basic shared values, and those who want to impose their narrow values on their countrymen and women.

Neither the West nor Islam can be seen as a cultural monolith. Those of us sitting on the fence should never have to choose between one or the other.

Irfan Yusuf is an associate editor of altmuslim.com and a Sydney lawyer and writer. His book proposal Once Were Radicals won the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger Award for public issues writing. This piece was originally published in The Age.


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