Published in Turkish Daily News 2002-01-18


The clash of civilizations - a realistic scenario?

By Ingmar Karlsson

In an article entitled "The Clash of Civilisations?" which attracted considerable attention when it appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, Samuel Huntington claimed that the global political process is entering a new era.

During the period of a century and half that followed the Peace of Westfalia of 1648 and the emergence of the modern international system, conflicts were, according to Huntington, largely between princes - emperors, absolute monarchs and constitutional monarchs - who were attempting to expand the influence of their bureaucracies, their armies, their mercantilist economic strength and, most important, the territory they ruled. In the process they created the national state.

Begining with the French Revolution, the conflicts were thus mainly between nations and peoples, rather than between princes. This 19th century pattern lasted until the end of the World War I. Then, as a result of the Russian Revolution and the reaction against it, the conflict of nations yielded to the conflict of ideologies, first between communism, fascism-nazism and liberal democracy, and then between democracy and communism.

With the end of the Cold War, the Western phase in international politics came to an end and the focus shifted to the interaction between the West and non-Western civilizations.

According to Huntington, the clash of civilizations will occur on different levels. At the micro-level, various neighbouring groups are in a state of conflict, which is often violent, along cultural "fault lines", fighting to control territory and each other. At the macro-level, states with different cultural ties are struggling for relative military and political dominance, for control over international bodies and for power over third parties.

Huntington´s argumentation has grown in strength after September 11 and the retoric of Bin Laden that followed the attacks but it contains a number of weaknesses. Huntington divides the world into "seven or eight major civilizations": Western, containing Western Europe and North America, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slav-Orthodox, Latin American and "possibly African civilization". Incidentally, Huntington does not ascribe any distinctive status to Judaism and Jewishnes. In his essay he describes Israel as "created by the West".

Huntington´s division is rather strange. Some civilizations seem to be defined according to religious and cultural criteria while in other cases the key factor seems to be geography. What distinguishes the Western civilization from the Latin American? Both North and South America are inhabited by European immigrants with values they took along with them and have retained ever since. While it is true that the Indian element is much greater in certain Latin American countries like Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador than in the United States, it is equally true that Chile, Argentine and Costa Rica are more European than the United States which is in any case rapidly becoming more Hispanic.

In fact both South and North America can be characterized as Western civilizations but with different degree of other cultural elements.

Huntington draws straight lines across the maps showing the beginnings and ends of the various civilizations. He acknowledges that the Islamic cultural sphere has its Arab, Turkish and Malayan subdivions but for some reason he ignores the substantial Islamic contingent in Africa and he fails to give even a hint about the major differences that exist between an Islam that is strongly permeated by local culture and Buddhism in the Indonesian archipelago, an Islam influenced by animism in West Africa and Islam in its Arab heartlands. Huntington also ignores the fact that the concept of Islamic unity hardly existed 40 years ago. In fact, the Islamic world has been split ever since the death of the Fourth Caliph in 661 and not merely between Sunnites and Shiites but along other lines as well. Thus, Islam is a magma - a reservoir containing quite distinct concepts and ideas, ranging from nostalgic-utopian doctrines of salvation to a secularised cultural identity like the one existing in Turkey.

Islam with a capital "I" thus simply does not exist in religious terms and most certainly not in any political context.

Nevertheless, Huntington conjures up a picture of a green "Islamic International" but alas, similarly as was the case with the Comintern it proved impossible to build up an organization that tries to exert control by applying a clear control strategy. Instead, the interests of the individual states gained the upper hand. The Iranian revolution has been regarded as a threat from its very beginning not only in Iraq but also in the conservative Arab states. Therefore a Sunni International was to be established to stop the ideological bushfire spreading from Iran. But despite their oil resources, the Sunnite monarchies were not more successful than the ayatollahs in their attempts to establish a new political/ religious order.

Thus, Islam has also become "nationalized" and, in the same way as the Arab front states built up their own Palestinian organizations in an attempt to control the Palestinian nationalism today we can see that in accordance with the national interests of the sponsor country the various Islamic organizations propagate a brand of Islam, be it Shiism, Wahabism or other. Thus, e g Saudi Arabia has financed all the Sunni organizations in Afghanistan - even the radical Hizb-I Islami group- on condition that they were hostile towards Iran. Similarly the FLN regime in Algeria supported the Tunisian fundamentalists in An-Nahda while at home they were trying to crush the local Islamic organization FIS.

Today we can also see examples of the "nationalization" of Islam in the former Soviet Union where Islamic groups have organized themselves within the framework of the new national states rather than in the form of a Central Asian Islamic International. Tajiks and Kazakhs have broken loose from the Tashkent muftiate created once by Stalin since it was considered to be dominated by Uzbeki interests. The previous muftiate for the Caucasus region split into five units, and the Islamic Renaissance Party, founded in 1990, proved to be incapable of representing all Central Asian Muslims and quickly splintered into national fractions.

Special Egyptian characteristics and an Egyptian identity much older than Islam were one of the the reasons why Sadat was able to break with the putative Arab-Islamic community and recognize Israel. Similarly, Turkey is not going to turn its back on secularism and align itself with Central Asia rather than Europe unless the West forces the Turks to make this choce. Ankara looks to Brussels Paris, London and Berlin, not to Ashkhabad , Almaty or Bishkek.

Hence, the frontiers for Islamic fundamentalism have already been drawn up right from the start. There is no correlation between the strategic decisions taken by states and the domestic cultural opposition. Attacks on Christianity are a particularly prominent feature in Saudi Arabia, the primary ally of the United States , which does not permit the existence of any Christian churches on its territory, whereas innumerable Christian communities can exercise their belief freely in Syria and Irak.

Huntington is even willing to meet Saddam Hussein wa" proclaimed that the fact that American infidel soldiers were defending Mecka was not in conflict with the teachings of Koran.

Iran was biding its time and despite all its anti-American rhetoric had nothing against "the Great Satan" working for the ayatollahs.

One of the main points Huntington makes is that we now witness the emergence of a Confucian-Islamic axis or "connection": "A central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states".

The only concrete evidence Huntington produces as support for this remarkable thesis is North Korea´s and China´s arms exports to Libya, Iran, Iraq and Syria. These contacts between two Communist dicatorships and a Libya governed according to Qadhafi´s bizarre "green theories", which all Muslim clerics consider as herecies, or with the two secular, rival Baath regimes in Damascus and Baghdad, are quite clearly not expresssions of ideological affinity or an Islamic-Confucian plot. It is simply a question of money. Furthermore one of the major domestic problems faced by the Chinese government is the fear that Muslim fundamentalism could spread to the Uigur people in Sinkiang from their Turkic kin in Central Asia.

To conclude one could just as well argue that the American and French arms sales to Saudi Arabia indicate that a Christian-Islamic alliance is being built up.

Thus, Huntington´s proposition that there is a clash of cultures at the macro level is not soundly based. He seems to be on a firmer ground when he claims that conflicts at the micro level will run along the "fault line" between cultural spheres. The civil war in Tajikistan and the conflicts in the Caucasus seem to support this thesis and even more so the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia where the front lines largely followed the traditional frontier between the Eastern and the Western Roman Empires and later between the Orthodox and the Catholic Church.

Even these arguments do not bear closer examination, though. Civilizations do not control states. On the contrary, states control civilizations and they intervene and defend their own civilization only if it is in the state´s interest to do so.

In the Caucasus the front lines do not comply with the cultural fault lines: in the war between Azerbajan and Armenia Teheran has tried to act as a mediator and tended to support the Christian Armenians rather than the Muslim Azeris.

In Bosnia, the Serbs claimed to fight for Christianity against Islam. It is true that the wars in former Yugoslavia followed the cultural boundaries between the Eastern and the Western Roman Empires and developed into a war between Orthodoxy and Catholicism and Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Islam. But this was primarily the result of the Serbian nationalism combined with the determination of the Communist Party bosses not to surrender their power. The Serbian offensive, aiming to establish a Greater Serbia, was initially directed against their Christian neighbours, Slovenia and Croatia. In Bosnia the Muslims stood for a secular, civilized society while the Orthodox Serbs behaved like autistic nationalists, demonstrating a bigotry and narrowmindedness comparable with that of the most fanatical exponents of Islamic nationalism and in Bosnia as well as in Kosovo forces from "the Western civilization" intervened on the Muslim side.

The real clash today is not between civilizations but within them - between Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Jews with a modern and progressive outlook and those with a medieval one. Jerry Falwell, to take one example, told his television audience after the attck on the World Trade Center that America "deserved" to be punished. Abortion providers, gay right proponents and federal courts that banned school prayers had according to him "made God mad".

According to Huntington Islam has bloody borders. This statement is not only historically false, it is also dangerous. During the last decade Muslims have been on retreat, whether they have been fundamentalists in Tadjikistan, Azeris in the Caucasus, Palestinians, Iraqi Baathists, Bosnian Muslims or Kosovo Albanians.

Islam and Christianity have lived side by side for almost 400 years, always as neighbours, mostly as rivals and far too often as enemies. In fact, they may be regarded as co-religionists since they share the same Jewish, Hellenistic and Oriental heritage. At one and the same time they have been old acquaintances and intimate hereditary enemies, and their conflicts have been particularly bitter precisely because of their common origins. Both sides have been divided more by their similarity than by their differences.

As a result the Islamic culture is not as strange as it would appear to be in the light of our prejudices and clichés. One of the most widespread myths is that Charles Martel, the ruler of the Franks, saved the West from destruction by his victory over the "Saracens" at Poitiers in 732. The Saracens were driven back over the Pyrenées and returned to the southern Spain where a Muslim state then continued to flourish for almost 800 years. This Islamic presence on the European continent did not lead to a collapse of the Western civilization but to a unique and fruitful symbiosis between Islam, Christianity and Judaism which resulted in an unparalleled boom in science, philosophy, culture and art.

At the close of the Middle Ages, both Islam and Judaism were constitutive elements in the formation of Europe. As a result, Islam is at the same time an alien, an original and - due to growing migration - a new element in the Europe of today. A Europe that is increasingly populated - similarly as the Moorish Spain - by the once called "enanciados" - that is to say by people who live in a no-man´s land between the different cultures. There are already about 20 million Muslims in Europe and their numbers will still increase as a result of the continuing migration. Estimates speak about 60 million in 25 years. The European Union is therefore no longer conceivable without the " Islamic green" component. Whether it will be possible to construct the "European house" based on the model of Alhambra - the symbol of the multicultural Moorish Spain - is therefore a desicive question for the future of Europe.

If we take Huntington´s reference to Islam´s bloody borders as an inevitable fact we shall never be able to integrate our growing Muslim population. In that case Huntington´s prophecies of a clash of civilizations might become a reality but not in the form of a military trial of strength between "the West and the rest" as he predicts. Instead, it would be a permanent guerilla warfare in the suburbs of the big European cities if they turn into ghettos. This is the real risk of a clash of civilizations. To prevent this from happening is one of the biggest challenges for European politicians.

[ Turkish Daily News ]

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