As uncertainty and anxiety over global political, social and economic instability rise, so does the quest for the intellectual equivalent of comfort food. Conspiracy theory, reductionist interpretations of history and sweeping demonizations of whole ethnic and religious communities—in short, binary analyses of things in general—soothe with their promise of banishing ambiguity. Once one has identified the enemy, the search for a solution commences. We humans seem programmed, at some deep level, to gravitate toward ironclad answers to thorny questions, simple explanations of complex realities and clear, indisputable distinctions that lay the blame where it belongs—on them. Accepting one’s share of responsibility for the shape of things, whether in local or family matters or on the much grander scale of global affairs, tests the mettle of the strongest.
During the past several years, adversarial, even virulently uncivil, public discourse has been on the rise again across this land. One of the increasingly frequent hallmarks of that discourse is the perception that global conflict has assumed a new guise in the new millennium. Now arising over America’s horizons is the menacing gloom of the Islamic peril, and the assessment that we are in for an inevitable clash of civilizations has become a rarely challenged commonplace. Yes, there have been scholarly critiques of the clash paradigm, but they have too seldom found a very wide audience. But the topic is too important and too fraught with pitfalls to let it slip from public notice.
Clash of Civilizations
A photo showing a military helicopter flying over a dhow in the Persian Gulf appeared in The New York Times during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Its caption read “Clash of Civilizations.” The image is but one of countless facile generalizations about global events that are at best simplistic and useless and at worst dangerous. Broad civilizational interpretations of history are nearly as old as the study of history itself, but the most recent reincarnation of the clash paradigm has the potential for immense harm if its gaping flaws are not addressed.
Major difficulties with this model, whose lineage can be traced to the historians Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, begin with what one means by a civilization. What are the operative criteria, the essential characteristics, by which devotees of the clash paradigm seek to define Islam as a civilization? They are typically, if not always, negative characterizations: Islam is bellicose to the core, virtually founded on the exercise of violent means; Islam has never managed to separate religious and civil spheres; Islam has, alas, never benefited from either a renaissance or an enlightenment and is therefore bereft of the intellectual tools that are integral to the historical-critical method, with its dispassionate, objective approach to reality; the virtual absence of democratic institutions in nations in which Islam has been a dominant influence argues for the incompatibility of Islam and democracy—just for starters.
These and other such criticisms of our civilization’s evil twin bristle with inconsistencies. Take for example the “Missing Renaissance/Enlightenment” argument, often cited as a prime reason why Muslims seem unable to break free of the literalist fundamentalism that, in turn, makes Islam a global threat. Only diehard believers in a trickle-down theory of Enlightenment thinking would argue, against enormous evidence to the contrary, that Christian and Jewish Americans generally apply “historical-critical” principles to the understanding of their sacred texts. Literalism is alive and well among rank-and-file Christians and Jews, not only in developing nations but in the West as well. Manifestations of the oft-vaunted liberating effects of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in current American popular attitudes toward world religion and politics remain as scarce as Irish Lutherans. Those who enumerate the fatal flaws of a once-born/unenlightened Islamic civilization do not seem to notice that neither China nor Japan have had the benefit of either Renaissance or Enlightenment, and they would in any case never dream of attributing China’s communism to something inherently Chinese or Japan’s World War II atrocities to a radical Japanese-ness.
What about the argument that Islam is incompatible with democracy? For all the talk of wanting to promote political self-determination throughout the world, U.S. administrations have long made it a policy to meddle in the affairs of duly elected regimes in Latin America. For all the talk of supporting freedom movements, U.S. administrations have typically sided with repressive right-wing dictatorships beyond our southern border. But is there not evidence, far predating the birth of this democracy, of the corruption of the Christian West? Claiming that the absence of democratic institutions in many predominantly Muslim lands is somehow uniquely a result of Islam is like claiming that the endless succession of failed democracies, one-party systems, murderous dictatorships and countless disappearances and assassinations in Latin America are the fault of Catholicism. Let us pass over in silence the numerous examples of the church’s siding with corrupt governments, not to mention U.S. foreign policy that has lent muscle to dictators through the School of the Americas.
Then there is the clash paradigm’s generally unexamined assumption that both Islam and the West constitute integral entities, each motivated by uniform values and organized under a unitary political will. One could argue that there was some credibility in the evil empire rhetoric of the Reagan era, to the extent that the principal protagonists, the United States and the Soviet Union, fit that description to some degree. But the suggestion that either Islam or the West now represent integral forces—call them civilizations, call them socio-political-economic entities—is ludicrous at best. Witness the recent polarization of the United Nations over war with Iraq. But surely there is solid evidence of an Islamic bloc? After all, look at the antiwar demonstrations featuring burnings of American and British flags and effigies of Bush and Blair all over the Islamic world. In fact, such demonstrations were no less vehement in Caracas than in Cairo, no less vocal in Tokyo than in Tehran. But what about the likelihood of a new Pan-Arab movement that could in turn encourage broader pan-Islamic uprisings? Beyond a symbolic show of rhetorical solidarity, the prospects for pan-Arabism are very low, given the de facto political fragmentation and diversity of the key nation-states.
If one really wanted a credible pairing of contestants for the future of the world, it would make far more sense to pit the current superpower United States with the likely future superpower China. I am not suggesting that Americans label China the new evil empire. But its population of 1.2 billion, currently under centralized, regimented political and economic control, would make China a far more likely candidate for clash-status than the culturally and politically dispersed global Muslim population of 1.2 billion. Unfortunately, the largely unchallenged assumption that seems at the moment to be breathing life into the deflated carcass of global confrontation is that Islam represents a mythical, malevolent power capable of mobilizing its people everywhere into an anti-Western juggernaut.
There are generic historical precedents for such a view. During late antiquity and early medieval times, some Middle Eastern Christians viewed with millennialist alarm the advance of Islamic armies across West Asia. The fall of Acre to the Mongols in 1290, which some might say brought the era of the Crusades to a definitive end, and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks engendered no little apocalyptic hand-wringing. It is not surprising that similar interpretations of the Book of Revelation are currently motivating Christian Zionists, for example, and that end-time themes are heard more often from American pulpits.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in the clash paradigm is the way it gets around the lack of unitary political will and socio-cultural cohesiveness in the other side. It seems to presuppose that such conflicts simply happen as a result of evil generated from across the great divide and that there is no question of responsibility on “our” side, except as the wronged party acting in self-defense. Imputing purely evil intent toward “us” seems to be the hallmark of clash-talk: we really have not done anything that warrants “their” evil acts and designs; we see no reason why we should re-examine our world view; we will not allow them to put us on the defensive, though we will, of course, defend ourselves; we are sorry they have pushed us into this conflict, but now we have no alternative but to respond in kind, and if that means destroying them, so be it. At a certain point, it is simply assumed that a law of inexorability kicks in and that global conflict is as inevitable as, say, Armageddon?
A balanced understanding of the intricate and often troubling interfaces between religion and current events calls for further discussion of the complex relationships among religion, culture and ethnicity. In its quest for clarity, the clash paradigm raises walls and posits irreconcilable incompatibilities that in the long run will only thicken the ambiguity and aggravate the chaos many Americans now feel.