How true is the claim by some Western scholars that Islam is on a collision course with the West and is inherently inimical to the modern age we live in?
Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations has evoked a broad range of responses from political commentators both in the United States as well as abroad. Huntington asserts that the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 had marked a new beginning in the history of international politics. While prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 major ideological, geo-political and economic conflicts were carried out on the European stage, the end of the Cold War has changed the dynamics and motivations of international conflicts. In the prevailing world order, the fight for supremacy in the realms of ideology, material wealth and territorial conquest have become secondary to the assertion of ‘civilizations’. Civilization as a term in historical discourse can be difficult to define, but Huntington narrows down the scope of this term. According to the author, of all the constituent elements that comprise a particular civilization, its identification with religion, ethnicity and culture form the core. A civilization’s affiliation with these elements is more enduring and resistant to change than its propensity for change, say, in the economic and ideological domains. Huntington correctly points out that in the hundred years before the end of Cold War there have been radical transformations from monarchy to communism to democracy, from liberal capitalism to stringent economic protectionism, and vice versa across the globe. Not only have there been numerous instances of such changes but have also oscillated from one extreme to another. Amid all this churning, the only abstract conception with which peoples in different parts of the world could identify with is their ‘civilization’.
The thesis put forth by scholars such as Huntington, Fukuyama (1998), Kepel (2002) and Lewis (2002) have a degree of merit. But a closer scrutiny will reveal some blatant flaws. Edward Said, for instance, raises some valid points of rebuttal in his polemical essay titled ‘The Clash of Ignorance’. Foremost among Said’s objections is the absence of a concrete definition for terms such as the West, Oriental, Occidental, Islam, etc. While indigenous peoples of different parts of the world developed their own unique customs, traditions, language and schools of religious thought, there is much overlap between different civilizations. In other words, the common humanity between civilizations is a potent unifying force that is not given due recognition by Huntington and his allies. Instead, Said accuses Huntington of playing up superficial differences between cultural communities, which do not hold up against rigorous longitudinal studies of cultural interactions. Furthermore, as a result of the long history of trade and exchange of goods between civilizations, aspects of culture and religion have also moved across geo-political entities. A study of demographic composition of many European countries will reveal the presence of communities from every religious and cultural background. In countries such as France and Italy, Muslims comprise a substantial minority, despite being located on the wrong side of the fault line. The same is true, albeit to a lesser extent, in Britain and the United States too. Said expresses this fact thus:
“Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization.” (Said, 2001)
Said’s assertions are attested by the works of scholars such as Seyyed Nasr, John Esposito, Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair. They imply that the proposed paradigm of conflict – termed the Clash of Civilizations – is not all that new. The West versus East battle lines of the past have only been redrawn as West versus Rest in the post Cold War world order. Hence, the answer to ‘whether the Islamic world is at the surge of clashes with the West or otherwise’ is clear. In other words, there is much merit to the claim of Eastern scholars, who suggest that “Islamic societies-like other world cultures influenced by traditional religions- are reacting to the global transformation taking place. The reaction is a mixture of anger, denials, and social tensions. Like Christianity or Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism, Islam has been adopted for many causes, from modernism to traditionalism, liberalism to conservatism, which may have nothing to do with its original transcendent message of unity and equality before God.”
With this renewed understanding of Islam and its socio-political culture, one can begin to look at the common humanity that connects all civilizations and find ways to strengthen it. This is because the universality in humanity is so much stronger than artificial constructs like West, Islam, the Orient, etc. In this critical period in Islam’s history, political leaders from both East and West can adopt a broad policy framework that has ‘tolerance’ at its core. In this context, James Dobbins’ observation in Foreign Affairs journal makes a lot of sense:
“The beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the ongoing war in Iraq is not one that the United States can win. As a result of its initial miscalculations, misdirected planning, and inadequate preparation, Washington has lost the Iraqi people’s confidence and consent, and it is unlikely to win them back. Every day that Americans shell Iraqi cities they lose further ground on the central front of Iraqi opinion” (Dobbins, Jan 2005).
While some western scholars have played up differences between civilizations, they seem to underplay major areas of agreement between them. As Wendell Bell correctly points out, human beings are still one single species. And what is universally common to people of all civilizations are things such as love, compassion, a sense of justice, the inclination toward spirituality, etc. And by focusing on what is common to us all would greatly help resolving brewing or persisting conflicts in the political realm. Wendell Bell seems to suggest that the prevalent thesis espoused by western scholars is deficient in its treatment of human universalities. The best manifestation of common human values is seen in the globalization process of today, where indigenous cultures confront, reconcile or assimilate the dominant Western civilization (represented by such corporate symbols as the McDonald and WalMart). The result of this process is the emergence of a truly global culture, which highlights the best and universal in human beings while also providing a space for history and tradition to find expression. If peace and harmony are to be lasting features of our world, then solutions are to be found in Wendell Bell’s view of civilizations as opposed to Huntington’s.
Edward Said, The Clash of Ignorance, retrieved from
Wendell Bell, Humanity’s Common Values: Seeking a Positive Future, Originally published in the September-October 2004 issue of THE FUTURIST.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations?, Chapter 5, The State, p.203-209. Originally from Foreign Affairs, 72, no.3 (summer 1993): 22-49.
Dobbins, James, Iraq: Winning the Unwinnable War, Foreign Affairs, January, 2005.
Quoc-Benjamin, Nguyen Tang Le Huy. Women, Democracy and Islam. UN Chronicle, Dec2004-Feb2005, Vol. 41 Issue 1, p38-39.
Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. The Rights of Women in Islam. Journal of Beliefs & Values: Studies in Religion & Education, Oct99, Vol. 20 Issue 2, p261.
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