After the unexpected events of 9-11, many people, both within the US government and media turned to Samuel Huntington’s thesis of “clash of civilizations” as a viable theory in explaining the root causes of conflict in a post cold war era. That was a decade ago. Things settled down a bit, but as soon as the riots in the ‘Muslim’ world gripped the international scene, countless number of news outlets started reiterating and retooling the decade long argument that was proposed through the “clash of civilizations” thesis. As fragile governments try to uphold their binding agreement to protect foreign embassies, the discussion in USA and the Western world have been of righteous condemnation but also of how this may be the rise of more Islamic militancy. So it is safe to say that the discussion has again moved to the “Clash of Civilizations”.
Samuel Huntington in his ever so popular thesis argued that “…And the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the fault lines between civilizations… For forty-five years the Iron Curtain was the central dividing line in Europe. That line has moved several hundred miles east. It is now the line separating peoples of Western Christianity, on the one hand, from Muslim and Orthodox peoples on the other”(Huntington,1996,p26). This idea of culture playing a prominent role in dictating the nature and the proximity of conflict, and how nation-states might react to such issues is nothing new, and can be traced back to Max Weber’s seminal work on world civilizations. Huntington expanded this view to an extent, and argued that although nation states will remain the most powerful and primary actors in world affairs, the principle conflicts will take place between nations and groups of different civilizations (Huntington 1993, p.23), as opposed to nation-states fighting among each other.
Huntington further stated that the world has organized itself into separate civilizations and it is along this organizational level that individuals identify themselves rather than by national identity, so by all practical measures, the identity of individuals have gone through a new alignment which attaches itself to civilizations and cultural elements as opposed to just nationalism. Huntington’s thesis puts religious affiliation (especially within orthodox religions like Islam) as primary fault lines between civilizations. And this understanding of the world has been co-opted by policy-makers; governments and even scholars, who have tried to explain the world surrounding them through the lens of Huntington. But that is only half the problem, due to the simplicity of the thesis where stereotypical singularity of a group of people is magnified to define them and predict their behaviour, extremist groups have also co-opted this thesis into their own propaganda. From Al-Qaeda to Boka Haram, all believe there is a clash of civilization between the east and the west. Before we address what is wrong with the idea we must first understand what exactly constitutes this notion of clash of civilizations.
Clash of Civilizations: A synopsis
Huntington stated in his book (which built on in his initial thesis, that was published as a journal article in 1993) that civilizations would clash for a number of reasons. Huntington claimed that “civilizations” were different from each other with regards to history, language, culture, tradition, and most importantly, religion. And after the disintegration of the bi-polar system, these differences will dictate majority of conflicts. He claimed that historically, these cultural differences have produced the longest and most violent conflicts (Huntington 1993, p.25), and in the current era, civilization-al conflicts are going to become the most prominent of conflicts, overtaking the conflicts between states. Huntington further stated that; “A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species” (Huntington 1993, 24). Huntington divided the world in eight, possibly nine major civilizations. These included Western, Sinic, Islamic, Hindu, Orthodox, Latin America, African, Buddhist, and possibly Japanese. According to Huntington, where these civilizations come together will produce fault lines and these fault lines will be home to serious volatility and conflict. Countries will aid others under the umbrella of their own civilization while opposing those not within respective civilization. At the heart of Huntington’s view of civilization-al conflict is the West vs. the other civilizations, which will result in sustained volatility and conflict.
“Clash of Civilizations” thesis propagated three central claims. First and foremost cultural factors and religion play prominent roles (It is worth noting that Huntington distinguishes regional sub-divisions between major religions). Secondly “the clash” thesis stated that there are sharp and radical differences between western Christianity and other orthodoxies. And lastly Huntington linked his first two ideas by stating that these differences will give rise to already contrasting political values and eventually lead to ethno-religious clash, between civilizations.
Huntington used the progression of democracies as an archetype of political value differences, between the western states where representative democracies have progressed and have taken root and non-western states where democracy has failed to take root.
The Clash of Ignorance:
The Late Edward Said, rather whimsically called Huntington’s thesis “A Clash of Ignorance” while he pondered the relative vagueness and obvious deficiency of the thesis in question. Amartya Sen stated, “The difficulty with the clash of civilizations thesis begins with the presumption of the unique relevance of a singular classification. Indeed, the question “Do civilizations clash?” is founded on the presumption that humanity can be pre-eminently classified into distinct and discrete civilizations, and that the relations between different human beings can somehow be seen, without serious loss of understanding, in terms of relations between different civilizations.” As a general theory with explanatory power, this thesis has been rejected through various academic and philosophical avenues; unfortunately due to the catchy, pop-culture-jack-bauer induced, simplistic assessment of complicated notions of identity and conflict, “Clash of Civilizations” remains a viable policy tool for politicians and for poorly educated and/or uninterested Vox Populi, who view the world in black and white.
As an academic theory, Clash of Civilizations has failed to garner that much support, but as a pop-theory, Clash of Civilizations remains a viable tool for policy makers who refuse to adhere to the factual complexity of conflicts and identity while indulging in the lethargy of naive mediocrity of ignorance.
This line of thought has permeated the collective psyche of many leaders, policy makers, journalists, military analyst, terrorists and average Joes. It is often forgotten that one person’s religion is not the defining variable of his actions. Religion does not obliterate one’s individual identity or choices. It is possible for one Muslim to take a combative view and another Muslim to take a tolerant view of the world without either of them ceasing to be a Muslim. The same goes for any other group of people. So any astute observer of history would be able to point out that there is a distinct difference between the history of Islam and the history of Muslims. We as Bangladeshis are a living testament to that distinction. The 1971 war between similar groups of Muslims is a good enough reason to stop adhering to labels and simplistic understanding of 1.9 billion people who have very little in common. Identities of people remain and will remain pluralistic. And any simplistic way of trying to label them would come at the expense of reason and understanding and policy based on that, is doomed to failure. Conditions dictate how we act and react. A Christian or a Jew is no less likely to assassinate a leader than a Muslim if he/she is put under the same condition of oppression or perceived oppression. People are not sum of one grand cultural experiment and if we forget that fact and tailor our messages and analysis with the presumption that there is a strange, unitary world called the ‘Muslim world’ or ‘the Christian world’, then we are drawing ourselves caricatures while sitting on a time bomb.
Some of us might be scratching our heads and thinking well may be, just may be there is a clash of civilizations. How else do you explain the inflamed Muslim sentiments in all corners of the world? And that is a perfectly legitimate enquiry as long as it is taken with a grain of salt. Apart from being “Muslims”, what are the common characteristics of the ‘Muslims’ who attacked various embassies? First and foremost, the large crowds that attacked or protested in front of the U.S. embassies come from either volatile Middle Eastern countries and/or collapsed African states. So the condition that exists within these countries is of structural reorganization if not degradation that are further exasperated by weak government and massive wealth disparity.
Let me point out that in Bangladesh (the most densely populated Muslim country and the third most populous Muslim country) around 1000 Islamists tried to protest outside the embassy and apart from sporadic and peaceful gatherings nothing has happened. If the Muslim character were the sole identity of a ‘civilization’ then as Bangladeshi/Bengalis, we would be storming the embassies like it’s November of 1979. But we haven’t and it is unlikely we ever will. Charles Kurzman addresses this phenomenon in his book “Missing Martyrs” quite eloquently. He calculates that global Islamist terrorists have succeeded in recruiting fewer than 1 in 15,000 Muslims over the past 25 years, and fewer than 1 in 100,000 since 2001. So the very idea of “Islamic terrorism” is not appealing to overwhelming number of Muslims. The second method of violent approach would be Islamic countries using their own resources to attack American interest. And despite the democratic election of Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and Islamists in Tunisia, none of the governments had any role to play in this absurd overreaction. The third and the most logical explanation would be young, poor, jobless youths of a collapsing state were duped into this overreaction. And that is a conditional attribute, not a cultural/religious attribute. Young, jobless and poor youths rioted for a week in London, why? Because the conditions were present and all it took was a trigger to light that spark of anarchy. And that is the only way to assess this situation. There is no mythical creature called the Unitary Muslim world. You can’t just go to Egypt to address the Muslim world, because everyone’s need and condition is different, you go to Egypt to address the Egyptians, at most strategic allies, not the “Muslim” world. Muslims don’t have the pope; neither do they have any centralized authority, most of them live in states that are going through rapid democratization and /or collapse. And those are the necessary and sufficient conditions for such collective aggressive behaviour. If we must address the situation, we must address the conditions not the triggers. If the condition of despair, feeling of alienation, lack of opportunity did not exist in these countries, such overreaction to idiotic propaganda would not happen.
A country as poor as Bangladesh has a moderately stable government structure and that in itself deters such inflamed sentiments taking shape as irrational ‘us vs. them’ mentality. Our identity is a construction of variables religious and circumstantial, biological and cultural. And if we focus on just one strand of understanding we are going to miss the bigger picture. And in a world tormented by small-minded wall scaling at the face of big challenges, we just cannot afford to do that.
Jyoti Omi Chowdhury is a war theorist and a visiting researcher at the Center for Sustainable Development, Harvard University.