Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 April 2004
Issue No. 686
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

The clash of civilisations revisited

Should our views on this critical issue be re-examined, asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed

I have never been much impressed by the "clash of civilizations" theory advanced nearly a decade ago by American scholar Samuel P Huntington. Although it was hailed as a prescient analysis of how international relations were likely to pan out, I saw it more as a somewhat forced theory concocted as an answer to the "end of history" theory advanced at the time by another American scholar, Francis Fukuyama. But the way history has been unfolding since made me wonder whether my dismissal of Huntington's theory was perhaps overly hasty and whether I should revise my initial assessment.

Fukuyama's theory was put forward following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the breakdown of the bipolar world order. The demise of the bastion of world communism appeared to signal the end of an era when ideology was the frame of reference for the management of conflict. After communism suffered a fate similar to the one suffered by fascism after World War II, there remained only one prevailing ideology, namely, liberalism. Fukuyama's theory consecrated the victory of liberalism: what he meant by the end of history was not that history itself had come to an end but that conflicts over how to interpret the course of events had come to an end with the unchallenged victory of one specific ideology, liberalism.

In the light of global developments over the last decade, it is no longer possible to dismiss Huntington's theory as nothing more than an attempt to upstage another theory which emerged after the breakdown of the first communist state. The "clash of civilisations" theory deserves to be interpreted in its own right. A question worth asking here is whether Huntington's theory would have emerged if Fukuyama had not come forward with his theory first. In other words, we need to ask whether Huntington's theory is self- consistent independently from the existence of Fukuyama's.

Both the "end of history" and the "clash of civilisations" theories were received with great fanfare as major contributions to the field of political philosophy. That is not an assessment I share. Not only do I believe that both theories have been blown up out of all proportion, but that they proceed from premises that are shrouded in ambiguities, not to say mistakes.

The main argument used to validate Huntington's theory is that he was the first to predict that civilisations will eventually come to clash, ten years before this became evident in the eyes of most observers. This was interpreted as proof that his theory is credible and should be taken seriously. Actually, this argument is faulty. The original theory attributed to Huntington in the 1990s of the last century is not the theory currently attributed to him.

In its original expression, Huntington's theory differed from both Fukuyama's "end of history" theory and from the Marxist theory based on the idea of class struggle. Neither Huntington nor Marx gave up the idea of conflict. But Huntington replaced conflict between classes by conflict between civilisations, eventually even between religions.

Huntington argued the case for the inevitable clash of civilisations from the standpoint of Western civilisation, one can even say from the standpoint of the religions of that civilisation, namely, Christianity (with its different subdivisions) and Judaism, which together make up what is generally referred to as the Judeo- Christian mainstream civilisation.

Civilisations look at each other in a variety of manners. Some see others as "friendly", even as amenable to absorption into their own civilisation values. That is how America's so-called Christian Zionists perceive members of the Jewish faith. These devout, not to say fundamentalist Christians, who today form the Bush administration's main power base, adopt extreme Zionist beliefs on the basis of Biblical scripture.

There are also civilisations that can be seen as hostile. When Huntington came forward with his theory a decade ago, he spoke of a Chinese- Arab (or Confucian-Islamic) rapprochement against the West. Now that China has acquired an ever-more important international stature and is acting more and more as an independent actor on the global stage, this rapprochement is mentioned less and less. The downplaying of the Chinese component can also be explained by the desire to underscore the Islamic dimension of contemporary Arab civilisation. Describing the Arab Middle East as a Greater Middle East, is a way to highlight that the region the West has to confront is not only composed of Arabs, but also of non-Arab Muslims.

Although the Confucian component was an integral part of the initial Huntington theory, that is no longer the case. The new reading of the theory does not place the Chinese and the Arabs in the same basket, nor, for that matter, Chinese and Muslims in general, but Muslims and Arabs in particular. This is a clear attempt to attribute terrorism to Islam, not to Arabs alone, and not to blur attributing terrorism to Islam by relating Arabs to Chinese as the case was in Huntington's original version of his theory. However, this has introduced an inconsistency: how to reconcile Huntington's statement that a clash between the West and Islam is inevitable, and then adopt the West's theory of ever-growing globalisation, side-by-side with ever-deeper clashes between civilisations?

And yet there are facts that cannot be denied and which clearly indicate that a clash of civilisations is not merely a figment of Huntington's imagination. One of the first things Amr Moussa did following his appointment as secretary-general of the Arab League was to convene a conference on the need for rapprochement between civilisations, precisely because the opposite phenomenon, namely, clashes between them, were becoming all too frequent.

The Arab-Muslim dimension in the "clash of civilisations" theory is gaining ground in large part because of the rise of terrorism and because the perpetrators of terrorist acts often invoke Islam to justify actions that are reprehensible in the eyes of the international community. Unresolved conflict situations in the Middle East are facing us with an impasse: despair over the inability of the international community to come up with a viable political settlement induces the protagonists to commit acts of violence which they see as a lesser evil than succumbing to an untenable state of affairs, but which are actually counterproductive. We have no choice but to recognise that there is a need for an all-out condemnation of terrorism. But it also seems there is a similar need to go on tolerating, and even perhaps encouraging, such acts secretly, on the grounds that tolerating them is less costly than paying the price of condemning them outright. This duality in behaviour is an expression of weakness, not of strength. It leads to the further escalation of mutual violence, and makes moving out of the vicious cycle all the more difficult.

The time has come to put an end to double talk. But to the same extent that we require the weaker party to come forward with genuine and courageous self-criticism, and to assume the responsibility of all, and not only some, of its acts, we must also require the stronger parties to engage in some genuine self-criticism of their own and to admit that the terrorist acts perpetrated by their opponents is a consequence of frustration, despair and total loss of hope in anything constructive. Despair has reached the point where suicide bombers see death as preferable to life under a brutal occupation. Here too, it has become imperative to get out of the vicious cycle, and to have all the inhabitants of our planet agree that equity, justice and equal opportunities are indispensable elements for reforming the world system and for eradicating terrorism.

It is futile in the age of globalisation to build security fences, however high they may be -- whether actual walls made of concrete, of electronic spying devices or of instruments of psychological warfare. Globalisation implies the very opposite of erecting separation barriers. That is the essence of Huntington's inner contradiction. And it has been established that the products of the globalisation market, including WMD, rarely remain the exclusive possession of one contending party alone.

President Mubarak's visit to President Bush's ranch in Texas this week was an opportunity to tackle some of these fundamental problems. Were they raised during the conversations?

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