Huntington's famous notion that the future will be a clash of civilizations is an interesting view of the world; but in the end, it is both harmful and wrong. Wrong because, when civilizations meet, there is no need for and no benefit in any kind of clash. Historically, what generally happens is that both civilizations significantly benefit by being able to pool their best features. The notion that history is a “clash of civilizations” also exaggerates the differences among us, Samaritans, Greeks, or Jews.
Harmful, because it is the classic way to justify hostility toward and violence against another—as pre-emptive self-defense. This was always Hitler's argument, for example.
There are indeed four or five great civilizations girdling the Eurasian landmass: Confucian, Hindu, Muslim, Christian; Southeast Asia might count as a fifth. But we are ill-served by this idea of an inevitable clash among them. It has come to badly distort our understanding of current events.
Take the matter of “Islamism,” of the threat of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. The “clash of civilizations” inclines us to think, falsely, that Al Qaeda and the Islamists are legitimate representatives of Muslim popular opinion. It also tends to make us think, falsely, that the main agenda of such groups is a struggle against Western civilization.
It all looks quite different from the streets of Qatar. Elaph, the locally highly-respected Arabic online daily, held two surveys recently, the results of which might be of interest to North Americans.
In the first, they asked Arabs, in the context of the recent threatened burnings of the Qur'an by local, and otherwise completely obscure, US pastor Terry Jones, whether Arabs considered the US, on the whole, to be a tolerant or a bigoted society. The results were 63% to 37%--63% thought of the US as tolerant, and only 37 percent saw it as intolerant, in the face of the current controversy.
In other words, for the most part, Arab opinion on the US is about the same as American opinion on the US. There is no great chasm here between two civilizations—just the same debate going on in both places.
I used the website Ask500People to do my own quick poll of world opinion on the same question. Voting came to 72% of world population believing the US is tolerant, 28% intolerant. In the US alone, it was 73% to 27%. Some difference, but not a huge amount. Our similarities, Gulf Arab or American, are far greater than our differences.
Elaph's next poll asked Arabs whether they thought building a new mosque near the site of the Twin Towers in Manhattan was a good idea. Fifty-eight percent (58%) said no.
Not so different, again, from my results on Ask500People: 31% yes, 69% no. US alone: 29% yes, 71% no.
In sum, the idea that the Arabs and Islam are a truly foreign culture with very different values from our own in North America or Europe is seriously, and dangerously, wrong. It is a kind of hangover of romantic ideas about foreign lands, of chauvinistic Orientalism. Unfortunately, imaginary differences have been played up by unscrupulous people in order to increase their own power. Nothing unites people like telling them they have a dangerous enemy at the gates; the only question is whether you exploit this for appeasement or a call to arms. This little game has been played by self-appointed Muslim leaders in America and the Middle East, as well as by Western politicians and pundits, left and right.
For example, people hyperventilate about Islam having values that are incompatible with Western traditions of tolerance, of democracy, of liberty, and of human equality. Bollocks, says I. Tolerance is deeply steeped into Arab culture, and comes largely from the same source as in the West: from a long tradition as a trading nation. Consider this, in light of the current debates over Mexican and Muslim immigration in the West: how well would most Western nations tolerate a situation in which 80% of actual residents are first-generation immigrants, speaking their own original language? That is the reality on the ground in Qatar, Bahrain, or the UAE.
Democracy? Modern Arabia does not have democracy, but it is far from alien to Muslim tradition. Mohammed was the democratically elected leader of Medina; the first four Caliphs after him were also elected. In principle, it is monarchy and dictatorship which do not accord with Muslim traditions. Ask an Arab on the street if he believes in, and seeks, democracy. You will not hear many say no.
Liberty? In practical terms, few are so free as the Bedouin is traditionally. If he is not happy with his government, he simply packs up and moves on. Do not imagine, given this inheritance, that liberty is not valued in the Middle East.
Human equality? Please. Islam deliberately avoided the establishment of a professional priestly class, on the strict grounds that all men are equal before God. Even the kings of Saudi Arabia are buried without ceremony in unmarked graves. The constant claims that Arab and Muslim culture dishonour or discount women are purely bogus, based on either ignorance of deceit. They believe that men and women are different, and have different roles. This has nothing to do with equality, and never has, East or West. Those women you see wearing chador or hijab? The point is that it is their choice to do so—and it is in the West, not the Middle East, that choice in this matter is being denied them.
There is no difference at all in fundamental values between Arab culture, and Arab public opinion, and Western culture, or Western public opinion. With one exception: secularism. Even here, it is not a difference so much as a different balance of forces. The secularizing tendency is stronger in the Western cultural wars, while the religious tendency is on the attack in the Middle East.
There is a relatively recent and increasingly aggressive drive among cultural elites in the West towards a completely secular and even anti-religious society. Date it from the French Revolution; with assists from Marx, Freud, Nazis, and feminists more recently. This drive has its counterpart in the Arab and Islamic world as well, but is historically weaker. Kemal Ataturk is probably the most important figure in the Muslim secularizing movement. But most Arab governments and elites since his day have been more or less avowedly secularist. The Shah of Iran, next door, was aggressively so; so has been the government of Egypt since Nasser, the PLO, the Ba'athist government of Syria, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya under Ghaddafi until fairly recently, and Iraq under Saddam.
The current foment among “Islamists” originated as pushback against this tendency at home. The West has come to be blamed as well, on the grounds that the West seemed to support this tendency, and Western culture seems to be the model for the secularists. But the core truth to remember is that the real hostility is not toward the West, but towards secularization, which is quite reasonably seen as simple depravity.
Many Westerners, of course, would agree. Our Victorian ancestors certainly would. So too those notorious “fundamentalists” in the Southern US, traditionalist Catholics, Glenn Beck fans, and so forth. While they would never resort to the tactics of Al Qaeda—and neither would most Muslims—they can surely see the same problem that many Muslims do here.
This is the real divide: it is the culture wars, not a clash of civilizations East and West. It is the culture wars gone international.
Consider this: at base, what is the obvious significance of flying a commercial airliner into the World Trade Centre?
If this were an assault on Christianity, St. Peter's Basilica or the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem would have been the preferred target—and far easier to hit. Doing so would have won Al Qaeda little sympathy in the Muslim world.
If this were an assault on liberal democratic ideals, the obvious target in New York City would have been the Statue of Liberty, not the World Trade Centre. The same would be true if their target were “America” as a cultural entity. (In Washington, we cannot draw clear conclusions—we don't know what their intended targets were. The Pentagon may not have been in the original plan.)
Even if it were an assault on globalization, the World Trade Centre was not the obvious target; that would have been over on the East River, where Ban Ki-Moon holds forth.
The WTC, obviously, symbolizes world trade. It symbolizes what Christians used to call Mammon. It symbolizes trade and commerce raised to a universal standard and to the underlying principle of world culture.
Right in front of our noses, wasn't it?
It is significant that all cultures historically have raised their highest buildings to their highest values. Right up until the mid-nineteenth century, the highest buildings in the world throughout history, and in almost every city individually, were the religious structures: pagan pyramids, Christian cathedral steeples, Muslim minarets, or Buddhist monasteries built on a nearby mountain. For a brief moment in the 19th century, this religious emphasis was supplanted by secular buildings celebrating human reason, human rights, and scientific progress: the Washington Monument, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, “observation towers.” No more. There is a powerful symbolic significance to the fact that our highest buildings now are always consecrated to commerce; and the sounds of traffic boom while church bells are silenced. If we do not see the symbolism, it is because we are so surrounded by it, like a fish by water. It may be far more apparent to a foreigner.
That's what they hit. That's what they intended to hit. With a commercial jetliner. They saw the Tower of Babel.
This is not to say that the people who committed the 9/11 atrocity were not, first and foremost, murderous psychopaths who cared about nothing so much as personally becoming famous. That is a separate point. But even psychopaths need an alibi in order to convince themselves that their actions are ultimately moral. It is the way we are made, by God. Like John Wilkes Booth, or Timothy McVeigh, they could not have done it if they had not been able to find a moral hook that was itself valid in some way.
Let's stay clear about this, and let's stay focused. It seems to me that, if we do, people of good will may find a lot of common ground.
The world is not flat. It is in the very nature of east and west that the twain must, at some point, meet.