‘The Clash of Civilizations’ – A Questionable Thesis

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As the war in Afghanistan nears the end of its shooting phase, questions are being raised afresh on the validity of the thesis of Harvard professor, Samuel Huntington, on the inevitability of a clash between the Muslim civilization of the East and the Christian civilization of the West.

Osama Bin Ladin’s call to Muslim countries to rise in a holy war (Jihad) against America, appeared to provoke such a clash and provide substance to Huntington’s contention. The hawks, jingoists, pro-Israel lobbyists and media-men started quoting like scripture his 1996 book on the subject, betraying an underlying wish for the fulfillment of his prediction.

The more the Muslim states are hamstrung, it was perhaps felt, the less likely would be their support to Palestine. The US being the sole super-power, the time was perhaps considered opportune by these tendentious hawks to expand the battlefield to include Iraq and other oil-rich countries of the region. The anthrax-bearing letters appear to goad the administration’s attention to the units in Iraq suspected of producing chemical and biological weapons.

Developments on the ground have, however, negated a confrontation between the Muslim and Christian civilizations. Almost all Muslim countries have condemned the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, joined the US-led coalition, and offered assistance to the campaign. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) and the Arab League have also endorsed the campaign against terrorism.

Osama’s call for a Jihad has been ignored with contempt. It did however stir emotionally some bigots belonging to the lunatic fringe. These ill-equipped volunteers swelled the rag-tag Taliban ranks to commit aimless suicide.

The Taliban have deserted several fronts to dissolve into the civilian population. Some have defected to the Northern Alliance. Fifteen thousand Taliban, Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, others remain surrounded in Kunduz city in northern Afghanistan. Negotiations continue between the US-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban on the terms of surrender.

That is the situation at the time of writing (Nov. 23). It would be appropriate now to take a look at Huntington’s thesis.

“It is my hypothesis”, he writes, “that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Almost all prominent world historians have sought cogent patterns in the rise and fall of nations and in international relations. The first such study was made by Ibn-e-Khaldun in his work called Maqaddama – ‘Introduction’. He found the inherent cohesion and strength of a nation, which he called ‘asbeyet’, to be the deciding factor. The rise and fall of a nation is conditioned by the curve of its ‘asbeyet.’

Numerous Arab, Persian and Western historians have viewed the phenomenon from various angles. Among the latest, Francis Fukuyama thought that with the demise of the Soviet Union, history itself had come to an end as ideological conflict had ended. Samuel Huntington disagreed contending that a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations was building up. Civilizations, he maintains, are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion.

Interaction of peoples of different civilizations enhance the differences and not decrease them. The victory of liberal democracy over communism ended ideology-based conflicts; civilization-based groupings of states are filling the vacuum, he maintains.

Huntington’s thesis is vastly flawed. Conflicts are rarely rooted in civilizational differences. Contacts between two different civilizations have not always embittered their relations. The have often contributed to positive developments and a cross-fertilization of ideas and knowledge.

The advent of information technology, the internet in particular, and the 1996 formation of World Trade Organization leading to globalization of world economy, the lowering of customs’ barriers, have set in fast motion the development of a world civilization. Cultural differences are conceding place to uniform cultural values.

Over the past two-three years, I have traveled to India, Malaysia, Arabia, Turkey, and Mexico. I found everywhere the same blue jeans, T-shirts, joggers, and fast food chains serving burgers, fried chicken, French-fries, and pizzas. In urban areas you find a lot of men and women using mobile phones. Internet cafes are available within walking distance of each other. Currency changers are similarly available in all countries and you can receive or remit money anywhere within minutes. Your credit card works in most foreign countries. More and more people speak English as a secondary language, and American dollar serves as the world currency. The world cultural scene has thus undergone a change over the past decade or two in a fundamental way.

The clashes of civilizations, if you prefer to call them as such, ended with the end of imperialism in the mid-twentieth century. The modern industrial and technological civilization puts a premium on rationality, science and technology, control of environment, sharing of knowledge and of innovations. Among its salient feature is also a high degree of tolerance for an individual’s religious beliefs.

Empires and nation states have in the past also exploited religious sentiments to promote their temporal interests. Some historians have even suggested that the economic need for cheaper access to the spices of Asia, to serve as preservatives in food products of Europe, was the hidden motive behind the crusades.

Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India via the circuitous route of Cape of Good Hope, and Columbus’ arrival in America in search of India, were certainly meant to finesse the Ottoman’s control over the Mediterranean as a Turkish lake. These ventures had little to do with Islam or Christianity. The discoveries of the new trade routes marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman empire, by gradually shrinking its revenues from the Mediterranean trade, particularly from the customs and transportation charges at Suez.

Similarly, WW1 and WW2 were both fought for overseas markets by Germany and its allies who had been left behind in the scramble for colonies – the captive markets of Asia and Africa.

In the 1850s when Christianity had deeper roots in the hearts of Europe, temporal interests dictated France and Britain to support the Muslim Turkish empire against the Christian Russia. At the present time Georgia, an orthodox Christian state of the Caucasus, finds it easier to have meaningful relations with its Muslim neighbor Azerbaijan than with its co-religionist Armenia. Turkey has firmer relations with Israel than with some of its Muslim neighbors.

Islam urges its followers to not only respect the followers of the other two revealed religions, Christianity and Judaism, but also to protect them like their own kith and kin. The Jews of the days gone by thrived in the Muslim rule of Spain, Ottoman rule in Turkey and Safavid empire of Iran.

The territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine has been given a religious twist to gain political and material support. Osama took advantage of the conflict to build his cult of terrorists. Huntington’s erudition has unfortunately led him to his thesis on the clash of Muslim and Christian civilizations. Both, I submit are wrong.

Events have proved Osama’s call unsupportable. Huntington’s thesis has been countered by many of his academic community. Given the current trends, religion is likely to play only a marginal role in any future world conflict.

Perhaps Prof. Northcote Parkinson has made a more rational assessment of world trends in his book ‘East & West’ in which he presents the cyclical theory of world dominance and contends that the next clash will likely be between the West led by the US and the East by China. His book was published decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union when it was still referred to as the East.

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