The "clash of civilizations": An alternative understanding

A small gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in October 1992 was the first to hear Samuel P. Huntington express an idea that would eventually become his now-famous article "The Clash of Civilizations?", which was published in the summer 1993 issue of the journal Foreign Affairs. But even before the article appeared in Foreign Affairs, its argument was also set forth in an Occasional Paper prepared for the Olin Institute’s project on "The Changing Security Environment and American National Interests". These details are important because they tell us a great deal about the institutional and personal affiliations and support behind this otherwise flawed description of the present global situation, as well as provide clues to the invisible hands behind its global projection that would take its author around the world. The article has since been expanded and "documented", and the resulting book has drawn attention from every continent and been translated into almost all major languages.

Muslim reaction to this formulation has, however, often been rather facile: some call it a statement of the agenda of the West, rather than an analysis of the current global conflict by a political scientist; others misunderstand the thesis; still others deny outright the global onslaught of one civilization against others. Only a small minority have realized that a “clash of civilizations” is, in fact, already under way (see, for example, Zafar Bangash’s column "Far too late now to avert a clash of civilizations" in Crescent International, November 2003)." This recognition of what is now a self-evident global reality necessitates further reflection, as the "clash", in fact, is not of civilizations but of something much deeper and more fundamental. This article attempts firstly to show why Huntington’s construction is flawed, and secondly to provide an alternate view of the global conflict through a far more fundamental construction. It is hoped that this new approach will provide a more meaningful and useful way to understand the various facets of contemporary history.

The fallacy of the notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’

At the most superficial level, a clash of any kind, especially of civilizations, has to be a confrontation wherein there are comparable aggressive intentions in the two opposing civilizations, along with comparable material resources available to carry out the aggression. No such conditions exist today. Thus one cannot really speak of a clash of civilizations; only of the aggression of one civilization bent upon wiping out all other ways of living. This is not merely a play on words, nor a distinction based merely on semantics; it is a logical consequence of historical reality.

Second, and more importantly, to perceive the present conflict in terms of civilizations is a flawed methodology, because a civilization is not a primary entity; it is a product of another primary entity: a set of beliefs. What gives birth to a civilization is a belief system according to which specific ways of life appear in a given polity. These specific ways of life of a large social group, then, produce specific way of organizing social, political and economic activities of that polity; this, in turn, necessitates the establishment of institutions to carry out the various tasks which fulfill the commandments, customs and rites originating from the set of beliefs held sacred by that polity.

Thus seen, the "clash of civilizations" is a facile doctrine because it constructs the fault lines of the present global conflict on the basis of an outward expression of a much deeper and more fundamental entity: the belief system that gives rise to civilizations. By basing his thesis on a secondary entity –” civilization –” Huntington has failed to see anything deeper than a collection of cultural characteristics and phenomena or, in the words of Spengler, "the most external and artificial states" of a given people.

Once the focus is shifted to belief systems, rather than civilizations, we can see a dimension to current global realities which remains inaccessible if the conflict is viewed only as a civilizational phenomenon. This gain is not a superficial accretion; rather, it gives us the necessary tools to identify the real fault lines, and hence a proper understanding of the global situation. In other words, in order to understand the contemporary flow of events, we need to understand their source; the source of all action is belief. Thus, we need to explore the following questions: how do belief systems originate, and how do they become sacred for a given populace? We know that civilizations evolve, decay and disintegrate, but does a belief system also go through the same process? What is the belief system upon which contemporary Western civilization is based? Where did it come from? And what are the belief systems of the other civilizations with which the Western civilization is said to be clashing? Where did they come from? It is through these questions that we can begin to understand major flaws in Huntington’s formulation and also develop an alternative view.

To begin with, let us note that the belief system that produced the contemporary Western civilization first emerged in Europe around 1500 AD and since then has gone through numerous internal transformations. Its geographical expansion took it to North America, Australia and New Zealand. It is also to be noted that there are, indeed, various shades and hues of values, customs and beliefs in the societies and cultures which make up the fabric of contemporary Western civilization, but the concerns and values common to people who live in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and North America –” the geographical region of Western civilization –” have similarities which make these societies a civilizational unit, based on a specific belief system. The diversity of the contemporary West, then, is a diversity that is constrained within the broad framework of a common belief system.

Let us look next at the formation of this belief system. It arose through two revolutions: one in the natural sciences; the other through a reconstruction of Christianity. The former sought to achieve control over the physical world, the latter redefined values, ethics and worldview in order to establish a Kingdom of Man on earth. These two revolutions are intertwined. The scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the accompanying movement that sought to replace the older manifestations of Christianity with a new constructions, both originated in Europe, crossed the Atlantic and begat the contemporary West. This is the basis of a deeply felt and frequently expressed alliance between the peoples of Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. This view does not discount their differences, nor does it take away anything from regional cultures; it merely restates their common foundational basis and pedigree.

It is not the intention of this brief article to recount the stages through which the belief system now operative in the West has passed since its emergence in Europe, but it needs to be noted that it is a product of a series of revolts and revolutions. The revolt against the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation and Counter Reformation, the French and the American Revolutions, the rise of humanism, the Scientific and the Industrial Revolutions and a host of other minor movements have all contributed to the development of these beliefs. In addition, an amalgamation of other ideologies and "isms", such as liberalism, humanism and feminism, have contributed to the rise of this belief system.

At the most basic level, this system is anchored in the belief that human reason is the ultimate arbitrator of all affairs. Thus it gives to human reason the authority to define good and evil, enact laws, and establish criteria for ethics, values and goals. In a revolt against centuries-old beliefs, the West wrestled with all manifestations of Divine authority, and succeeded taking for man a degree of freedom, power and autonomy that made him the measure of all things. This newly empowered human will thus became the arbitrator and measure of all social change. This change removed God from the central position He held as the Giver of Law and as the focal point of all human activity. This same process of revolt then empowered institutions such as parliaments to redefine societal structures, the nature of the relationships between individuals (for example the definition of marriage), as well as that between the individual and the state. Through this process, many practices that used to be considered despicable, sinful and prohibited gained "legality", acceptance and permissibility. This made it possible for numerous Christian sects and churches to accept various moral aberrations as religiously lawful, morally valid and socially acceptable. In order to remain in tune with the times, the custodians of these Churches had to change their doctrines and beliefs accordingly.

The real nature of the "clash"

This transformed belief system now operative in the West, and the civilization that is based upon it, claim universality for themselves. This claim to universality asserts that the cultures, values and ideals that have come into existence on the basis of this belief system are the most advanced form of human achievement. Furthermore, it claims that its political, economic and social systems, and institutions are the destiny of mankind. This claim is neither a localized phenomenon, nor a tacit or passive self-understanding; it is an aggressive contention that is expressed at various levels, through many means by the ideologues, politicians and intellectuals of this civilization. Seen from their perspective, the Western civilization presents to humanity the most advanced, most progressive and the most desirable way of life. They contend that it is only the tyrannical rule of certain individuals or groups that is preventing the spread of the "fruits" of their civilization to the poor, underdeveloped and uneducated people; and if these regimes could be removed, the oppressed people of these countries would welcome this civilization with open arms.

This self-assessment, and the ingrained self-righteousness it engenders, are accompanied by a multi-billion dollar effort to spread the "fruits" of the Western civilization to the rest of the world through domination, control and occupation. This, the most massive and aggressive march of any civilization that human history has ever witnessed, is also viewed as the most natural outcome, as if the self-proclaimed fittest civilization has a birthright to extinguish all other civilizations as a process of natural selection. This extrapolation of the doctrine of "the survival of the fittest" into the domain of civilizations is based on the assumed superiority of three basic doctrines held sacrosanct by the West: democracy, individual liberty and free-market economy. It is these three components of the Western civilization which are now being exported to the rest of the world because they are considered to be the universal aspiration of the entire human race.

Of all nations which fall within the sphere of the Western civilization, the United States of America has achieved a unique role with its technological and economic power. It now stands as the embodiment of this civilization, and thus its self-assumed right to rule the world is reflected in various spheres of contemporary life –” from its military adventures to its insatiable desire to export the American way of life to the rest of the world.

While he was in office, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives (1995-1999) wrote an article called "America’s right to world leadership", in which he claimed:

"only America can lead the world. America remains the only global, universal civilization in the history of mankind. In the space of less than 300 years, our system of representative democracy, individual liberties, personal freedoms and free enterprise has provided the foundation for the greatest economic boom in history. Our value system is emulated around the world. Our technology has revolutionized mankind’s way of living and has been the primary force for globalization."

This declaration should not be taken lightly; it is not the statement of an upstart politician. It is the belief of the author of "Contract with America", a manifesto of the American rightwing, which Newt Gingrich signed along with 367 other Republicans at the doorsteps of the Capitol on September 27, 1994, a few weeks before the midterm Congressional elections of November 1994, in which the Republicans won a majority in the US Congress for the first time in 40 years. It is also important because Gingrich represents a new brand of American activism.

Before attempting to formulate the real contours of the "clash", let us note in passing that despite the unilateralism of certain recent military invasions, America is not alone in asserting the universality of the Western civilization. This assessment is shared by all countries that perceive themselves as being part of Western civilization. Their mutual differences exist only in the realms of methods, strategies and tactics. Thus no one should be deluded by these superficial differences about how the propagation of the Western civilization should be achieved. The facts that all Western nations share a common belief system, and that their self-assessment is also a shared phenomenon, can be gleaned from the behaviour of Germany and France before and during the recent invasion of Iraq. Despite their vocal opposition to the unilateral actions of the US, these governments did nothing to stop the aggression; rather, at crucial junctures before, during and since the US invasion, they repeatedly abandoned the public stands they had earlier taken. Their record suggests that their current opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is merely a bargaining tool for "reconstruction" contracts.

The root of the real "clash" that is a current global reality lies in two claims to universality. We have already seen how the belief system that sired the modern Western civilization claims to be universal; another belief system with a similar claim is Islam. Islam’s claim to universality is simply expressed in the Qur’anic statement that it is a message for all people (7:158). It should also be noted here that the Qur’an claims to be the continuation of, and completion of, earlier Divine Revelations, and places itself in the grand tradition of other Revealed Books, with the important distinction that it was revealed to complete all earlier manifestations of a single Divinely ordained religion, al-Islam, and that it corrects the erroneous beliefs and practices that have crept into earlier belief systems through the corruption of the revealed messages or through their eclipse.

The civilization that came into existence on the basis of the message of the Qur’an –” the Islamic civilization –” now does not possess military and economic strength comparable to the West, but it still holds that its belief system is the only valid one, and that it is for all of humanity. This claim is not presently asserted through any material prosperity and strength, but simply on the basis of the Qur’anic claim that it is a protected message, eternally safe in the "well-guarded tablet" (85:22), accessible to all through the "uncorrupted and incorruptible Book", the actual Words of God, addressed to all human beings. This belief is simply unshakeable. Hence a materially superior West finds itself face to face with a civilization that had its golden days of strength and power but is now much reduced, yet refuses to accept the universalist claim of a civilization stronger in military and economic terms by several orders of magnitude. That is not all. This exhausted polity, now standing in the way of a universal expansion of Western civilization, itself believes that it will achieve a similar universal expansion because of a Divine promise that, in the end, it is the Truth that prevails. This, then, is the dialectic foundation of the contemporary conflict, erroneously called a "clash of civilizations".

The advantages of the alternative construction

A word must be said about the advantages of this construction as opposed to the view that posits the current global realities in terms of a "clash of civilizations". There are several important advantages to this construction:

1. Thus viewed, the present situation needs no historical discontinuity. In other words, it does not necessitate any breach of the flow of history through an artificial use of doctrine of survival of the fittest. The clash between the Revealed Message and man-made beliefs is as old as human history. This continuity also allows us to draw parallels between its present and past manifestations, such as the encounter between Moses and Pharaoh and the clash that once occurred in Makkah between the leaders of the Quraysh and the final Messenger of God who brought a clear Book which sets out this conflict in the most lucid ways.

2. Because the present conflict thus viewed is, in fact, a conflict of two sets of beliefs, both claiming to be universally valid, one can situate numerous unfolding events in the broad categories where they resonate with the previous events; even certain arrogant utterances of men like Donald Rumsfeld and George Bush remind one of the sort of thing that Abu Lahab and Abu Jahal used to say. Likewise, statements of American generals often echo those of Pharaoh.

3. The most important benefit of situating the present conflict in the general flow of human history and of viewing it through this particular construction is to be found in gaining a model for success against the onslaught of the Western civilization through the Sunnah of the Prophet of Islam (saw). This is a sure path to success, as the Prophetic model is not a man-made, ad hoc model; it was moulded by the One Who revealed the universal message of the Qur’an and it proved its veracity in a similar conflict between a Revealed belief system and a man-made construct.

4. As far as Muslims are concerned, they cannot afford to view the present conflict as a "clash of civilizations", because this construction automatically puts them at a massive disadvantage because Islamic civilization is presently so much weaker in material and worldly terms compared to the Western civilization. It is precisely due to this false construction that many Muslims today feel hopeless and helpless against the onslaught by the West; an attitude that breeds defeatism which has now become a deeply entrenched attitude in the ruling classes in the Muslim world. They forget that civilizations are not primary entities and can therefore change and decay, and yet regain their strength, as long as they remain attached to the unchanging, Divinely-revealed truths.

5. This alternative construction also provides a globally applicable framework to view various aspects of the current realities. Thus, when applied to resistance against occupation, this construction allows us to see the situation in Iraq from the same perspective from which we can view the situation in Palestine and other Muslim lands. When applied to cultural aggression, myriad forms of aberrations being promoted in the Muslim world by Western civilization achieve a universal context. When this framework is applied to the economic subjugation of the Muslim world, the strategy used by various international monetary institutions as well as those being used to promote "globalization" can be examined from a unified Islamic perspective that draws its tools of investigation from the Qur’an and Sunnah. Likewise in other realms.

6. This recasting of present realities also allows us to remove the erroneous impression that Islam is only for the people who live out there in the poor, undeveloped and backward areas of the world. It allows us to open ways to the message of the Qur’an and to the noble example of His Messenger (saw) for all humanity –” ironically, through its own devices, the Western civilization has opened ways for the spread of this universal message to all humanity. The inherent truth and power of Divine Revelation as manifested in the Qur’an can guide us to a straight path. The Western civilization has produced a crumbling world, beset with myriad social and moral problems. Although Muslims face a global terror today, we have a fortification that is beyond the reach of the most sophisticated weapons: our faith. All that this faith requires us to do is to live by this veritable Truth, convey it to those who have not received it, and trust that the force of Truth will itself open hearts and minds. It is only in Allah that we trust.