The “clash of civilisations” has been massively overblown. It's blinded us to the fault lines which lie within cultural groups.
The stubbornly persistent “clash of civilisations” theory ignores the abundant clashes within civilisations and the alliances that traverse them.
They've been at it again. Those two middle-aged sons of dynasties anointed with the sacred oil of petroleum have been posing as God-inspired leaders of a titanic struggle between the forces of “good” and “evil”.
The first to take the world stage was George W Bush. While his comments about appeasement caught the media's attention, I found another part of his speech just as troubling. Addressing the Knesset on Israel's 60th anniversary, he declared:
“The fight against terror and extremism is the defining challenge of our time. It is more than a clash of arms. It is a clash of visions, a great ideological struggle… This struggle is waged with the technology of the 21st century, but at its core it is an ancient battle between good and evil.”
Not one to take such affronts quietly, Bush's convenient nemesis delivered his own birthday message to Israel. Perhaps in a bid to bolster his mystical image, Osama bin Laden released an audiotape instead of his more usual grainy, post-modern videos. In it, he claimed:
“We will continue, God permitting, the fight against the Israelis and their allies… and will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on earth.”
The political scientist Samuel Huntington gave the idea of a monumental clash of civilisations intellectual credibility when he published, first an essay (1993), and then a book (1996), on the issue.
Although Huntington popularised the term (and Bernard Lewis probably coined it), the notion of a clash of civilisations is certainly not new. It was a convenient cover for Soviet and US imperial expansionism during the cold war, under the ideological covers of communism and capitalism – and the popularity of Huntington's theory may reflect the desperate need to find a new enemy.
Huntington divided the world into a number of vaguely defined civilisations, singling out the “Islamic” and “Sinic” civilisations as the main challengers to the “west”. In the intervening years, supporters of this thesis have seen the 11 September 2001 attacks, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as confirmation of this clash. And the current tensions with China might be viewed as an early dress rehearsal for a potential future confrontation with the Sinic civilisation.
To his credit, Huntington does point out that a clash of civilisations is not inevitable. What baffles me is why he would propose one in the first place, seeing as there is scant evidence to back up his thesis.
Of course, there is something of a case to be made that groups of societies share, or aspire to, certain common features and values. Although millions of people, including myself, may wish peace and freedom for all of humanity, societies rarely clash over abstract notions. Dress them up in all the ideological masks you wish, but most conflicts find their roots in the plain old struggle for land and resources. Self-interest – greed-driven, enlightened or pragmatic – is the main guiding principle of international relations.
Two major failings in the clash of civilisations theory is that it glosses over or ignores the very real conflicts and potential conflicts within individual civilisations, and it overlooks the fact that political alliances are multiple, shifting, and often cut across civilisational boundaries.
Take the Muslim world, one of the main theatres of the supposed confrontation. Viewed through the prism of Huntington's clash, there seems to be no civilisational rhyme or reason to its geopolitical realities.
For example, the first major conflict to emerge in the Middle East in the dying days of the cold war involved not a clash between “Islam” and the “west”, but the invasion of one Arab country by another, when Iraq invaded Kuwait. In addition, the US-led international alliance which ended the short-lived occupation saw Arab and western soldiers fight side by side.
In the process, the consistently tyrannical Saddam Hussein metamorphosed from “our son of a bitch” into a tyrant of Hitlerian proportions. And from 1990 until the present, Iraq, the one-time ally against Iran, has suffered the crushing US-UK led wrath of bombings, crippling sanctions and occupation, which have helped transform it into a more theocratic state.
Syria, a dictatorship whose secular values are closer to the west's, is regarded as a dangerous pariah, despite its international isolation. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia – an absolutist monarchy and Islamic theocracy which exports its intolerant Wahhabi brand of Islam, inspiring extremist groups around the world – is feted as a staunch and loyal ally. Iran, another theocracy but one with greater democratic credentials, is vilified.
Surely, if contemporary clashes were about “culture”, as Huntington proposes, Saudi, not Syria, would be at odds with the west. Why is this not the case? Huntington admits that there is “a very obvious reason” for this. Ten guesses what that is.
Moreover, if “Islam” were a single civilisation capable of posing some sort of threat, should it not be capable of presenting some sort of united front, rather than its divided reality?
Huntington posits that: “Islam is less unified than any other civilisation”. If it is so disunited and none of its countries have declared war on the west, who exactly will lead the charge: al-Qaida? Can a few thousand extremists be classed as the main protagonists in a civilisational clash, without the notion being met with derisive laughter?
Similarly, the west is not some unified civilisation, as was amply demonstrated in European opposition to the Anglo-American military misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, which led Washington to accuse Germany, France and Belgium of being an axis of weasels. At the time, there were fears that NATO might collapse, and had America not enjoyed such overwhelming domination of the western alliance, the strain could have been far more damaging.
One reason why a confrontation between Muslim countries and the west seems so credible to some is that it has an ancient, if long dormant, pedigree. However, the idea of Islam v Christendom was, in many ways, a convenient fiction perpetuated on both sides. Although many Christians and Muslims may feel a certain special connection with their co-religionists, realpolitik is more often the preferred guide.
The first world war – which was described by Henry James as the “crash of civilisation” and demonstrates the ferocity of intra-civilisational conflict – is a telling example. The Arabs aided the British and French against the Turks, while one-time enemies, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, fought on the same side.
The British and the French fought together in both world wars, despite the fact that they have historically been the bitterest enemies, despising each other possibly more than they did Muslims. For instance, Admiral Nelson once told a crewmember: “You must hate a Frenchman as you do the devil.”
Similarly, ever since the dawn of Islam, Muslims have been at war with one another perhaps more than with Christians. The Shia-Sunni schism appeared early on. In addition, Islam quickly acquired two caliphates as the Umayyads fled west when they were ousted by the Abbasids.
In addition, Christian-Islamic alliances have an ancient history, although this is often forgotten. For instance, Islam's entry into Europe was aided by local notables, such as Count Julian of Ceuta, and the local population did not aid their hated Visigoth overlords. Over the next seven centuries, Muslim and Christian kingdoms often found themselves fighting on the same side, despite the stated aims of the reconquista.
This continued into Ottoman times. While central and eastern Europe feared and were overtaken by the Turks, many countries in western Europe, such as France, England and the Netherlands forged alliances with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs or the Spanish.
With few exceptions, there has never really been an actual clash of civilisations, and to avoid one emerging as a self-fulfilling prophecy, we must dig deeper than narrow cultural reductionism and examine and address the complex underlying causes of tensions and conflicts, such as inequality, poverty and oppression. Our shrinking and threatened world needs us to reach beyond narrow ideological boundaries.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 2 June 2008.