Clash doesn’t explain it all


While ‘clash of civilisations’ may provide a unifying theme in shaping Western responses to political Islam, it lacks the explanatory power to address the issue of conflict in general or to provide any meaningful understanding of Islam and the West
In every age and time there has been a structure of conflict driven by different reasons. Empire building, religion, territorial conquest, and in modern times Western imperialism, that rode on the industrial revolution’s wave of economic and military power, had specific motives and purposes. For the larger part of the last century, we saw the ideological rivalry of the two superpowers, based on a mixture of fear, superiority of values and desire to undo the other that polarised the world system. Rough nuclear parity, conventional arms races, allies spread all over the world and a central strategic balance were manifestations of the ideologically determined Cold War.
That era is behind us. The Western values of capitalism, democracy and free market economy have triumphed over communism. This triumph has once again transformed the world system, leading to a new distribution of power in which the United States, as the superstar of the Western alliance, stands on top. The new structure of power has furthered institutionalised American hegemony, but at the same time it has introduced a new polarisation between the Western powers led by the United States and political Islam.
Some religious movements, parties and groups in the larger Muslim world believe the West, that includes all dominant forces in the Christian world, has manipulated and exploited their states and societies and is responsible for their successive failures and humiliations. Angered by past historical wrongs, like the creation of the state of Israel and unqualified support to the Jewish state’s quest for security, they read the present situation around them no differently. They present the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the occupation and deadly war in Iraq, the recent removal of the union of Islamic courts in Somalia, and support to repressive and corrupt pro-Western governments as evidence for their theory of clashing interests with the West.
Similarly, the Western powers consider non-state terrorist groups, their targeted violence and their increasing social support base in some of the Muslim countries, as confirmation of their fears about Muslims societies. They argue that having lost the power and influence that they had for centuries, and having failed to modernise or come to terms with modernity, Muslim societies inflate the sentiment of victimhood. Can we interpret the emerging clash between some sectors of the Islamic society and the Western powers as a ‘clash of civilisations’?
The thesis expounded by Samuel P. Huntington in the early nineties has not lost relevance to an understanding of the inner social and cultural dynamics of growing distrust between Islamic societies and the West.
Some would argue it is already there, and what is happening in the Muslim arc of conflict, the way insurgency and counter-insurgency forces are being organised and the manner in which they are engaging each other in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and last year in Lebanon, is confirmation of the clash. The religion, communities and cultures associated with them have become defining categories in the clash.
It would be pertinent to mention here that a ‘clash’ between the West and the rest has been a running theme for the past three hundred years. Toynbee, in the early fifties, presented his theory of ‘clash of cultures’, which outlined the differences between Western and non-Western cultures. But unfortunately multiple arenas and dimensions of conflict, domestic and foreign, sectarian and ethnic, have pushed Islam and its militant resurgence in some countries to international prominence as the only force not reconciled to the cultural ideas and domination of the West. There are non-Muslim groups and movements like Global Social Forum resisting the onslaught of globalisation and its ideology of the market economy, but they are tolerated within the framework of other legitimate voices.
Before Huntington, Bernard Lewis, an Orientalist historian and thinker who focused on the Middles East, wrote for decades that Islamic societies are not capable of transforming themselves in the image of the Western civic culture or democratic institutions. The barren democratic landscape of the Islamic countries has provided much empirical evidence to this argument. Another line of thinking is that the ‘West’ is unique and its civilisation is the product of unique historical circumstances, which had better not be emulated by others, particularly the Muslims. If they try to do so, they would undermine their own stability.
Before we proceed any further, let us also acknowledge that Islamic societies, badly battered by imperialism, cultural domination, political deformities and too-obvious injustices have forced the issue of identity to the fore of their national and international politics. Who they are is an important question, and will always be answered in cultural and civlisational terms. But does that mean that cultures and civilisations are frozen in time? They are not.
The sciences, technology, and social and political evolution of all societies are constantly changing them through a process known as modernisation. The distinctive cultural and religious marks would stay for a long time to come, but in the globalised world that is fast unfolding before us, future societies would be more homogenous in terms of economic and political processes, consumption patterns and general values than ever before.
Neither Huntington’s followers in the West nor the Islamic conservatives in Islamic countries accept the transforming effects of technology and economic forces on cultures and political institutions. Unfortunately both reach the same catastrophic conclusion that the ‘clash’ is coming, it is there, and it is inevitable. These are two extremist forms of thinking held by a tiny minority in society but with a lot of influence in the political and intellectual circles in their respective countries. Both extremes draw on difference in beliefs, values and interests to demonstrate how different and morally perfect they are.
The real world, however, is quite different from the imagined world of the civilisation-clashers. It is interdependent, closely knit, integrated, with a high density of interaction among nations that have different civilisations but act for their interests as political communities. It is the wilful misunderstanding of difference between civilisations and its political use by the two extremes that is shaping new confrontations.
The popular depiction of the Islamists in the West is that they are against Western values and ways of life and determined to harm Western interests. While ‘clash of civilisations’ may provide a unifying theme in shaping Western responses to political Islam, it lacks explanatory power to address the issue of conflict in general or to provide any meaningful understanding of Islam and the West. What we see today in certain areas of the Islamic world is in essence a clash of interests between the political forces of Islam and national governments supported by the United States.
The Islamists question the legitimacy of these governments and want to change them or push them closer to the Islamic ways of life. Since the United States has stakes in the stability of these regimes, of course for calculated interests, it throws all its support behind them. The Islamists have interpreted this support as a new form of imperialism, while the United States has branded their tactics of bringing about political change as terrorism. Both camps blame the other of intolerance, excess, injustice and brutalities.
Is there a way out of this evolving clash? Yes, but we need to change our frame of reference from clash to a common civilisational heritage and common destination; and from unilateral and oppressive methods to collective and peaceful means of resolving conflicts of interests within and among nations.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.