• February 23, 2024

The farce called ‘clash of civilizations’

(Note: This piece first appeared on April 07, 2015. Since then a lot has changed. But the core argument remains unchanged. So it is being reproduced here for your perusal.)

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by ...

The pictures of three British Muslim schoolgirls who left home to join the IS tell a harrowing tale of estrangement, heartbreak, lost control, indoctrination and abandonment.

Shamima Begum, Amira Abase (both 15) and Kadiza Sultana (16) led their families to believe that they had some local engagement, stole their jewellery to cover the travel cost and flew to Turkey to cross the Syrian border in order to be Jihadi brides for the Islamic state.

As CCTV footage of their travel later emerged, it was plain that timely action could have stopped them before they disappeared inside Syria. Imagine the agony of the parents who helplessly watched their daughters going through a well-documented path to self-destruction.

But the bigger question is, how did they end up here?

To an estimate, there are well over 20,000 foreign volunteers fighting alongside the IS in Syria and Iraq. A lion’s share of this number comes from Europe. Interestingly enough, the relative number of volunteers from the United States is not much.

Muslim communities in non-Muslim countries put a lot of emphasis on family values and the family as a unit. Hence it is not that easy for a young member to leave everything behind; the message that lures them out of their cozy environment must be potent enough to desert everything and go.

Amira (centre, circled), Kadiza Sultana (left), and Shamima Begum (right) pictured at Gatwick.—Photo courtesy: The Daily Mail
Amira (centre, circled), Kadiza Sultana (left), and Shamima Begum (right) pictured at Gatwick.—Photo courtesy: The Daily Mail

It is now believed that the IS recruiters employ a mix of the assumed victimhood of minorities: fear of the cultural other, peer pressure, greed and the ‘end-ism’ propaganda to attract new recruits.

The three missing girls are said to have been in contact with Aqsa Maqsood, their academy fellow who left for Syria last year. But had it not been for the vulnerabilities of the Muslim communities in these countries, such recruitment would never been so easy.

Amira, Shamima, Kadiza and Aqsa are all wearing the hijab or headscarf in the pictures. Is it possible that the Muslim communities’ newfound emphasis on piety in western countries has something to do with the failure of assimilation?

Europe’s failure of assimilation

European societies are known today to be multicultural and pluralistic, but they were not always like that. Only until a century ago, Europe was home to some of world’s most predominant colonial powers. Rudyard Kipling in his poem White Man’s Burden in 1899 called the people of colonies, “your new-caught, sullen peoples, half devil and half child”.

So when some of these people migrated to Europe, they were not immediately accepted or absorbed. Human zoos could still be found in Europe till the late 1950s. In a separate part of Europe, Hitler showed the world what could be done to minorities.

Discrimination at that time too was alive, many Muslims who migrated to Europe tried to transform their identity to fit in. Salman became Solomon, Zakaria chose to be called Zak. But that too was to no avail.

Europe at that time was simply not ready to assimilate the immigrants; rejection led to reactions worldwide. One generation’s failure led the next to emphasise their roots, identity and culture of origin. Then came the Jihadist propaganda and the Muslim communities in Europe kept mutating to form a global cultural ‘other’, giving strength to the misplaced notion of the clash of civilisations.

An unfortunate binary

The end of the Cold War sparked speculations about the future of the human civilisation. Unipolarity led many to dream of a future free of conflict. Was it possible to conclude that Western values had finally and irreversibly triumphed?

It was at this time that one of the best political minds of our time, Francis Fukuyama, borrowed Hegel’s dialectics to conclude that the western ideal had won and this marked the end of man’s intellectual history.

His paper The end of history (later expanded into a book) remains a beautiful assessment of western universalism; it did not get the friendly reception that it deserved. A skeptical audience given to the mental Cold War straitjacket did not take kindly to the ambitious pronouncement. At the end of this piece we will see if Dr Fukuyama’s pronouncement was actually as premature as was declared at the time, but let us first focus on the unintended consequences.

In the September 1990 edition of the monthly Atlantic, Bernard Lewis, the renowned British-American historian and Orientalist, used the phrase ‘clash of civilisations’ in an essay titled Roots of Muslim Rage.

But, while he had used the phrase in passing, it was Samuel Huntington – the well-known conservative scholar who is known more for political machinations than scholarly work – who put it to naked utilitarian use.

Sadly, while the works of Dr Fukuyama manifest great virtues of intellect, Dr Huntington’s work displays all the characteristics of premeditated spinning to give a specific direction to the historic causation.

Before we look into his ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, let us take a closer look at the man.

So who was Samuel Huntington?

In her book Songs of Blood and Sword, Fatima Bhutto describes him as a ‘frail old man’ who ‘wore a woolly navy sweater in April and drank Coca-Cola from a Starbucks espresso cup’.

She also recollects how her father, as an undergraduate associate at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, came across Huntington’s reputation of being the ‘butcher of Vietnam’. Apparently, the man had ‘advocated the herding of villagers into clusters’, which instead of saving them, actually turned them into easy targets and collateral damage.

That was a bit of South Asian perspective, but there is more: The man could not get into the National Academy of Sciences in 1986, owing to the bitter opposition of one Dr Serge Lang, a Yale mathematician who accused Huntington of using ‘a type of language which gives the illusion of science without any of its substance’.

Lang accused him of employing pseudo-mathematical arguments in his 1968 book Political Order in Changing Societies to reach the conclusion that in that decade, apartheid-afflicted South Africa was a ‘satisfied society’. Dr Lang dedicated 222 pages of his 816 page book, titled Challenges (published in 1998) to this controversy.

Whatever the validity of his challenge, it was strong enough to twice reject Huntington’s bid for member of the academy, despite his incredibly powerful knack for public relations.

I have narrated this episode to highlight that many believed that the author of The Clash Of Civilisation did not mind manipulating – even cooking up – facts to reach his favoured conclusions.

Engineering a clash

To prove that a clash between various cultures is inevitable, Huntington in his original article published in Foreign Affairs in 1993, based his definition of civilisation on the Arnold Toynbee interpretation of the term, which inextricably linked it to religious and cosmological outlook.

This was easy: Pick two of the most populous religious and cultural identities and project them as the new challenges after the communist threat. That way, you make the fear of the enemy so vast that you can give whatever policy advice in the resulting environment of paranoia.

Ideas can be powerful and offer tremendous power to their proponents. Hence, this flawed thesis.

Before the age of Toynbees, Spenglers and Durkheims, civilisation was only interpreted in the qualitative sense. There was assumed to be just one civilisation instead of many – civilisation versus benighted primitiveness. While that too can be considered a useful colonial tool, its interpretation of civilisation as an ideal was closer to the objective reality.

Why, then, go for a broken, reductionist definition of civilisation? Because that was dead useful.

Minds like Huntington’s are creatures of conflicts and it is in a polarised environment that they prosper. No doubt then, that compared to his other works, his clash thesis became a one-hit wonder.

Huntington (left) and Fukuyama.
Huntington (left) and Fukuyama.

If you are still not convinced that there was deliberate engineering involved here, the following quote from Michael Dibdin’s novel, Dead Lagoon, might do the job. Huntington reproduces this quote in the beginning of his 1996 book The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order:

“There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves! They will not lightly be forgiven.”

So, not only are there multiple civilisations and their clash imminent, but if you deny all this (and don’t fight) you will not be forgiven.

Which civilisations might clash with the West, then? The Islamic and Confucius civilisations. Post-colonial Muslim countries which had constantly faced identity crises were bound to inhale this propaganda in a heartbeat. So they did.

Likewise, a rapidly growing China was also looking for an identity more relevant in the changing times. Today, the organisation for the cultural promotion of socialist China abroad is not called the Mao Institute but the Confucius Institute.

But if you want to know what Huntington really believed in, you will have to read his parting shot Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, in which he professes the American WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) identity is under threat from the Latino immigrants.

Is it not ironic that the man who identifies himself with something as broad as the western civilisation ends up with such a narrow identity?

Rise of doomsday cults in Islam

It was as if taking a cue from Huntington’s work, that fringe extremist groups in Muslim societies and connected minorities abroad started their propaganda about signs of the end of times. The clever plot in it is that Muslim eschatology predicts a series of wars in which if you choose to join the enemy’s ranks, you will never be forgiven (rings a bell?).

Henceforth, it was almost a self-fulfilling prophecy that given the political status quo in the Muslim countries, non-state actors will flourish with their brand of deadly terrorism. Therefore, the talk of a clash started gaining substance almost immediately after 9/11.

But Muslims were not the only community prone to these tendencies. While 9/11 and related terror incidents might have obscured the pre-existing undercurrents of end-ism in the rest of the world, they as good as almost set the stage for terrorism to come.

Shoko Asahara’s doomsday cult in Japan, Aum Shinrikyo carried out the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, killing 13 and affecting thousands. Today, from al Qaeda to the Islamic State, most terror outfits in the Muslim world are hardly more than doomsday cults. But such groups, too, are running short of arguments.

While their machinations may continue for a few more years, their appeal can easily be done away through smart policy interventions.

Instability in the world order

There is no gainsaying that the world order will essentially stay unstable for now. It is a given. Like dwellers in the same house, people of the world are prone to quibbling.

However, such fights will not be along ‘civilisational’ lines but more realistic regional conflicts.

Crimea is one example. Yemen is another. Perhaps there is a better way to look at it than Huntington’s. In his 2000 book Post Modern State and the World Order, British diplomat Sir Robert Cooper divides the world into three categories: Pre-modern, modern and post-modern.

‘Pre-modern’ countries are where state institutions are not functioning and the state loses monopoly on violence. A ‘modern’ state represents your average everyday countries, where state institutions are functioning properly but only just. A ‘post-modern’ state has only one state, namely the European state, where nation states give up limited autonomy to be united under one umbrella.

This explanation shows how the world is in different stages of development – divisions evidently, but not something you cannot avoid.

Otherwise Huntington’s prophesied clash ignores the fact that the Muslim world is not unified enough, and the Confucius world Confucian enough to pose a systematic challenge to Western thought.

End of history revisited

The incredible convenience of confrontation aside in the current fog of war, hate and anger; the real merits of Fukuyama’s basic thesis get obscured. However, they are there.

Recently, when Lee Kuan Yew died, with him got buried the talk of the so-called Asian values. Authoritarianism, oppression and illiberal ways have lost their appeal. Here and there, you find feeble attempts to justify them but they are losing impact.

While economists everyday try to improve the quality of capitalism with added checks and balances, the world has failed to represent coherent alternatives since the fall of Soviet Union. Liberal democracy is now considered the best institutional practice, when not publicly, privately.

The notion of the religions of the world competing with the West as an alternative is also misplaced, given that Western values are essentially mundane in nature and religions after spiritual illumination. No matter how much it tries to convince you, the clergy, cannot deny that the two do not occupy the same space.

And that’s why the triumph of the West doesn’t mean religion will lose its influence.

Far from that, as the world painstakingly marches to the postmodern finish line, pluralism will find space for all faiths. But if the world has not been able to come up with a cogent alternative to liberal democracy as an ideal, why should we not conclude that it has triumphed at least in theory?

In my humble view, there is no rational alternative to it all.

Those who have known Fukuyama’s works through secondary references should do themselves a service and go through the original source.

(This piece originally appeared here)

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