Middle East Resources

“Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’”

هل أخطا هانتينجتون في صراع الحضارات؟

Bassam Michael Madany

Friday, the 13th of November, 2015 has been called, the 9/11 of France. As I write these words five days later, the news from France are still dominated by the continued search for the accomplices of the Irhabis who perpetrated their infamous acts in Paris.

In analyzing the impact of the attacks on France and the rest of Europe, some Western world leaders continue to ignore the relation between Islamist Irhab and the basic authoritative texts of Islam. What’s enlightening though is that some Arab intellectuals who are working hard on the modernization of Islam, don’t hesitate to side with the late Samuel Huntington’s views on the subject. At this critical moment in history, I now publish my comments on an Arabic essay that appeared on the online daily Elaph: “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’”   

Things are moving fast in the Middle East. What had begun in 2011 as an “Arab Spring” has turned into a nightmare four years later. Internal civil wars are going on in Syria and Iraq; the Palestinian-Israeli front is getting extremely dangerous with unending Israel air attacks in response to almost continuous rocket attacks from Gaza aimed deep into Israel. Add to that mix we now face a new and extremely dangerous phase of Jihad. This is how it was reported in the weekend edition of The Wall Street Journal, on 12 July, 2014. I quote from the first paragraph of this valuable essay, “The New Jihad”:

“Last week, a self-described heir to the Prophet Muhammad declared himself the supreme leader of a new Islamic state stretching from eastern Syria to northern Iraq. How did Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the nom de guerre of a mediocre Iraqi religious scholar in his mid-40s, outmaneuver al Qaeda as the new vanguard of jihadist ideology? How did he and his followers—armed with Kalashnikovs, smart phones and their ominous black banner—so suddenly take over the campaign to rid the Muslim world of Western and secular influence?”

http://online.wsj.com/articles/why-the-new-jihadists-in-iraq-and-syria-see-al-qaeda-as-too-passive-1405096590

Many people in the West were completely taken by surprise at the rise of this new Jihadist army that plans to be more aggressive and violent than al-Qaeda.  Yet we have been warned by experts in the history of Islam about its historic hostility to all other civilizations.   In fact, two decades ago Foreign Affairs journal published “The Clash of Civilizations” by Samuel Huntington. It occasioned a great deal of discussion; some agreeing with his thesis, while others strongly disagreeing with it. 

 “Huntington pointed specifically to Muslims who would be clashing with the West, unlike the followers of other civilizations such as Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. His proof was that Muslims are basically antagonistic to the concept of nationalism. Their traditions are antithetical to the very basis of Western democratic ideals, such as freedom to choose unbelief, or change one’s religion, the separation of religion from politics that would lead to the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.[i]

“Huntington’s article caused a great deal of controversy, especially after his thesis was expanded into a book, where the question mark was eliminated from its title. The book was considered as extremely polemical work filled with a spirit of hatred, and calling for religious wars. The author was charged with using two different standards of measurement, by singling out Muslims as the only enemies of freedom and of democratic values. But now, in the light of the various Intifadas taking place in the Arab world, it is time to ‘re-examine Huntington’s Clashes.’

“For example, the New York Times published on 3 March 2011 ‘Huntington’s Clash Revisited’ by Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks, who wrote: ‘Huntington argued that people in Arab lands are intrinsically not nationalistic. He argued that they do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West.’   http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/04/opinion/04brooks.html?_r=1&

The article in Elaph continued:

“In fact, David Brook’s critique was not justified. After all, it was not Huntington who invented the primacy of the Islamic Umma over the individual nation. During the last few decades, it has been the source of animosity between Arab nationalists and Islamists, with the latter emphasizing the primacy of the Umma. When the Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood declared that he would prefer Egypt to be governed by a Muslim from any other country, rather than by a non-Muslim Egyptian, he was not expressing a merely personal opinion, but that of the majority of Egyptians. The same attitude explains the antagonism toward personal freedom, and democracy as practised by the Kuffar (Infidels). Recently, a poll taken in Egypt showed that 41% of the population did not believe that democracy was the best system of government; and 84% were in favor of killing a Murtad (apostate).

“And when Brooks writes, ‘But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty,’ he was not contradicting Huntington, since the latter had not denied the existence of some Muslims who do yearn for freedom; Huntington was referring to the majority. Now who can make the claim that the majority of those who took part in the demonstrations at Tahrir Square actually believed in freedom and democracy, in the universally accepted meaning of these terms?  At the time, the disciples of Sheikh al-Qaradawi silenced a young man, Wael Ghanem, who wanted to make a speech at the square, since he did not share their views .The followers of Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) do not believe in a democracy that might bring a woman or a Christian to the position of head of state. Neither would they accept any legislation passed by parliament, unless it had first been approved by ‘Majles al-Fuqaha’ (Assembly of Sharia Experts). They posted all this about their program on the Internet. Therefore, was Huntington wrong, or was he right?”

Analysis

The Arab intellectual who posted “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’” did not agree with David Brooks’ analysis and critique that “Huntington argued that people in Arab lands are intrinsically not nationalistic .... They do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West.”

The New York Times’ op-ed did not address the fact that several Arabic-language articles that appeared in March and early April, 2011, pointed to those ‘constants’ that are still afflicting the Arab-Muslim world, namely the fact that Islam’s worldview still dominates the outlook of the vast majorities of the common people, and progress in the cause of personal freedom, and all that stems from it, has not yet been achieved.

Comments

It is very encouraging that Arab intellectuals are interacting with the late Professor Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis especially that it appeared on the daily online Elaph, the most widely-read Internet medium in the Arab world. The author was fully aware of the great needs of the Arab world, namely to face realistically the challenges of our globalized world. Responding to a New York Times opinion writer was refreshing in its candor and insight. After all, the author possesses first-hand knowledge and experience of Arab culture!

For an Arab writer to take the defense of Huntington’s thesis shows an act of courage and maturity; he acknowledged Islam’s basic animosity toward all other civilizations. While not minimizing the sudden changes in the political climate emerging in Tunisia and Egypt, since the beginning of 2011, he reminded Mr. Brooks that fundamentally, not much has changed in the Muslim mind.

The most heartening and positive part of the article “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’” was the author’s statement “In fact, it would be far more important and useful if Arabs would reconsider and take to heart those points where Huntington was absolutely right in his diagnosis of their ills. I refer to those factors that caused Arabs to be quite different from all other civilizations, thus delaying for decades their uprisings in the cause of freedom and democracy. After all, the animosity of Islam toward all other worldviews has been a major stumbling-block in keeping Muslims from catching up with the rest of the world.”

In closing, I would suggest that Mr. Brooks would do better to re-visit his own thoughts about Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” and reflect seriously on what certain Arab intellectuals think about the Harvard professor’s diagnosis of Islam’s problems with the rest of mankind. A final suggestion: he might place on his reading list, Professor Lewis’ latest book, “The End of Modern History in the Middle East” (HOOVER INSTITUTE PRESS PUBLICATION), published in May, 2011. [ii]


[i] The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P. Huntington

Published in 1996, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 10020

Samuel Huntington’s emphasis on the unique nature of Islamic civilization, being at its core imperialistic; not only in its fusion of religion and politics, but in its expansionist motif or impulse, that of achieving world dominance, is explained in Chapter 10: 

From Transition Wars to Fault Line Wars

In all these places, [reference is to Middle East and Africa] the relations between Muslims and peoples of other civilizations --- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist, Jewish --- have been generally antagonistic; most of these relations have been violent at some point in the past; many have been violent in the 1990s. Wherever one looks at the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. The question naturally rises as to whether this pattern of late- twentieth-century conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim groups is equally true of relations between groups from other civilizations. In fact, it is not. Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming.

(P. 256) 

[ii]  From a description of the book: “With the ending of global strategic confrontation between superpowers, those in the Middle East must adjust to a new reality: to accept final responsibility for their own affairs, to make and recognize their mistakes, and to accept the consequences. In The End of Modern History in the Middle East, Bernard Lewis discusses the future of the region in this new, postimperialist era. For each and every country and for the region as a whole, he explains, there is a range of alternative futures: at one end, cooperation and progress; at the other, a vicious circle of poverty and ignorance.”