The Not So Clear Clash of Civilizations

The Not So Clear Clash of Civilizations

Aref Assaf

Throughout the so-called “war on terror,” the notion of a “clash of civilization” between Islam and the West has usually been dismissed as politically incorrect and intellectually wrongheaded. Instead, the most common interpretation has been that the world has entered a new era characterized by conflict “within” a particular civilization, namely Islam, with fundamentalist Muslims as much at war against moderates as against the West.

The strategic conclusion derived from such an analysis was clear, ambitious, and easily summarized: democratization. If the absence of democracy in the Islamic world was the problem, bringing democracy to the “Greater Middle-East” would be the solution, and it was the historical duty of the United States, as the most powerful and moral nation, to bring about that necessary change. The status quo was untenable.

Implementing democracy, with or without regime change, was the only alternative to chaos and the rise of fundamentalism.

Multiple layers of conflict

Today, Iraq may be on the verge of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Iran under a new and more radical president is moving irresistibly towards possessing a nuclear capacity. A free electoral process brought Hamas to power in Palestine, and the unfortunate episode of the Danish newspaper cartoons illustrated the almost combustible nature of relations between Islam and the West.

All of these developments are paving the way to new interpretations. Rather than a “clash of civilizations,” we might instead be faced by multiple layers of conflict, which interact with each other in ways that increase global instability.

Indeed, it appears that the world is witnessing a triple conflict. There is a clash within Islam, which, if the violence in Iraq spreads to neighboring countries, risks causing regional destabilization. There is also a clash that is best described not as being between Islam and the West, but between the secularized world and a growing religious one. At an even deeper and atavistic level, there is an emotional clash between a culture of fear and a culture of humiliation.

It would be a gross oversimplification to speak, as some are doing, of a clash between civilization and barbarism. In reality, we are confronted with a widening divide over the role of religion, which runs between the West (with the US being a complicated exception) and much of the rest of the world (the most notable exception being China), but particularly the Islamic world.

The West’s religious past

The divide reflects how religion defines an individual’s identity within a society. At a time when religion is becoming increasingly important elsewhere, Most of Europeans and to al  lesser extent Americans,  have largely forgotten their (violent and intolerant) religious past, and they  have difficulty understanding the role that religion can play in other peoples’ daily lives.

In some ways, “they” are our own buried past and, with a combination of ignorance, prejudice, and, above all, fear, “we” are afraid that “they” could define our future. We live in a secular world, where free speech can easily turn into insensitive and irresponsible mockery, while others see religion as their supreme goal, if not their last hope. They have tried everything, from nationalism to regionalism, from communism to capitalism. Since everything has failed, why not give God a chance?

Globalization may not have created these layers of conflicts, but it has accelerated them by making the differences more visible and palpable. In our globalized age, we have lost the privilege – and, paradoxically, the virtue – of ignorance. We all see how others feel and react, but without the minimal historical and cultural tools necessary to decipher those reactions. Globalization has paved the way to a world dominated by the dictatorship of emotions – and of ignorance.

“The Israel-Palestine conflict has become an obsession”

This clash of emotions is exacerbated in the case of Islam. In the Arab world, in particular, Islam is dominated by a culture of humiliation felt by the people and nations that consider themselves the main losers, the worst victims, of a new and unjust international system. From that standpoint, the Israel-Palestine conflict is exemplary. It has become an obsession.

It is not so much that Arabs and Muslims really care about the Palestinians. On the contrary, the Islamic world left the Palestinians without real support for decades. In reality, for them the conflict has come to symbolize the anachronistic perpetuation of an unfair colonial order, to represent their political malaise, and to embody the perceived impossibility of their being masters of their destiny.

In the eyes of the Arabs (and some other Muslims), Israel’s strength and resilience is a direct consequence of their own weakness, divisions, and corruption. The majority of Arabs may not support al-Qaeda, but they do not oppose it with all their heart. Instead, there is the temptation to regard Osama bin Laden as a type of violent Robin Hood, whose actions, while impossible to condone officially, have helped them to recover a sense of Arab pride and dignity.

Here, perhaps, is the real clash of civilizations: the emotional conflict between the European culture of fear and the Muslim, particularly Arab, culture of humiliation. It would be dangerous to underestimate the depth of so wide an emotional divide, and to recognize its existence is the first step to overcoming it. But that will be difficult, for transcending the emotional clash of civilizations presupposes an opening to the “other” that neither side may yet be ready to undertake.