Please Note: This node is not a judgemental one. I mean no value judgement in the use of words like tribal and secular. I (and those I quote or paraphrase) are instead attempting to describe and characterize the inherently messy entities comprised of groups of humans. I assure you that my own personal preferences are (to the best of my abilities) not presented here; while I'm sure they leak through, my points in this node should not be held as subjective but as objective. I hope to very briefly explore some of the root causes of the current unpleasant situation. If you feel you must declare your own opinions and position as a result of this, please do it via /msg to me; I'm trying to avoid starting a flamewar here.

Whew. Here goes.

Much has been made, in light of the recent unpleasantness, of a series of articles, papers and volumes that appeared on the Western politics scene in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. The centerpiece of these could be reasonably deemed to be the well-received book by Samuel Huntington entitled The Clash of Civilizations.

Huntington and others, some of whom agreed substantially with him and others less so, were attempting to fill the void in Western (specifically U.S/NATO) security policy and strategic thought that had been left in the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and, perforce, the central defining conflict now known as The Cold War. Although there was clearly no guiding ideal or schema that was informing U.S. security and foreign policy, this didn't really matter much to the average American. Either enjoying the late Eighties boom, the resultant recession, or the dot-com bubble, folks were really far too caught up in more domestic concerns to form or make known an opinion.

True to form, some people who were (God knows how) in power tried to enunciate a scheme for the post-Cold War world, but typically fell on their ass as a result when their programs turned out to have little defining force on policy beyond a common coloring of soundbites. Fortunately or unfortunately, there were those who were busily taking care of the problem.

The Gulf War brought Huntington et. al. into the limelight, as well as inspire many of them to their contributions to the discourse. Here's why. Allow me to offer a brief summation (entirely incomplete; go read the book for yourself) of The Clash of Civilizations.

Essentially, Huntington argued, the end of the Cold War saw the end of the nation-state as the defining unit in international conflict. While the nation-state would remain the base actor on the world scene, one's side (Us? Them?) would no longer be a consequence of one's nationality. Rather, the positions of nationalities would be determined by those of civilizations. A civilization is not, as Sid Meier would have you believe, a despotically run state or group of states. Rather, it is a group of people (and the cities, regions and nations that they inhabit) brought together by a common culture; a history of interaction, common core beliefs, and similar methods of thinking.

In Huntington's view, the world after the Cold War would be split along lines that could be defined most precisely by the borders of civilizations. There were, in his estimation, perhaps seven distinct civilizations: Western/secular, Islam, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African. I won't go into his reasoning, but personally find it compelling. He continues by noting that the West is at a peak of power in the world; the twentieth century's scientific advances and the advent of nationalist mass-mobilized, industrial nation warfare has placed the West (and the United States in particular) atop the heap.

The most likely conflict axis, he notes, is that between the West and Islam. This is because the West and the Islamic world have already seen several centuries of military skirmishing; and because the fundamental core values that make up the two are in profound conflict. The West espouses science, the exploration of thought, fluid personal values (i.e. subject to personal decision and evaluation), and the progress of the individual over tradition. Islam, on the other hand, is based at the core on faith and devotion, on a society's internal bonds strengthened through common religious beliefs and practice, and through an emphasis on religious teachings over mundane complications when the two come into conflict.

The world, says Huntington, is becoming a smaller place; nowadays (from henceforth say I) a man who would be known at home as a Pashtun of a particular village, of Sunni faith, of Islam, perchance living in Afghanistan, is able to travel outside his familiar world. He finds that in New York City, or in Paris, or in Shanghai, or in Melbourne, or in Moscow, he is likely to be known simply as an Arab, his particular cultural riches and identity sloughed away in favor of a distinction which (to him) is insultingly broad. This contributes to the sense of Western civilization as a depersonalizing, alienating force that is held among more traditional, tribal peoples (of whom most Muslims see themselves a part). To them, this other civilization has discarded all that they have achieved, hold dear and pass on to their children in favor of a (mostly harsh and bigoted) form of identification that not only makes them thus faceless but draws them into the unfamiliar and unwanted battle lines of interracial relations in the West.

Finally, as information and experiences are spread liberally through the world by modern media and communications technologies, the overwhelming common thread of Western values and images (brought about, after all, due to the West's head start in such technologies and methods) will naturally give rise to defensive counteridentification; and the most 'counter' you can get to the omnipresent and homogenous Western MTV consumer culture is to identify yourself with those very characteristics that the Westerners have discarded - a 'secret language' in the open, or a badge of honor that (by design) the West won't understand.

Couple this with the rise of the resources available to nation-states in the Muslim world due to the West's reliance on petroleum, and you have a recipe for Saddam Hussein, for Sheikh Abdel Rahman, and Osama bin Laden. In this world, tribal, traditional and familiar means of conflict are being utilized to differentiate between the faceless West and the familiar, comfortable, kindred Islamic peoples. While the West is conditioned to thinking about international relations along nation-state boundary lines, nations in this common Muslim culture or civilization are acting along civilization commonalities. Their actions thus confuse the West, who assumes that they can interact with one nation at a time, constructing their policy/polices as they go. Secrecy of interaction was, at one time, assumed by all in the diplomatic arena. Secret treaties, closed-door negotiations, all that and more were closely held between the involved parties lest one of them derive (or, more likely, lose) advantage through its disclosure to third party nations. World War One, says one popular hypothesis, was caused by a web of 'secret agreements' that eventually made any internationally destabilizing incident (the Archduke's assassination, in this case) sure to 'ignite a powderkeg' by triggering the increasingly deep and complex sequence of military and diplomatic moves that had been 'preprogrammed' by those agreements.

Now, however, the West find itself dealing with a set of actors that (while presenting themselves as separate, and indeed acting as such in some cases) actually share many deep-seated beliefs, values and sensitivities. Actions which, in the past, would only affect relations with one nation-state, now pluck the strings of a complex web strung between the artificial overlay of nationalities that sits atop Islamic civilization. The resultant vibrations begin to approach the World War One web of treaties and agreements - lines of reaction, loyalty, viewpoints and preparation that are invisible to the outside observer but manifest powerfully to complicate any interaction between the West and the Islamic nations.

This, coupled with the past several centuries of military conflict between the West and Islam made greater by the existence of the state of Israel (a creation of the West's United Nations, and a client of the United States), means that there is a rift between Islamic civilization and the western one. This rift, which may not precisely follow national borders, nevertheless makes itself felt whenever the West acts in any way which affects the Muslim world (in the Muslim world's opinion). Given the ready availability of media and communications (CNN is proud to note that most world leaders monitor them 'round the clock, after all, and broadcasts heavily in the Middle east) this means that waves and ripples of reaction will swiftly shake Islam whenever the West does something dumb, something lethal (no matter how justified or not) or just inherently Western on television. Meanwhile, the West remains somewhat confused, unable at some level to comprehend how situations affecting (in their view) one nation-state are in fact informing the views of an entire civilization that they are just now beginning to recognize as a unit.

Next: I go into more mind-numbing detail, this time concerning the nature of the conflict between the West and Islam and the factors that will inform it! Read on, quail, scream with terror, flee to the catbox; I drone on!

Cheers to The Custodian for an excellent precis. When I've read Huntington in the past I could hardly contain my frustrated ball of galvanized rage, but for the sake of nodegel health....

To his credit, Huntington stepped into the post-Cold War theoretical void, with a readiness to bring the concept of ideology to the realist sphere. However, the idea of an inherent clash between Islam and the West is absurd, simply because Islam itself is complex, and never acts as a bloc of nations. As a general rule, Muslim states disagree with their Western counterparts (and eachother) over economic, social, and political issues, not religious dogma.

To accept civilization as a unit of analysis is to treat the current political tensions between some Muslim and Western governments as permanent, as if they derive from some deep religious reasons that only divine intervention could resolve. This argument has a special resonance among Western conservatives who resist any reconsideration or change of American foreign policy. They are against American "concessions" because they will not affect, according to the realist argument, the ostensible global conflict between the West and those hostile civilizations.

Huntington's selective reading of history supports a paradigm that explains only a limited band of reality spanning from the end of World War 2 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The facts he selects to support his own theories for the period from the fall of the wall into the future are equally limited. Having strategically forgotten the complex cultural politics happening elsewhere during the Cold War he is able to declare a radical shift to the cultural as the driving force of the post-period.

Huntington's thesis is not entirely novel in the annals of Orientalist literature. Indeed, Bernard Lewis made the case for the clash of civilization long before Huntington's article (and later book). The title of the Huntington's book itself presents a methodological problem: It pits "the West" against "Islam." How can a geopolitical notion be analogous to a religion, unless Islam is used to denote, as has been the case in Orientalist usage, a concatenation of geography, Islamic law, religion, and Muslim people. Such political discussion of "Islam" is almost meaningless insofar as the term means different things to different people, and especially as Muslims live under diverse, and often diametrically opposed, conditions and political arrangements, and diasporically. The political situation of the billion Muslims of the world is often reduced to the Iranian case (and now the September 11 case), in order to facilitate the association between Islam and fanaticism and deny a complex web of relationships.

For an excellent rebuke to Huntington see Shirleen T. Hunter (1999) The Future of Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? Westport, CT: Praeger

I've never bought in to Huntington's argument, as it seemed to me to be based on a narrow understanding of the political complexities outside of the democratic west, which he lumped rather clumsily into undifferentiated blocs, glibly papering over the internal dynamics of huge parts of the wolrd, such as Africa or south-east Asia. This reluctance to engage with the history and interests of any region beyond the borders of his academic world has always smacked vaguely of at best eliticism, and at worst, bigotry. I'm also not sure about his definition of the term "civilisation", which is a pretty fluid academic concept at the best of times.

But I've also struggled over the past few years to coherently explain to myself why so many atrocities are being committed in the name, or at least under the banner of, Islam. I don't in any way ignore the retaliatory argument, which in the Middle East in particular has so many genuine grievances to support it as to make it almost impossible to view the conflict in the region in any other terms. Indeed, listening to the liberal voices in the west, you can sometimes almost believe that if only Israel and the military bases in Saudi Arabia could vanish overnight, then Syria will becoming a thriving capitalist democaracy, Iran will acknowledge the Holocaust and Osama bin Laden will convert to Buddhism. But I find it difficult to credit that the plight of the Palestinians really informs riots about a beauty contest in Nigeria or the indiscriminate murder of Australian tourists in Bali. The connections are just too tenuous. Something else is going on here, and for the first time in 5 years I think I might have a handle on what that is.

To begin with, I would like to address the claim that lumping all of Islam into one bloc is misguided. It's true that Islam is a less monolithic culture than the extermists would like us in the west to think it is, and it's also true that to view it as a single entity while ignoring the vast differences between various groups of its devotees (e.g. black Africans and Indonesians, as mentioned above) is simplistic and crude. But conversely I have come to believe that it is patronising to deny this all-encompassing spiritual and political body of thought its obvious power to unite peoples, be they ever so separated by distance, race, or culture. After all, Christianity once united (some would claim still does unite - just look at Turkey and the EU) a whole group of nations who, whilst competing amongst themselves to maintain land empires, nevertheless had certain shared underlying beliefs and would close ranks against any outsiders. The crusades are the most obvious example of this, but the various wars of the European nations against the Moors in the Middle Ages and the Turks in the last few centuries are also excellent study cases for countries with conflicting interests (England and France, say, or the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Venetian republic) coming together to defend themselves against an enemy they all clearly perceive as alien in a more threatening way than their mere neighbours. Well, if Christianity can do it, why not Islam? It is not only insulting but patently ridiculous to claim that Islam is in any way inferior to Christianity or Buddhism as a unifying basis for political action.

But why now? Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a great deal of talk about the single superpower and the need for an emergent counterbalance to the US. Most hopes were pinned on the European Union, with occasional nods to China/India. But thinking about it, the EU is a rubbish substitute to the USSR as a foil to hte American economic and political domination of the globe. Whatever any of us in our pride like to think, the differences between Europe and America are cosmetic at best. A bunch or more-or-less capitalist liberal democracies can never hope to be the ideological counterpoint to the American way (which I'm not, by the way, dissing in any way - I just think it would be better if there were some alternatives. Call it consumer choice) that communism was. The rapidly liberalising China is also coming too close to the fold to be a convincing candidate; they seem to want to be America, minus one party. I think that it's a perfectly feasible argument to say that the overarching Islamic way of running economies and societies is currently struggling to define itself as a viable alternative to the US. Not, as again the extermists would have us think, out of hatred, but simply because it is impossible to shoe-horn all the countries in the world into a single Star Trek-like Federation of the World, and an alternative has to be presented sooner or later.

OK, but we're not talking about a single geopolitical bloc a la Eastern Europe. These guys are spread all over the world! Well, yes, but if you think about it, so was communism - from the Caribbean all the way to Mongolia and Vietnam, in fact. It was a global counter-culture, and Islam can serve just as well in that capacity. In fact it's much better placed to do so, because there are millions more genuine muslims than there ever were committed communists in the world.

Still, why so violently? Here we close the loop and go back to the Middle East. We've really been pissing these people off recently, giving them every opportunity to radicalise against us and creating a violent melting pot in which those who rise to the surface most quickly are the ones with the most extreme, cataclismic approaches to dealing with their real or perceived conflicts with us. I believe that we've accelerated what was already a natural process, providing it with the impetus to become more fanatical and dispersed. Our reactions to the creation or existence of Islamic states has been mostly paranoid and panic-driven. We are no better equipped to deal with the notion of Iranias willingly submitting to religious rule back in 1979 than muslim fundamentalists are capable of accepting our rejection of any suggestion of such rule.

I don't know if I've departed from Huntington only to arrive in the same place as him. I hope not. I certainly don't want anyone to interpret my views in the same way as I've interpreted his, or to see them as in any way supporting the current foreign policy of the English speaking west. I really do believe that if we in the west could just stop meddling with Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, so much the better for everyone involved. But I also think that there is some macro-cultural, macro-historical stuff going on at the moment, which I at least am only just beginning to understand.

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