Esmail Nooriala                                                                                                          Home      Audio File      Link to buy the audio file



Is the "Clash of Civilizations" Inevitable?

A lecture at Colorado University - Boulder

A terrorist will not tell the immigration officer in New York’s airport that he is a terrorist, exactly as an American spy in Taliban land will not disclose that he/she is an American spy. Many people fabricate passports and IDs only to prove that they are not what they really are. We all refuse to disclose our true identity or respond positively to a question about it that implies some kind of danger for us.

In all these situations, the answer we give is shaped and conditioned by the question we receive.

Since the horrible catastrophe of September 11 in New York and Washington, the people who are Arab or Muslim or merely come from the Middle East (not to say all dark skinned people and all those who have a turbine on their head, notably Sikhs and Hindus who neither are Muslim nor Middle Eastern) have been trying to find an answer for an increasingly threatening inquiry into their identity.

The other day, an American friend of mine asked me about the curious insistence of Iranians to show that they are not Arabs. Some go to such extremes to explain that all Iranians hate Arabs. Afghans try the same. Although the regime holding to power in their country has been a host to Mr. Osama bin Ladan and thousands of his Arab flowers who have gone to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia, Afghans are not Arabs.

Last weekend, everyone familiar with the history of the Middle East and North Africa was set for a big surprise when Colonel Mo’amar Qadaafi, the ruler of Libya' declared that Libyans are African and not Arabs. For the last 35 years or so he has always been a staunch defender of what is known as Pan-Arabism.

My answer to my American friend's question was simple: “It is the way you ask your question, or it is the circumstances in which your question is posed, that makes you get that kind of an answer. None of the above utterances are wrong. Neither Iranians and Afghans nor North Africans are Arabs. Even the majority of the population of an Arab country like Iraq is non-Arab. You are astonished to hear this kind of answers because you have your own assumptions about the identity of those people. You actually are imposing an identity on them. At normal times they may not bother to explain that you and your assumptions are wrong. But, at a time when a witch hunt for Arab terrorists is on and allied countries’ planes are destroying the Arab settlements of Osama bin Ladan in Afghanistan, every one who is not an Arab will spend time to prove to you that he is not an Arab.”

In actual fact, the catastrophe of September 11 has opened a can of worms for my friend. And he, as a responsible American, has become engaged in a research to get more information about these peoples.

Let me ponder a few minutes on the nature of such researches. We, as members of human race, have been empowered by the natural evolution or God, the creator, to use “concepts.” Concepts are things that only exist in our mind and have not concrete representation in the real material word. Let’s take an example. When I talk about a "tree" I am talking about a concept. In the real world out of our minds there are only different kinds of trees and none of them are the same. Each has its own shape, structure and parts. But I have a mind that is capable of extracting the similarities common between all individual trees and make a metal tree out of those similarities. This mental tree is a concept. 99 percent of the time, we are dealing with concepts rather than actual concrete entities of the real world. Language is built on the basis of concepts and functions through their usage. Without concepts we had no language, no culture, no civic life and no civilization.

Concepts get together to create higher abstract concepts. Can anyone point to a "culture" or a "civilization" by her finger? She can show us different material things with different shapes and functions but the relation between those concrete things and the culture or civilization that they belong to is a mental entity. Indeed, culture and civilization are two major highly abstracted conceptions. They are vast fields of amalgamated facts and fictions, sensory apprehensions and imaginary creativeness.

As soon as the Soviet Union, and the Communist block were dismantled at the beginning of the 1990s and the threat of the Cold War was removed from the life of the planet Earth and its inhabitants, we have been dealing with new contemplations about concepts like New World Order and all the prerequisites attached to them. What is the nature of this New World Order and who are the main players in its arena? Social scientists, especially political scientists who usually are involved in foreign policy making, have put forward different scenarios. The one scenario that has captured the attention and imagination of many people has been designed by professor Samuel Huntington of Harvard University who was a foreign policy advisor of Carter administration in 1970s. He believes, and emphatically says so, that 20th century was the age of ideology and came to its end by the demise of the Soviet block. Now, the new world arena is a chess-board with new political entities that are called "civilizations". Professor Huntington does not go into a detailed and in-depth description of what he calls a civilization. He rather ponders about the main powerful existing civilizations of the planet Earth and comes up with his famous formulation of  “ The Clash of Civilizations” in which the main skirmish happens between the “West” and the “Rest.”

In this regard, Professor Huntington comes up with a list of eight civilizations:

1.              “The West” (comprised of the white Protestant Christian US, Western and Central Europe, Australia and, by interference, the Jewish state of Israel) that is threatened by the ambitions of the Rest

2.              Islamic civilization (from North-Western Africa to far South-Eastern Asia)

3.              Orthodox civilization (that of Russia and other far eastern Europe)

4.              Catholic Latin American civilization

5.              Hindu civilization

6.              Sinic civilization (that of China)

7.              Japanese civilization

8.              African civilization.

The West is threaten by all of these members of the “Rest Club” because it is the strongest civilization on Earth and, as far as its foreign policy is concerned, tries to impose its values upon other civilizations. In his own words: “What is universalism in the West is imperialism to the rest.”

In social sciences with their vast treasures of concepts, once you get into a web of grand-scale theory, you have to come up with grand-scale suppositions and assumptions that may not necessarily be scientifically provable. This is inevitable.And there is a concept in the social sciences that is mostly neglected by the advocates and thinkers of this vocation. It is called “essentialism.”

In the realm of exact sciences, we can attribute certain qualities and potentialities to material phenomenon. We can comfortably say that “petroleum is flammable and has burning property.” Flammability is a potentiality of petroleum and is an innate trait of its essence. But can we apply the same lingo to social phenoma and look for their essences and essential properties and potentialities? Most of the social scientist do not believe in such a premise and here is where the concept of essentialism, as an aberration in social sciences, comes in. If we believe that a social phenomenon has its own unique essence and that essence manifests itself in the workings of that social phenomenon, we are a "social essentialist."

Professor Huntington is an essentialist social scientist so far as he believes in some perpetual and unchanging traits in civilizations. For example, he thinks that “Islamic civilization” is based on “intolerance” and cannot produce democratic forms of governance. Therefore, with regards to the belief of the West about the universalism of its values, Islam becomes a challenger and a dangerous threat to the Western civilization.

This is what has been advocated by influential social scientist and policy makers of the United States of America during the last 20 years or so. It has provided the US policy a theoretical frame-work for trying to inflame and inflate the conflicts that exists amongst other civilizations to reduce the effectiveness of their enmity towards the West.  The project of creating a green belt around the Soviet block by encouraging religious element of the societies neighboring that block has its roots in this mental image of the human world. It has been responsible for deposing semi-secular regimes and empowering religious factions that are thirsty for power. Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, anti-Soviet fighters of Afghanistan and the rise of Islamic fervor in Turkey are but a few results of this policy.

And although the ideological contender of the Cold-War era was defeated in this way, the "winners" immediately lost their value and function for the West and were left to themselves to become a grave liability for the whole world. Fundamentalism and terrorism are but the twin children of such foreign policy that now have turned to their creator and threaten its values, institutions and civic formation.

The question that a social scientist should be asking in such a heated period of time is, inevitably, about the validity of essentialist theories such as the Clash of Civilizations. Is Islamic civilization doomed to be perpetually shaped within the cast of its intolerance and anti-democratic nature? Isn’t there any other kind of traits within this civilization that may advocate tolerance, brotherhood of men, and peaceful coexistence with the members of other religions and cultures?

We already know that civilization is a highly abstract conception. The creator of this concept, well confined within and conditioned by his own values and "weltanschauung", looks at different societies that he wants to address as the members of his grand concept of a civilization and tries to extract the similarities between actions and reactions of this adopted civilization through history. Anything that is different from those traits under our scientist’s focus are set aside as non-similarities.

Professor Huntington, of course, refers to the existence of sub-cultures and sub-civilizations within each civilization of his choice. But he intentionally ignores the fact that having a bunch of sub-cultures necessarily means accepting the existence of dissimilarities that will work against our conceptualizing efforts within the social theory. Our scientist puts his emphasis on the similarities and, in doing so, is practically eclectic and theoretically selective.

"Muslims are essentially intolerant. The Arab terrorist who created the infamous September 11 showdown were Muslims. This shows how that intolerant trait within the mind of a Muslim works. So let’s kill all Muslims and Arabs. And how can we find a Muslim or Arab?"

Unfortunately, Professor Huntington is not there to lead the mob by the brilliance of his genius. Arabs put a turbine on their head so let’s kill however wears a turban. It was interesting to hear one very angry man who was talking about the Arabs with their “diaper” headgear. A few days after September 11, an Indian Sikh was murdered because of his bear and turban.

Perhaps the people who have enjoyed reading and implementing professor Huntington’s theories are the very elements of "other civilizations" who are now classified under the broad titles of fundamentalist and extremist. They are more than happy to represent the Islamic civilization and show how intolerant this civilization is. They, thus, become the representation of a civilization and, naturally, that civilization is identified by them.

The dangers of essentialism does not confine to this kind of reaction. It goes beyond all historical fact to create a fictional world of attractive theories for those impatient soles that do not have time for details. It is in the face of this danger lurking in the corridors of the US foreign policy making that we have to ask a lot of questions that are not necessarily very pompous and eye-catching. They are innocent question like these:

Is Islam a unified historical and cultural entity?

Why do we hear about different sectarian factions of Islam?

What is the difference between Sunnism and Shi’ism in Islam?

How does an advocate of peace and love like Rumi, the poet, belong to the Islamic culture?

If Christianity has been able to produce three distinctive civilizations according to professor Huntington, why Islam, with its so-called 72 versions, is the mother of only one civilization?

How and why is the Muslim world divided into Arab and non-Arab camps?

Who do we consider as an Arab?

Why Muslims have fiercely fought amongst themselves throughout the history, with the war between Iraq and Iran on one hand, and Iraq and Kuwait on the other, in our most recent memory?

To answer such questions, one has to abandon the ream of grand theories and focus on the actual facts recorded in the annals of history. One has to look at the ethnic formation of human societies that have been bundled together under the auspice of great world religions by the acts of aggression and sword.

Large scale religions like Islam and Christianity cannot be considered as local and ethnic religions. They are vast umbrellas that exceed the boundaries of nation-states through imposition of a seemingly unified identity. But, this umbrella is only a unifying factor in the eyes of the beholder, the passenger in a high-flying plane, an alien from another planet.

If you be patient enough to penetrate this cover and enter inside, mingle with variegated nations that are classified under a unified identity, you will see that there is nothing fixed and essential about human societies. Every society has a major religion and several minor ones. Every cultural has developed conflicting traits of identity through its history. Every history is full of different actions and reactions of the nations that live under the same umbrella but fight together more bitterly than any alien army.

Arabs, Kurds, Iranians, Afghans, Pakistanis, Malasians, Turks, Tajiks, Mongols and many other ethnic groups are all Muslims. Islam was created in Arabian Peninsula by an Arab prophet. It expanded into Middle East, West Asia, Central Asia, South East Asia and North Africa by the force of sword. This conquests turned many ancient nations into Muslim peoples without removing their national pride and heritage. Islam had to become a vast digestive system to swallow so many different cultural traits and values and turn them into ingredients of a flourishing civilization that lasted for four hundred years and came to its demise and disintegration 1000 years ago, leaving behind a hotchpotch of Muslim nations full of enmity and hatred for each-other. Yes, once, a 1000 years ago, there used to be an "Islamic civilization" that narrowly gave harmony and unity to a spectrum of ancient cultures. But it is long gone. What we now call the Islamic world comprises of members that their common values and perspectives are much less than those traits that put them at each-others’ throat.

In  the first decade of the 20th century, the last semi-Islamic empire, that of Ottomas of Anatolia came to an end after centuries of war with its Muslim neighbor, Iran. In 1950s and 60s, the Pan-Arabism of Jamaal Abd-al-Nasser was an ambitious venture to creat another Islamic power. It died away in the Six-day War of the late 60s. The Islamic Revolution of Iran was another ambitious attempt to recreate a Muslim universe. But it created the worst wars between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. Saddam Hussein of Iraq, by emphasizing on the Arabic nature of his cause and attempting to defeat the heretic Iran, had an eye on the leadership of the Arab Muslim world. His aspiration was also evaporated in the Golf war in which other Arab Muslims ganged against him through helping the West.

Clash of Civilizations? If we can create them we also can prevent their actualization. This is what I sincerely believe.               

Q&A in audio firmat