Quote of the day

“The person who comes out of all this looking smartest is Samuel Huntington. His book on the ‘clash of civilizations’ was widely and unfairly trashed as predicting an inevitable conflict between Islam and the west, and he was also accused of ‘demonizing’ Islam. That’s not what I get from his book. As I understand it, Huntington’s core thesis was that while good relations between countries and people with roots in different civilizations are possible and ought to be promoted, civilizational fault lines often lead to misunderstandings and tensions that can (not must, but can) lead to violence and when conflicts do occur, civilizational differences can make those conflicts worse.

The last few days are a textbook example of the forces he warned about.”

Walter Russell Mead, The Middle East Mess Part One: Over There. I’m really glad that Professor Mead has seized this opportunity to remind us of Huntington’s important book and to highlight his view – with which I fully agree – that the “Clash of Civilizations” has been unfairly maligned. I think there can be little doubt that many of the negative reactions to Huntington’s book were motivated by a “political correctness” which took it for granted that it was the West’s responsibility to prevent a “clash of civilizations” — and part of this prevention was to decry Huntington’s analysis.

As I have pointed out previously, one of the best illustrations of this mindset was provided just a few days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, when French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine reportedly declared: “We have to avoid a clash of civilizations at all costs.” According to Vedrine, such a clash was a “huge […] monstrous trap” that had been “conceived by the instigators of the assault.”

In a way, the notion of the “monstrous trap” also seems reflected in Mead’s observations – but importantly, he makes clear that this is first and foremost an inner-Islamic issue:

“Unfortunately, Islamic radicals are deliberately hoping to promote a clash of civilizations in the belief that a climate of polarization will strengthen their political power in the world of Islam. Attacking the embassy in Cairo is an effort to push Egyptian opinion in a more radical direction, but the radicals hope that this is part of a larger push that will bring them to power across the Islamic world. Like Boko Haram in Nigeria, which hopes to provoke a religious war with the Christians partly in order to achieve power in the Muslim North, radicals use the prospect of a clash of civilizations to further their own cause throughout the troubled Islamic world.

The US and more generally the west (including Russia, so perhaps I should say the ‘Christian world’ instead) has tried several approaches to this situation and so far we haven’t been happy with the results. Confrontation, reconciliation, cooperation: there are good arguments to be made for them all, but in practice none of them seem to make the problem go away.”

There is a simple explanation why it is so hard to make this “problem” go away: Islamic radicals have more popular support among Muslims than western commentators and analysts like to acknowledge, and hostility to America and the West is enormously popular throughout the Arab and Muslim world. As Husain Haqqani recently emphasized in his excellent commentary on “Manipulated Outrage and Misplaced Fury:”

“At the heart of Muslim street violence is the frustration of the world’s Muslims over their steady decline for three centuries, a decline that has coincided with the rise and spread of the West’s military, economic and intellectual prowess.”

Haqqani goes on to argue:

“Once the Muslim world embraces freedom of expression, it will be able to recognize the value of that freedom even for those who offend Muslim sensibilities. More important: Only in a free democratic environment will the world’s Muslims be able to debate the causes of their powerlessness, which stirs in them greater anger than any specific action on the part of Islam’s Western detractors.

Until then, the U.S. would do well to remember Osama bin Laden’s comment not long after the Sept. 11 attacks: ‘When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.’ America should do nothing that enables Islamists to portray the nation as the weak horse.”


2 responses to “Quote of the day

  1. “Only in a free democratic environment will the world’s Muslims be able to debate the causes of their powerlessness, which stirs in them greater anger than any specific action on the part of Islam’s Western detractors.”

    This assumes more miracles from democracy than is reasonable to assume. Even in a democracy, wrong causes can and will be found to explain away troubles. Being freely expressly their will in the Muslim regions will blame their problems on Israel, India, Britain and the USA, among others.

    I think that Bernard Lewis is more accurate, that the Christian and Muslim worlds are rivals. That is the way it is and is likely to be for a very long time. It was only an accident of history that we were born in a time when the Muslim regions had fallen far behind.

    So, expecting good things to come from democracy in the Arab and Muslim regions is expecting a lot, something even beyond what democracy can solve in the near or even medium term. The long term, of course, who knows.

    • I think you are a bit too pessimistic — though, to be sure, for the time being, you are obviously right: blaming Israel, the US and the West in general is as popular in the “new” Middle East as it was before the “Arab Spring.” But of course, there is so far no reason to think that a Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt allows free debate, or encourages anything like freedom of speech — indeed, also in this respect, there is not much new in the “new” Middle East.

      Perhaps most importantly, in Islamist-ruled countries there will be no freedom whatsoever to discuss religious beliefs; and as long as religion is a taboo issue, the intellectually stifling climate that is so ideal for the growth of conspiracy theories will remain. I’ve recently read a few very interesting articles about efforts to apply critical text analysis etc. to the Koran — just as it was to the bible. Needless to say, all these projects are at universities in the West, and publicizing their existence or their debates and findings certainly has the potential to generate endless riots like the ones we are seeing today. Yet, I think it’s a very good thing that these projects exist.

      Ultimately, I find it utterly depressing that so many in the western elites don’t seem (willing) to understand what’s at stake: all the eagerness to find some sort of accomodation with the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood only means too little or no support for the tiny minority of Arab and Muslim liberals. It’s not that they would benefit big time from any western support, but at least western elites should send the message that since they don’t think religious fanatics make good politicians in the West, there’s no reason to think they make good politicians in the East.

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