Friday, February 11, 2011

The Clash of Civilizations

I recently had a discussion about the "Clash of Civilizations" so the issues it raises have been jumping around in my head over the past few days, and recent news certainly hasn't helped. For those who don't know, the "Clash of Civilizations" is a theory, popularized by Samuel Huntington, that basically argues that there are several major groups of people (the civilizations) founded on various values and conceptions of reality (namely religious identities) that are fundamentally incompatible with each other. His basic premise takes religious identities and then credits them with various ideological and political outcomes in areas where those identities predominate - Protestantism and (European) Catholicism apparently solely produced capitalism, while Orthodox Christianity paved the way for Stalinism, Oriental Orthodox Ethiopians established their own poverty, and Muslims are prone to violence and mindless orthodoxy.

Immediately, some problems become clear - a lot of his divisions are more strongly defined by his perceptions about ethnicity and regionalism than religion, in spite of his claims that his theory relies on religious identity and ideology. He lumps the whole of Latin America together (with the curious exceptions of Haiti, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guyana), in spite of it's overwhelmingly Catholic (and otherwise Christian) presence, and likewise treats sub-Saharan Africa (obviously subtracting Islamic North Africa and pre-Colonial Christians in Ethiopia) as some how fundamentally different from the Catholic-Protestant "West" even though there's no clear religious distinction to be drawn. More confusingly, Papua New Guinea is included with the West, while these other colonial era Christian converts are mysteriously not.

(It's also worth pointing out that his categorization of Eritrea as "Muslim" and Ethiopia as "independent" reflects that he had to explain their various conflicts and casts doubt on his use of statistics, as both have a slim plurality of Oriental Orthodox Christians. In other words, he's blatantly manipulating his categorizations to explain events.)

There are other problems, but the main driving goal of this argument seems to be a categorization of various groups within "Christendom" (that is, the Latin American, "Western," Orthodox, African, Ethiopian and Haitian civilizations) and a contrast between those groups and the Islamic world (which, tellingly is given none of the loving attention to internal schisms and muddled ethnic and religious identities that the Christian world gets). This argument is clearly ripe for demagoguery - from any angle. It's basic premise has been used by various Islamists to rationalizing violence against Christians and Hindus according to Benazir Bhutto, as much as it plays a role in promoting "Islamophobia" globally. It's constructed according to false premises, with an aim to promote conflict.

At no point has this ever been as clear to me than in the past weeks. Today, a revolution reached fruition in Egypt - Mubarak resigned. Regardless of what you've heard about this revolution, there's solid evidence that it's open to female participation in ways that blatantly contradict most Islamist demands on sex roles and it's overtly religiously pluralistic. It's a demand to reform Egypt, which hopes to restructure the country into a democracy, and with some sort of economic justice. It's a movement that violates, over and over again, what the "Clash of Civilizations" and other "just-so" explanations tell us about the entire Islamic world.

Meanwhile, the "Western" world, the civilization that is allegedly founded either on democracy, pluralism, and equality, or founded on principles that make those necessary and natural conclusions, has been rocked by a serious of responses to this revolution in Egypt and similar news regarding Muslims. In the United States, Glenn Beck denied the authentically democratic and pluralist nature of the Egyptian revolution, and argued that it was part of a global scheme, involving a rebuilt caliphate (who on earth gets to be the Caliph then?). In short, because these protests are occurring in the Muslim world, they are incapable of being actually democratic. They must be socialist (which Beck tends to use to mean authoritarian), or Islamist, or some other ideology (if not several) that are presented as alien to the "West." Why? Because these protests are in Egypt, in an Arab and Muslim country, a place supposedly not merely ideologically different but fundamentally and irreparably so. Muslims cannot produce democracy, because they are not the "West".

In the midst of this Egyptian Revolution, various European figures made alarming statements. British Prime Minister David Cameron declared state multiculturalism a failure, and while his tacit supporters are correct that he was not directly accusing any particular group of various misdeeds (including kidnapping) his suggestion is clearly aimed at British Muslims. Even as anti-immigrant groups held a protest in the same city, at the same time as his talks, he clearly was emphasizing the "shadiness" and "untrustworthy" nature of Muslims. The Economist perfectly describes his point, based on the same idiotic terms as the "Clash of Civilizations" argument, "Mr Cameron thinks multiculturalism has drifted from a tolerance of other cultures towards a tolerance of other value systems, some of them hostile to Britain." Islamic beliefs, by nature, are on some level incompatible if not hostile to "Western" states, is the claim he is making.

Meanwhile, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, has made similar statements. What exactly she meant is somewhat confusing - is she describing the existing policies as failing (since, as she mentions, they're based on a polite fiction that immigrants will leave eventually) or is she suggesting that the very concept of multiculturalism is failing? She seems to be trying to have it both ways, since in her speech she immediately explains that some degree of openness is necessary, for trade. She doesn't apparently see human rights, however, as a workable argument like commerce. Yet she decided to give this speech in spite of the fact that alarming numbers of Germans want to restrict the practice of Islam (in addition to other opinions about targeting religious minorities). The logic seems to be similar to Cameron's or Beck's: Islam is somehow out of place in Germany, where other ideologies and religions prevail, or by some means must be made to prevail.

Whether you're English, American, or German, you need to be prepared to explain (if you think this way) why you think this way. How does this revolution, grounded in concepts that the "West" has laid exclusive claim to for centuries, somehow not what it is?

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