Thursday, 19 August 2010

How to precipitate a clash of civilizations

Our civilization is not indestructible: It needs to be actively defended. This was perhaps Huntington's most important insight. The first step towards winning this clash of civilizations is to understand how the other side is waging it—and to rid ourselves of the One World illusion.
This is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's contention today in the Wall Street Journal in her article "How to Win the Clash of Civilizations." She argues that the recent controversy over the so-called ground zero Islamic center is a symptom of the clash of civilizations that 'we' are already in and losing. Turkey and any so-called 'Islamic' country that opposes 'our' policies are on the other side of the civilizational divide, which for Ali is only natural. In her article she posits that every Muslim country will be overrun by rabid Islamist extremists and the West should be ready to entrench itself in civilizational warfare.

Not only is this sophistic framework pessimistic and overly cynical but it is also foolishly self-indulgent. For Ali, her myopic worldview is divided into black and white, where civilization is clearly defined and is found solely in the narrow confines of a neo-conservative philosophy shared by her and her thought-partners. Everything outside that is anathema to something called Western civilization. Turkey is palatable only insofar that it follows robotically American policy at any given moment; let me rephrase that - American policy that fits with a right-wing agenda. When Turkey opposed the Iraq War despite tremendous American pressure, it was on the outs of Ali's civilization. Yet were the millions of Americans and Europeans who opposed it ejected from the stratosphere of Western civilization? Is a policy clash, a clash of civilizations?

It is a naive notion to project each conflict on policy as an inherent civilizational clash. Furthermore, it is intellectually dishonest to consider large swaths of territory (so-called Muslim countries) within Europe, Asia and Africa as having a monolithic identity. For example, even within Iran there are movements that disagree on the direction of the country. Mir Hussein Mousavi, the leader of the Green Movement and activist for change, assuredly emerges from the proverbial Islamic civilization that Ali contends is in conflict with the West. Is Mousavi then a natural opponent of each American? Can he be a democrat even though he emerges from Persia? The entire argument made by Ali (and Huntington for that matter) negates any possibility of divergence and debate or multiple viewpoints within any territory. In the same article the point is made that Turkey supported the "aid flotilla designed to break Israel's blockade of Gaza" and that this is evidence of a clash of civilizations. Each humanitarian who protests is now against Western civilization? Is this juvenile ridiculousness a substitute for considered policy?

Every now and then, rather than treat nuance and understand that our world will always have fissures, both within and outside our borders, commentators will search for a greater framework to define why we fight. For many millenarian zealots it is because the apocalypse is around the corner, and that any person who is not like me is a co-conspirator of the devil. After 9/11, American preacher Jerry Falwell blamed gays and feminists for precipitating the attacks. In a strange way, Ali and others align themselves with a fixed worldview that envisions endless conflict across real or envisioned divides. Let's be clear, this is also a worldview shared by Osama bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki.

These prophets of an endless war cannot compute that Jews during Russian pogroms escaped to Ottoman Turkey. They cannot fathom that America has greater religious tolerance for Islam than most Muslim societies. They cannot imagine that one of the pillars of rational Western thought is Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and of modern medicine is Ibn Sina (Avicenna). They cannot accept that there are Jews who support Palestinian freedom and Arabs who befriend Jews. They cannot understand that reasonable dissent is part of Western civilization and not in opposition to it.

Most of all they find comfort in false simplicity as it does not confuse the mind as much as the true complexity of the world around us.

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