Ignorance is Destructive

by Benjamin Collinger

If the prophet Muhammad responded to Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Foreign Affairs article The Clash of Civilizations?, he might refer to a poignant lesson from the Qur’an: “And when they are told, ‘Do not spread corruption on earth,’ they answer, ‘We are but improving things!’ Oh…it is they…who are spreading corruption–but they perceive it not!”­2C Like those who do not perceive the corruption they spread, advocates of Samuel Huntington’s theory do not realize the problems it generates. The Clash of Civilizations? presents a reductionist view of international relations that constructs a false threat of conflict between civilizations, resulting from Samuel Huntington’s misunderstanding of culture, exaggeration of differences and outright rejection of cooperation.

Huntington’s erroneous claim that civilizational differences generate conflict has been empirically denied. As a comprehensive test of his theory indicates, civilizations are not doomed to fight on the basis of their differences. Inter-civilizational dyads are not more likely to find themselves in conflict in the post-cold war period; in fact, they were never likely to conflict in any period. Far too many alternative causes exist, and “civilizational differences seem unlikely to become the dominant factor that shapes the patterns of enmity and friendship in the international arena in the years to come.”3 More specifically, Huntington’s theories have no basis in Islamic theology. Asad indicates that inherent differences between Islam and other religions have not caused historical conflict: the actions of groups with malignant intentions against the Islamic community do so.2B In other words, Islam is not predisposed to fight with other civilizations; it only fights with groups that threaten its existence. Ironically, rather than perceiving a threat from Islam, Huntington creates a threat to Islam.

Samuel Huntington’s theory falsely constructs the Islamic world as a threat, harming prospects for global cultural understanding and cooperation.

Huntington’s claim that “western ideas of individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy…often have little resonance in Islamic…cultures” is largely false.5 In fact, religious and cultural commonalities are more prevalent than insurmountable differences.

First, the Qur’an’s emphasis on personal responsibility affirms individualism and equality. For example, to punish “the man who steals and the woman who steals, cut off the hand of either of them in requital for what they have wrought, as a deterrent ordained by God.”2H In this passage, the Qur’an clearly states that both men and women pay an equal price for their actions, connoting a broadly applicable theme of equality. As Asad notes, “in a community in which everyone is assured full security and social justice, any attempt…to achieve an easy, unjustified gain at the expense of other members of the community must be considered an attack against the system as a whole, and must be punished as such.”2A This fosters not only a sense of personal responsibility, but equality and the rule of law as well. In a similar fashion, the Qur’an’s advocacy for orphans and the equitable treatment of disadvantaged people of all circumstances is aligned with democratic principles of an equitable distribution of political power and equality under the law.2G

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Many Islamic religious values are also applicable to “western” Judeo-Christian culture. The second sura evokes the necessity for the faithful to practice devotion, provide for others, and accept truth, all of which serve as cornerstone values of nearly all religious traditions.2D Similarly, The Cow sura symbolizes the principle of sacrifice in order to acknowledge the power of God as the ultimate sustainer, while drawing on Abrahamic stories.2E The cow represents one’s personal duty to sacrifice worldly possessions to show devotion to God, which occurs in many other religions as well. For example, Jews fast during Yom Kippur as a symbol of atonement, while Christians may choose to sacrifice a personal possession during Lent. Finally, the affirmation of God as one and eternal in the “throne verse” parallels the Shema in Judaism and a variety of prayers in Christianity, demonstrating a shared monotheistic foundation between Islam and the West.2F Because of this basis in essential values, cooperation and cultural understanding can occur in spite of perceived differences.

Due to cultural commonalities and interdependence, globalization will not invigorate historical animosities. The modern world is more likely to produce cultural exchanges and decrease the incentive for conflict through interdependence. As a result of such cultural exchanges (through migration and other means Huntington mentions himself), overall cultural understanding will improve. Although the Qur’an references conflicts against detractors in the early days of Islam, these conflicts were largely the result of political, rather than religious rivalry.5A In the previous and modern eras, “This conflation of religion and politics poisons Islam itself…by overshadowing all the religion’s theological and moral teachings. The Quran’s emphasis on humility and compassion is sidelined by the arrogance and aggressiveness of conflicting [political] groups.”1 Moreover, the animosities Huntington describes originated from political grievances resulting from colonial influence, not religious or cultural differences. For this reason, it is unlikely that such conflicts stem from or are invigorated purely by religious difference.

Huntington’s theory creates a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy.

Additionally, globalization, migration and other 21st century forces have blurred ancient “fault lines” and created a greater sense of global cohesion. Islam largely promotes religious toleration, understanding that each person will face their own day of reckoning.8A In the final line of the 109th sura, “A reckoning for you and a reckoning for me” implies the Qur’an’s acceptance that differing but still legitimate faiths can coexist in harmony.2I Further, the repetition of “a reckoning” may be interpreted that although faiths differ, all will be judged upon their deeds. Therefore, a globalized world will only help the cause of cultural ties, illuminating commonalities rather than invigorating animosities.

Likewise, economic modernization, regionalism and social change are not likely to weaken local and national identities or increase religious fundamentalism. Religious fundamentalism exists regardless due to competing religious interpretations, and religious people usually hold their beliefs in high esteem irrespective of periods of stagnation or social tumult. If the text is constant and social conditions change, scholars should look towards the latter dependent variable to explain extremism. Even if Huntington’s argument is true, local identities have already been weakened as a result of the social transformation of values in Islam.9B The Qur’an calls for people to relinquish their tribal traditions, Bedouin tribal traditions in pre-Islamic Arabia, in favor of Islamic traditions and God.9B Because Islam has stressed a detachment from local identities over centuries for the purpose of worshipping God alone, there is no reason to believe that economic modernization and social change would uniquely cause conflict. The more likely origin for this conflict, as argued previously, is political rivalry. By othering Islam through a false dichotomy, Huntington’s discourse constructs conflict on the basis of religion.
Huntington’s baseless threat construction and reductionist view of international relations is counterproductive to understanding world cultures and foreign policy. He does not account for different religious interpretations, permutations of civilizations or differing governments, thereby homogenizing entire populations.

As Bruce Lawrence explains, “while the Qur’an itself is a unitary, coherent source of knowledge, there is no single Qur’anic message.”6B Simply put, the text evokes different readings from different people ranging from the “uncritical lover” to “the polemicist.”4 As a direct result, reductionist labels “like Islam and the West…mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality that won’t be” so easily simplified.7 Although Huntington claims that society creates these labels, he more likely constructed the “us versus them” dichotomy himself.5 Huntington’s labels impacted the foreign policy establishment, public opinion and political action.
As Edward Said continues, public discourse became enamored with “this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each use of which is plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader’s indignant passion as a member of the ‘West,’ and what we need to do.”8 Additionally, Huntington’s rhetoric is steeped in the logic of Orientalism. Specifically, Huntington bases much of his analysis on Bernard Lewis’ book The Roots of Muslim Rage, a work that Said thoroughly discredits when he asserts that orientalism is based on self-affirmation rather than objectivity, and is steeped in racist notions and imperialist domination.7 Thus, Huntington’s erroneous arguments create a self-fulfilling prophecy by imagining Islam as an enemy, making cultural understanding impossible.

“The Clash of Civilizations?” spreads false notions of culture and international relations, calling an imagined enemy into being. Maximizing potential cooperation across cultures should be the goal of countries in the liberal order, not exacerbating perceived “fault lines” between “civilizations.” Far more commonalities exist than Huntington acknowledges, and differences are not as prevalent as he contends. Rather than spreading the misguided logic of Huntington, policymakers and citizens alike should seek productive engagement with different cultures in order to forge connections among the broader human civilization of which we are all a part.

Benjamin Collinger is a sophomore at Trinity University majoring in International Studies and History, and is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Contemporary. Feel free to follow him @bcstlsa or email: editorinchief@thecontemporarygroup.com

The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.

The picture above was created by Kyle Cronan, is under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license, and can be found here.

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