Clashing Civilizations or Something Else

In 1993, political scientist Samuel Huntington published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “The Clash of Civilizations,” which was later expanded into his 1996 book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.”

Huntington’s argument, which was a response to his former student Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” thesis, was that “the fundamental source of conflict in this [post-Cold War] world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation States will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be battle lines of the future.”

While Huntington identified, depending on how you count them, six to nine major “civilizations,” he gave the lion’s share of his attention to the civilizational clash between the Islamic world and its non-Islamic neighbors. As he provocatively put it, “Islam has bloody borders.”

Understandably, Huntington’s argument became even more salient following September 11th. It provided people, if not an “explanation” for what had happened, then at least a historical-political context in which to put the events of that day.

One person for whom this was not the case was then-president George W. Bush who said that “Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others,” and emphasized that “Ours is a war not against a religion, not against the Muslim faith,” but instead “against individuals who absolutely hate what America stands for.”

Not everyone agreed. Sam Harris, the author of, among other things, “The End of Faith,” has called “the idea that Islam is a ‘peaceful religion hijacked by extremists . . .  a dangerous fantasy.” According to Harris, “the Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism,” and, thus, the West “must appreciate how terrifyingly isolated Muslims have become in intellectual terms.”

While others wouldn’t put it so starkly, many people, including (especially?) conservative Christians agree that there is something intrinsic to Islamic beliefs that makes Huntington’s “bloody borders” if not inevitable then at least likely.

Stated differently, it’s the worldview, stupid.

Given the events of the past two decades – the rise of al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram, and recent attacks on Christians in places like Sri Lanka or Burkina Faso, to cite but a few examples – and the way that majority Muslim countries dominate Open Door’s World Watch list, it’s tempting to conclude that Huntington and Harris were correct.

It’s a temptation best resisted. A great deal was made of a recent column by journalist Mehdi Hasan in the Intercept. Hasan wrote that as both a Muslim and a man of the Left, he was “embarrassed to admit that in both Muslim and left circles, the issue of Christian persecution has been downplayed and even ignored for far too long.”

Referring to Open Door’s “World Watch List,” he added “Here’s what bothers me so much: While communist North Korea (1) is far and away the worst place in the world to live as a Christian, and while anti-Christian attacks are rising fast in Hindu-majority India (10), seven of the top 10 countries in the world where Christians face ‘extreme persecution’ are Muslim-majority countries.”

What’s more, as Hasan acknowledged, the problem goes far beyond the actions of terrorists like those in Sri Lanka and the Sahel. In places like Iran and Saudi Arabia, the persecutors are government officials. In Pakistan, it’s villagers like the ones who made Asia Bibi’s life a living Hell.

But, insisting that the “Muslim world is utterly deranged by its religious tribalism” begs the question “What is the ‘Muslim World?’” After all, there are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world. What, apart from their self-identification as Muslims, do they have in common?

They certainly don’t agree on what it means to be a Muslim. In addition to Sunnis and Shias, there are Ibadis, Ahmadiyya, and weaving through all of these is Sufism. Not only do Sunnis and Shias regard the other branch as more or less heterodox, they often turn the gimlet eye on their fellow Sunnis (and Shias in Iran).

In this regard, the “Muslim World” sounds a lot like the “Christian World,” an expression that, if you spend any time around Christians from various traditions you know, obscures more than it illuminates.

Are Mehdi Hasan and comedian Hasan Minhaj “utterly deranged by tribalism?” Both follow Islamic dietary laws and Mehdi Hasan is, unusual in his ideological circles but not in Muslim ones, unapologetically pro-life. I mention this by way of anticipating objections that the two are only notionally Muslim, although, truth be told, many of the world’s self-identified Christians are only notionally Christians.

The other problem with the “it’s the worldview, stupid” approach to Islam and Islamist violence is that it is reductionistic in a way that all religious people, especially Christians, should be wary of.

At its heart it is the latest chapter in what theologian William T. Cavanaugh has called “The Myth of Religious Violence,” the “conviction – widespread among liberals and conservatives, religious believers and unbelievers alike – that religion is particularly and inherently prone to divisiveness and violence.”

“Religion,” specifically Christianity, not “Islam.” According to the myth, the European “Wars of Religion” of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries proved that there is “something distinctively disruptive, divisive, and dangerous about religion that makes it, across historical epochs and cultures and peoples, inherently prone to irrational, intractable violence.”

Thus, “religion must be resolutely corralled and controlled by the benign secularism of the liberal state, if necessary by justifiable, pacifying violence of the state’s own.”

Cavanaugh doesn’t deny that people commit violent acts out of religious motives. But he insists, among other things, that the line between religiously-motivated violence and politically-motivated violence is at best blurry.

Take “The Troubles.” The conflict in Northern Ireland is almost invariably described in religious terms: Catholics versus Protestants. But that’s an oversimplification. The conflict was about a great deal more than who prayed the Rosary (if at all) or those who believed the Rosary was an idolatrous practice.

It was about ethnicity: those descended from the original inhabitants of Ireland versus those descended from those who came in the seventeenth century. It was about Irish nationalism versus British Unionism. And it was about discrimination against one group in favor of another.

That these divides followed confessional lines doesn’t change the fact that “The Troubles” weren’t only, or even primarily, about religion. They were about historical, political, and social grievances that coalesced around identities for which the labels “Catholic” and “Protestant” were shorthand.

Just as acknowledging the historical and political complexities of “The Troubles” does not excuse, much less justify, the horrific violence of the period, acknowledging that the “Islamic world” is just as complex doesn’t excuse, much less justify, the horrific violence associated with political Islam.

As Cavanaugh, writing in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, wrote in America magazine, “we prefer to locate ‘religious’ causes of violence and become quite incurious when ‘secular’ causes like nationalism are in play.”

Emphasizing the role of religion, “serves to draw our attention toward certain types of practices—Islam, for example—and away from other types of practices, such as nationalism. It obscures what should be obvious: [People] kill and die for all sorts of things; there is no good reason to suppose that people are more inclined to kill for a god than for a flag, for a nation, for freedom, for free markets, for the socialist revolution, for access to oil and so on.”

What makes the distraction especially effective in the case of Islam is that, while we in the West “have learned to tame religion, to put it in its proper, private place,” the purpose for which the myth of religious violence was conceived, Muslims by and large have not.

That’s why analyses such as Huntington’s and Harris’ are reductionistic. People who resist the secular/religious divide are presumed to be acting from purely religious motives, which, in turn, makes their religion the problem.

As I said, following their lead is a temptation that is best resisted. Especially by those who resist putting their religion in its “proper, private place” at home.

Comment Policy: Commenters are welcome to argue all points of view, but they are asked to do it civilly and respectfully. Comments that call names, insult other people or groups, use profanity or obscenity, repeat the same points over and over, or make personal remarks about other commenters will be deleted. After multiple infractions, commenters may be banned.