September 11: Clash of Civilizations?

In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, and the instant United States declaration of a global war against all countries that harbor terrorists - a list populated by Muslim countries - it appeared that the "clash of civilizations" predicted by Samuel Huntington was underway, or just around the corner.

The clash of war rhetoric was deafening - aimed at resurrecting atavistic passions. Instantly, President George W Bush began casting the attacks in a Manichaean mould. Osama bin Laden and his evil cohorts had declared a war against "all civilized countries" - long a code for the West - and they would get the "crusade" they wanted. Osama saw the world with equal clarity, divided into two warring camps - of believers and infidels. The millennial war between the West and Islam was about to be joined. Or so it seemed.

September 11 will remain a day inscribed in infamy. But does it mark the first strike in a clash of civilizations predicted by our sage political scientist? Samuel Huntington prevaricates, but he sticks to his guns. In an interview, he declared that the attacks "were not a clash of civilizations but a blow by a fanatical group on civilized societies in general". So, it is not an attack on the US, or its policies, but an attack on the West - on "civilized societies in general".

But if this is not the clash, it will come in due time. In his book, The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington insists that our problem is not Islamic fundamentalism. "It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture, and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power." On the other hand, the problem for Islam is not US policies: it is the West, whose people are "convinced of the universality of their culture, and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world." The clash is inevitable.

Are we to accept Huntington's reading; are we to accept September 11 as an attack on the West, and part of an unfolding, or yet to begin, war between Islam and the West? I will show that if we eschew Bacon's "idols" of the tribe and the market, and stay with the facts - some quite elementary facts - these theses become indefensible.

First, consider the attacks of September 11, and place them alongside other attacks of a similar nature - of which they are an escalation. If we examine the history of such attacks - starting with the 1983 attacks on US interests in Lebanon, winding through more attacks on US embassies, military facilities, officials and citizens in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Britain, Germany, Tanzania and Kenya, leading up to the culminating attacks of September 2001 - we have to face two unpleasant facts.

In nearly all cases, the target of these attacks was unmistakably the US. It is also the case that in nearly every case, these attacks were carried out by Arabs, on Arab soil at first, but moving up to attacks in non-Arab countries, and, eventually, to attacks on US soil. In the 1980s, the attackers were mostly Lebanese and Palestinians. Later, they were to be joined by Egyptians and Saudis.

What is the significance of these facts? First, they establish that the attackers were not waging war against "all civilized societies in general", but against one in particular - United States - with less than one-sixth of the population of the West. Theirs is not a war against the West, nor the freedom, democracy and pluralism of Western societies. It is also worth noting that the attacks were directed mostly against military and official targets. The exceptions are the Lockerbie crash, and the two attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Equally important, nearly all the attackers were of Arab ethnicity; they have included few Pakistanis, Turks, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, Malays, Nigerians, Iranians or Afghans.

On two counts, then, we must reject the Huntington reading of the attacks of September 11. This and similar attacks have had a specific target, viz. the US. Secondly, even if we regard the attackers as representative of Arab societies - a highly questionable assumption - this only pits one-sixth of Islam against less than one-sixth of the West. Not exactly a clash between two civilizations.

Why then has the US framed this conflict in terms of universals - as an attack on the West, on civilization itself? This language is well chosen. It serves a variety of goals. And looking into these goals can bring important insights into our Middle East policies and how they may be connected to the attacks leading up to September 11.

Most importantly, perhaps, this rhetoric deflects attention from concerns - which must be suppressed - that the death of 3,300 Americans was "collateral damage" of our policies in the Middle East: our unflinching support of Israeli expansionism, the backing we have given to an assortment of corrupt and repressive dictatorships and oil potentates, and, not least, a policy of sanctions against Iraq that kills 5,000 Iraqi children every month.

The language of an attack on "all civilized societies" - even as we avow our peaceful intentions towards Islam - evokes images of an attack by Islam against the West. It turns the focus away from the reality of an attack by a handful of men who have turned to extreme methods to redress real grievances. This has boosted the president's approval ratings to the mid-1980s, giving him a free hand in waging war, curtailing liberties and battening corporations.

This rhetoric helps to globalize our war against "terror". If September 11 can be sold as an attack on "all civilized societies" - read, all Christendom - we can count on the atavistic passions this will arouse to bring Europe closer to the American position. But, as we talk of extending the war beyond Afghanistan, to Sudan, Somalia and Iraq, the Europeans are beginning to break rank. Even Britain, our trusted ally, has been showing signs of nervousness.

None of this, however, implies that we cannot turn September 11 into a greater tragedy than it already is. It is tempting to leverage this event - wittingly or otherwise - into the clash that Huntington predicts. We can do this by holding on to bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan, by pushing the war beyond Afghanistan, or by persecuting our Muslim minorities and eventually forcing their exodus. The Islamic world will be watching what we do - more than they will be listening to what we say. As Americans - and world citizens - we should do everything we can to stop this human tragedy from turning into a disaster for humankind.

M. Shahid Alam is a Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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Older Comments:

The civilization that is America is represented by the rule of law, respect for human rights, freedom and justice. However, the ugly policies of American government, particularly with respect to the plight of Palestinian people, totally contradict these American values. Given this dichotomy how can it be described as a clash of civilization ? American civilization is not attacked, government policies that are antithesis to the values of American civilization are the target. Unfortunate civilians in the two toweres are a collatoral damage, no different than the civilians in Kandahar that are victims to bombing. Good article.

Athough our current conflict does not have to be a War of Civilizations, we could easily end up in a Third World War which represents the End of Humanity. I am not a Muslim, although I respect the religion. I regularly visit Islamicity to better understand Islam, and it's followers. I have many friends and co-workers who are Muslim.
I defend the right of it's believers to practice it peacefully. That said, some comments from Muslims in your polls don't make a lot of sense to me.

1) Many Muslims believe the USA's economic santions against Iraq is unfair and represents an Act of War. In my opinion, contries can choose to do business with anyone they want. If the USA does not want to buy Iraq oil, or sell Iraq any products, that is their choice. If your neighbor does not want to sell you his house, do Muslims kill him for it? Iraq knows what it needs to do if it wants to buy Western food and medicine for it's people. Iraq's situation is it's own decision.
2) There seems to be a signficant number of Muslims who believe the USA has unfairly targeted Usama bin Laden. Even without the recent tapes bin Laden made, he declared war on the USA in 1998 with his famous "jihad" against America. On numerous occasions prior to 9/11, bin Ladin encouraged the killing of Americans. Even if he wasn't behind 9/11, the USA can be viewed as finally accepting bin Ladin's invitation to war.
It's a little late to say "just kidding".

3)Middle Eastern'ers believe USA policies are driven solely by Middle East Oil. The Middle East represent 25% of the worlds oil reserves. As Russia brings it's reserves online, Mexico continues to explore. In a few years, Middle East Oil will become irrelevent. It may be wrong, but it appears that the USA policy is driven by a desire for stability. If the Middle East populace hates their leaders, they should attack them, not the USA.
The only thing that can prevent a War of Civilizations is Middle East nations not exporting their problems.

SHAM said:

I'd like to think of myself as a reasonably devoted muslim. I have read dozens of opinions from both muslims and non muslims on the events of the past few months and on Islam in general. How right our prophet Mohammed (SAW) was when he said, kafir will never understand no matter how hard muslims try! They are blind deaf and dumb, and cannot be rehabilitated. They will only realise when they will see the ferocious fires of hell with their own eyes! Be patient, and follow the message of the prophet, no doubt our enemies will die a nameless death.

I would have to agree with Samuel Huntington that this is a war between civilizations. The fact is these Muslims hate Muslims from other tribes, hate Jews, hate Persians, hate their Eastern Christian neighbors, and hate Hindus. So what do they suspect to accomplish? The West is not the Muslims enemy, because they do not want to take over you. However, it would be so easy for China to take over you. You have to admit it would be funny if China made you communist. Hey it could, and probly will happen. After all the Russians tried to made the people of Afghanistan communist. What the Islam world needs is democracy. Under democracy you can still practice your religion. Muslims need to treat the minorities in the Middle East good. The world in general needs to accept the fact there is no Empire anymore, and money is what makes you great. The Empire of Islam feel because of their violence. They treated white people bad, and tried to take over Europe.

An excellent piece by Dr. Alam. the continuance of so-called "Islamic experts" on resurrecting the crusades is appalling to the sensible among society.

Sam Huntington was born in the wrong century !! The rhetoric this old man is spewing is only based on his static academic experiences. The world is changing faster than he can keep up with !!

Dr. Alam provides a clear testimony on feelings of Muslims....after all, who else could understand the mind of a Muslim than a fellow Muslim.

Sam Huntington can only understand if he actually becomes a Muslim. So called "Muslim experts" who live in a country, then claim to know about the country and its culture/people aren't fooling anyone.