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15 October 2001

We all swim together

War on Terror: Islam and the West - Beware of simple labels and vast generalisations: there

By Edward Said

Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilisations?” appeared in the summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, where it immediately attracted a surprising amount of attention and reaction. Because the article was intended to supply Americans with an original thesis about “a new phase” in world politics after the end of the cold war, Huntington’s terms of argument seemed compellingly large, bold, even visionary.

“It is my hypothesis,” he wrote, “that . . . 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 civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notion of something Huntington called “civilisation identity” and “the interactions among seven or eight [sic] major civilisations”, of which the conflict between two of them, Islam and the west, gets the lion’s share of his attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 article by the veteran orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colours are manifest in its title, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. In both articles, the personification of enormous entities called “the west” and “Islam” is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters such as identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilisation; or for considering that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture; or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilisation. No, the west is the west, and Islam is Islam.

The basic model of west versus the rest (the cold war opposition reformulated) is what has persisted, often insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of 11 September. The carefully planned and horrendous, pathologically motivated suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants has been turned into proof of Huntington’s thesis. Instead of seeing it for what it is – the capture of big ideas (I use the word loosely) by a tiny band of crazed fanatics for criminal purposes – international luminaries from the former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto to the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, have pontificated about Islam’s troubles and, in the latter’s case, have used Huntington’s ideas to rant on about the west’s superiority, how “we” have Mozart and Michelangelo and they don’t.

But why not instead see parallels, admittedly less spectacular in their destructiveness, to Osama Bin Laden and his followers in such cults as the Branch Davidians, or the disciples of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana, or the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo? Even the Economist, in its issue of 22-28 September, couldn’t resist reaching for the vast generalisation, praising Huntington extravagantly for his “cruel and sweeping, but none the less acute” observations about Islam. “Today,” the journal says, Huntington writes that “the world’s billion or so Muslims are ‘convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with the inferiority of their power’.” Did he canvass 100 Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and 50 Bosnians? Even if he did, what sort of sample is that?

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Uncountable are the editorials in every American and European newspaper and magazine of note adding to this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each use of which is plainly designed to inflame the reader’s indignant passion as a member of the “west”, and what we need to do. Churchillian rhetoric is used inappropriately by self-appointed combatants in the west’s, and especially America’s, war against its haters, despoilers, destroyers, with scant attention to complex histories that defy such reductiveness and have seeped from one territory into another, overriding the boundaries that are supposed to separate us all into divided armed camps.

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This is the problem with unedifying labels such as Islam and the west: they mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality that won’t be pigeon-holed. I remember interrupting a man who, after a lecture I had given at a West Bank university in 1994, rose from the audience and started to attack my ideas as “western”, as opposed to the strict Islamic ones he espoused. “Why are you wearing a suit and tie?” was the first retort that came to mind. “They’re western, too.” He sat down with an embarrassed smile on his face, but I recalled the incident when information on the 11 September terrorists started to come in: how they had mastered all the technical details required to inflict their homicidal evil on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the aircraft they had commandeered. Where does one draw the line between “western” technology and, as Berlusconi declared, “Islam’s” inability to be a part of “modernity”?

One cannot easily do so. How finally inadequate are the labels, generalisations and cultural assertions. At some level, for instance, primitive passions and sophisticated know-how converge in ways that give the lie to a fortified boundary not only between “west” and “Islam”, but also between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of identity and nationality about which there is unending debate. A unilateral decision made to undertake crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism and, in Paul Wolfowitz’s nihilistic vocabulary, to end nations entirely, doesn’t make the supposed entities any easier to see; rather, it speaks to how much simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilising collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, “ours” as well as “theirs”.

In a remarkable series of articles published between January and March 1999 in Dawn, Pakistan’s most respected weekly, the late Eqbal Ahmad analysed what he called the roots of the religious right. He came down very harshly on the mutilations of Islam by absolutists and fanatical tyrants whose obsession with regulating personal behaviour promotes “an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests and spiritual devotion”. And this “entails an absolute assertion of one, generally decontextualised, aspect of religion and a total disregard of another. The phenomenon distorts religion, debases tradition, and twists the political process wherever it unfolds.” As a timely instance of this debasement, Ahmad proceeds first to present the rich, complex, pluralist meaning of the word jihad and then goes on to show that, in the word’s current confinement to indiscriminate war against presumed enemies, it is impossible “to recognise the Islamic – religion, society, culture, history or politics – as lived and experienced by Muslims through the ages”. The modern Islamists, Ahmad concludes, are “concerned with power, not with the soul; with the mobilisation of people for political purposes rather than with sharing and alleviating their sufferings and aspirations. Theirs is a very limited and time-bound political agenda.” What has made matters worse is that similar distortions and zealotry occur in the “Jewish” and “Christian” universes of discourse.

It was Joseph Conrad, more powerfully than any of his readers at the end of the 19th century could have imagined, who understood that the distinctions between civilised London and “the heart of darkness” quickly collapsed in extreme situations, and that the heights of European civilisation could instantaneously fall into the most barbarous practices. And it was Conrad also, in The Secret Agent (1907), who described terrorism’s affinity for abstractions such as “pure science” (and by extension for “Islam” or “the west”), as well as the terrorist’s ultimate moral degradation.

There are closer ties between apparently warring civilisations than most of us would like to believe; both Freud and Nietzsche showed how the traffic across carefully policed boundaries moves with often terrifying ease. But then such fluid ideas, full of ambiguity and scepticism about notions that we hold on to, scarcely furnish us with practical guidelines for situations such as the one we face now. Hence the altogether more reassuring battle orders (a crusade, good versus evil, freedom against fear, etc) drawn out in the alleged opposition between Islam and the west, from which official discourse drew its vocabulary in the first days after the 11 September attacks. There has since been a noticeable de-escalation in that discourse, but to judge from the amount of hate speech and actions, plus reports of law enforcement efforts directed against Arabs, Muslims and Indians all over the US, the model stays on.

One further reason for its persistence is the increased presence of Muslims all over Europe and the United States. Think of the populations today of France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain, America, even Sweden, and you must concede that Islam is no longer on the fringes of the west, but at its centre. But what is so threatening about that presence? Buried in the collective culture are memories of the first great Arab-Islamic conquests, which began in the seventh century and which, as the celebrated Belgian historian Henri Pirenne wrote in his landmark book Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), shattered once and for all the ancient unity of the Mediterranean, destroyed the Christian-Roman synthesis and gave rise to a new civilisation dominated by northern powers whose mission was to resume the defence of the “west” against its historical-cultural enemies.

What Pirenne left out, alas, is that, in the creation of this new line of defence, the west drew on the humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and historiography of Islam, which had already interposed itself between Charlemagne’s world and classical antiquity. Islam is inside from the start, as even Dante, great enemy of Mohammad, had to concede when he placed the Prophet at the very heart of his Inferno.

Then there is the persisting legacy of monotheism itself, the Abrahamic religions. Beginning with Judaism and Christianity, each is a successor haunted by what came before; for Muslims, Islam fulfils and ends the line of prophecy. There is still no decent history or demystification of the many-sided contest among these three followers of the most jealous of all gods, even though the bloody modern convergence on Palestine furnishes a rich secular instance of what has been so tragically irreconcilable about them. Not surprisingly, then, Muslims and Christians speak readily of crusades and jihads, both of them eliding the Judaic presence with often sublime insouciance. Such an agenda, says Eqbal Ahmad, is “very reassuring to the men and women who are stranded in the middle of the ford, between the deep waters of tradition and modernity”.

But we are all swimming in those waters, westerners and Muslims and others alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plough or divide them with barriers is futile. These are tense times, but it is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis. The “Clash of Civilisations” thesis is a gimmick like the “War of the Worlds”, better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.

This article first appeared in the Nation