The Clash of the Clash of Civilizations

We’ve all heard people debate the question of whether Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” applies to the current “war on terror.” As in most dialogues de sourds there is a better answer than either yes or no. This is a conflict between one side that believes there is a “clash of civilizations” and one that does not. To wit, the Islamists believe that modern civilization is evil and that its members should be either annihilated or converted. “We,” to the contrary, don’t believe there is any fundamental reason why even the most extreme forms of Islam are incompatible with the West’s multicultural tolerance. In a word, we want to include them, and they want to kill us. This is not the kind of dispute that can be resolved through academic discussion.

There is a great deal of poverty in the world, and nature inflicts on humanity much disease and other suffering. But humanity has survived poverty and disease and natural disasters with little difficulty. It has survived “acid rain” and can probably even survive “global warming.” The real danger to our species is the same danger that it came into being to defer: intraspecific violence and the form it assumes in deferral, resentment.

No religion is entitled to toleration as a vehicle of resentment. The desire, nay, the intention to destroy Western civilization does not become more legitimate when it is expressed in “religious” terms. The Christian dialectic of love has no effect against those whose very culture is a counter-attack on Christian hegemony. Resentment can be recuperated within the social order only if its energy can be harnessed to productive activity. Once the resentful subject devotes himself to destruction, his resentment will end only with his life. That is why wars are sometimes necessary.

The growth of Iranian power, whose noxious influence in the Middle East is only beginning to bear fruit, is a clear enough indication that Islamic resentment has passed the point where it can be contained by “inclusion.” Kim Jong-il wants to survive; Ahmadinejad wants to kill. It is easy in hindsight to castigate the “cowards” who gathered at Munich in 1938; why should things be different this time? In the contest between those who believe in a clash of civilizations and those who do not, it is the first group that decides for what stakes the game is to be played.

The West has little stomach for destruction. Even 9/11 has failed to remind it that the refinement of individual justice cannot replace in every circumstance the crude efficacy of collective retribution. Thus we agonize over lapses in fairness to people whose sole aim is to kill as many of us as possible. That World War II was the last “conceivable” total war affords no protection against those whose highest dream is self-annihilation.

The market and its political support system is humanity’s best hope for survival. But it has no magic formula for the indefinite deferral of violence. It is increasingly hard to see how the non-metaphorical “clash of civilizations” that is war can be avoided. In its absence, one side grows ever more confident in its hatred and the other, ever more craven in its tolerance of this hatred. A Jewish columnist in the Washington Post the other day echoed Ahmadinejad in calling Israel a “mistake”–ah, but an “honest mistake.” Perhaps the lesson of the 21st century will be that the human species too was an “honest mistake.”

-eric gans

Be Sociable, Share!

8 thoughts on “The Clash of the Clash of Civilizations

  1. Q

    Yes, the problem is that we want to enter into dialogue with them, recognizing that dialogue ameliorates resentment, but they have no interest in dialogue or compromise, recognizing correctly that the goals of radical Islam are fundamentally incompatible with western democracy.

    A couple of questions: first of all, does this mean that we can only use violence against Islamic fundamentalists? Is violence counterproductive in certain circumstances? Are there any alternatives?

    Second, are ALL Islamists opposed to Western democracy, or are there factions that are willing to enter into dialogue?

  2. adam

    9/11 should have cured us of our White Guilt, one of whose manifestations is an abhorence of “collective retribution” and an application of ever higher standards of “individual justice” to more and more areas to which it is ill suited. But it’s worth thinking about why it hasn’t–perhaps those of us sympathetic to Professor Gans’ post (among whom I of course count myself) must think about why his “we” can’t quite be used completely ironically. Why has Bush dramatically slowed down what at first looked to be a rapid sweep of inimical dictatorships in the Muslim world? Why has he publicly regretted his “bring ’em on” and “wanted dead or alive” comments? If one says, “well, things turned out to be more difficult than we expected,” that just doubles the stakes of the question: when things got more difficult in the Pacific in WW II we didn’t tone down the rhetoric.

    Perhaps it will take even more catastrophic events to to awake us from our torpor–9/11 was an epochal event, but, just like Auschwitz was not recognized as such until the “iterative events” of Hiroshima and Vietnam (perhaps Algeria, or the American Civil Rights movement–there is room to argue here), the revelation of the meaning of 9/11 requires such iterations. More optimistically, though, other iterations might be possible then a series of attacks that ultimately cause us to lose our patience. In my post below (“Hostages”) I suggest that we can’t extricate ourselves from White Guilt through an act of will because the nuclear dilemma remains–to turn Bill Clinton’s simple-minded refrain on its head, we can’t “kill them all” precisely because we can kill them all. The horror of using nuclear weapons is even clearer in our present asymmetrical situation: it’s not that it would destroy the world (the damage done by a few “bunker busters” in Iran could be quite localized, however terrible)–it’s that we fear it would destroy us. In other words, the consequences of the social enmities crossing such a line (especially if there is the slightest sense that we had a real choice–and how could there not be such a sense?) would produce in our own society are, to say the least, unpredictable. But once we say that, what could we do that both be effective enough and would not be crossing that line?

    Herein lies the rarely recognized genuis of Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom.” Every aggressive move must be complemented by a liberating one, subversive to our enemies, productive of new allies whose liberty is now bound up with our success. We could attack Iran much more easily if we were, all along, promoting democracy and freedom there unapologetically and coherently, making it clear that we will simply no longer recognize the legitimacy of any government not based on the will of its people. And, then, we might not have to attack–the Iranian people might do our work for us as part of their own. What is most strange is that this is the part of Bush’s strategy that gets the most resistance, especially, it seems, from those (like our diplomatic corps and intelligence agencies) who would have to implement it. That’s also White Guilt–who are we to tell others they should be democratic? But there’s something more–or, perhaps, White Guilt is itself even bigger than those of us who have found it to be an enormously powerful concept within GA have realized–just ask yourself, which ideologies, which institutions, which “attitudes,” even, would become irrelevant if the U.S. turns out to be an effective force in countering tyranny and instigating a new round of democratic transformation, now through the most difficult region of all? The short answer–almost all of them. The interest in denying what is really a quite modest claim–Muslims can desire and learn how to implement democracy (and whatever kinds of reforms of Islam–or, more radically, rejection of Islam, this might involve–this, also, Muslims might very well prove capable of)–is therefore extremely deeply rooted. Which makes this agenda all the more worthy of the support of GA, especially since, by the looks of it, success will require all the lessons of patience and deferral we are capable of teaching.

  3. Richard

    In the new afterword to the reissue of The End of History, Francis Fukuyama disagrees with Samuel Huntington’s thesis that liberal democracy grows “locally” in the soil cultivated by Judeo-Christianity. Fukuyama believes that Islamist extremism is a political ideology rather than a genuinely cultural or religious phenomenon. He thus regards it as no different from other terrorist movements that have grown up in the margins of Western civilization (anarchists, fascists, Bolsheviks, and Baader-Meinhof nihilists). Roger Scruton responds, somewhat enigmatically, by saying that Fukuyama is both right and wrong. He is right to discern the universal (anthropological) resentment in the eye of the Islamist terrorist; wrong to expect that universal history will deal with it as it has the others. For Scruton, the separation of church and state so fundamental to Judeo-Christianity does not exist for the Islamic extremist: the sharia does not recognize secular law.

    Where does GA sit in this debate? It would seem that it is more sympathetic to Fukuyama than to Scruton. Resentment is universal, and its successful deferral cannot merely be a product of Western civilization. Adam’s final remark is definitely in the spirit of Fukuyama’s universal historicism. The successful implementation of equality and liberty is not specific to the West, though it is true that historically speaking it has been most successful in the West.

    As for white guilt, Fukuyama is not at all representative. The End of History begins with a long meditation on how universal history has been banished from intellectual discussion because of the horror and guilt experienced by the West after WW II. Scruton is still less representative. His whole career seems to be a crusade against the fashionable victimary discourses of the British (and American) universities. But his anthropology is not so obviously universalist as Fukuyama’s. His is rather that of an old-fashioned Englishman (but a very wise Englishman, I hasten to add).

  4. adam

    I agree we are more “Fukuyaman”; and yet Fukuyama has come out denouncing the “neo-cons” and has retracted his support for the Iraq War. And this brings us back to the focus of Eric’s post: WAR–which some universalist theories would like to think we can do away with altogether (it is always tempting to assume that if we know the direction things are moving in, shouldn’t we also be clever enough to find the easiest and least painful way there?). There is something irreducibly political in the movement toward the market system–whether or nor resentment finds its place within the system or tries to attack it from some external vantage point depends a great deal upon whether the subject of resentment thinks he will be met with resistance or appeasement. In other words, do we stand together, do I defend you and the institutions which protect both of us; or do I hope the crocodile will eat me last? Either approach, strictly speaking, is consistent with participation in the market system. Genuine universalism involves the particularity of defending an ally, here and now, even if it might be difficult or counter-productive in the short term, because that’s how I demonstrate that I am a worthwhile ally, which is crucial in the long term, because those closest to the violent resentment must know they have such allies if they are to resist it. This alliance with victims who are determined not to remain victims, much less make a “career” out of it, is central to breaking the habits of mind and practice tying us to white guilt. Fukuyama, like many universalists, mourns the loss of more “primitive” virtues like courage and honor, which are marginalized on the marketplace; so much so that they don’t see the need for these virtues right now, whenit is staring them right in the face. And these virtues are the ones we might associate with “firstness.”

  5. Richard

    Well, Fukuyama would agree with your statement about the irreducibility of politics. Economic development of the kind we are accustomed to in the West requires a political obligation of the sort you have analyzed in your other posts. In his new afterword, Fukuyama ( acknowledges that The End of History did not offer a theory of political development independent of economics. I’m not sure, however, he can be accused of believing that the universal spread of liberal democracy is a bloodless process. His attraction to the Hegelian thesis, I take it, is an acknowledgment that the idea of freedom emerges concretely in the struggle between asymmetric rivals.

    To go back to the white guilt issue, I’m not sure how applicable it is to someone like Fukuyama. In the afterword, he emphasizes that the political development of states conducive to market principles is not something that can be imposed from the outside. Of course, it can be encouraged, but it is above all, as you suggested in your earlier comment, for the people within these countries to fight for these universal principles of liberty and equality.

    As for Scruton, he would probably agree that the implementation of democracy in Islamist states would require a thorough-going reform of Islam itself, perhaps even its rejection. However, he would disagree with you when you say that this is a “modest” claim. I cite Scruton because he is not someone whom you can accuse of white guilt. (On the contrary!) For Scruton, it is the clash of civilizations that is inevitable. For Fukuyama, it is the clash that is inevitable, but this clash is internal to the overall development of civilization in the larger historical sense. Hence his insistence that Islamist nihilism is no different from the host of other nihilisms fostered by modernization. Resentment is an anthropological phenomenon. On this score, I think GA is closer to Fukuyama than to Scruton. Interestingly, Scruton in his response to Fukuyama ( toys with the idea that it is in fact a biological phenomenon. But I think that is going too far.

  6. adam

    Well, you (or Scruton) would be right–I would have to acknowledge that there is nothing modest about revamping, much less repudiating Islam by the vast majority of Muslims; what I took to be a modest claim regards the basic anthropological capacity for doing so (and the terrible arrogance and defeatism involved in asuming they can’t). I would formulate this point more carefully: how possible such transformations are depend to a great extent on non-Muslims. If Muslims see us respond to the most radical among them as if they were the most authentic, radical Islam will, in fact, inch toward becoming the more authentic branch. If we anathemize any version of Islam that fails to recognize the rights of Jews and Christians, and deal with those Muslims who are at least closest to that standard, then we stengthen other elements within Islam. And, in what I suppose would be one of the worst case scenarios, if the vast majority of Muslims turn out, in fact, to believe in a version of the religion that we simply can’t live with, we would have to, in one form or another, quarantine the Islamic world, while encouraging there coalitions of various minorities and those who openly break with Islam in what would clearly be a very long term, uncertain process, a kind of Cold War that will have some very hot spots and moments. The more we make it clear that we are prepared to deal with any of these possibilities, the more likely we are to help the process become easier and less deadly for all involved.

    And that brings me to the really more important point, which seems to me to be the escape hatch for Fukuyama and many others when it comes to acting in history and judging those who act–the claim that political development can’t be imposed from the outside. I think that if we look at this idea closely, we can see that it’s pretty close to meaningless. We are always affecting everybody throughout the world, the more powerful states especially so, and the US most of all. So, it’s always a question of what we impose: rules imposed upon those wishing to participate in the market system have internal consequences for the countries involved. Now, it is possible that in a given country there are absolutely no prerequisites for the development of economic, civic and political freedom–certainly such a country would be utterly indifferent to penalties imposed upon bad behavior, and completely resistant to the most direct kind of intereference or help (North Korea might be such a country right now). But in a country which has some prerequisites, various forms of interference can aim at protecting and nurturing them–and that will always involve supporting, pledging ourselves to support, specific people and groups–this newspaper, that political party, those businesses in favor of this law, etc. So, we can’t force people to open businesses, found political parties, start up newspapers, etc.–and I’m not sure how often it is actually necessary to do so (it certainly wasn’t in Iraq), but we can help remove obstacles to doing so. And if one of those obstacles is a tyrannical regime, which also happens to be our enemy, and available for us to make an example of, we can remove that, too. When we do so, we set free those prerequisites, and we also set free other things as well–sectarian rivalries, gang and mafia style violence which flourishes in the vacuum of a weak state, intervention by malicious neighbors, ethnic suspicions and hatred, etc. So, we change the setting, and have produced a new alignment of forces–and one of those forces is now us, who are no longer quite “outside.” The outcome can never be determined in advance–there must always be a “tipping point” wherein the “prerequisites” get embodied in enduring institutions, and the natives must become more present and authoritative and the foreigners less so. Even now, though, we are shaping the environment, and hence “imposing”: do we now strike an alliance with the country in question, and help fend off other “impositions,” from other sources? Meanwhile, acting according to the principle that these developments can’t be imposed is simply another kind of imposition: in one way or another we are accepting the legitimacy of the tyrant we didn’t depose or effectively oppose, or ceding to some ambitious neighbor an addition to their sphere of influence (of which in one way or another they give us a piece), etc.

    Of course, there will always be calculations involved–not everything is always possible–I don’t think we have much, if any, power to set Russia right at this point, to take one example. But that’s a specific judgment about a particular situation which doesn’t need to masquerade as a theoretical claim.

    One final point–the idea that we can’t impose from the outside is, at this point, an impermissible concession to victimary discourse. The myth of self-determination, which led Fukuyama, at one point anyway (maybe he still believes this) to see Islamism as a modernizing influence that might be encouraged and channeled, presupposes the Romantic authentic self in its most virulent anti-market form (and he must know this). How could joining the world market not involve external impositions of various kinds? So, it seems to me, taking into account your description of Fukuyama’s understanding of the role of politics, that this escape hatch leads one to seek out the path of least resistance at every point, even whille accepting the need for conflicts in general. But perhaps this is why Fukuyama has no sense of white guilt–white guilt is product of those paths of most resistance Western and global development actually ended up taking–Auschwitz, colonialism, total war, nuclear weaponry, terrorism, etc. And serious historical thinking must presuppose the most resistance, shouldn’t it?

    Let’s take responsibility for our impositions, since they follow inexorably from our current civilizational post.

  7. gans

    Just a note to explain my pessimism. Germany and Japan have become democracies; so can Syria, Iran and N. Korea. But theoretical possibilities cannot be implemented merely by expressing them. The increasing arrogance of radical Islamists is uncannily similar to that of the Nazis in the 1930s, and I don’t have to insist on the parallels on the other side. The difference, of course, is the “asymmetry” of Western power, but the White Guilt that “compensates” for it symbolically eventually leads it to become “compensated” militarily, and consequently, annulled. Let’s sit around feeling guilty until Iran has the Bomb.

    The analogy would suggest that the current Hamas-Hezbollah actions resemble Hitler’s various moves in the 30s: Rhineland, Spanish Civil War, Anschluss, Czechoslovakia. We’re still waiting for “Poland.” The difference is Israel, which has to fight. The homeland of firstness (hopefully with the continued support of the modern “first” nation) is the last great hope of the West for avoiding full-scale, and perhaps atomic, war. It will have to be demonstrated that the H-H attack was misguided, that it finally went too far and strengthened the forces in the West as well as in the Muslim world who wish to participate in the global market rather than pretend that medieval Islam provides a “better solution.”

    We’ll know this is beginning to work when the “free exchange of ideas” is understood to exclude hateful victimary nonsense, including hateful Islamic victimary nonsense.

  8. adam

    One of the most bizarre elements of this war is that our enemy takes almost all of its strength from us–it is almost completely parasitic, whatever its roots in Islamic doctrine and history, or contemporary Muslim society. There was an episode of Star Trek in which some creature, which draws energy from human anger, menaced the Enterprise–it was defeated once the crew and the Romulans with whom they were at war substituted amity for hatred. Of course, we need almost exactly the opposite model for today–in fact, the logic of that episode provides us with a good account of how we got here in the first place. Now, our enemy takes all its strength from our preference for holding onto the results of our civilization over our willingness to renew our stake in it. Into the vacuum of asymmetry must enter either our insistence upon new forms of symmetry or their boundless resentment. There is no third way.

Leave a Reply