Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


The Clash of Civilizations

By John Bedell

As we prepare for war in the Middle East, my thoughts keep turning to the background rhetoric about the "clash of civilizations." This idea, although it must be ancient, was brought back into currency by Samuel Huntington in a now famous 1993 article in Foreign Affairs. Huntington wrote,

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new 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 the battle lines of the future.
These days the concept shows up all the time. Every other terrorism "expert" who appears on CNN brings it up, and last fall Henry Kissinger endorsed it in the New York Times. Anyone can see the attraction of this idea. It is easy, when we are attacked by turban-wearing men who know the Koran by heart, to imagine that their acts are rooted in a profound antagonism between Western and Islamic Civilizations, and to fear that this might somehow lead to world war. I think the real story is completely different.

The whole notion of civilizations in conflict begs the question of what a civilization is. Is there one "East Asian" civilization, or are there separate Japanese, Korean and Chinese civilizations?  Is Indonesia part of Islamic Civilization, along with Morocco, or are the differences between them as important as the similarities?  Huntington thinks Greece will drift away from NATO because its "Orthodox" civilization is distinct from the "Western" civilization of the rest of Europe; but why is Greek Orthodoxy any more of a barrier to membership in the West than Spanish Catholicism or Danish Protestantism? Why aren't the Irish "troubles" a sign of looming conflict between Catholic and Protestant Civilizations?  Right now in Europe nations that were historically part of the Orthodox, Slavic world are trying to join NATO and the EU.  In 1993 Huntington made a great deal of the civil war in Yugoslavia, which he said was a clash of Western, Islamic, and Orthodox Civilizations, but I find this downright silly.  True, some Muslim volunteers did come to fight for the Bosnians, but most inhabitants of Sarajevo consider themselves Europeans first and Muslims somewhere far down the list.

A tour of current world conflicts does nothing to bear out Huntington's hunch. In Korea, we have a classic Cold War ideological stand off.  In Colombia, drug profits are fueling a civil war between opposing political groups who seem to share exactly the same degree of civilization (or lack or it).  In Nepal, Maoist rebels battle a medieval monarchy.  The war America seems about to fight, with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, is a particularly instructive case.  Saddam talks a good Islamic line these days, but he is fundamentally a secular tyrant not much different in kind from Mussolini or Idi Amin.  Iraq may, in fact, be the most secular state in the Middle East.  Saddam, furthermore, is no apostle of Islamic or even Arab unity; he has made war on two of his Islamic neighbors, and his bitterest opponents are actually other Iraqis.  What civilizations are clashing here?

The only two major conflicts that, to me, bear any of the signs of clashing civilizations are the Israeli/Palestinian struggle and the battle between Al Qaeda and the US.  One can certainly see the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a struggle between Arab civilization and a westernized Jewish civilization.  I would say, though, that it is just as valid to see this as a simple national power struggle over land and rights, given a messianic color by the different religions of the two sides.  It is important to note here another point, that these two groups would surely never have come into conflict if they hadn't wanted to live in the same place; move the Israelis to Uganda and they would be fighting some other war.  Why, one has to ask, do civilizations have to come into conflict, except where they claim the same territory?  Why would the Chinese and Brazilian (or Latin American) civilizations ever have a war?  Because they have incompatible traditions?  It seems to me that even if people in different civilizations see each other as enemies, they are unlikely to go to war over it.

What about Al Qaeda?  Take a close look at what happened in Afghanistan.  The Taliban certainly represented a particular kind of Islamic civilization, and they certainly hated the west. On the other hand, they were also engaged in a civil war with other Afghans about what kind of government and society Afghanistan should have, and who should lead the country. Their many enemies included the government of Iran, which also has a good claim to represent Islam.  Osama bin Laden hates the west, but he is mainly engaged in a struggle with other Muslims over the future of the Islamic world, just as the Taliban were; he hates the US because he thinks we prop up corrupt, anti-religious Arab regimes.  One could claim that bin Laden and the Taliban are the protagonists of Islam, and call Mubarrak or the Saudi royal family westernizers, but to me this makes no sense.  In Turkey, there is, and no doubt will be for some time, a conflict between politicians who want to make the country more Islamic and those who want it to remain secular and integrate it more fully into the west. But is this a clash of civilizations or a political spat within a Muslim country?

Which brings me to another possible candidate for a clash of civilizations, the one between John Ashcroft and me.  To Huntington and Kissinger, Ashcroft and I are both "western," but it seems to me that our ideas of what that means are very different.  He wants to live in a Christian society in which our laws are based on Christian moral principles, every school day begins with a prayer, and moral deviants are given the vengeance of the Lord; he somehow combines this messianism with a belief in unfettered capitalism and an awed respect for property rights.  I want to live in a secular society in which religious belief is a personal matter, nobody is ever forced to listen to prayer, evolution is taught in every public school, and we pass laws against things people do only when they harm others, not when they violate the precepts of bronze age prophets.  I also think we must limit property rights in order to make our society more just and equitable; to me, the accumulation of vast fortunes by corporate tycoons is the economic equivalent of crying fire in a crowded theater.  What's more, I don't see any chance that John Ashcroft and I will ever agree on the things that matter to us most.  We might find ways to compromise our differences over the economy, since all the world's economic systems are compromises these days, but we can't have a government that is both secular and religious. 

Is the thinking of the average Chinese bureaucrat, or the average Egyptian engineer, more different from mine than the thinking of American fundamentalists?  I don't see how.  Nor do I see why I am more likely to come into conflict with the Chinese or Egyptian governments than with Republicans.  The future I see is not one in which Islamic, Western, Chinese, and South Asian civilizations battle each other, but one in which the citizens of each nation struggle over the kind of government and society they want to have.  In the Islamic world, religious conservatives will certainly battle those who favor greater freedom and openness to the west, but there is no reason why this has to lead to war with western countries. In China, authoritarians will battle advocates of democracy, labor groups will battle corporate interests, and environmentalists will battle industrialists; but I would be willing to bet that China and the US never go to war.  The clash of civilizations will not be fought out on the battlefield, but in the internal politics of the world's nations, and the opponents will be the same parties we have seen at work for a century. At the moment, Osama bin Laden is my enemy, but that is because he thinks America is interfering in the internal affairs of Muslim nations. Conservative Islam will be a political force for a long time to come, but violent anti-Americanism is in no way an essential part of such an ideology, and if we act responsibly in the world it will eventually fade.  In the long term I am sure I will have much more conflict with my home-grown antagonists.  The enemies in the battles that will dominate the future will dress alike, speak the same languages, and eat the same food, but they will think differently how we should govern ourselves.  I see no armaggedon in the future, just more politics.

February 1, 2003


From the 
Commonplace Book

History is not a web woven with innocent hands.  Among all the causes which degrade and demoralize men,
power is the most  constant and the most active.

--Lord Acton


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
Bulletin Board
About us


Faith, Error, and the Death Penalty




At Each Other's Throats

Not just the Execution



The Principle of Violence

Iraqi Democracy

Clash of Civilizations

A Sniper Nation

War and Alienation

Revisiting the War

September 11

Taking Anarchism Seriously

The PLO and the NRA

Shay's Rebellion and
Bankruptcy "Reform"


What is Justice For?


Education Reform