Sunday, August 06, 2006

A clash of civilizations?

Are we seeing a clash of civilizations? It seems like a no-brainer -- the conflict between the Islamic and modern worlds has been brewing since the 19th century. It was then that the phenomenon we now call "globalization" first began to penetrate the Middle East. The resulting conflict is a chronic clash of cultures, institutions, and attitudes across a deep, wide chasm of centuries, punctuated by occasional political-military crises. Myopically concentrating on these crises means missing the larger picture.

The question is shibboleth among pundits, and many commentators, including some very smart ones, have repeatedly denied this obvious fact. (When you're that smart, you can rationalize and deny the obvious.) Francis Fukuyama, Thomas P. M. Barnett, and Mr. Clash-of-Civilizations himself, Samuel Huntington, have said so. (Historian and orientalist Bernard Lewis fudges the question, presumably not liking the implications.) But they're wrong. The clash between Islam and everyone else is an old one, just playing out under new conditions. Once it was a conflict of Muslims with Christians, Hindus, pagan Africans, etc. Now it's a conflict between a declining Islamic world and the secular, globalizing world of the 21st century.

A significant portion of Western opinion leaders also fail to see the obvious, even when it's right in front of their eyes. If you feel like you're living in a 1930s newsreel, you're not alone. While the scale and intensity of global conflicts have dropped dramatically since the end of the Cold War (something you'll never learn watching CNN), most of the world's remaining violent conflict occurs between Muslims and Muslims or Muslims and non-Muslims. Democracy has also spread in a striking way since the end of Cold War. But the Middle East remains the striking exception. Trends so consistent cannot be an accident.

What keeps smart people from seeing this is fear and incomprehension. Western culture revolves around rational self-interest and liberal give-and-take strategies. It assumes that, even if a conflict becomes violent, it can still be understood and ultimately resolved in political terms -- conflict can be contained within a box called "politics." The West's most important theorist of war, Clausewitz, famously wrote as much. Academically-trained thinkers, by the nature of their training and careers, are even more inclined to see things this way. They have fundamental blinkers that keep them from understanding the Middle East's culture of honor-shame, power-challenging, and religious dominance based on violence and imperialism.

A clash of civilizations means that political, military, and economic means cannot achieve much beyond holding the jihadists at bay. Everyone from the Bush administration to most of its critics, including the most hysterical, believe that political change is the way forward here. Suppose they're all wrong?

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