By Penda Mbow
This article revisits the “clash of civilizations” thesis at a time when considerations of cultural diversity and social integration are urgently on our minds. Translated by Katherine Marshall from the original, published in French on January 15, 2015 in French on SudOnline, and printed here with permission from the author.
Dr. Penda Mbow is an Associate Professor of History at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, where she has published widely on African political and social issues, often focusing on the role of Islam in Africa. She previously served as Senegal’s Minister of Culture and as cultural advisor to the Senegalese Department of Ethnography and Historical Heritage. Among her many areas of expertise are African intellectual history and Islamic gender studies.
The time has come, a week after the tragic and inexcusable events in Paris, the killing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and the taking of hostages in a Hypercacher supermarket, to begin an honest debate among all, close at hand and far away, who are disturbed. Even as we bemoan the morbid and provocative turn of events, we should remember André Malraux’ wise prediction: “the twenty-first century will be spiritual or it will not be.”
We should recognize, right off, that fifteen years into the twenty-first century, our world is in a sorry state: countries decimated or almost so, occupied by foreign armies (Russia and the NATO countries) that stay on and on (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya). Social and political divides pull communities apart, lead to divergent worldviews, block dialogue, and kill opportunities to build consensus. Egypt and Nigeria are stark examples but the same applies for many Western countries. An international terrorist movement threatens entire societies at their very foundations along the same lines, as is happening in the Sahel and northern Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan, and even in the great world democracies!
The basic facts are: a poorly negotiated end of the Cold War and above all an endless conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian war. The turning point that the arrival in 1979 of Imam Khomeini represented should have alerted world decision makers to pay closer attention to the way the Muslim world was changing and what it hoped for.
How has it come to this? Notwithstanding the overwhelming importance of preserving human life, history’s destructive forces amount to an epitome of barbarism in its utter denial of civilization. We can echo Cheick Anta Diop’s famous query: Civilization or Barbarism? Witness the destruction of monuments in Iraq during the various wars that have convulsed the country since at least 2003, the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in October 2005 or the sites, mausoleums, and manuscripts of Timbuktu by jihadists in July 2012. Why is mankind always inclined to destroy its own genius? Is it something bequeathed by Prometheus? Why is it always weapons and not dialogue? Even the great civilizations of the past, Mesopotamia and Sassanid Persia, can no longer serve as a consolation for the disorder we witness. And yet, there are glimmers of hope.
In August 2014, I took part in an event that was sublime: a symposium on “holy shrines”, about Sufi Shrines, organized by the distinguished Professor Carl W. Ernst from the University of North Carolina, a wise American scholar who exhibits an almost carnal respect for the Sufis of Southeast Asia. He translated the works of Iranian and Indian mystics from Persian and Urdu into English.
At Aurangabad, in central India, where the meeting was held, the tombs of Muslim saints and relics (the burda robe that the Prophet wore at the moment of the mirage or the famous assent to collect prayers from Allah, which the Mongols brought to this place) sit alongside large Buddhist temples and Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain caves carved into Mount Ellora. This place, like Jerusalem, obliges us to ask the eternal question: why do we fight for faith or belief?
To go to the roots and ask how such things came to be, we need to focus on three points: an update about Huntington’s ideas, Europe’s lengthy historical trajectory and the long history of European/Islamic relationships, and ideas for the future.
I. Huntington’s ideas today
In 1993, Samuel Huntington published an article entitled “The Clash of Civilizations” in Foreign Affairs. Swiftly, because of its impact, it became a book, published in 1996. The author commented that “the public has been variously impressed, intrigued, shocked, scared, and confused by my thesis that conflicts between groups from different civilizations are fast becoming the basic foundation for global politics.” At the time, this perspective was certainly convincing because basic historical trends seemed to support his thesis. Even if it is rather difficult to accept the idea that this amounted to a ”New Age of global politics,” contests between civilizations and religions are, alas, at the center of human relationships, not in the sense of creative exchange or mutual support but in what Amin Maalouf describes as “murderous identities”.
Terrorism and its still more retrograde ideology seem to be subsuming the debates among Islamists about religion that emerged in the 1970s, with players like Saudi Arabia, on one side, and revolutionary Iran on the other waging a merciless battle for control.
In the 1980s Islamism spread everywhere, with unforgettable events like the assassination of Sadat in Cairo in 1981 but also the era of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and the emergence of En Nahda in Tunisia. The rise of Islamists was accompanied by a bloody crackdown in various countries. The absence of spaces for dialogue and consensus made possible the endless terrorism, with the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 as the focal point. Terrorism’s most hideous face in Africa is the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram, a group that has left more than 2,000 dead.
No one can deny today that the war of civilizations and religions is firmly entrenched: Jews are targeted, synagogues burned, schools assaulted and children massacred, graves desecrated, mosques attacked, Friday prayers as well as minarets are rejected in some cities, attacks on ritual practices like the sacrifice of Abraham, or burying the dead swiftly, halal food… All this intolerance is simply madness!
In this light, what is happening in Germany is interesting to observe: the State organizing a counter-demonstration to protect the Muslims from the triumphant far right. This makes good sense because where any form of exclusivist ideology thrives, Islamophobia will only exacerbate tensions, especially when questions arise about the universal nature of Western civilization and its system of values that increasingly seems removed from the concerns of many people and their perceptions.
This view comes into sharper focus in the light of Huntington’s basic argument. This is that for centuries, non- Western people have “envied the economic prosperity, technological sophistication, military power, and political cohesion of Western societies.”
This vision is what Kemalism was seeking in Western institutions and values. If the European Union eventually rejects Turkey’s application for membership, that would amount to a contradiction of European policies. At the end of the nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries, the Ottoman Empire was held up as the Great sick man of Europe and it had to be divided up. There is no need for reminders that at the time Turkey was part of Europe and was even in some settings seen as a model. Yet today, Turkey is denied integration in the European Union.
The civilizational approach that Huntington proposed is the key to this enduring war between the West and the Arab-Muslim world (which is rather different from the Muslim civilization).
II. Europe and the West and Islam: A long history
The history of modern Europe is one of de-Christianization. When the European Constitution was ratified (in France it was in 2005), the rejection of the reference to Christianity surprised many historians of the caliber of Jacques Le Goff. European civilization is above all that of Christianity. At a time when Europe is moving towards secularization of the society, on other continents, the opposite is true. We speak, for example, about a re-Islamization of Muslim societies. Great misunderstandings result. This is not a new phenomenon. We cannot imagine a re-Christianizing Europe. The process of secularization, which is at the heart of Western modernity, makes it impossible to see a Christian Europe today but even Christianity as European.
The comparison between Europe and Islam, in whatever manner we choose to present it, always carries a connotation of conflict, no doubt because, at least implicitly, we are stubborn in seeing in it some sort of continuation or revival of the old warlike encounters between Christianity and the Islamic world in the eighth century. One of the very definitions of the Middle Ages involved the domination of the Muslim Arabs around the Mediterranean. A famous textbook for students in medieval history is Henri Pirenne’s Mohammed and Charlemagne.
It is beyond this article’s scope to recount the many conflicts that occurred, but the crusade launched by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 left an indelible imprint on European Islamic relations. And the colonial experience did not help (look, for example, at the Suez Canal struggle in the nineteenth between the Khedive of Egypt and Europeans), any more than declarations after September 11, 2001 about an Axis of Evil.
However, ever since the Western world, which can no longer be identified solely as Europe, nurtures a growing preoccupation with the spread of Islamic or “fundamentalist” movements, there is a widespread tendency in Europe to see in Islam at least a potential enemy. And for many Europeans, this is not a new phenomenon but a form of revival, a reversion to an ancient hostility linked to a geopolitical reality that is deeply inscribed in history.
It is not understandable, therefore, that the contrast between Europe and Islam, to the extent that it has always been defined or at least addressed in terms of conflict, is seen as generally synonymous with an opposition of the West and Islam, or of modernity and Islam? A perception of the West as a synonym for modernity further complicates the situation, as does the contrast when seen as an eternal duel between Europe and Asia. This idea that already appeared in sketch form in The Persians of Aeschylus, taken up by Hippocrates in his Treatise on Airs, Waters, and Places that framed the opposition in climate and political terms. And by Aristotle in his Politics, which portrays a basic difference in character.
But it is impossible today to stick to a notion of Europe identified with Christianity, and even more so to reduce Asia to Islam; it would be even more difficult to reduce Islam to Asia. We know that Asia is not Muslim, as the “dar al-Islam”, the “land of faith” extends well beyond the Asian continent.
But to return to the early 1980s, when strong protest groups were mobilizing to contest the social order, in recent years the Islamist movements are the most celebrated representatives; the Arab Spring alone puts this in perspective. We desperately need to escape from this situation!
III. Some proposals
A first proposal calls for a definitive settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, recognizing the Palestinian state beside the state of Israel. On November 2, 1917, Lord Balfour, Minister of Foreign Affairs, sent a letter to the famous financier Lionel W. Rothschild, honorary president of the World Zionist Organization, in which he stated that the British government supported the creation of a Jewish “national home” in Palestine. This declaration which was part of Great Britain’s official diplomatic objectives contradicted Britain’s commitment to a great Arabia that was made to Cherif Hussein. That’s where it all began!
It is true that the awful situation of the Jews in Europe that culminated in the genocide perpetrated by the Nazis presented a real challenge at the time. But you cannot repair one injustice by creating another. Anti-Semitism is now a sort of sword of Damocles held over the conscience of the West and Israel continues to ride on European’ guilt.
The conflict cuts so deep that it shifts the foundations that long marked cohabitation among religious communities of the East. Eastern Christians are threatened, though they had always enjoyed the status of dhimmis (protected). They participated in public life, for example the Barmakid family, who, although they were Christians, served as viziers under the Abbasids in the tenth century.
Originally a political conflict, the Middle East question has transformed into a religious issue that affects Europe, a Europe that faces an economic crisis and unprecedented social divides. Europe, a land of immigrants (it needs labor to keep the economy turning), but also the continent of colonial powers that are implicated in all conficts, finds a part of her youth at the forefront of political Islam and sadly then of terrorism.
A second proposal: reform the United Nations system. The League of Nations (SDN), the forerunner of the United Nations, was born in the wake of the Great War of 1914-18, then replaced after the 1939-45 war by the United Nations, because the problems had become more complex. In this spirit, the UN should become more democratic. Further, during the Cold War UN institutions such as UNESCO played a leading role in debates about ideas. UNESCO also provided refuge and support for all the persecuted intellectuals who had something to say and was the center for creative reflection about education. All that is missing today. The world has become too materialistic and gives too much importance to superficiality. Never have we had more need for institutions dedicated to ideas and dialogue among cultures. Further, the UN General Assembly needs to focus sharply on themes like terrorism and education rather than simply serving as a place where leaders, one after another, pronounce on whatever topic they choose.
Finally respect for diversity. We need not dwell on this topic because the news illustrates it so vividly. We must learn to know each other, to study religion, norms, and values so that we are more tolerant and try always to share the best in ourselves. That is the path to world peace and stability.