In Salmagundi, excerpts from Benjamin Barber, Martha Nussbaum, Peter Singer, Breyten Bretyenbach, Orlando Paterson, Guity Nashat, Akeel Bilgram, James Miller, Vladimir Tismaneanu, and Carlyn Forche’s discussion on “Jihad, McWorld, Modernity“, a symposium about the “Clash of Civilizations”.
Though we framed this debate to some degree in terms of the clash of civilizations, and that is certainly a provocative term which the events of 9/11 would seem to inspire, I take that phrase, the “clash of civilizations,” to be little more than an expression of parochial bigotry. It speaks in no way to the world we live in and is, frankly, hardly even worth discussing, although some people here may strongly disagree. It’s the kind of language that is redolent of a world of 18th century imperialism, a world of “us and them,” and it clarifies nothing. I would just remind those of you who are enamored of Sam Huntington’s phraseology that, in the book that gave us this expression, he argues not only that there is a clash of civilizations, but that the clash is aided and abetted by a fifth column in the United States made up of African Americans, who are undermining the West and its ideals. So if you’ve taken that book seriously, I suggest you read it again more carefully and revise your estimation.
The more serious charge, though, is that there is a special problem called Islam, and that Islam has created a world in which fundamentalists regard not just the West, but democracy, pluralism, freedom, and global markets as the enemy of an ancient, militant, intolerant doxology and that the West’s destruction is necessary to the survival of that doxology. That is an argument that’s been put in somewhat more civil and polite terms by a variety of thinkers, including Bernard Lewis, but there are others as well. Paul Berman, for one, has made a rather peculiar argument that Islamic fundamentalism is a new form of totalitarianism not entirely unlike the Soviet and fascist variants. I reject that charge in its entirety, and note that all religions stand in a tension with secular society and that every civilization the world has known has had the task of working out that tension, adjudicating the relevant differences and stresses. That is the essence of what a civilization is about—and though some cultures have been more successful than others in maintaining a healthy balance between religious and secular demands, there is an essential pattern we can see at work in contemporary Islamic societies.