Civilization Clash

“We never insult any prophet — not Moses, not Jesus — so why can’t we demand that Muhammad be respected?” Ali, a 39-year-old textile worker in Cairo, said.

Wire reports reported in various news media (for example this link) relate that “When the protests against a U.S.-made online video mocking the prophet Muhammad exploded in about 20 countries, the source of the rage was more than just religious sensitivity, political demagogy or resentment of Washington, protesters and their sympathizers here said.

“It was also a demand that many of them described with the word “freedom,” although in a context very different from the term’s use in the individualistic West: the right of a community, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, to be free from grave insult to its identity and values.”

That cuts to the core of what all of this is about. It’s the Clash of Civilizations described by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington. (See The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996)(this book was an expansion of an article published in Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993). The almost two decades since Huntington’s essay has largely validated his thesis. This is nowhere truer than in the case of the Western and Islamic civilizations, or cultures.

Huntington identified eight current civilizations in today’s world. One can quibble about the contours, differences, and characterization of some of them, but he maintained that the most relevant differences were two: language similarity and religion. The salient examples, of course, are the Western, Indo-European and Judeo-Christian (and increasingly secular) in religious tradition, and Islamic, whose very name denotes its defiantly theocratic religious tradition, and its Semitic languages, with Arabic at the center. The values held dear by the cultures flow in large part from those two characteristics. That seems to make a lot of sense, given that the essence of religion is one’s view of the universe and place in it, and language is the principal communication medium. Those of us who know more than one language understand the difficulty of translating some concepts from one to another.

The clashes occur, according to Huntington, at “fault lines” where the cultures meet and interact. Historically, that has been geographical. Oceans, as well as lesser bodies of water, and deserts have kept clashes to a minimum. When transportation and communication methods improved, the conflicts became more common, but were still kept to minimum by physical distance. Most recently, with travel time to any part of the world reduced to hours, and communication of visual images as well as sounds and words reduced to milliseconds, serious clashes are bound to become more commonplace, and severe.

As a value system, the culture of Western Civilization is clearly superior in dealing with the world as it is and human beings at they are. These values, however, did not spring into being overnight. The West, as exemplified by its English speaking core, had a long tortured process of development, and only with the progression of Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Industrial Revolution of the past 500 years or so, has it come to be world dominant. As far as its attitude toward what the West regards as fundamental human rights – freedom of belief, expression, personal autonomy or privacy, and property – the Islamic world is where the West was at the beginning of the 15th Century.

To illustrate the last point, the referenced article quotes “When you hurt someone, you are just hurting one person,” said Ahmed Shobaky, 42, a jeweler. “But when you insult a faith like that, you are insulting a whole nation that feels the pain.” This statement, with no alteration, could have been spoken in Western Europe of the 14th Century to general approval. Blasphemy, defined as the current powers that were at the time, was an offense that merited burning at the stake and eternal damnation. (Admittedly, the political correctness crowd in the U.S. would like to restore blasphemy, defined according to their aesthetic, to the penal code. But that is beside the point of this essay. See )

As aesthetically displeasing as the cultural attitudes of the Islamic civilization may be, it is probably not in the American interest to try to impose, or even encourage, the various Islamic states to change to Western specifications. The “Arab Spring” has sprung. It was a was a hookah dream from the beginning. Democracy in the Islamic world will inevitably be mobocracy, at least on some level, usually one that suits the current mullah. Mubarak style rule there is what is in the U.S. interest. Military intervention is not warranted except for surgical operations like removing the Taliban, who harbored terrorists, and not for so-called nation building. Removing Saddam from power in Iraq was probably a mistake. If Saddam was an SOB, to paraphrase Harry Truman, we should have made him our SOB. That is more-or-less what happened with Qaddafi in Libya after his outrages in the 1980s, and he was tolerable up through his demise last year. Those resources would have been better spent removing the mullahs in Iran. Again, looking to history, Iran/Persia has been a contender for world domination for the past four thousand years.

The United States should continue to trade with the Islamic world, should accept bona fide refugees from those benighted countries, and make whatever alliances deemed in the interest with whoever happens to be in power at the time. We should terminate all economic aid to those countries (except, possibly for an immediate quid pro quo), punish mistreatment of our citizens, whether visitors to them or elsewhere, and maintain vigilance over those who would do us harm anywhere. That should be the fundamental basis for a foreign policy that will mitigate this clash of civilizations.

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