Clash of Civilizations Discredited

02/26/2011 04:24 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Might we finally be able to dispel the myth of clashing civilizations to make room for new understandings of cultures of democracy? After the collapse of the Soviet Union and sudden vacuum of a political and ideological rival for 'the west,' some theorists predicted the end of history, or at least, of ideology. According to Francis Fukuyama, the triumph of liberal capitalism over communist authoritarianism concluded that the principles of human rights, liberal democracy and free markets would shape the destiny of the entire world. Others, however, argued otherwise. Samuel Huntington soon offered an alternative theory in the 'Clash of civilizations'.

He argued that although the age of grand ideological struggles ended with the collapse of Soviet communism, the world had in fact regressed to a prior stage of development, which was based on the "normal" clashes that he said resulted from incommensurable forms of cultural difference. His cultural mapping of the world identified eight major civilizations. He argued that the west was naive to presume that democratic values and human rights were universal, and that attempts to impose these values in other cultures would lead to resentment and backlash. In effect, he argued that freedom and democratic principles are inherent only to western cultures, while being alien to others such as Chinese -- and primarily Islamic.
This ultimate conclusion, and specifically Huntington's approach to Islam, is what made his theory so controversial, and what provided right-wingers in the west with a much-needed ideological enemy. Huntington perceived Islamic culture as inherently non-democratic, and thus that attempts to impose democratic values within it would anger the increasingly popular fundamentalist players within the Islamic world. "Islam," he said, "has bloody borders." In fact, he predicted that future wars would take erupt on fault lines primarily between Islamic and western civilizations: "the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." To support his argument, he noted major upheavals within Islamic world, and particularly the 1979 Iranian revolution.

The theory, however, not only turned cultures into closed, timeless and space-less entities; it also disregarded obvious factors in the politics of these civilizations. For example, in the 1979 Iranian revolution, democracy was the dominant cultural currency. The revolution aimed to establish a political system that would honor democracy and human rights. Religious fundamentalist forces in the revolution were in such a minority that their candidate could not muster even 5% of the vote in the country's first presidential election, while Abolhassan Banisadr, representing the democratic front, secures more than 76%.

The eventual victory of the fundamentalist faction came about through a conjunction of factors, including unfavourable international conditions. The prolonging of the Iran-Iraq war through Ronald Reagan's covert relationship with the Iranian fundamentalists (later exposed as the "October Surprise" and Iran-Gate scandal) played a major role. There was nothing inevitable about the dominance of fundamentalist forces over state and society. And while there was widespread resentment against western (mainly US) policies towards Iran, these were not rooted in a cultural belief that American civilization was democratic and Iranian civilization was not. They were grounded in an understanding that US policies towards Iran were antidemocratic. The 1953 American-British coup against the democratic prime minister Mohammad Mussadegh, and twenty-five years of support for the brutal dictatorship of the Shah, were the most obvious example of this. The US was resented not because it was culturally incommensurable or advocated human rights, but because it supported a despot who made it possible for the US to dominate oil interests in the Iranian economy. The "clash of civilizations" thesis was hollow, but powerful nevertheless.

Interestingly enough, fundamentalist forces within Islamic countries also tried to use this theory to justify their own anti-western geopolitics. Hizb-al-Tahrir, for example, argued that the "clash of civilizations" was inevitable. Right-wing forces in the west found their counterparts within the Islamic world, and were soon provided "proof" of their thesis in the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the years that followed, a bold new narrative of the "clash of civilizations" was crafted. It had become so embedded in international relations, popular culture and public consciousnesses that it was difficult to imagine what might be able to unravel it.

Democratic movements in Islamic societies might. The sudden explosion of popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and just prior to it the Green Movement in Iran, have begun to more seriously expose the shallowness of the "clash of civilizations" theory. These movements all share characteristics in the non-violence of revolutionary methods, the insignificance of fundamentalist elements, and democratic goals. The early victories of democratic forces in Tunisia and Egypt and the total isolation of fundamentalist sections of society in these countries, as well as the fragile situation of fundamentalism in Iran, demonstrate that democracy is not the monopoly of the west. Nor can it be a reason for some epic "clash of civilizations." The multiple roots of democratic governance can be traced back not only to the ancient Greeks, but over a thousand years before, also to Sumaria. This history challenges the long-held belief rarely now spoken aloud, but undoubtedly still working in silence, that as Orientalist scholars like Vatikiotis argued, "Islam does not develop, and neither do Muslims; they are merely are." We see in front of our eyes: Islam does develop, and enters into dialogue within itself and other belief systems. It is not hard to think that demands for the separation of religion and state in Egypt and Tunisia have partly developed through observing the disastrous consequences of conflating state with religion in Iran.

Now, these two ongoing revolutions and the spread of revolutionary energies to other Islamic countries are providing evidence that discredits the basic principles of the theory of the "clash of civilizations." As one Egyptian explained, the reason for his participation in the revolution was, "I want to be counted." If there is anything essential in human beings, surely, it is this need to be counted, to count. The counting of the unaccountable is not the monopoly of certain cultures; it is what makes us human -- and it is what Jacques Rancière says is the foundation of all politics. Or in other words, as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "there is something in the soul that cries out for freedom". That something is deeply rooted in our humanity; it is what makes us universal. The bloody fault lines of conflict today are mapped out not between democratic and undemocratic civilizations, but between global forces of antidemocratic power and human struggles for freedom in every culture.