Please Note: This node is not a judgemental one. I mean no value judgement in the use of words like tribal and secular. I (and those I quote or paraphrase) are instead attempting to describe and characterize the inherently messy entities comprised of groups of humans. I assure you that my own personal preferences are (to the best of my abilities) not presented here; while I'm sure they leak through, my points in this node should not be held as subjective but as objective. I hope to very briefly explore some of the root causes of the current unpleasant situation. If you feel you must declare your own opinions and position as a result of this, please do it via /msg to me; I'm trying to avoid starting a flamewar here.

Whew. Here goes.

Much has been made, in light of the recent unpleasantness, of a series of articles, papers and volumes that appeared on the Western politics scene in the late 1980s through the early 1990s. The centerpiece of these could be reasonably deemed to be the well-received book by Samuel Huntington entitled The Clash of Civilizations.

Huntington and others, some of whom agreed substantially with him and others less so, were attempting to fill the void in Western (specifically U.S/NATO) security policy and strategic thought that had been left in the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and, perforce, the central defining conflict now known as The Cold War. Although there was clearly no guiding ideal or schema that was informing U.S. security and foreign policy, this didn't really matter much to the average American. Either enjoying the late Eighties boom, the resultant recession, or the dot-com bubble, folks were really far too caught up in more domestic concerns to form or make known an opinion.

True to form, some people who were (God knows how) in power tried to enunciate a scheme for the post-Cold War world, but typically fell on their ass as a result when their programs turned out to have little defining force on policy beyond a common coloring of soundbites. Fortunately or unfortunately, there were those who were busily taking care of the problem.

The Gulf War brought Huntington et. al. into the limelight, as well as inspire many of them to their contributions to the discourse. Here's why. Allow me to offer a brief summation (entirely incomplete; go read the book for yourself) of The Clash of Civilizations.

Essentially, Huntington argued, the end of the Cold War saw the end of the nation-state as the defining unit in international conflict. While the nation-state would remain the base actor on the world scene, one's side (Us? Them?) would no longer be a consequence of one's nationality. Rather, the positions of nationalities would be determined by those of civilizations. A civilization is not, as Sid Meier would have you believe, a despotically run state or group of states. Rather, it is a group of people (and the cities, regions and nations that they inhabit) brought together by a common culture; a history of interaction, common core beliefs, and similar methods of thinking.

In Huntington's view, the world after the Cold War would be split along lines that could be defined most precisely by the borders of civilizations. There were, in his estimation, perhaps seven distinct civilizations: Western/secular, Islam, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African. I won't go into his reasoning, but personally find it compelling. He continues by noting that the West is at a peak of power in the world; the twentieth century's scientific advances and the advent of nationalist mass-mobilized, industrial nation warfare has placed the West (and the United States in particular) atop the heap.

The most likely conflict axis, he notes, is that between the West and Islam. This is because the West and the Islamic world have already seen several centuries of military skirmishing; and because the fundamental core values that make up the two are in profound conflict. The West espouses science, the exploration of thought, fluid personal values (i.e. subject to personal decision and evaluation), and the progress of the individual over tradition. Islam, on the other hand, is based at the core on faith and devotion, on a society's internal bonds strengthened through common religious beliefs and practice, and through an emphasis on religious teachings over mundane complications when the two come into conflict.

The world, says Huntington, is becoming a smaller place; nowadays (from henceforth say I) a man who would be known at home as a Pashtun of a particular village, of Sunni faith, of Islam, perchance living in Afghanistan, is able to travel outside his familiar world. He finds that in New York City, or in Paris, or in Shanghai, or in Melbourne, or in Moscow, he is likely to be known simply as an Arab, his particular cultural riches and identity sloughed away in favor of a distinction which (to him) is insultingly broad. This contributes to the sense of Western civilization as a depersonalizing, alienating force that is held among more traditional, tribal peoples (of whom most Muslims see themselves a part). To them, this other civilization has discarded all that they have achieved, hold dear and pass on to their children in favor of a (mostly harsh and bigoted) form of identification that not only makes them thus faceless but draws them into the unfamiliar and unwanted battle lines of interracial relations in the West.

Finally, as information and experiences are spread liberally through the world by modern media and communications technologies, the overwhelming common thread of Western values and images (brought about, after all, due to the West's head start in such technologies and methods) will naturally give rise to defensive counteridentification; and the most 'counter' you can get to the omnipresent and homogenous Western MTV consumer culture is to identify yourself with those very characteristics that the Westerners have discarded - a 'secret language' in the open, or a badge of honor that (by design) the West won't understand.

Couple this with the rise of the resources available to nation-states in the Muslim world due to the West's reliance on petroleum, and you have a recipe for Saddam Hussein, for Sheikh Abdel Rahman, and Osama bin Laden. In this world, tribal, traditional and familiar means of conflict are being utilized to differentiate between the faceless West and the familiar, comfortable, kindred Islamic peoples. While the West is conditioned to thinking about international relations along nation-state boundary lines, nations in this common Muslim culture or civilization are acting along civilization commonalities. Their actions thus confuse the West, who assumes that they can interact with one nation at a time, constructing their policy/polices as they go. Secrecy of interaction was, at one time, assumed by all in the diplomatic arena. Secret treaties, closed-door negotiations, all that and more were closely held between the involved parties lest one of them derive (or, more likely, lose) advantage through its disclosure to third party nations. World War One, says one popular hypothesis, was caused by a web of 'secret agreements' that eventually made any internationally destabilizing incident (the Archduke's assassination, in this case) sure to 'ignite a powderkeg' by triggering the increasingly deep and complex sequence of military and diplomatic moves that had been 'preprogrammed' by those agreements.

Now, however, the West find itself dealing with a set of actors that (while presenting themselves as separate, and indeed acting as such in some cases) actually share many deep-seated beliefs, values and sensitivities. Actions which, in the past, would only affect relations with one nation-state, now pluck the strings of a complex web strung between the artificial overlay of nationalities that sits atop Islamic civilization. The resultant vibrations begin to approach the World War One web of treaties and agreements - lines of reaction, loyalty, viewpoints and preparation that are invisible to the outside observer but manifest powerfully to complicate any interaction between the West and the Islamic nations.

This, coupled with the past several centuries of military conflict between the West and Islam made greater by the existence of the state of Israel (a creation of the West's United Nations, and a client of the United States), means that there is a rift between Islamic civilization and the western one. This rift, which may not precisely follow national borders, nevertheless makes itself felt whenever the West acts in any way which affects the Muslim world (in the Muslim world's opinion). Given the ready availability of media and communications (CNN is proud to note that most world leaders monitor them 'round the clock, after all, and broadcasts heavily in the Middle east) this means that waves and ripples of reaction will swiftly shake Islam whenever the West does something dumb, something lethal (no matter how justified or not) or just inherently Western on television. Meanwhile, the West remains somewhat confused, unable at some level to comprehend how situations affecting (in their view) one nation-state are in fact informing the views of an entire civilization that they are just now beginning to recognize as a unit.

Next: I go into more mind-numbing detail, this time concerning the nature of the conflict between the West and Islam and the factors that will inform it! Read on, quail, scream with terror, flee to the catbox; I drone on!