I've never bought in to Huntington
's argument, as it seemed to me to be based on a narrow understanding of the political complexities outside of the democratic west, which he lumped rather clumsily into undifferentiated blocs, glibly papering over the internal dynamics of huge parts of the wolrd, such as Africa
or south-east Asia. This reluctance to engage with the history and interests of any region beyond the borders of his academic world has always smacked vaguely of at best eliticism, and at worst, bigotry. I'm also not sure about his definition of the term "civilisation
", which is a pretty fluid academic concept at the best of times.
But I've also struggled over the past few years to coherently explain to myself why so many atrocities are being committed in the name, or at least under the banner of, Islam. I don't in any way ignore the retaliatory argument, which in the Middle East in particular has so many genuine grievances to support it as to make it almost impossible to view the conflict in the region in any other terms. Indeed, listening to the liberal voices in the west, you can sometimes almost believe that if only Israel and the military bases in Saudi Arabia could vanish overnight, then Syria will becoming a thriving capitalist democaracy, Iran will acknowledge the Holocaust and Osama bin Laden will convert to Buddhism. But I find it difficult to credit that the plight of the Palestinians really informs riots about a beauty contest in Nigeria or the indiscriminate murder of Australian tourists in Bali. The connections are just too tenuous. Something else is going on here, and for the first time in 5 years I think I might have a handle on what that is.
To begin with, I would like to address the claim that lumping all of Islam into one bloc is misguided. It's true that Islam is a less monolithic culture than the extermists would like us in the west to think it is, and it's also true that to view it as a single entity while ignoring the vast differences between various groups of its devotees (e.g. black Africans and Indonesians, as mentioned above) is simplistic and crude. But conversely I have come to believe that it is patronising to deny this all-encompassing spiritual and political body of thought its obvious power to unite peoples, be they ever so separated by distance, race, or culture. After all, Christianity once united (some would claim still does unite - just look at Turkey and the EU) a whole group of nations who, whilst competing amongst themselves to maintain land empires, nevertheless had certain shared underlying beliefs and would close ranks against any outsiders. The crusades are the most obvious example of this, but the various wars of the European nations against the Moors in the Middle Ages and the Turks in the last few centuries are also excellent study cases for countries with conflicting interests (England and France, say, or the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Venetian republic) coming together to defend themselves against an enemy they all clearly perceive as alien in a more threatening way than their mere neighbours. Well, if Christianity can do it, why not Islam? It is not only insulting but patently ridiculous to claim that Islam is in any way inferior to Christianity or Buddhism as a unifying basis for political action.
But why now? Well, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a great deal of talk about the single superpower and the need for an emergent counterbalance to the US. Most hopes were pinned on the European Union, with occasional nods to China/India. But thinking about it, the EU is a rubbish substitute to the USSR as a foil to hte American economic and political domination of the globe. Whatever any of us in our pride like to think, the differences between Europe and America are cosmetic at best. A bunch or more-or-less capitalist liberal democracies can never hope to be the ideological counterpoint to the American way (which I'm not, by the way, dissing in any way - I just think it would be better if there were some alternatives. Call it consumer choice) that communism was. The rapidly liberalising China is also coming too close to the fold to be a convincing candidate; they seem to want to be America, minus one party. I think that it's a perfectly feasible argument to say that the overarching Islamic way of running economies and societies is currently struggling to define itself as a viable alternative to the US. Not, as again the extermists would have us think, out of hatred, but simply because it is impossible to shoe-horn all the countries in the world into a single Star Trek-like Federation of the World, and an alternative has to be presented sooner or later.
OK, but we're not talking about a single geopolitical bloc a la Eastern Europe. These guys are spread all over the world! Well, yes, but if you think about it, so was communism - from the Caribbean all the way to Mongolia and Vietnam, in fact. It was a global counter-culture, and Islam can serve just as well in that capacity. In fact it's much better placed to do so, because there are millions more genuine muslims than there ever were committed communists in the world.
Still, why so violently? Here we close the loop and go back to the Middle East. We've really been pissing these people off recently, giving them every opportunity to radicalise against us and creating a violent melting pot in which those who rise to the surface most quickly are the ones with the most extreme, cataclismic approaches to dealing with their real or perceived conflicts with us. I believe that we've accelerated what was already a natural process, providing it with the impetus to become more fanatical and dispersed. Our reactions to the creation or existence of Islamic states has been mostly paranoid and panic-driven. We are no better equipped to deal with the notion of Iranias willingly submitting to religious rule back in 1979 than muslim fundamentalists are capable of accepting our rejection of any suggestion of such rule.
I don't know if I've departed from Huntington only to arrive in the same place as him. I hope not. I certainly don't want anyone to interpret my views in the same way as I've interpreted his, or to see them as in any way supporting the current foreign policy of the English speaking west. I really do believe that if we in the west could just stop meddling with Iraq, Afghanistan or Palestine, so much the better for everyone involved. But I also think that there is some macro-cultural, macro-historical stuff going on at the moment, which I at least am only just beginning to understand.