Charlie Hebdo and the war machine: Why the clash of civilizations is a lousy way to frame the problem

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 Illustration by al-Bīrūnī of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-tafhim. Source: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival, 1976. An illustration of the flowering of intellectual inquiry in the 10th century.

by John MacBeath Watkins

The massacre of a dozen cartoonists, staff, and police at Charlie Hebdo magazine on January 7 has awakened an old debate about how we should respond to terrorism.

Some conservatives want to revive the frame of the conflict between the West and Islam as being a "clash of civilizations," a term popularized by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article, he wrote:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.[2]

Neoconservatives writers have taken this in a way Huntington did not intend, as a call to arms for Christian nations against Islam. Huntington was not advocating such a clash, just describing what he saw.

What he saw was two civilizations based on evangelizing religions that insisted that only they were right, forced into interactions by increasing globalization of the world economy.

Now, we get people like George Friedman arguing that by adopting secular governments, we have disarmed ourselves. He recently wrote:

If no one but the gunmen and their immediate supporters are responsible for the action, and all others who share their faith are guiltless, you have made a defensible moral judgment. But as a practical matter, you have paralyzed your ability to defend yourselves. It is impossible to defend against random violence and impermissible to impose collective responsibility. As Europe has been for so long, its moral complexity has posed for it a problem it cannot easily solve. Not all Muslims - not even most Muslims - are responsible for this.
(Emphasis added.)

Collective responsibility, however, is exactly the response the gunmen were hoping for. They claimed to represent Islam. To impose collective punishment is to promote them to the status of speaking for all Muslims, or as many as you punish. The idea of the murders was to radicalize more Muslims by provoking a reaction against all Muslims.

To treat them in this way, adopting the 'clash of civilizations' frame for their acts, is to dignify them as warriors for their faith. To treat them as the sordid murderers they were is to degrade them as mere criminals. The idea is to somehow get an outcome in which the West and the Middle East are not at war. Yet Friedman goes back to the Muslim occupation of the Iberian peninsula and the battles against the expansionist Ottoman Turks to claim that we've always been at war with Eastasia the Muslim world, or at least for a thousand years.

This framework is an invitation to another thousand years of struggle. The notion that one side can defeat the other through warfare, and bend it to its will, reflects a lack of understanding of the limits of violence as a means of persuasion.

Europe went through a reformation because Christians in the north began to feel the Catholic Church had become corrupt at the same time as northern European monarchs were chafing at the restraints the Church placed on their power. Islam had a sort of reformation, in two steps.

First, we should remember that the Muslim world was once a center of learning and science. In the 11th century, an intellectual cataclysm occurred.

His name was Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, and he lived from 1059 to 1111. He used the tools of philosophy to undermine the use of philosophy to find truth, favoring instead the expertise of those who studied the Koran. His ideas fell on fertile soil, in an Arab world where political factionalism caused large-scale irrigation networks to collapse and the Crusades and Mongol invasions showed the limits of Muslim power. In a world where Muslims felt set upon, a doctrine of the Koran's infallibility offered greater comfort than the Greek rationalism that had informed Arab philosophy.

This was also a doctrine of intolerance when compared to the earlier flowering of Arab rationality. But the conversion was not sudden, nor was it universal. The Ottomans gained a great deal of power and respected at least the scholarship of the clerics. The next step down the road to intolerance was another sort of reformation.

A reformer named Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, who lived from 1703 to 1792, accused the Ottoman sultan and his traditionalist scholars of corruption, materialism, and decadence, rejecting their tradition-based and rather moderate system of jurisprudence with a version of law that was more radical in its punishments and less discriminating in the evidence required. al-Wahhab had difficulties in his religious studies because he was arrogant and defiant, and when he began preaching, his arrogance got him into trouble.

You see, al-Wahhab denigrated certain practices as not sufficiently pure Muslim practice. Citing passages in the Koran prohibiting grave worship, he had a political ally level the grave of a companion of Mohammed, Zayd ibn al-Khattab. Then he had a sacred grove cut down. This created enough trouble that he had to leave town, and seek sanctuary with a rebel named Muhammad bin Saud. He gave religious legitimacy to Saud's rebel kingdom, now known as Saudi Arabia. This is the sort of doctrine that came to have great influence in the Sunni Muslim world.

The problem, then, is that while the West moved from religious legitimacy to a social contract concept of government, the Arab world never did. Instead, it moved to increasingly severe versions of Islam, from an open, rational system of thought where skepticism and doubt had a role in defining truth to an increasingly closed system in which doubt and skepticism were punishable by imprisonment, flogging, and death.

The West used to have blasphemy laws about as severe as the Wahhabist ones. In 1697, just six years before al-Wahhab was born, a Scot named Thomas Aikenhead was executed for blasphemy (he expressed atheist sentiments.)  The two civilizations have been going in opposite directions for centuries..

One reason for this is that government backed by religion pretty much destroyed its own legitimacy through conflicts such as the 30-Years War and the English Civil War. How could you rule by divine right, if some large percentage of the country thought you were an apostate?

In the Middle East, the solution was for one side to beat the other and subjugate such followers of the beaten sect that remained in the conquered territory, such as the Shia Muslims in Iraq,. who long lived under Sunni rule.

In the West, the solution was a new basis for the legitimacy of governments. The concept that you needed a government to keep the peace and allow people to live their lives and build their fortunes must have seemed transparently obvious to people in places like Germany, where the population was about 2/3 as large after the 30-Years War as before it. If the sovereign ruled because the people needed a ruler, that sovereign was working for the people, not for God, which meant neither side had to win for order to be restored. But the logic of a ruler who was a servant of the people implied that rule should be by the consent of the people as well, which in turn required some means for the people to show their preference.

That required freedom to debate the matter and put it to a vote. But we have seen that when we put the question of who should rule to a vote in the Middle East, the tendency is for the winner to act as though their side had won, and the other side should be subjugated as if they had been defeated in battle. The Muslim Brotherhood ruled Egypt as though no other group's priorities mattered, Nouri al-Maliki  ruled Iraq as if the priorities of the quite substantial Sunni minority didn't matter, as if they should accept being subjugated by his own Shia group. Each wanted their own group to control all aspects of government, and each failed for that reason.

The ideals of liberal democracy have considerable appeal, as we've seen in the Arab Spring, but as we saw when the optimism of that movement faded, its lessons are hard to apply where religious leaders still have great legitimacy. I fear that they must either undermine themselves through abuse of power, or find a way to represent the will of the people without subjugating those who don't agree with them.

Ali Eteraz, in an essay in The Guardian in 2007, noted that:
There is universal consensus that Muslim dictatorships, supported by the west, are the root of evil. They destroy political culture, kill extra-judicially and their repression foments violence.

The primary opponents of these dictators are the populist Islamists. They want to vote; except after voting they want to appoint an extra-constitutional body of clerics to strike down legislation they do not approve of.
And, one might add, they are not in favor of allowing people to vote for candidates who might change such arrangements.

The question is, do we help or hinder the cause of the social contract and the ideals of the liberal democracy by treating outrages like the Charlie Hebdo murders as a clash of civilizations? I suggest that to do so is to deny that there are factions within Islam, and that cultures do change. If you treat the murderers as warriors for Islam, and insist upon "collective responsibility," you cut down any green shoots of a return to rationality and freedom in the Arab world.

The Muslim world can return to its former glory by returning to those values, and we know they are compatible with Islam because they were practiced before the decline of the Muslim world. But people very often act as they think you expect them to act. Defining our interactions with Muslim culture as a clash of civilizations rather than a dialogue between them only invites more conflict.