InsightSeptember October 2004

Islam and the West: Clash of Civilisations?

Francis Robinson

n 1993 the journal Foreign Affairs published an article entitled ‘Clash of Civilizations’ by Samuel Huntington, Harvard Professor, former Director of Security Planning for the National Security Council, and President of the American Political Science Association. By 1996 Huntington had developed his article into a book, and it was published under the title The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. 1

The argument was that in a post-Cold War world, the crucial distinctions between people were not primarily ideological or economic, but cultural. World politics was being reconfigured along cultural lines, with new patterns of conflict and cooperation replacing those of the Cold War. The hot spots in world politics were on the fault-lines between civilizations: Bosnia, Chechnya, West Asia, Tibet, Sri Lanka etc. The civilisation with a particularly large number of hot spots was Islam. It had bloody borders and represented the greatest danger to world peace. The argument has influenced, indeed, helped to frame the debate about the future world order to an extent which even distresses Huntington himself. It has not been well-received amongst professional scholars of Islam, who have objected to the way in which it has assisted in demonising Muslims and to the way in which, by generalising about Muslims, it has brushed over the many differences of economic and political status, outlook and understanding which the Muslim world embraces. Huntington’s argument has been assessed by several scholars, so needs no further elaboration here. 2

However, the events of September 11 and the widespread realisation of the existence and purposes of Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda organisation created a new dimension by which to examine this thesis. First it is necessary to summarise the historical, particularly Islamic, background to the events of September 11 and the great change in power relationships between Muslim peoples and the West over the past two hundred years. For a thousand years, for much of the period from the 8th to the 18th century, the leading civilisation on the planet in terms of spread and creativity was Islam. It was formed in the 7th century when Arab tribesmen, bearing the prophecy of Muhammad, or so the traditional story goes, burst out of the Arabian Peninsula. Within a decade they defeated the armies of two rival empires to the north, those of Christian Byzantium and Sassanian Iran. A great new cultural and economic nexus came to be developed which was able to draw on the knowledge and commodities of lands from China and India in the East to Spain and Africa in the West, as well as those of the West Asian lands in which it was based. 2

This new civilisation commanded a substantial slice of the world’s area of cities and settled agriculture. In this region there was shared language of religion and the law. Men could travel and do business within a common framework of assumptions. In its high cultures they could express themselves in symbols to which all could respond. Arguably it is the first world system, the one which preceded that of Immanuel Wallerstein. 3

The first notable centres were found in the Arab worlds of Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba and Cairo from the 8th to the 12th centuries, the second in the Turco-Iranian worlds of Istanbul, Isfahan, Bukhara, Samarqand and Delhi from the 14th to the 17th centuries. There were great achievements in scholarship and science, in poetry and prose, and in the arts of the book, building and spiritual insight, which are precious legacies to all humankind. For about half of what is termed the Christian era Muslims could regard themselves as marching at the forefront of human progress. Over the same period, the odd crusade or loss of Spain aside, they could regard the community of believers created by God’s revelation to man through the Prophet Muhammad as walking hand in hand with power.

Over the past two hundred years the Islamic world system has been overwhelmed by forces from the West, forces driven by capitalism, powered by the Industrial Revolution and civilised, after a fashion, by the Enlightenment. The symbolic moment, when the leader’s standard overtly passed to the West, was Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798. From this moment Western armies and Western capital overran the lands of the Muslims: the British took India, the British and Dutch South East Asia, the British, French, Germans and Italians, North, East and West Africa, the Russians swamped Central Asia, and the British and French carved up West Asia between them. By the 1920s Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Central Arabia and the Yemen were the only Muslim countries free from Western control, and even some of these were subject to influence. The caliphate, the symbolic leadership for the community of believers, which reached back to the Prophet, had been abolished. For a moment it was feared that the holy places of Islam, Mecca and Medina, might fall into the hands of the infidel. The community of believers, which for so many centuries had walked hand in hand with power, had good reason to believe that history   if not God   had deserted it.

For the remainder of the 20th century matters did not seem a great deal better. Certainly, from the emergence of modern Turkey in the early 1920s to that of the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, we could talk of a steady decolonisation of the Muslim world – at least in the formal sense.

But for many this has seemed a Pyrrhic victory. More often than not they have found Western rule replaced by that of Muslims with secular Western values, while Western capital and Western culture have come to be even more corrosive of their customs and their standards than before. This challenge has elicited from many Muslims the assertion of an Islamic, and for some a totalitarian Islamic, future for their people. Such views have not been shared by all Muslims but have come to be shared by enough of them to represent a significant threat to the secular leaders of their societies, and on occasion, as in the revolution in Iran, to drive their upholders to power. These Muslims, who are popularly known as ‘fundamentalist’ in the West, are more appropriately known as ‘Islamists’. I shall elaborate on these ‘Islamists’ when I address the significance of the Islamic revival. For the moment it is enough to note that they represent the major opposition to the leadership of Muslim states, many of which have relations of greater or less strength with the USA, among them Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Algeria, Tunisia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and also of course, the Palestinian Authority. In this situation, lack of fairness or evenhandedness on the part of non-Muslim states is an irritant which helps to radicalise Muslim populations not just in the states concerned butalso across the Muslim world. There are the problems of Muslim minorities in the Balkans and the resistance of the people of Chechnya to Russian military might. Indian Muslims experienced a sense of threat as they were first demonised by Hindu revivalism and then, in 1992, saw the Emperor Babur’s Mosque torn down by Hindu revivalists. The Muslim majority in Kashmir feel oppressed as they are held down by India’s martial rule, while the peoples of Iraq suffer on account of their rogue regime. The Muslim and Christian peoples of Palestine have experienced the greatest injustice during these past fifty years and more. These are all complicated issues, but from the point of view of many Muslims in the streets and bazaars of Muslim towns and cities across the world they represent symbols of injustice and oppression. They represent a world order in which Muslims are victims. They constitute a world order in which Muslims must organise to resist. There are three significant developments which accompanied the transformation of the Muslim position in the world in the 19th and 20th centuries. They form strands in the long-term background to the events of 11 September. Firstly, Muslim peoples have long suffered a range of feelings from a tremendous sense of loss through to a deep bitterness and rage at their powerlessness in the face of the West. This was particularly strong in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, now the home of over 350 million Muslims, originally because of the speed with which the Mughal Empire lost power in the 18th century. Then it grew because of the new competition for power this brought with rival peoples, and finally because this was the area of the Muslim world most heavily exposed to rule from the West. This was expressed in the most powerful artistic form of culture – poetry.

The 18th and 19th century poetic genre of Shahr Ashob mourned the passing of great cities, of great centres of Muslim civilisation. One of the greatest works of the 19th century, the Musaddas or Elegy of Altaf Husain Hali entitled The Flow and Ebb of Islam.4

This was a great set-piece poem on the rise and decline of Islam and its causes. It was highly popular and came to be used almost as a national anthem for the Pakistan movement. It would be recited at the opening of political meetings and have everyone in tears as they contemplated the fate of Islamic civilisation:

When autumn has set in over the garden,
Why speak of the springtime of flowers?
When shadows of adversity hang over the present,
Why harp on the pomp and glory of the past?
Yes, these are things to forget; but how can you with
The dawn forget the scene of the night before?
The assembly has just dispersed;
The smoke is still rising from the burnt candle;
The footprints on the sands of India still say
A graceful caravan has passed this way. 5

Of course there was admiration for the achievement of Europe, even if of a despairing kind. The secretary of the Moroccan envoy to France in 1846, after watching a review of French troops, wrote: “So it went on until all had passed leaving our hearts consumed with fire for what we had seen of their overwhelming power and mastery … In comparison with the weakness of Islam … how confident they are, how impressive their state of readiness, how competent they are in matters of state, how firm their laws, how capable in war”. 6

But as Western power enveloped the Muslim world, there was growing protest against the West. From 1926 to 1957 Husain Ahmad Madani was principal of the great reformist school of Deoband, whose organisation and influence in Pakistan was to create the network of madrassas in which the Taliban were bred. “The British and the European nations do not consider Asians and Africans as human beings, and thus deny them human rights”, he asserted in his autobiography written after his internment in Malta during World War One. “The British are the worst enemies of Islam and the Muslims on the earth”. 7

Muhammad Iqbal, a man who intellectually owed much to the West, accepted a knighthood from the British, and was the poet philosopher behind the concept of Pakistan

– a Muslim modernist, in no way radical. In his Persian Psalms, published in 1927, he declared:

Against Europe I protest,
And the attraction of the West.
Woe for Europe and her charm,
Swift to capture and disarm!
Europe’s hordes with flame and fire
Desolate the world entire. 8

The rejection of Europe, or by now the West in general, both as a destructive force and a false model of progress was a theme of many of the leading ideologues who prepared the way for the Iranian revolution.

“Come friends”, said Ali Shariati in the 1960s, “let us abandon Europe; let us cease this nauseating apish imitation of Europe. Let us leave behind this Europe that always speaks of humanity, but destroys human beings wherever it finds them”. 9

By this time, as the USA replaced Europe in the demonology of the Islamic world, it became the focus of bitterness and resentment, which was all the greater because it affected the lives of supposedly free peoples. Ayatollah Khomeini’s howl of rage, when in 1964 the Iranian Parliament granted US citizens extraterritorial rights in Iran in exchange for a $200m loan, spoke for all Muslims who had felt powerless in the face of a bullying West from the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 to the plight of the Palestinians in the present crisis: “They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog”. 10


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