Said, Edward W.THE CLASH OF IGNORANCE. Nation v273, n12 (Oct 22, 2001):11.

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Nation Company L.P.

  Samuel Huntington's article "The Clash of Civilizations?" appeared in the
Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, where it immediately attracted a
surprising amount of attention and reaction. Because the article was intended
to supply Americans with an original thesis about "a new phase" in world
politics after the end of the cold war, Huntington's terms of argument seemed
compellingly large, bold, even visionary. He very clearly had his eye on
rivals in the policy-making ranks, theorists such as Francis Fukuyama and his
"end of history" ideas, as well as the legions who had celebrated the onset of
globalism, tribalism and the dissipation of the state. But they, he allowed,
had understood only some aspects of this new period. He was about to announce
the "crucial, indeed a central, aspect" of what "global politics is likely to
be in the coming years." Unhesitatingly he pressed on:

  "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."

  Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notion of
something Huntington called "civilization identity" and "the interactions
among seven or eight  sic  major civilizations," of which the conflict between
two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of his attention. In
this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 article by the
veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colors are manifest in
its title, "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In both articles, the personification
of enormous entities called "the West" and "Islam" is recklessly affirmed, as
if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a
cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one
always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary.
Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal
dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major
contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of
each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of
demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole
religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.

  The challenge for Western policy-makers, says Huntington, is to make sure
that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam in particular.
More troubling is Huntington's assumption that his perspective, which is to
survey the entire world from a perch outside all ordinary attachments and
hidden loyalties, is the correct one, as if everyone else were scurrying
around looking for the answers that he has already found. In fact, Huntington
is an ideologist, someone who wants to make "civilizations" and "identities"
into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged
of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and
that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain
wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange,
cross-fertilization and sharing. This far less visible history is ignored in
the rush to highlight the ludicrously compressed and constricted warfare that
"the clash of civilizations" argues is the reality. When he published his book
by the same title in 1996, Huntington tried to give his argument a little more
subtlety and many, many more footnotes; all he did, however, was confuse
himself and demonstrate what a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker he was.

  The basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition
reformulated) remained untouched, and this is what has persisted, often
insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of
September 11. [emphasis added]
The carefully planned and horrendous, pathologically motivated
suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants has
been turned into proof of Huntington's thesis. Instead of seeing it for what
it is--the capture of big ideas (I use the word loosely) by a tiny band of
crazed fanatics for criminal purposes--international luminaries from former
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi have pontificated about Islam's troubles, and in the latter's case
have used Huntington's ideas to rant on about the West's superiority, how "we"
have Mozart and Michelangelo and they don't. (Berlusconi has since made a
halfhearted apology for his insult to "Islam.")

  But why not instead see parallels, admittedly less spectacular in their
destructiveness, for Osama bin Laden and his followers in cults like the
Branch Davidians or the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones at Guyana or the
Japanese Aum Shinrikyo? Even the normally sober British weekly The Economist,
in its issue of September 22-28, can't resist reaching for the vast
generalization, praising Huntington extravagantly for his "cruel and sweeping,
but nonetheless acute" observations about Islam. "Today," the journal says
with unseemly solemnity, Huntington writes that "the world's billion or so
Muslims are 'convinced of the superiority of their culture, and obsessed with
the inferiority of their power.'" Did he canvas 100 Indonesians, 200
Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians? Even if he did, what sort of
sample is that?

  Uncountable are the editorials in every American and European newspaper and
magazine of note adding to this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each
use of which is plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader's
indignant passion as a member of the "West," and what we need to do.
Churchillian rhetoric is used inappropriately by self-appointed combatants in
the West's, and especially America's, war against its haters, despoilers,
destroyers, with scant attention to complex histories that defy such
reductiveness and have seeped from one territory into another, in the process
overriding the boundaries that are supposed to separate us all into divided
armed camps.

  This is the problem with unedifying labels like Islam and the West: They
mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly
reality that won't be pigeonholed or strapped down as easily as all that. I
remember interrupting a man who, after a lecture I had given at a West Bank
university in 1994, rose from the audience and started to attack my ideas as
"Western," as opposed to the strict Islamic ones he espoused. "Why are you
wearing a suit and tie?" was the first retort that came to mind. "They're
Western too." [emphasis added]
He sat down with an embarrassed smile on his face, but I
recalled the incident when information on the September 11 terrorists started
to come in: how they had mastered all the technical details required to
inflict their homicidal evil on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the
aircraft they had commandeered. Where does one draw the line between "Western"
technology and, as Berlusconi declared, "Islam's" inability to be a part of

  One cannot easily do so, of course. How finally inadequate are the labels,
generalizations and cultural assertions. At some level, for instance,
primitive passions and sophisticated know-how converge in ways that give the
lie to a fortified boundary not only between "West" and "Islam" but also
between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts of
identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and
debate. A unilateral decision made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake
crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism and, in
Paul Wolfowitz's nihilistic vocabulary, to end nations entirely, doesn't make
the supposed entities any easier to see; rather, it speaks to how much simpler
it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing collective
passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in
reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, "ours" as well as

  In a remarkable series of three articles published between January and March
1999 in Dawn, Pakistan's most respected weekly, the late Eqbal Ahmad, writing
for a Muslim audience, analyzed what he called the roots of the religious
right, coming down very harshly on the mutilations of Islam by absolutists and
fanatical tyrants whose obsession with regulating personal behavior promotes
"an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its humanism,
aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion." And this "entails an
absolute assertion of one, generally de-contextualized, aspect of religion and
a total disregard of another. The phenomenon distorts religion, debases
tradition, and twists the political process wherever it unfolds." As a timely
instance of this debasement, Ahmad proceeds first to present the rich,
complex, pluralist meaning of the word jihad and then goes on to show that in
the word's current confinement to indiscriminate war against presumed enemies,
it is impossible "to recognize the Islamic--religion, society, culture,
history or politics--as lived and experienced by Muslims through the ages."
The modern Islamists, Ahmad concludes, are "concerned with power, not with the
soul; with the mobilization of people for political purposes rather than with
sharing and alleviating their sufferings and aspirations. Theirs is a very
limited and time-bound political agenda." What has made matters worse is that
similar distortions and zealotry occur in the "Jewish" and "Christian"
universes of discourse.

  It was Conrad, more powerfully than any of his readers at the end of the
nineteenth century could have imagined, who understood that the distinctions
between civilized London and "the heart of darkness" quickly collapsed in
extreme situations, and that the heights of European civilization could
instantaneously fall into the most barbarous practices without preparation or
transition. And it was Conrad also, in The Secret Agent (1907), who described
terrorism's affinity for abstractions like "pure science" (and by extension
for "Islam" or "the West"), as well as the terrorist's ultimate moral

  For there are closer ties between apparently warring civilizations than most
of us would like to believe; both Freud and Nietzsche showed how the traffic
across carefully maintained, even policed boundaries moves with often
terrifying ease. But then such fluid ideas, full of ambiguity and skepticism
about notions that we hold on to, scarcely furnish us with suitable, practical
guidelines for situations such as the one we face now. Hence the altogether
more reassuring battle orders (a crusade, good versus evil, freedom against
fear, etc.) drawn out of Huntington's alleged opposition between Islam and the
West, from which official discourse drew its vocabulary in the first days
after the September 11 attacks. There's since been a noticeable de-escalation
in that discourse, but to judge from the steady amount of hate speech and
actions, plus reports of law enforcement efforts directed against Arabs,
Muslims and Indians all over the country, the paradigm stays on.

  One further reason for its persistence is the increased presence of Muslims
all over Europe and the United States. Think of the populations today of
France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain, America, even Sweden, and you must
concede that Islam is no longer on the fringes of the West but at its center.
But what is so threatening about that presence? Buried in the collective
culture are memories of the first great Arab-Islamic conquests, which began in
the seventh century and which, as the celebrated Belgian historian Henri
Pirenne wrote in his landmark book Mohammed and Charlemagne (1939), shattered
once and for all the ancient unity of the Mediterranean, destroyed the
Christian-Roman synthesis and gave rise to a new civilization dominated by
northern powers (Germany and Carolingian France) whose mission, he seemed to
be saying, is to resume defense of the "West" against its historical-cultural
enemies. What Pirenne left out, alas, is that in the creation of this new line
of defense the West drew on the humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and
historiography of Islam, which had already interposed itself between
Charlemagne's world and classical antiquity. Islam is inside from the start,
as even Dante, great enemy of Mohammed, had to concede when he placed the
Prophet at the very heart of his Inferno.

  Then there is the persisting legacy of monotheism itself, the Abrahamic
religions, as Louis Massignon aptly called them. Beginning with Judaism and
Christianity, each is a successor haunted by what came before; for Muslims,
Islam fulfills and ends the line of prophecy. There is still no decent history
or demystification of the many-sided contest among these three followers--not
one of them by any means a monolithic, unified camp--of the most jealous of
all gods, even though the bloody modern convergence on Palestine furnishes a
rich secular instance of what has been so tragically irreconcilable about
them. Not surprisingly, then, Muslims and Christians speak readily of crusades
and jihads, both of them eliding the Judaic presence with often sublime
insouciance. Such an agenda, says Eqbal Ahmad, is "very reassuring to the men
and women who are stranded in the middle of the ford, between the deep waters
of tradition and modernity."

  But we are all swimming in those waters, Westerners and Muslims and others
alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plow
or divide them with barriers is futile. These are tense times, but it is
better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular
politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and
injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give
momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis. "The
Clash of Civilizations" thesis is a gimmick like "The War of the Worlds,"
better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of
the bewildering interdependence of our time.

  Edward W. Said, University Professor of English and Comparative Literature
at Columbia University, is the author of more than twenty books, the most
recent of which is Power, Politics, and Culture (Pantheon). Copyright Edward
W. Said, 2001.