The Huntingtonian clash of civilisations?

Published: February 19, 2017
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The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

The writer is a former caretaker finance minister and served as vice-president at the World Bank

There are many thinkers in the Muslim world today who question the validity of Samuel Huntington prediction about the future. The Harvard University political scientist foresaw in his work a clash between the West and the world of Islam with their very different value systems. These thinkers believe that is not what is occurring in the early part of the 21st century. What is happening is a war within Islam that may turn into a war with the West if the leaders in Europe and the United States misread the situation. As I will discuss later in this part of the essay, some of the statements made and actions taken by Donald Trump may move the Muslim world in that direction.

In an insightful article, Mustafa Aykol at the Freedom Centre at Wellesley College reminds his readers of Arnold Toynbee’s article, “Islam, the West and the Future.” The British historian wrote that the Islamic world has been in a crisis since the 19th century since it was outperformed, defeated and even besieged by the West, in particular the colonial European powers. Islam, a religion that has always been proud of its earthly success, was “facing the West with her back to the wall,” causing stress, anger and turmoil among Muslims, wrote Toynbee. He compared the crisis in Islam in his time which was not as deep as it is now with an older crisis: the plight of the Jews in the face of the Roman domination in the first BC. Not unlike today’s Muslims, the Jews then were also defeated, conquered and culturally challenged by a foreign empire. This situation, Toynbee maintained, led to two reactions: One was “Herodianism” which implied collaborating with Rome and following its ways. The other was “Zealotism” which used militant methods to confront Rome.

It is not hard to note the parallel of the Jewish situation with what is happening today in several parts of the Muslim world. Many followers of the Islamic faith have turned into zealots but they are not fighting today’s imperial powers, America and Europe. They are battling the Herodianists in their midst. There is not a war with the West but a war within Islam. Most of those who have died in this struggle are Muslims, not the people in the West. The targets the zealots select are not necessarily those who oppose them. They are chosen randomly as was the case with the bombing in Lahore on February 13, 2017 that took more than a dozen lives. Pakistan has lost many more people than the United States did in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Toynbee was persuaded that Muslims of his day were engaged in a similar internal struggle between their own Herodians and Zealots who embody “archaism evoked by foreign pressure.” He saw Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as an “arch-Herodian” and the Central Arabian Wahabists as arch-Zealots. The founder of modern Turkey was leaving archaic Islam behind, opting for modernisation. Toynbee was of the view that the Muslim zealots would be defeated because they were essentially primitive and did not have access to modern technology. Had he been writing today he would have been less dismissive of the Islamic zealots. They were able to use modern communication technologies — in particular social media — to get across their message to fellow Muslims.

In his book, The Islamic Jesus: How the King of Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims, Mustafa Akyol argues that another lesson from history is more pertinent for the Islamic world of today. According to his telling, “Jesus showed that sacrificing the spirit of religion to literalism leads to horrors, like the stoning of innocent women by bigoted men — as it still happens in some Muslim countries today. He also taught that obsession with outward expression of piety can nurture a culture of hypocrisy — as is the case with Muslim communities today.” Akyol’s description fits Pakistan of today where extreme corruption and crimes such as honour killings coexist with expression of piety.

However, for reform to come to Islam, the global Muslim community must not be provoked from the outside. Unfortunately that is precisely what is being done by Donald Trump’s America. The New York Times wrote an angry editorial against President Trump’s move against Muslims. “The order’s language makes clear that the xenophobia and Islamophobia that permeated Mr Trump’s campaign are to stain his presidency as well. Un-American as they are, they are now American policy,” wrote the newspaper. Of great concern was the wording of the executive order. “The United States must ensure that those admitted to this country do not bear hostile attitudes toward it and its founding principles,” it read. The obvious assumption was that all Muslims should be considered a threat. The newspaper did not accept the notion that this approach would save the United States from the threat posed by extremists in the world Islamic community. In fact, the notion today is “more credible than ever before that the United States is at war with Islam rather than targeting terrorists.

They want nothing more than a fearful, recklessly belligerent America; so, if anything, this ban will heighten their efforts to strike at Americans, to provoke yet further overreaction from a volatile and inexperienced president.” Thousands of people went to the country’s many airports to speak about the new president’s approach to the world, in particular his attack on the world’s Muslim community.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 20th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (6)

  • GKA
    Feb 20, 2017 - 2:22AM

    The something author generally writes articles of exemplary erudition, so really surprising to see something so illogical

    He says “What is happening is a war within Islam that may turn into a war with the West if the leaders in Europe and the United States misread the situation.

    Why is it that only Europe and US leaders are the issue here. Cannot the leaders of the islam world take ownership of themselves – like the leaders of China, Japan and India. Is the muslim world so rudderless that one kick from the west and they are turned on thier head ?

    People of the muslim world need to wake up. Muslim countries and communities are at war with themselves and the 80 % rest of the world are smirking. Very few of non muslims are concerned.. The muslim world has very few allies outside thier co-religionists. They need friends yet offer no friendship, only threats.Recommend

  • Maqsood
    Feb 20, 2017 - 5:43AM

    You have put so many variables together, so I am not sure what to make of your essay. It is more an entanglement of floating rather conflicting ideas than a concrete theoretical perspective of things. I understand the difficulty of the subject matter. Toynbee’s explanation was time specific and hard to apply to the current developments except that the confrontation between the “Young Turks” and “Salafis” is an ongoing war of ideas. Let me make it parsimonious, reformists and traditional elements have always clashed. Some just love to live in a status quo world. Their thinking and ideas remain fixed in the seventh century utopian empire. Alas the world has changed.
    As for Sam Huntington, it is a too simplistic assertion. I always had difficulty in applying his earlier assertions. I know you were his student at Harvard, but many of us rolled our eyes every time some far-flung statement came from him. Having said that, I still consider him a great scholar in the sense that he opened up new venues of scholarly debates. Rest in peace Sam. Recommend

  • kemosabe
    Feb 20, 2017 - 8:47AM

    @James Masih: I do declare you are a ‘free’ man now shuffling along on that righteous path ! Hallelujah !Recommend

  • mak
    Feb 20, 2017 - 10:11AM

    Burki Sb – I thought you were firmly in the herodian camp and yet like so many of other conflicted muslims you do no dismiss the zealots – maybe because they refuse to be part of cosmopolitan proletariat.
    Are muslims are so vulnerable that you are pleading the West to spare us further punishment ? I appreciate the effort on behalf of all the submerged muslim proletariat. may we hug out iphones even more closely.Recommend

  • Toti calling
    Feb 20, 2017 - 10:36AM

    West believes in human rights for all irrespective of race, faith or caste. The fact that it does not always work is not because of the above basic laws, but a minority showing prejudeces. In Muslim countries the laws distinguish between Muslims and non Mulsims, They give less right to minorities and women. Even extremists like Trump do not want to give less rights to anybody living legally in USA. Nobody talks about discrimination in Muslim countzries based on religion and gender, but carry on writing editorials and opinion pieces about Trump almost every day.
    I am originally from Paistan and have no intention of leaving my country of choice.Recommend

  • kemosabe
    Feb 20, 2017 - 2:40PM

    There is and never was a clash of civilization but rather a clash of economic interests and geostrategic influence. As those in power well know, religion is used merely as tool for political influence and terrorism is one such tool in the political toolbox. Of course the term “civilization” usually goes beyond religion and encompasses a full package of sociological and anthropological identities. However with Islam there appears to be much greater convergence between the religion and the civilization arising therefrom.Recommend

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