Five Years after September 11: Testing the Clash of Civilizations
By Hailey Woldt
Georgetown University
Washington, DC

Samuel Huntington, professor at Harvard University and author, wrote in 1993 the widely recognized book The Clash of Civilizations where the future of international conflicts will be among massive groups of people defining themselves by their civilizations. The differences are not only real but basic between civilizations and with an increasingly interconnected world, these civilizations – especially the Western world and Islam – will fall into major conflict.
Akbar Ahmed, a leading scholar on Islam and professor of international relations at American University, has been examining the relationship between the West and Islam for quite some time. While Huntington argues that the two civilizations have had conflicts for a thousand years, he believes that the shared Abrahamic faith between Islam and the West is a point of common values and opportunity for dialogue. In his book After Terror: Promoting Dialogue Among Civilizations, Ahmed compiled essay specifically counteracting Huntington’s thesis and in Islam Under Siege argued that all civilizations felt under attack.
Five years after the day which symbolized what some call a “clash of civilizations,” September 11, 2001, these two men at the cutting edge of political thought reflect on where the idea has either progressed or fallen short. The Pew Charitable Trust, a leading research and survey foundation in Washington, DC, conducted two separate interviews shortly before the anniversary of 9/11 with them to get their take on commonalities, politics, and advice for the future.
Pew: Would you say that we are now in a full-fledged clash of civilizations?

SH: “Not simply one clash, but clashes of civilizations certainly occur… But now, because of all of the momentous changes in communications and transportation, people from different civilizations are interacting in a way they haven't before, and are interacting on a more equal basis. In the past, people in one civilization, for example, the Chinese or Europeans, have expanded, conquered and dominated people from other civilizations.
”We have a world in which there are a significant number of major civilizations — it's a pluralistic world…The United States, as well as the European Union, Japan and other major actors all have to take into consideration the interests and probable responses of other major actors to what they do. I think religion certainly plays a tremendously important role. It is manifest broadly, but not exclusively, in the rise of religious consciousness in the Muslim world.”
Yet Ahmed stated that, despite recent events, we must refer back to a greater historical and comprehensive vision of the world:
Pew: In light of the US invasion of Iraq, conflict in places such as Lebanon and the anti-Semitic and anti-American rhetoric we are hearing from the President of Iran, do you still reject the clash of civilizations paradigm?

AA:”I am a scholar. I don't look at what is coherent, strong and historical, which is the idea of the clash of civilizations, and simply say it doesn't exist, because that would not only be inaccurate and untrue, but it would not be cognitive. We have to take an idea and grapple with it, understand it, engage with it. The clash exists because it has existed for a thousand years, exactly as Huntington has stated. We have had the centuries of the Crusades and then of European colonization spanning over a thousand years of history, which has made for a complex and difficult relationship between Islam and the West. The clash exists because it has existed for a thousand years, exactly as Huntington has stated. We have had the centuries of the Crusades and then of European colonization spanning over a thousand years of history, which has made for a complex and difficult relationship between Islam and the West.
“This is my criticism of Huntington, because he leaves it out — great periods of harmony, cultural synthesis and interaction of ideas…There was also the development, which Huntington missed in his thesis, of the mass migration of Muslims to the West in the past couple decades. I'm not talking about a couple thousand immigrants; I'm talking about millions of Muslims actually living, interacting with and becoming citizens of the West. For example, the United States has several million Muslims. It has included American and Muslim icons, such as Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X. Rumi, the 13th century mystic poet, born in Afghanistan, is the number-one, best-selling poet of the United States. Americans love his mystic poetry of compassion and acceptance. Another historic fact: The first country in the world to recognize the United States of America was Morocco, a Muslim country. So it isn't quite a clash of civilizations that has been going on. While there may be an element of clash, there is a larger element of synthesis, understanding and sporadic dialogue.”
Huntington argues in his original article that the bases of civilizations again are “real and basic.” This would mean that universal American values such as democracy and individuality will not translate into the Muslim world, he argues. Thus a democracy in the West will not necessarily have the same outcome as those in the Muslim world:

Pew: Has it surprised you that when democratic elections have been held in some Muslim countries recently, that Islamist parties have been chosen by the electorate?

SH: “I can honestly say, no, it did not surprise me. I have, at various times, expressed warnings to people out promoting democracy to not assume just because a government wins power through relatively fair elections, it is going to implement the same values we have and be friendly to us. Governments that do win by elections have to appeal to the sentiments, and, in large part, nationalist sentiments, of their peoples, and for understandable reasons, are often rather anti-Western.”
Ahmed has seen trends within Muslim leadership not because democracy is incompatible with Islam, but in reacting to the growing sense of crisis and a rising sense of Islamic consciousness in the Muslim world:
In light of [the] perception that Islam is under attack [by the West], what type of Islamic leadership do you see emerging?

AA: “My analysis of the Muslim world reveals that there are three distinct kinds of leadership in play, completely missed by the West, missed by Huntington and missed by the analysts here who see the Muslim world more or less as a monolith.
”The first kind of Muslim leader is the enduring and endearing model of the mystic Sufi. I'll give you the example of Rumi, the most popular poet in the Muslim world. The second model is that of the modernist Muslim who wants to synthesize Islam with Western ideas. Muhammad Ali Jinnah is my favorite example because he founded Pakistan. He wanted to model Pakistan on Westminster democracy to include women's rights, human rights and minority rights. He believed in a proper democracy and wanted to run Pakistan with respect for law and order, according to the constitution. This was in the 1940s. He dressed in Western suits and spoke English. Yet he was elected and adored by millions of Muslims who looked up to him as a leader of great integrity, courage and principles.
”The third model is the Muslim who says, "We want to be exclusivist. We want to draw boundaries around Islam. Islam is being threatened and is in danger. We must preserve the purity and tradition of Islam. We must go back to the time of the seventh century." In this third model, you have a whole range of activity from the Taliban in Afghanistan to the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia.
”Among these three models, there is clash, conflict and opposition. This is the reality on the ground of the Muslim world today; it is not just a 9/11 phenomenon. It has been taking place for the last two centuries and is now reaching a climax. It is being pushed and accelerated by the event following 9/11 — the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, the scandals about the treatment of Muslim prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and the abuse of the prophet in these cartoons. It all feeds the perception that Islam is under attack and must fight back. These events encourage and reinforce not the mystic, not the modernist, but the exclusivist.
United States policy should be directed toward supporting and encouraging the first two models because support for the exclusivist model has never been greater, mainly because of the growing anger and emotion now in the Muslim world.”
September 11, 2001, was the crossroads of civilizations then and the true test of this idea. The United States has tried to export democracy and universal American values to Iraq, Afghanistan, and through dialogue other developing countries, but Huntington opposes the general idea that the American ideal of freedom and democracy for all even exists.
You've said America is only a disappointment because it is an idealistic hope. As you look to the future, what gives you the most hope for our country and its relationship with the rest of the world?

SH: “I think a great thing about America is its pluralism and the wide diversity of groups — ethnic, racial, religious and political — that we have in this country. We have, with one major exception, obviously — the Civil War — generally lived harmoniously with each other and developed this large, highly prosperous and most powerful society in the world, a society which, for all its limitations, at its core is a democratic society protecting the freedom of expression and religion. That is an unprecedented achievement in history.”
Akbar Ahmed agrees that the ideal we should hope for is not necessarily the best American-style democracy, but understanding and peaceful coexistence among different civilizations and within our own nations. He reminded Pew of the historical examples and thus what we should aim to achieve in this post-9/11 world.
AA:”…if we see the continuation of the clash of civilizations theory and its implementation, we will almost certainly see the emergence and consolidation of the exclusionists. Then, we will all be in for a violent, troublesome and uncertain future in the 21st century.
”So we really need to ask: Has the clash theory, which has so far dominated foreign policy in the United States, really succeeded? Has it gotten us what we wanted or should we now explore an alternative paradigm?”
This alternative paradigm when put into practice is the broader acceptance to other civilizations and high-level dialogues. Ahmed himself has engaged in many such endeavors, including dialogues with Judea Pearl, father of the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl who was killed in Karachi:
AA: “I made a commitment to dialogue after 9/11 and I stuck by that commitment. Dialogue by itself is empty. It's rhetoric, it's a cliché. Two people talk, they go home and nothing happens. But dialogue that leads to understanding leads to the idea of actually getting to know each other, of understanding. I've gotten to know Judea. I've come to know the pain, the history and the traditions of his people. From this dialogue we have seen the possibility of friendship and friendship changes everything. When people become friends, they don't think of blowing themselves up and killing each other. They are prepared to make compromises, to change, to accommodate.”
(Article based on the Pew Charitable Trust article “Five Years After 9/11, The Clash of Civilizations Revisited”, Mark O’Keefe, Associate Director, Editorial, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.