Copyright © 1999 Vinoth Ramachandra.
All rights reserved.
1 Islam and new religious wars?13
2 Hinduism and the search for identity.47
3 The Jesus enigma.87
4 Conversion and cultures.119
5 Secularisms and civility141
Islam and new religious wars?
The `Clash of Civilizations' argument
Samuel Huntington's book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order is an ambitious, influential and highly acclaimed attempt to articulate a framework that would make sense of our post-Cold War world. Huntington is a professor at Harvard University and has served as adviser on international relations to US governments. So his work is, at one and the same time, a political narrative and a blueprint for American foreign policy in the new millennium.
Huntington's main thesis is straightforward. `In the post-Cold War world,' he writes, `the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.' In this new world order, `the most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities.'
As the dominance of the West declines, other ancient civilizations assert their global influence. A civilization is the broadest level of cultural identity people have, and religion is a central characteristic of all civilizations. `Civilizations are the biggest "we" within which we feel culturally at home as distinguished from all the other "them" out there.' Huntington identifies six major contemporary civilizations that have increasing political influence in this new `multipolar' world order: Western (Europe and North America), Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic and Orthodox. Five of these civilizations have dominant `core states' (USA, China, Japan, India and Russia) but Islam does not. While states remain the key actors in global politics, they increasingly define their interests in civilizational terms. Non-Western civilizations reject Western values in favour of their own cultural norms, and as the material superiority of the West diminishes its cultural appeal for non-Western peoples also fades. He writes:
Spurred by modernization, global politics is being reconfigured along cultural lines. Peoples and countries with similar cultures are coming together. Peoples and countries with different cultures are coming apart. Alignments defined by ideology and superpower relations are giving way to alignments defined by culture and civilization. Political boundaries increasingly are redrawn to coincide with cultural ones: ethnic, religious, and civilizational. Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming central lines of conflict in global politics.
The political scenario that emerges from this is clear. Conflicts are likely to occur in what Huntington calls `cleft countries' states which contain people from two or more different civilizations, as in the Ukraine and along `fault lines' which divide one civilization from another. Conflicts that take place across lines dividing different civilizations are likely to be complex and interminable as local antagonists rally support from their brethren belonging to the same civilization. The chief danger lies in the possibility of a `fault-line' conflict within a core state escalating into an inter-civilizational war involving several countries.
Huntington is as concerned about the `Islamic resurgence' and the `Asian Affirmation', as much as he is about the Western belief in the universality of Western culture. While the rise of East Asia has been fuelled (until recently) by spectacular rates of economic growth, the resurgence of Islam has been fuelled by equally spectacular rates of population growth. Both China and Islam represent what he calls `challenger civilizations' to the West. In the case of Islam, the demographic explosion, historic and ingrained animosity towards the West, and the absence of a strong core-state combine to create a high potential for violent conflict. `The dangerous clashes of the future', he maintains, `are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.'
What is required, then, is a mutual accommodation between diverse civilizations and the refusal on the part of Huntington's `core states' to interfere in conflicts based in other civilizations. `In the emerging era,' he maintains, `the clashes between civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.' Huntington's civilizational paradigm has the merit of simplicity. There is also much in his book that is insightful, and his arguments are presented with great anecdotal skill and memorable sound-bites (as, for instance, his observation that `in Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner'). His analyses of `fault-line' conflicts and `cleft societies' are often intriguing. And I agree with his rebuttal of the common belief that modernization is tantamount to Westernization and leads to a convergence of all cultures.
Why does his thesis carry a prima facie plausibility? We all know from personal experience that cultural differences can breed mutual suspicions and misunderstandings. Moreover, almost all the major events we read about in our newspapers seem to involve different cultural identities: the US and Muslim Iraqis; Hindus and Muslims in India; `Western' Croats, `Orthodox' Serbs and Muslim Albanians in the Balkans; `Orthodox' Russians and Armenians fighting Muslim Chechens and Azerbaijanis; Arabs and Jews on the West Bank; China and the West over human rights, and so on.
However, despite its insights and initial plausibility, Huntington's thesis is, I believe, seriously flawed. The `clash of civilizations' is an unreliable guide for understanding the world in which we live. It is also a dangerous blueprint for Western foreign policy. Rather than attempting a detailed refutation, I shall illustrate my dissatisfaction with the whole approach typified by Huntington by focusing on the treatment of `Islam' as a civilizational category and situating the discussion around a wider perception, increasingly common in Western and Islamic circles alike, of mutual confrontation. I shall then go on to raise some specifically Christian concerns about Muslims and Islam, arising from both Western and non-Western societies.
The Islamic threat?
For those in the West who seek new demons, the communist threat has been replaced by the ideological, political and demographic threat of Islam.
When the Oklahoma City bomb exploded in April 1995, the immediate response of both the police and the media was that the blast was the work of Islamic terrorists. Men of `Middle Eastern complexion' were summarily arrested; there were calls for pre-emptive strikes on Middle Eastern countries, and a wave of attacks took place on both mosques and Muslims across the United States. The British papers quickly followed the American lead. The tabloid Today ran the banner headline `IN THE NAME OF ISLAM', while the Daily Mail said that the carnage bore `all the hallmarks of the work of Islamic fundamentalists with a fanatical hatred of America'. (On 24 August 1998, the same popular newspaper carried a front-page headline `MOSLEM FANATICS IN GERM ATTACK THREAT', warning of an imminent plot to strike Western cities with biological and chemical weapons. This was, presumably, to justify the US missile attacks, four days earlier, on the elusive Saudi-born Osama bin Laden's alleged training bases in Afghanistan and Sudan.)
Identical prejudices, conspiracy theories and ludicrous stereotypes of the `West' are found in the media of Middle Eastern countries. Both popular and intellectually serious Islamic publications repeatedly describe what are alleged to be Western plots to humiliate Muslims and undermine Islamic traditions and culture. When the Americans sent troops to the Saudi Arabian desert following Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, a communiqué issued by the Palestinian Islamic movement, Hamas, declared it to be `another episode in the fight between good and evil' and `a hateful Christian plot against our religion, our civilization and our land'. Following the death of Princess Diana, the Libyan leader Colonel Qaddafi openly accused the British secret service of having engineered the car crash in order to prevent the marriage of British royalty to a Muslim. Other demagogues in the Middle East took up the charge: this was yet a further example of Western hostility towards Islam and part: of a conspiracy to silence the voice of Muslims.
At first glance, all this may lend credence to Huntington's thesis. Are we not witnessing the latest manifestation of atavistic and irreversible animosities between the civilization of the `West' and what is commonly called `the world of Islam'? But none of the examples quoted above is exactly representative of any civilization, ancient or modern. Terrorism, jingoism and racial stereotyping are neither uniquely `Islamic' nor uniquely `Western'. Moreover, what is often presented in the language of `ancient and fundamental differences' are, in fact, concoctions of recent political and social origin. `Civilizations', `nations', `traditions', `communities' terms that claim a timeless reality and authority often turn out, on closer inspection, to be both less rigid and more modern than we thought.
Much confusion surrounds the rhetoric of both Islamists (or `Islamic fundamentalists', as they are popularly, but misleadingly, called) and their critics in the non-Muslim world. Much of this confusion has to do with the way `Islam' as a way of life, a system of beliefs and practices, is conflated with `Islam' as a specific, timeless, social and political programme. The claim of Islamist movements and Islamically oriented governments is that the latter is derived from the former in a way that is logically necessary and historically universal. `Islam' is then presented as a monolithic, unchanging reality; and all programmes for social and political change are justified in terms of this `Islam' (Islamic economics, Islamic computing, Islamic dress codes, and so on). This is what distinguishes Islamists from other Muslims.
Huntington plays into the Islamists' hands by basically accepting their redefinition of Islam. The threat to the West does not come from a small group of extremists on the lunatic fringe, but from `Islam' itself. He writes: `The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power." On this assumption, he tries to explain the dealings of contemporary Islamic societies with the West in terms of the enduring civilization of `Islam'.
However, whenever groups of people invoke religious texts to justify specific political action, they are reflecting particular forces within their societies. These groups are responding to specific, historical problems, often of a social and political nature, not engaging in some universal crusade against other peoples. Whether in Iran or Algeria, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, the rise of religious nationalisms has been directed less against direct foreign domination than against the post-colonial state that has failed to resolve the problems of the society it rules. The inability of these states to meet either the economic expectations or the cultural aspirations of their people has been the context in which Islamist movements have emerged.
The Islamic resurgence
The term `the Islamic resurgence' or `the Islamic revival' has come to be applied to the re-emergence of Islam as an ideological force in Muslim politics since the late 1960s. From Morocco to Indonesia, governments in Muslim-majority countries and opposition movements have increasingly sought to legitimate their policies and muster popular support by appealing to Islam. Islam has been invoked in nationalist struggles and resistance movements in Afghanistan, in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Central Asia, in Kashmir, and in the communal politics of Lebanon, India, Thailand and the Philippines. Islamist organizations have become the major opposition groups in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Turkey, Morocco, the West Bank and Indonesia. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq War, the Gulf War, and the Rushdie affair have not only sent shock waves throughout the Muslim world but brought Islam and Islamist movements to the centre stage of the world's media.
In any appraisal of Islamist movements, the local context is of primary importance. The many studies of the social origins of the activists in these movements reveal a profile that is fairly typical: they come from the lower middle class; they have a university education, usually in the natural sciences, engineering or medicine; and although they are city-dwellers when they join the organization, their origins are usually rural.
This is how Azmy Bishara, a philosophy professor at the Bir Zeit University in the Occupied Territories of the West Bank, explains this profile:
Young adults who have left the villages usually live in slums on the outskirts of the metropolis. There, in the mosques of the suburban slums whose very architecture proclaims a terrible loss of identity, the migrants find a welcome and begin organizing themselves. Structural barriers keep these embittered students from integrating into the affluent classes that are reaping the fruits of modernization. But modernity itself, higher education, the demand for political organization these are what provide them with the means to do battle against the status quo. They take up an offensive posture, looking back to a past utopia. This escape is not conducted as a retreat but as an attack. Those who espouse it are not conservatives but rather a unique product of modernity: modern individuals with a split and alienated consciousness, enlightened persons alienated from `enlightenment'."
None of these problems whether they have to do with rapid urbanization, competition for educational and employment positions, the growing authoritarianism and corruption of the state, or the changing status of women is specific to the Islamic world. If one wishes to understand the rise of Islamist movements in Algeria, Afghanistan, Egypt, Indonesia or elsewhere, it would be more fruitful to begin by examining the problems facing the populations of these countries, rather than by studying Qu'ranic texts or invoking the general influence of Islam. For that would be to play the same game as the Islamists. If, in Western Europe, immigrants from various Islamic countries have come to define themselves increasingly in Islamic terms, this may be not so much a reassertion of some global Muslim identity as a response of fear engendered by growing racist attacks, employment discrimination and social alienation that they experience in their adopted countries.
Islam in danger?
Some of the most incisive and balanced observations on these themes come from the pen of Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics. Halliday is the author of a number of outstanding analyses of Middle Eastern societies as well as of immigrant communities in Britain. In his book Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, he points out that `Myths of "Islamic threat", like myths of legitimacy or nationalism, are part of the rhetorical baggage of political struggle, employed by both those who wish to remain in power and those who aspire to attain power.'
The fact that most Muslims are not supporters of Islamist movements is obscured, as are the conditions under which people who are Muslims do turn to this particular option. The myth of the `Islamic threat' fails to distinguish between the militant stridency of the few and the legitimate aspirations of the many. As with other political myths, however, once these ideas are propagated they gain a certain reality for those whom they are designed to mobilize, and also for those against whom they are directed. The myth of confrontation pertaining to Muslims is taken up by Islamist movements to justify their own causes.
The opponents and proponents of the Islamic movement were in agreement that `Islam' itself was a total, unchanging system, that its precepts operated over centuries, in all kinds of societies, and determined the attitudes of diverse peoples towards politics, sexuality and society. Both sides shared the view of a historically determined, essential `Islam', which is supposedly able to account for all that Muslims say, do, and should say and should do. Khomeini, Turabi, the Muslim Brothers and the rest are as insistent on this score as any anti-Islamic bigot in the West. Whatever else, the image of a timeless `Islam' is not just the fabrication of fevered Western minds.
Memories of Western imperialism and exploitation, followed by continued support from the West for autocratic and oppressive regimes, have left deep scars and resentments in the psyche of many Arabs and Iranians. These `became both easy excuses for societal failures and combustible materials in Muslim politics. If there is an Islamic threat, many Arabs and Muslims believe there has also been a Western threat of political, economic, and religio-cultural imperialism, a political occupation accompanied by cultural invasion. As a result many in the Muslim world, like their counterparts in the West, opt for easy anti-imperialist slogans and demonization. At its worst, both sides have engaged in a process of "mutual satanization".
Many of the phenomena identified as specifically Islamic are not unique to the Islamic world, whether they be tribal regimes, fragile democracies, religious bigotry, oppression of women, or intolerance of minorities or of political dissent. The particular form which the Islamist movement in a particular society takes is determined by the problems that society confronts. For example, although neighbours, Iran and Afghanistan produced very different Islamist movements. Iran's Islamism was urban-based and led by traditionalist clergy, acting through mass political mobilizations; Afghanistan's was rural-based, but led by modernized intellectuals acting through guerrilla war.
Halliday also reminds us that most Islamist movements are concerned with what is going on within the Islamic world and with competition between Islamic states and parties, rather than with the outside world. `It is worth recalling that Ayatollah Khomeini's rhetoric was not one calling for a jihad to conquer or convert the non-Muslim world, but was a cry of concern: "Islam is in danger." If there is any common thread running through these movements, it lies here.'
This sense of Islam being in danger and at risk of corruption is felt among many of the older immigrants from Islamic countries to Western Europe. The tightening of immigration controls has made it evident to those now resident in Europe that they are there to stay. The rise of racist attacks in Britain, France and Germany have led many, especially second-generation immigrants, to give up all hope of full integration in their countries of reception. International events such as the Iranian revolution, the US attacks on Libya and alleged terrorist targets in other Islamic states, Indian army atrocities in Kashmir, and the genocide in Bosnia, have also served to encourage increasing religious identifications among such immigrants. This greater religious visibility has led to campaigns on issues such as special Islamic schools for Muslim children, the veiling of women and girls, the provision of places of worship and the availability of halal meat. In France, Islamic organizations are already a political force, and that may be the way of Britain in the not-too-distant future.
Many of these campaigns, however, reflect concern over how to maintain control within the community, rather than over an external threat to the survival of Islam. Many of the self-appointed leaders of Muslim immigrant communities express anxiety over the extent to which the younger generation will continue to respect the faith. Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses gave expression to the migrant's experience of alienation both from his country of reception (e.g. his reflections on the racism of the British police) and from the customs and traditions of the country he has left permanently. As Fred Halliday notes, the reaction of outrage to the novel itself gave expression to a sense of `erosion, real or imagined', for `Rushdie's main challenge to the Islamic world, beyond his Rabelaisian account of early Islam, is to have broken away from it'. Khomeini accused him of kufr, which can mean not only atheism or blasphemy but also apostasy. `It is this latter charge that is the most serious since, in writing as he did of Mohammed, of doubt, of the profane masquerading as the religious, Rushdie represented a challenge from within that embattled religious leaders, in Bradford as in Tehran, could not accept.'
What this suggests above all is that for all their assertiveness the Muslim communities in Western Europe feel themselves to be under threat: it is the fear of loss of social control that animates the activities of their leaders, traditional and new. Here, of course, their concern has been shared by many of the most vocal leaders of the Islamic world, including Khomeini. Aggressive and aggrieved as they may sound, theirs is a defensive cry . Islam is `in danger', and it is seen to be under threat not so much from without, something that has always been the case, as from the loss of belief and of submission emerging from within.
Excerpted from Faiths in Conflict? by Vinoth Ramachandra. Copyright © 1999 by Vinoth Ramachandra. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.