While most of us were caroling to better prospects last Christmas eve, Samuel Huntington died. Few people outside of political science circles knew his name. But it's not an exaggeration to say that few people on the planet were spared the effect of his most famous idea, which itself died a welcome death last month when Barack Obama eulogized it from the floor of the Turkish parliament.
Samuel Huntington's Evolution Into a Neocon
In 1993, Huntington wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs called "The Clash of Civilizations?" The article didn't immediately make a mark. Bill Clinton had just been elected, people were still hawking rubble from the Berlin Wall as souvenirs. No one was in the mood for something that sounded like a retread of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" with Muslims for Martians.
When Huntington expanded the article into a book three years later, the question mark was removed. Nuance was gone. Inquiry turned to decree. Neocons, who tend to mistake nuance for subversion, suddenly had themselves an ideological hero. What they lacked was a war and a hothead willing to wage it. They got both, with considerable complicity from another hothead in Afghanistan. "The Clash of Civilizations" was on.
Islamic Clash Hysterics
I don't mean to blame Huntington for the hysterics of the "war on terror" anymore than Karl Marx should be blamed for the genocides of communism. Intellectuals are harmless. It's their interpreters who do all the damage. Which is just what makes it easy to forget what a hokey idea was Huntington's original "Clash."
Huntington saw conflict everywhere. He drew a new iron curtain between Russia and Europe, between Western Christianity and "Orthodox Christianity and Islam." He predicted "increasingly difficult relations between Japan and the United States," thus confusing a mild clash of economies and jealousies with a civilizational clash.
But he reserved his greatest anxieties (and "Braveheart" language) for the Muslim world: "In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia." And just like that, a quarter of the world's land mass and about a sixth of its peoples were "aflame" and jacked up on violence: "Islam has bloody borders."
From Crusaders to Clashers
There's nothing new about seeing the world this way. Crusaders did it. Presidents since Woodrow Wilson have been doing it, though more like a strategic version of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Analyze, categorize, contain, control, attack and/or demolish.
The difference in the 1990s was that for the first time all century, there really was no other power to oppose the American imagination. "The west," Huntington wrote, "is now at an extraordinary peak of power in relation to other civilizations."
But the West was not doomed to see the world Huntington's way. In the 1990s, it didn't. With the advent of the Bush Doctrine, it did. The possibility that the Muslim world may not give a flying fakir to being defined by the West or by al-Qaida's minority of death-cult zealots didn't occur to the clash-trapped world view. As Reza Aslan writes in How to Win a Cosmic War,
It was as though Americans needed to place the events of 9/11 into an easily accessible drama--one in which every historical actor had a role to play--and the drama that seemed most suited to the American psyche at the time began with the classic Sophoclean prologue: two unseen forces--"Islam" and "the West"--hurtling toward each other in a catastrophic yet inevitable collision, determined by the gods long before but hidden from the eyes of men until, in an explosion of light and sound, both suddenly appeared on stage.
Getting Islam Wrong
That world view's mistake -- the Bush regime's mistake -- was essentially twofold. It defined Islam according to Western assumptions: Islam is what the West says it is, what the likes of Huntington, the neocon historian Bernard Lewis and the studio bully Bill O'Reilly say it is.
They don't. They're more recent inventions than disco, and more vulgar ("nonsense on stilts," in one British writer's words). Their appeal is nothing so universal as religion. It's that more common parasite: resentment, which, like all parasites, feeds on rubbish. What's been surreal to the point of fury is the amount of rubbish the West, and particularly the United States, contributed to the parasites' growth. Without war, al-Qaida is nothing. Without antagonism, Iran's revolution loses its rationale. Islam however endures, not just as a religion, but as the source of -- as its very name says -- peace.
That, and his choice of venue, was Obama's insight when he told the Turkish parliament: "America's relationship with the Muslim community, the Muslim world, cannot, and will not, just be based upon opposition to terrorism. We seek broader engagement based on mutual interest and mutual respect. Our focus will be on what we can do, in partnership with people across the Muslim world, to advance our common hopes and our common dreams."
Just words? So were Huntington's.