Re-Clash of Civilizations

February 15, 2004 at 8:00 am

This essay originally appeared in The Boston Globe.

WHY DID HARVARD political scientist Samuel Huntington’s eight-year-old book “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” spend 20 weeks last year on Israel’s bestseller list?

Originally published in 1996, the book is based on a short 1993 article, “Clash of Civilizations?” (note the subsequently dropped question mark), which appeared in the prestigious journal Foreign Affairs. The article generated heated debate in the United States and in capitals around the globe. But when the Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s most widely read newspaper, published substantial excerpts from the article 10 years ago, the Israeli public paid little attention.

Huntington’s article argued against political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who had maintained in another celebrated article four years earlier that the “end of history” was upon us. By this Fukuyama meant that a world-wide consensus was emerging that liberal democracy, oriented toward peace and prosperity, was not merely the way of the West but the only rational and legitimate form of government.

To the contrary, replied Huntington, the future of world politics would be no less bloody than its past. However, the major conflicts in the coming century would not pit nation against nation, as had more or less been the case since the emergence of the modern international system in the middle of the 17th century. Rather, the wars of the future would be waged between great cultures or civilizations defined by common language and shared religious beliefs. The most momentous clash would feature, in Huntington’s pithy phrase, “the West against the rest” — in particular, Chinese and Muslim civilization.

Pertinent as it is, Huntington’s analysis would not be attracting attention in Israel today but for the decision of the Shalem Center, a young and increasingly influential Jerusalem think tank led by Yoram Hazony and Daniel Polisar, to publish a Hebrew translation of the complete book. Shalem is dedicated to bringing serious conservative ideas to bear on Jewish thought and Israeli public policy. Among their projects have been Hebrew translations of such classic works as Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” Friedrich Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom,” and most recently “The Federalist.”

To be sure, Huntington’s book is not conservative in any doctrinaire sense. But its bedrock claims that the sources of conflict in international affairs are permanent, that religion is primary, and that the dream of a democratic and multicultural international order is a dangerous delusion are congruent with abiding conservative convictions.

In his introduction to the Hebrew translation, Israeli journalist Dan Margalit suggests that “The Clash of Civilizations” raised and then skirted two questions of special interest from an Israeli perspective: whether Judaism constitutes a civilization, and how the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians relates to the larger war of civilizations.

While Huntington says little about Judaism, his answers are implicit in his analysis: Judaism does constitute a civilization, though a minor one because of Israel’s small size and the dispersion of the Jewish people. Indeed, because it is rooted in biblical faith and respects the dignity of the individual, Judaism should be seen as a part of Western civilization. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians may exacerbate international tensions, but it is not the source of the fundamental clash between the West and the rest. On Huntington’s account, the West would be facing a showdown with Islam even if Israel did not exist.

This message, which has enraged progressives and internationalists, lately seems to comfort many Israeli readers. After the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States and almost three-and-a-half years of suicide bombings in Israel, Israelis have felt a heightened solidarity with America and have perceived a heightened American solidarity with Israel. With anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on the rise in Europe, Israelis have clung even more tenaciously to the conviction, affirmed by the non-Israeli and non-Jew Huntington, that the West exists and that Israel belongs to it.

But a stronger appeal of Huntington’s book stems from his analysis of “the Muslim propensity toward violent conflict.” The most controversial claim in Huntington’s original article, elaborated and defended at length in his book, is that “Islam has bloody borders.” Over the last 25 years, Huntington argues, Muslim countries have fought more wars with rivals and have suffered more internal violence than any other civilization. However much the radical Islamists may have perverted its true teachings, Islam, according to Huntington, does command the faithful to wage war against and conquer unbelievers, while providing little doctrinal support for the familiar Western notion of universal individual rights.

Yasser Arafat’s rejection of the unprecedented land-for-peace deal offered by Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak at Camp David in July 2000, and the gruesome attacks on caf-goers and bus passengers that have followed, have led many Israelis on the left to give this disturbing interpretation of Islam serious consideration. For the first time, they stopped blaming the Israeli government for the conflict with the Palestinians and looked elsewhere for explanations — a shift reflected in the landslide victory of the hardliner Ariel Sharon in February 2001.

According to Yossi Shain, head of the Hartog School of Government at Tel Aviv University, many on the moderate Israeli left today embrace a cultural explanation for the breakdown of the peace process and the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada. As he said in a recent interview, “Sept. 11 cemented in the minds of many Israelis who long regarded themselves as on the center-left a thought they had been trying to come to grips with: that Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians is not just over borders and human rights but with a violent Islamic culture that denies Israel’s right to exist and denies, on Islamic grounds, the liberal and democratic values that it cherishes.”

None of this decides the crucial question: Is Huntington’s thesis correct? Perhaps Islam is rather, as Israeli-Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh said in an interview last week, a “supermarket for various ideologies” which awaits liberal and democratic interpreters.

What is clear is that “the clash of civilizations” is, in the land between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, not merely an academic question but a matter of life and death.

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Entry filed under: Israel.

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