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Clash of Civilizations or Clash of Perceptions?

2002 Report (Continued)


Debating Civilizations

What is a civilization? Is there a “Clash of Civilizations” as Samuel Huntington claims? If there is not, is there a clash of ideologies, a clash of fundamentalisms, a clash of perceptions? Is the clash political, cultural, or religious? What role does the media play in creating or solving this clash? Is the clash inevitable or solvable, and if solvable, how? The plenary session on Debating Civilizations considered these difficult questions and concluded that there is no Clash of Civilizations per se. Despite rejecting Huntington’s thesis, however, there was a consensus that some sort of clash is taking place.

Malise Ruthven, 5 author and former lecturer at the University of Aberdeen, United Kingdom, spoke on “Islam Clashing with the West.” Focusing on iconography as a locus of civilizational difference, he explained the conflicting Islamic and Christian traditions in how divinity is portrayed. Whereas Islamic art depicts God through geometric patterns that suggest the experience of infinity or of “the ultimate,” a sort of paganism has been built into the Western iconic tradition, which, from early Christian tombs to Caravaggio to Michelangelo, shows Christ and Mary (and sometimes God himself) as human figures. Clearly, religiously based identities have a cultural component. Despite the opposing artistic traditions, Ruthven expressed hope that the problems between the West and the Islamic world would be resolved within the media, as our cultural differences are mediated and mutual understanding is promoted through audiovisual technologies and Internet chatrooms.

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, 6 Egyptian author and columnist for Al-Ahram, offered the perspective on “Islam Coexisting with the West.” He expressed the view that despite our civilizations becoming more interdependent through globalization, there is now a political clash between the West and terrorism, which has taken the place of Communism since the fall of the Berlin Wall signaled the end of a bipolar system. But while the West “agreed to disagree” with the Soviet Union, there is no such agreement to tolerate the terrorist threat. This threat can be eliminated, however; while the shift of political oppositions was inevitable, a Clash of Civilizations is not. Yet for terrorism to be conquered, the twenty-first century must witness a closing of the gap between the developed countries and the rest of the world, which widened during the twentieth century. It is only, Sid-Ahmed claimed, when underdevelopment is corrected that people will no longer be willing to kill themselves to harm their enemies. And since this suicide tactic multiplies terrorists’ power by making them unafraid of consequences, a resolution of this issue may be the only way to avoid a third world war.

Rather than argue for or against a certain type of clash, Karl Meyer, 7 editor of the World Policy Journal, United States, spoke on “The Media and Civilizational Understanding.” Through the example of the West’s bleak forecasts for Spain after Franco, he illustrated how press clichés do not determine history. Meyer also discussed the media as “an equal-opportunity offender”; in other words, though they may present Islam in generalized and distorted terms, this is the way in which the media treat almost all of their subjects. Furthermore, the media are not alone responsible for their misperceptions and misdiagnoses. “Experts” and historians are just as fallible, as they proved by failing to predict the rise of the ayatollahs in Iran and by insisting on (a now pacifist) Germany’s essentially angry and aggressive character. Nevertheless, Meyer admitted, the media can play a role in fomenting violence, and we now face a critical test of the media’s power to influence events for better or for worse.

In her commentator’s remarks, Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne, first vice chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security, and Defence Policy, European Parliament, suggested that Meyer’s reference to the youth in post-Franco Spain wanting to “be free of all orthodoxies” may indeed summarize the fears of religiously motivated fundamentalist movements. Perhaps, then, the clash is not between civilizations or religions, but between the secular and the faithful? Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have more similarities than they do differences, she noted, pointing in particular to the oppression of women that she believes is common to all organized religions. Baroness Nicholson also asked that participants try to distinguish between civilization and culture. For instance, does “civilization” require or imply a common language, a common body of literature or law or beliefs? Does civilization require physical mingling or can it exist, as Malise Ruthven proposed, over the Internet?

In response to the question of the meaning of civilization, the discussion then turned to the fact that Osama Bin Laden does not use the term “civilization,” and so perhaps our dialogue is collapsing political mythology and current events. Does an intellectual debate that involves issues relating to democracy, treatment of women, iconic traditions, and so on, have relevance to a terrorist movement that—rather than responding to this debate—is fighting back violently against what it perceives as anti-Muslim oppression? Building on this idea, another participant asked, if there is not a Clash of Civilizations, what is the meaning of our discourse? Are we really discussing something else that lies behind this problem, and if so, what? One answer is that today we live in a global civilization in which we share science and technology, a common economy, and a worldwide system of communications. In order to differentiate ourselves from others within this universal society, we must look toward religion and/or history—the areas where our identities diverge. But with the United States as a unipolar power, how will these differences be confronted? In order to maintain peace and security, the United States must offer other cultures equal recognition and must cease acting as the “producer and teacher” despite its military and economic strength.

Returning to the debate over the clash, participants backed a variety of concepts deriving, and yet diverging, from Hungtington’s argument. One American participant stated that if Islam is considered a substitute for the “Red Menace,” then the religion is indeed being treated as an ideology and thus the clash is still a clash of ideologies. Others countered this idea, maintaining that the Cold War is over and the age of ideologies and of state supremacy has passed; we now face a suprastate conflict between liberty and totalitarianism, and the only solution is to offer hope through programs that bring more prosperity to regions where fanatic militants find support. Yet others held that the clash is between fundamentalisms, which are growing in popularity in the United States (Jerry Fallwell, Franklin Graham, the Radical Right) as well as in the Islamic world. In this sense, the Islamic world is no different from any other civilization or region or society, in that frustrations lead naturally to extremism and the system itself must be improved in order to provide stability and overcome grievances.

In conclusion, the session on Debating Civilizations revealed that some sort of clash is certainly occurring and that, for the moment, this clash is inspiring more questions than answers. It could not be resolved whether the clash is between religions, ideologies, fundamentalisms, or perceptions; nor whether this clash is insurmountable; nor whether the key to solving it is media or democracy or something else entirely. Participants did seem to agree that the world has suffered from the earthquake-like collapse of Communism, which has inevitably led to a shift of “blocs.” Many also agreed that to avoid further escalation of conflicts, and especially to avoid a third world war, widespread poverty and inequality must be addressed in order to stop interventions by those who use the miseries of the poor as a weapon against the rest of the world.

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