In my own attempts to get some perspective on recent horrors and on those to come, I have been vastly helped by many postings to this list. I have also been disturbed that in the mainstream media (a useful designation, I agree) and even among some postings here the idea that we are engaged in a war of cultures or a clash of civilizations, a struggle with a dimly lit and thoroughly demonized other, is rapidly becoming a received idea. So, as away of trying to sort some of this out for myself and to come to terms with some of the fear, anger, and alienation I've been feeling, I offer the following notes.
Perhaps the most pernicious metaphor yet to emerge in this very difficult, extremely dangerous time is the one that would translate this "war" into a clash of civilizations, a struggle between -- as Samuel P. Huntington put it some years ago -- the West and the rest. Huntington, director of the John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies and chair of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies, former director of the National Security Council under Carter, former president of American Political Science Association, is the Cold War strategist who began recent circulation of this metaphor in articles that appeared in Foreign Policy and the New York Times back in 1993 and 94 and in a widely reviewed (and frequently criticized) book ominously entitled The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996). We are now asked by right wing demagogues (from whom one expects little more) and left wing "analysts" (like Hitchens from whom one expects better) to understand what has happened and what will follow as a war between civilizations, between an enlightened though sometimes misguided West and those who "hate our values and what we stand for."
This metaphor is pernicious because it forecloses real historical analysis and any possibility of understanding what might lead human agents to undertake inhumane and unjust acts of violence aimed at civilian populations. Most important, to characterize this simply as a struggle against "them," which must in this context mean Islam or "Islamic extremists," precludes any account of events and developments that would register the role that "we" have played perpetrating and helping to perpetrate violence -- much of it inhumane and unjust and aimed at civilian populations -- in the Middle East and in Afghanistan itself. All that is left is an ideological justification for total war, an idea, by the way, much more familiar in the history of the Modern West than in the history of Islamic regions. I am not, by the way, saying that these latest attacks were justified or defensible. But as we undertake military operations and diplomatic maneuvers in a part of the world we little understand ideological obfuscations like cultural wars and clashing civilizations will increase the danger that we will act in reckless and ill-informed ways, as we have so often acted in the past. The danger of vastly increasing human suffering, political destabilization, and dangerous consequences vastly increases when we begin by assuming that we are engaged in a clash of civilization rather than a political struggle with a specific history.
Few would claim that Jerry Falwell, Tim McVeigh, or even Nazi Germany are definitively representative examples of the Western Culture and traditions from which they sprang. Rather, we understand them to be aberrant examples of Christianity, of resistance, or of modernity itself and develop historically based accounts of how such aberrations became possible and powerful at a given moment. To claim that bin Laden and his followers have nothing to do with the regional and global history of the last forty or even the last ten years is to leave only a theocratized discourse of absolute good versus absolute evil. Nothing of what we know about civilizations -- especially our own -- suggests that such a univocal and brutal understanding of peoples and actions can offer any real purchase on human and political realities. And it is a purchase on these realities that we all badly need right now as move to extend the reach of our violence even further among Arab and Asian peoples. For them, as for us, their own cultures tend to be sites of conflict between what, for lack of more precise terms, we can call good and evil. The Taliban may well be bad guys, as in fact I believe they are, but they are no more usefully understood as an expression of Islamic culture than Pat Robertson is usefully understood as an expression of the Gospels. The metaphor of culture war demands that we forget all this and accept a comforting representation of a world in which "they" are simply bad and "we" simply good. This does nothing to explain how such bad men attract so much sympathy and so many followers among otherwise rational human agents, or why we, in our presumed goodness, have earned so much antipathy in so many places. Recent violent histories seem more likely to provide useful explanations than the simple assertion that "they" hate our freedom. What, in this context, does that even mean?
It is no surprise that those who have chosen this moment to further demonize what they unreflectingly call Islam or even Islamic extremists tend to be those who understand the least about the history and development of the regions in question. Those who beat the drums for a war of civilizations (and what would victory in such a war mean?) tend not to be Islamic or even to speak Arabic or Urdu or any other language spoken by the civilizations they undertake to damn. And yet, one wonders, how well can anyone understand a culture without understanding the languages in which cultures identify and transform themselves.
Finally, we cannot call for Americans to foreswear violence against domestic Islamic populations at the same time we claim to be waging a war (a crusade as Bush put it) against a civilization. If there are, as we are piously reminded time and again, a "vast majority" of Moslems who are not our enemies then we must also admit that we are not locked in a war that can be understood ahistorically and fantastically as a war of civilizations. Misguided and criminal religious zealotry (if that is what has lead to these horrific events) can not -- in the West or the rest of the world -- be understood as simple expressions or organic outgrowths of the civilizations in which they occur. Such an understanding may be a useful ideological justification for imperialist incursions, for total war, even for genocide, but it can shed no useful light on the situation for those who are truly interested in justice -- infinite or not.