The Bull Moose says we’re in a “clash of civilizations.” Not that long ago, Marc Schulman made the same point. Marc notes, quoting Pew data, that the Bush administration’s repeated claims that the war on terror is not directed at Islam have “failed to impress” many Muslims:

Sizable percentages of Muslims in many countries with significant Muslim populations also believe that suicide bombings can be justified in order to defend Islam from its enemies. While majorities see suicide bombing as justified in only two nations polled, more than a quarter of Muslims in another nine nations subscribe to this view.

His conclusion:

The Bush Administration has an obvious reason for denying the existence of a clash of civilizations: to admit otherwise would fracture our relations with our Arab “friends” and worsen anti-Americanism throughout the Muslim world. In the long run, however, this avoidance of an unpleasant truth will come with an equally unpleasant realization. If and when the last extremist has had his final breath, there will still be no peace. Peace will come when a system of belief that harkens back to the Middle Ages and before is no more. The Global War on Terror is the start, not the finish.

Marc, in essence, reaffirms Dr. Demarche’s reaction (also at American Future) to the growing “cartoon violence”:

He went on to say he was against banning the expression of extreme Muslim opinions, however, since such a move “would only create a subculture.” Rasmussen was, at the time (and most of the world currently still is) in denial of the basic fact that a Islamic “subculture” already exists. It is a culture of intolerance and violence, stuck in the 16th century ideologically but armed with modern weapons and tools of propaganda. It is a culture very much at odds with the modern ideals of liberalism and freedom, and like it or not, it is a culture with which we are at war both ideologically and physically. This culture is lead by men who take great pride in using our greatest strengths — freedom and tolerance- against us, men who want nothing more than to see an end to the practice of those same ideals, and who do not shy away from mayhem and murder to achieve their goals.

The sooner we admit that, and truly begin to fight back, the sooner we demonstrate that liberal tolerance has its limits, the better chance we have to avoid a future 9/11, future London, Madrid and Bali bombings, and the future murder of those who seek to expose the current existence of the Islamic subculture that threatens liberal democracies everywhere [emphasis added].

Marc Lynch, on the other hand, takes the opposite position:

This is not a clash of civilizations, and we should stop treating it as such. Yes, most Muslims I know are angry and genuinely offended, but they aren’t violent about it. If a similar cartoon had been run about Jesus, or Anne Frank (and I blasted the Iranians for their part in this StupidStorm), or Martin Luther King, lots of Americans would be angry and genuinely offended. By focusing on the extreme voices, the media really does an injustice to the legitimate, human feelings and ideas of that vast majority of Muslims who deserve the right to be heard without being reduced to some cliche of Muslim rage.

These three posts raise important questions about what we mean by the phrase “clash of civilizations” and, in consequence, whether it is a useful heuristic for interpreting the ongoing violent and non-violent protests over the Danish cartoons.

The obvious starting point is Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Huntington’s influential Foreign Affairs article and his book introduced the phrase into the cultural zeitgeist (although Bernard Lewis apparently coined the phrase). Huntington’s argument is actually quite nuanced and wide-ranging. He questions the significance, for instance, of processes of “Americanization.” He attacks Joseph Nye’s conception of “soft power” — with some choice words about the influenced conferred by blue jeans and MacDonald’s.

Huntington also targets claims that globalization will produce cultural homogenization. Part of the reason is empirical — cultural homogenization just isn’t happening — but the major point takes us to into his core theoretical terrain.

Civilizations, according to Huntington, are the product of long-term histories of interaction and cultural circulation between peoples. They result in deeply sedimented commonplaces in terms of cognitive frames, values and orientations. A civilization produces aspects of a common lifeworld among its members; members of other civilizations, however, live in different lifeworlds. In consequence, people can talk across civilizational boundaries, but they cannot negotiate away their differences or come to common understandings about many core values.

Cosmopolitan identities — those that extend to all of humanity — are, therefore, too weak and diffuse to trigger sustained political activity. Civilizational membership is the highest, and most territorially expansive, form of politically significant collective identification between human beings.

From here, Huntington makes two important arguments concerning the “clash of civilizations”:

First, it will be marked not only by conventional balance-of-power politics between states, but also balancing between civilizations. The gap between the “west and the rest’ — in terms of military and economic capabilities — will thus be an important source of conflict and alignment in international relations.

The central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be, in Kishore Mahbubani’s phrase, the conflict between “the West and the Rest” and the responses of non-Western civilizations to Western power and values.(6) Those responses generally take one or a combination of three forms. At one extreme, non-Western states can, like Burma and North Korea, attempt to pursue a course of isolation, to insulate their societies from penetration or “corruption” by the West, and, in effect, to opt out of participation in the Western-dominated global community. The costs of this course, however, are high, and few states have pursued it exclusively. A second alternative, the equivalent of “band- wagoning” in international relations theory, is to attempt to join the West and accept its values and institutions. The third alternative is to attempt to “balance” the West by developing economic and military power and cooperating with other non-Western societies against the West, while preserving indigenous values and institutions; in short, to modernize but not to Westernize.

Huntington argues for the existence of a developing alignment between the Sino-Confucian world (China) and the Islamic world. He finds evidence of the latter in, among other things, Chinese arms sales to Islamic countries.

Second, those conflicts that are most dangerous to the international order — those that are most likely to escalate — will take place on civilizational fault lines. The logic here is straightforward. Since civilizations represent the highest level of collective identification, local struggles that involve representatives of two (or more) civilizations have the greatest potential to draw in other actors, Huntington talks about this as the “kin-country” syndrome:

Groups or states belonging to one civilization that become involved in war with people from a different civilization naturally try to rally support from other members of their own civilization. As the post-Cold War world evolves, civilization commonality, what H. D. S. Greenway has termed the “kin-country” syndrome, is replacing political ideology and traditional balance of power considerations as the principal basis for cooperation and coalitions. It can be seen gradually emerging in the post-Cold War conflicts in the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus and Bosnia. None of these was a full-scale war between civilizations, but each involved some elements of civilizational rallying, which seemed to become more important as the conflict continued and which may provide a foretaste of the future.

Huntington is right about a lot of things.

Identities matter in world politics. This one is easy. Ask yourself why Bush’s insistence that militant jihadists “distort” Islam doesn’t persuade many Muslims that it is so. He had no credibility on the subject — no authority to speak about the correct nature of Islamic beliefs.

Civilizational identities also matter. When actors orient their behavior towards “the West” or “the Islamic world” they behave differently than when they orient their behaviors towards “the United Kingdom” or “Egypt.” If one believes, as some militant jihadists do, that the enemy is “western civilization” itself, then the nature of the struggle is different than if one seeks “merely” to force changes in United States foreign policy. The converse is also true: to the extent that Americans treat the conflict as a “clash of civilizations” rather than, say, a struggle against a network of militant jihadists, that implies a rather different set of strategies and goals.

The “kin-country syndrome,” as he calls it, does have real effects on the attitudes of ordinary people. and the opportunities and constraints faced by political elites. At the same time, the jury remains out on the malleability of the category “kin” in international relations. How much does media coverage, or even congruences of interests, determine “kin” and how much does such kinship reflect more enduring aspects of identity? Want evidence that “western identity” is pretty thin? Have some freedom fries with that liberty cabbage.

Advocates of the “clash of civilization” thesis — as applied to the current “War on Terror” — should be extremely careful. One of Huntington’s major errors is the way he reifies civilizations and treats them as immutable communities. As Patrick Jackson argues in his forthcoming book, “Western Civilization” is itself a political construct of relatively recent vintage. Contemporary notions of “Western Civilization” owe more to 19th-century German intellectuals than to a deep continuity between, say, the Achaeans and anti-Stuart British doctors. Given how plastic civilizational divisions have been in the past, it makes little sense to assume that they are set in stone in the present.

To date, almost all of the violence over the Danish cartoons has occurred in authoritarian and semi-authoritarian regimes. These are exactly the places we would expect protests to turn violent — either because of instigation by the authorities or because ordinary people lack the opportunity to have their grievances heard through routine political activities (compare the protests in Turkey, which has a democratically elected “Islamicist” party, to those in Pakistan). The protests in Pakistan, as the AP reports, are deeply implicated in domestic politics: “the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six Islamist parties, said its followers would defy the ban and around 1,000 protesters managed to congregate near a central bazaar, chanting religious and anti-government slogans.” David Montero of the Christian Science Monitor reported earlier, that the Pakistani riots are “about more than cartoons.”

Over the past week, Islam and religious fervor have been fingered as the source of the spreading violence. But to some analysts, the erratic nature of the demonstrations points to different root causes.

The flash conflagrations, they argue, highlight a profound discontent in Pakistan over economic and social inequality that has deepened over the past five years, sparking alienation and resentment.

While the attacks on Western restaurants, cars, and banks have been read as an attack on the West, those targets are potent symbols simply of privilege and status that is beyond the reach of much of Pakistan’s population.

“In Western society, only the common man eats at KFC. But in Pakistan, these are eateries of the most privileged,” says Rasul Bakhsh Rai, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The expanding number of protests — to Nigeria and Indonesia — as well as their pattern in Pakistan, also suggest the inherent weakness of civilizational identity as a basis of collective mobilization. The very same factors that Huntington argues make civilizational identity dangerous — it is territorial extensive and diffuse character — cut against it as a sustained basis for transnational political mobilization. What we’re seeing is a kind of memetic spread of protests across the Islamic world. But there’s no infrastructure, organization, or much in the way of a deep commonality of issues tying together each “civilizational” brushfire. Modern communications technologies may compensate, to some degree, for this fact. They spread word of protests, magnify the sense of solidarity among elites and ordinary people engaged in them, provide echo chambers for outrage, and otherwise serve as the equivalent of transmitters and incubators for mimetic emulation. But they don’t make up for the fundamental lack of movement organization — let alone shared interests — of those mobilizing on behalf of Islam in disparate countries, cities, and towns. Instead, we see anti-government forces (e.g., Pakistan and Indonesia) and pro-government forces (e.g., Syria) taking advantage of the current atmosphere to push their specific agendas. Some of the violence and rioting seems to be opportunistic in nature.

Thus, we should expect these protests to represent an intense, but ultimately ephemeral, vector of collective mobilization. The protests are uncoordinated; their energy, in many of the cities and towns in which they take place, stems from local and national issues — not civilizational ones.

Do the people cheerleading and inciting many of the most explosive violence want a “Clash of Civilizations.” As Marc Lynch notes, the answer is “yes”:

The “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, in fact, may be more significant for its heuristic power than for (most of) its substantive claims about the emerging parameters of international politics. Events may prove Huntington right, but not because the assumptions and logic of his argument reflect the necessary reality of international politics, but because we treat the clash of civilizations as a reality.

Editorial note: I wrote the bulk of this post nearly a month ago and have worked on it intermittently since then. It never quite came together, but I thought it would be worth posting. As Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war, I think its interesting to watch our attention shift to an intra-civilizational conflict.

Filed as: