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Some Thoughts on the Clash of Civilizations

It is in vogue today to discuss- or deny or modify- the idea of a looming, or ongoing, clash of civilizations, between the Western world on the one hand and the Islamic world on the other. Now, I am neither an expert on Western civilization or Islamic civilization, though both are of great interest to me, particularly regarding the interaction and conflict of the two. The following then are a few thoughts bearing upon this question.

There are a number of things that make speaking of a clash of civilizations problematic. One of these is the nature of the two civilizations supposed to be in confrontation; I would argue that they are both diminished and are not entirely the object of confrontation. This is particularly accute with regards to the Islamic world, and is in fact one of the primary reasons for radical Islamic militancy.

The dar al-Islam, the realm of Islam, saw an absolutely incredible rise from its humble beginnings in a small group of followers around Mohammed in Medina, to a point in which a single, more or less cohesive Islamic culture stretched from northern India to Spain. Within fifty years of the Prophet's death his follower had taken vast swaths of the Byzantine Empire and nearly all of the Sasanid; the rest of the Sasanid would quickly fall and Persian culture become deeply imbedded with Islam (though never losing its own identity, it should be noted). In 710-711 Muslim forces had crossed into Hispania, which they would largely control for centuries, the final Muslim rulers of Granada not being expelled until 1492. By 1453 the Byzantine Empire would be completely extinguished by the Ottoman Turks; they in turn were pounding at the gates of Vienna in 1529. Mighty Egypt was one of the early gains of Islam, and out of it various great empires would arise from the Fatamids to Saladin to the Mulmuks; the later wielded enough power to turn back the seemingly unstoppable Mongols. The Crusader incursions never amounted to a particularly great threat to Islam; their kingdom never extended beyond a rather narrow strip of Syria and Palestine and the short-lived County of Eddessa. By 1291 the last Crusader city was gone, and the Crusades faded from the Islamic memory- they were seen as rather insignificant in the face of a seemingly overwhelming Muslim superiority. In short, from the inception of Islam on it was able to expand and conquer at an incredible speed and over great distances.

In so doing it also developed uniquely Islamic cultures; cultures which cultivated high learning. It is almost cliche these days to mention, but a good bit of the West's knowledge of Aristotle would come via the Islamic world (assisted by the Jewish and Christian communities which remained within that realm). Cities were born and flourished; trade routes brought the wealth of the Far East into Islamic lands and contributed to great prosperity. It would not be unfair to say that in, say, the twelfth century, the heart of civilization in the western half of the known world lay in the Islamic lands.

But this all changed. The Ottomans, the great power of the Near East and Eastern Europe in the 14th through 16th centuries, gradually declined. They were unable, or unwilling, to keep up with the technological advancements of the West. Trade routes maintained through the Middle East were eclipsed by discoveries of a new world by the West; new forms of government and thinking were developed in Europe, and prosperity boomed there. The Islamic world largely remained in a sort of a stasis. This only grew worse with the advent of European empiralism, as Western powers- particularly in the aftermath of WWI and the final collapse of the Ottoman Empire- divided up the Islamic world into spheres of control.

It is out of this great shift in experience that modern Islamic radicalism operates. The Islamic world, over the past few centuries, underwent a fragmentation it had never experienced before; the once largely cohesive Islamic civilization was broken into pieces, something only excaberated by modern nationalism (often fueled by a perverse mix of jihad and various brews of Marxist thought). Various groups and regimes operate out of their own ideas and tendencies which are often markedly different from each other, more than would appear on the surface. Some of these differences follow fault lines laid down in the first century of Islam; others are of a more recent appearance. They all reflect a general experience of fragmentation in the Islamic world, one which is unlikely to change anytime soon. A good example of this can be found in the cycle of Sunni and Shia violence in Iraq that has been gripping headlines over the past few days. Such divisions date back a very long time, but they have been made even more accute with the rise of nationalism.

All of this is to say that there is less a clash of Islamic civilization- which is broken and fragmented- than a clash of certain tendencies within Islam against 'the West' (what exactly is meant by that could entail a great deal of discussion!). What does this mean practically? I think that one aspect is that there is no great Islamic power that can threaten the West in the way that, say, the Ottomans were doing in the 15th and 16th centuries, except perhaps Iran, but in a much more limited way. There simply is no unified Islamic force capable of massive overt acts of agression. There are, however, undercurrents in the Islamic world that can work violence both within the Islamic world and in the West. They tend to be very populist (with some exceptions- some of the elite of Saudi Arabia being one of them), which can prove very dangerous, though perhaps negating their longevity- but not erasing it, to be sure. Radical Islam does not represent the majority of Muslims or Islamic states- another rather cliche thing to say. However, it remains a potent force, precisely for the reasons of Islamic fragmentation and diminishing of civilization. The danger lies in such movements continuing to expand and inflame more and more of the Muslim world, with a goal of undoing that fragmentation and expanding the dar al-Islam once again. They would very much like to have a clash of civilizations, and the rebuilding of Islamic civilization is certainly on their to-do list. Unfortunately, its conception of Islamic civilization is unlikely to include much of Aristotle or Jewish scholars or fine art.

What then is going to happen in the Islamic world? I won't offer a prediction- one should always be wary of historians trying to predict the future; they haven't a very good record usually. However, I can say that the situation within Islam is very complex and hence very uncertain. The present day Islamic experience is in many ways novel; it is made all the more so by the ongoing influx of Muslim immigrants into the West, where they are often poor and marginalized. At any rate, if current trends continue, the next several years and probably decades will remain very interesting.


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