O Say Can You See A "Clash of Civilizations"?

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Sometimes George W. Bush sounds as though he has a real and practical grasp of this mess. He’ll start with something like, “We’re not at war with Islam. We’re fighting ...” Then he’ll pause, as if thinking hard, and say: “evil.” The trouble is, where do you go from there? Try to recruit The Force to be with you, in an already strained coalition?

He’s not alone. There are many dualisms out there. Civilization versus barbarism; Western civilization versus Islam; freedom (or democracy) versus, um, evil; or more generally, wrote Robert Fulford, quoting Osama bin Laden with approval: “a war between ways of life.”

Much of this stuff derives from Harvard professor Samuel Huntington’s 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations. The problem with that approach, says literary critic (and Palestinian advocate) Edward Said, is that it makes civilizations “into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities.”

This kind of oversimplification fits what Edward Said calls our “age of the ayatollahs” on all sides — Ruhollah Khomaini and Margaret Thatcher then, Osama bin Laden and Tony Blair now. They “simplify and protect one another" with their primitive belief systems. “The one idea that has scarcely varied,” he goes on, “is that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ each settled, clear, unassailably self-evident.”

Now listen to Margaret Wente in The Globe and Mail: “The poison that runs through the veins of the suicide bombers ... comes from their culture, not ours. The root causes are in their history, not ours.”

What is the alternative to the clashing civilizations schema? It’s that we live in an interconnected, interpenetrated world in which you cannot hive off nations or cultures. I mean, do you take globalization seriously or not? If you do, it’s gotta mean more than: The markets never close.

Here in Canada, we should know. Last week on the train to Kingston, I ran into young journalist Sabitri Ghosh. Her father is originally Bengali, her mother Irish Catholic. She grew up in Kelowna. She works at the Catholic New Times, a dissident voice in the church and is a freethinking practicing Catholic. This isn’t an example of quirky. It’s the way the world is today.

Take the September 11 hijackers. They moved easily in Germany and the United States. They went to bars, rented cars and knew technology. They looked like anyone on those planes. In other words, they were Westernized and Americanized, as well as Islamized and Arab. Or go the reverse direction. Religious fundamentalism doesn’t just exist in Islam. There’s as much of it in the U.S., maybe more.

Where did George W. go when his leadership campaign floundered? To fundamentalist Bob Jones University! Fundamentalism isn’t separate from modernity, it’s a reaction to and a part of it. Orthodox Judaism, for instance, didn’t exist before the modern era, though it claims to be ancient. Even the terror component — think of Timothy McVeigh — thrives here as well as there. U.S. officials are now considering American terror groups as one source of the anthrax scare.

In his book Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said looked at “imperialist” writers such as Kipling and “colonized” ones such as Algeria’s Frantz Fanon. He showed how each learned from and was shaped by the reality on the other side, then in turn contributed to the shapes of the future. “We share the same history even though for some of us that history has enslaved.” So, in the end, all culture is “hybrid” beyond nations and “identities” a new mingled form of humanity is emerging.

That isn’t meant as a wish but an objective description. Last weekend, Canadian musicians did a benefit for Afghan refugees. The National Post took a hissy fit about how “trite” it was compared to a U.S. concert in which “Sir Paul” McCartney called for “defending freedom” while Richard Gere was booed for speaking against violence and revenge. But which concert responded in a real, versus rhetorical, way to today’s world?

Okay, so if it’s not a huge global clash, what is it about? Try this: a small number of crazed religious zealots who can make a lot of trouble by using technology, and have an ability to recruit widely in the Muslim world among those who have lost faith in the political process. Think of them more as a sect or cult (thanks again, Edward Said) than as Nazi Germany.

So the good news is: It doesn’t have to be the Third World War unless “our” side treats it that way and creates a self-fulfilling scenario. Bombing the hell out of a place such as Afghanistan is pointless because the dangerous people are already here. It will take hard, dirty police-type work to root them out. The training camps are movable, so the trick there is to defuse recruitment by resolving issues such as Palestine and sanctions against Iraq.

Personally, I don’t see the evidence that “getting” Osama bin Laden, dead or alive, is important. It’s the agent networks and the resonance among Muslims that must be eliminated. It’s all doable. The bad news? Some people seem to think it makes more sense to have a Third World War.

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