Update on status of Samuel P. Huntington's predicted 'Clash of Civilizations'

The global news continues to grow grimmer. The great unraveling seems to be accelerating even faster than it can be Tweeted.

The primary focal points are the Middle East, North Africa and Europe -- the last largely as a result of the mass dislocations caused by war and poverty in the first two. Some sub-Saharan African nations -- Nigeria and hopelessly dysfunctional Somalia, to name just two -- certainly may be included.

Thanks to our globalized media, all this misery, fear, murderous depravity and loathing flows into our homes and awareness in real time. And we call this progress, a communications revolution.

An explanation for this meditation seems necessary.

Perhaps a good place to begin is by reflecting again on what has been labeled the "Clash of Civilizations." The term is most often attributed to Samuel P. Huntington, the late Harvard international affairs professor and Carter administration national security adviser, even though it was actually used years earlier by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Albert Camus and others.

For those unfamiliar with the term, the clash spoken of is the cognitive and emotional gulf that sets one portion of humanity apart from another, leading to hostility rooted in conflicting values generally expressed in religious, political and economic terms. Civilization refers to the sum total of a group's world view, its professed religious values acting as a cultural cornerstone.

I understand this clash theory as postulating that human group conflict is inevitable because of these competing and determinative differences, unless -- and this is where humanity fails miserably -- great effort is made to live in pluralistic harmony.

Frankly, I'm not sure this last ideal is broadly possible. (Yeah, I know, sadly cynical.)

Every major cultural and religious group is at fault. And somewhere, somehow every major group continues to add to the problem.

So I don't believe Muslims alone are at fault. Yet it's undeniable that Islam is currently involved in more civilizational clashes than any other single faith group. Look at the numbers in any recent study on restrictions on religious freedom (this Pew Research Center file will do), focusing on the bloody band of conflict that runs from Nigeria to Afghanistan.

Critics, of course, deride the clash thesis as a self-fulfilling rationalization rooted in the West's refusal to acknowledge the harm its done to the global South and East, Muslims included. There's some truth to that; Western colonialism -- as did Islamic conquest, but that's another story -- certainly plundered and utterly vanquished many indigenous cultures, and nations are generally loath to offer little more than verbiage to set things straight.

How do Muslim populations feel about this clashing state of affairs?

Here's one recent response to that question from Washington Institute for Near East Policy analyst David Pollock. His conclusions, based on public opinion polling from across much of the Muslim world, re-enforce how complicated the Muslim mindset is -- and perhaps also how difficult it is for non-Muslim Westerners to truly understand that point of view.

That certainly includes Western journalists.

Here's an excerpt from his essay, published on the website of the highly regarded and centrist-oriented Washington Institute:

[Western] headlines feed a false narrative that extremist jihadist ideologies have somehow attracted a mass following among Muslims. In fact, the opposite is true. The evidence for this brazen assertion lies not in anecdotes or sensational reports but in actual hard data from real public opinion polls.
To begin with, in Muslim-majority societies, ideology is not the first thing on most people's minds, according to a variety of recent scientifically conducted surveys. Not even close. In fact, when asked open-ended or multiple-choice questions about their personal priorities, large majorities give pride of place to practical issues -- like jobs, family, education, health, or income. Asked about national priorities, large majorities rank security, economic development, or combating corruption highest on the list, rather than any particular ideological orientation.
Just to cite a telling example: in one 2015 poll of Palestinians, often viewed as among the most politicized -- and pro-Hamas or Hezbollah -- publics in the region, "being a good Muslim" ranked far behind the practical options listed above. Only about one in seven West Bankers and Gazans, on average, selected the Islamic option as their top personal priority.
Moreover, contrary to common misconception, tough countermeasures against jihadist ideologies and organizations are probably acceptable to the vast majority of local Muslim populations. This is because the vast majority of them are firmly opposed to the Islamic State (IS), its African affiliates, or other extremist jihadists.

To Western ears, Pollock's words sound like good news. Despite the fear-inspiring pronouncements of American presidential wannabes, the majority of Muslims appear to want just what the average American also wants; a peaceful society offering economic opportunities to all.

So what's the problem?

According to Pollock, one problem is that despite their extreme dislike for the Islamic State -- numerically speaking, it's more of an immediate threat to other Muslims than to non-Muslims-- there remains in Arab Muslim societies a relatively high regard for somewhat less brutal Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood -- which briefly held power in Egypt during the heyday of the Arab Spring but is now illegal there, and counts Palestinian Hamas as one of its offspring -- is the fountainhead of Islamist ideology. In Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, support for the organization hovers between one-quarter and one-third of the population. Pollock adds:

Nor does the near universal rejection of IS mean that these Arab publics would like to see a religious "reformation" in Islam. Asked if it would or would not be "a good idea to interpret Islam in a more moderate, tolerant, or modern way," just one-fifth said yes in the same four countries [mentioned just above].

So materially, at least, they appear to want what we want. However, these same Muslims apparently do not believe, for example, that a clear division between religion and state is required, or that religious toleration is socially desirable, or that relations between men and women should be equalized -- all hallmarks of 21st Century advanced democracies such as our own.

In effect, they want what we want but only on their entrenched, doctrinal terms.

Moreover, as Pollock concludes, in the real world "even tiny percentages of IS or other violent extremist supporters in these populations are sufficient to cause a great deal of damage."

"The good news is that most Muslims reject the most violent, extreme jihadist ideologies. The not-so-good news is that most also reject efforts to reinterpret Islam in a newly moderate, tolerant, or modern fashion," he writes.

That would appear to condemn us to an unavoidable Clash of Civilizations, which is arguably already underway.

Journalists would be well served to read the prescient Huntington's 1996 book, "The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order."

One last point. Huntington also wrote -- in addition to the numerous conflicts between the West and Muslim cultures -- of the possibility of conflict in Ukraine between its largely Catholic west, with ties to an increasingly secular Europe (think NATO), and the Orthodox Christian east, with centuries of cultural, economic and ecclesiastical ties to Russia.

He got that one right, too. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy