The Clash of Civilisations Jayati Ghosh

One of the consequences of the geopolitical division of the world in the second half of the 20th century was that the role of policing the “free world” and expanding market democracies, was largely left to the United States by the other major capitalist powers. This in turn meant that the military industrial complex, which was always important, could play an even more significant role in the economy. There are some estimates that the military industries have prevented unemployment from rising up to Depression levels through direct and indirect effects on demand as well the positive technological impetus.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the apparent absence of the “other” against whom to direct military energies could have created a problem and generated the seeds of heightened inter-imperialist rivalry, especially in the context of the decline in US economic competitiveness. But the void has been speedily filled by the discovery of the huge threat to freedom and democracy apparently posed by small bands of terrorists, supposedly supported by “rogue states” forming an axis of evil. The American use of Islam today can be usefully compared to the earlier demonisation of Communism, and to a lesser extent with the belittling and undermining of other nationalist aspirations in the South. To the extent that this allowed the US continued and unfettered exercise of its military supremacy and increases in levels of its military expenditure well beyond those of the Cold War period,  the “war on terror” has clearly served the particular interests of US power rather well.

Of all the various arguments that have been advanced regarding the war on terror, those referring to the clash of civilisations” must be among the most foolish. This comes particularly from the work of two American professors, Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington, who argued that there is an innate civilisational conflict between the values of “western democracy” and Islam. According to them, such a clash is not the product f a particular historical circumstance that can change according to different contexts and conditions, but more fundamental and unchanging. In this perception, Islam is inherently violent in nature, and therefore the essence of Islam is antithetical to the core supposedly “humanist” values of the West.

In fact, as we know, US empire had and continues to have an ambiguous relationship with various backward looking and reactionary tendencies in different parts of the world, whether Islamic or otherwise. At different times and places, such tendencies have been encouraged and allowed to spread, and at other times they are seen as threats to the system, to be rooted out and destroyed. It is well known that most of those currently seen as enemies of the US and therefore as the objects of attrition in the current “war against terror”  – Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Taliban, even Saddam Hussein – had been at one time or the other overt or covert darlings of the US administration, used against other perceived enemies or simply to destabilise regions.

Even now, in clientelist regimes such as that in Saudi Arabia, reactionary forces have been allowed to grow. Elsewhere, US imperialism turned a blind eye or even implicitly encouraged the growth of semi-fascist movements (such as the Hindutva tendencies in India) as well as separatist forces, which encourage the disintegration of large nations. Of course, there has been a general tendency of imperialism all through its history to foster ethnic or religious divides for perpetuating its hegemony. (Consider, for example, the role of the British in Malaya and India in the 19th and early 20th centuries.)

The problem of course, is that many of these movements threaten to spin out of control and to destabilise the system itself, even if only partially. The terrorist attacks of September 2001 marked a watershed only insofar as they forced a realisation of this tendency towards destabilisation; they did not mark any major changes in basic organisation of the system itself, which is still run as cynically as before in terms of the use of reactionary cultural forces as and when required.

A recent book edited by Emran Qureishi and Michael Sells (“The new crusades”, New York: Columbia University Press 2003) brings out how the cynical use of the concept of “clash of civilisations” has nevertheless been successful in capturing the imagination of a significant part of western intelligentsia, constructed a popular perception of “the Muslim enemy” and thereby allowed for the justification (if not legitimisation) of the most appalling and unlawful activities by the western powers.

John Trumpbour’s interesting article in this volume examines the role of this concept in remaking the post-Cold War international geopolitical order. He notes that the operative concept that is used is that of “aggressive fanaticism” which is used to link Islam with other stereotypically presented horrors such as totalitarian communism. More significantly, Trumpbour points out that the requirement of hegemonic regimes such as those of the Bush administration actually require a ceaseless search for enemies, so that the current apparently binary opposition between so-called “western democracy” and Islamic terror will be eventually replaced by yet another opposition.

However, the legacy of this particular created opposition will still unfortunately continue to haunt us even after it is discarded for another by those seeking greater international power. As Trumpbour points out, “the relative absence of resistance to Islamophobia in Western cultures renders its practice tantalising for demagogues of all political stripes. They should ensure that the world will revisit these nightmares,  a hellish prospectus for the twenty-first century upon us.”