When the Cold War thawed, there was a Big Idea vacuum. There still is. As we try to sort out September the 11th, that vacuum is again relevant and newly disorienting.
An early and famous effort to fill the intellectual void in geopolitics came in 1989 when an obscure State Department official named Francis Fukuyama published an essay called "The End of History." His argument was that the epic battles of the "isms" was over and liberal-democratic capitalism won; there would still be "rearguard" actions by societies threatened by modernization -- wars of national liberation, civil wars, terrorism -- but these would be last gasps.
The other contender for the heavy-thinking crown was Harvard professor Samuel Huntington's essay, The Clash of Civilizations?. The argument here was that future conflicts would not be ideological, or economic, or based on the power wrangling of nation-states. "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural," Huntington wrote. Civilizations, not sovereigns, not government systems, will clash. And the greatest collision will be between Islam and the West.
Boom. Since Sept. 11, poor Fukuyama has been on the ropes. "Since the successful attack on the center of world capitalism was evidently perpetrated by Islamic extremists unhappy with the very existence of Western civilization," Fukuyama recently wrote in The Wall Street Journal, "observers have been handicapping the Huntington view over my own 'end of history' hypothesis rather heavily."
But Huntington isn't gloating. Asked by a Japanese newspaper if the September attacks constituted a full-fledged "clash," Huntington said, "At the moment, it is not, it seems to me, a clash of civilizations. It is an attack by an extremist terrorist group on civilized society in the United States, but also on civilized society everywhere."
I take it that part of what Huntington means is that Muslim terrorists are not themselves a civilization, just a terribly malignant fragment. (Though it's plain that Islamic culture is more excusing of its mutant extremes than other religions and cultures.)
Huntington is also making the point that the sadistic "Islamism" of Osama bin Laden is attacking not just America, not just the West, not just 'other' civilizations but also most of the Islamic civilization too.
America is not used to paying attention to these other clashes. Muslims battle "Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Brma and Catholics in the Philippines," Huntington wrote in 1993 and it's still true.
And today, Muslim fundamentalists and terrorists battle Islamic governments or populations in Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Indonesia, Pakistan and, of course, Afghanistan. On Oct. 8 in Gaza, Palestinian police shot and killed two Palestinians in a pro-bin Laden protest organized by Hamas.
"Islam has bloody borders," Huntington wrote. And bloody guts. And its knife now wounds distant lands.
One person who certainly thinks this is a death-clash between civilizations is Osama bin Laden. So it really doesn't much matter what we think or what Prof. Huntington thinks.
Read the text of bin Laden's Oct. 7 video release: "Here is America struck by God Almighty in one of its vital organs, so that its greatest buildings are destroyed. Grace and gratitude to God. America has been filled with horror from north to south and east to west, and thanks be to God that what America is tasting now is only a copy of we have tasted… I tell them that these events have divided the world into two camps, the camp of the faithful and the camp of infidels. May God shield us and you from them."
"Back in the spring of 1999, he started discussing the need for World War III, between the United States and the Muslim world," bin Laden biographer Yossef Bodansky said in an interview, "and that this kind of world war should be instigated or provoked by outrageous acts of spectacular terrorism, one after the other, until the West would push the Muslim world into unifying behind him and radical Islam. And [we] will have two blocks confronting each other."
Be suspicious of any grand theory or encompassing description that seems to explain all or even most of this. The Cold War is not being replaced by the Terror War, a new model of the world order that tells us who the good guys are and who bad guys are. Do yourself a favor and read "The Clash of Civilizations?" – as its punctuation implies, it offers more questions than answers. But they are the right questions.
However, one hint of an answer does suggest itself as Huntington describes the radical Islamist clash with the rest of the world: a successful, enduring response to the diseased uncivilization represented now by bin Laden and al Qaida will not come from just America or just the West, but from all civilizations, including Islam – or it won't come at all.
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