The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order

by Samuel Huntington
368 pages,
ISBN: 0684844419

Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World

by Stephen O'Shea
414 pages,
ISBN: 1553651790

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Clash or Conviviencia? Huntington Revisited
by Jason Hannan

It has been a decade since the publication of Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, and even longer since the publication of the original essay on which that book was based. Since that time, entire intellectual industries, both scholarly and journalistic, have been devoted to either confirming or disconfirming Huntington's central thesis, which, at its heart, maintains that the defining paradigm for global politics in the post-Cold War era will be an essential tension between the world's eight major civilisations. These are the Western, Confucian, Islamic, Hindu, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African civilisations. According to Huntington, civilisations can be distinguished from one another by such elements as history, language, tradition, culture, and religion. Of these, religion is the most crucial to the definition of a civilisation. Although civilisations do evolve, they are basically monolithic and even self-contained. Their relative homogeneity is precisely what ensures a relative homogeneity of identity. Whereas the nation-state had formerly been the primary source of one's identity, in a post-Cold War world, that source would be one's civilisation. From the standpoint of the West, of which Huntington is a staunch representative, the single greatest cause for alarm is the Islamic civilisation. This is the basic message he delivered to scholars and policymakers in the mid-1990s.
Huntington's line of reasoning for identifying Islam as the chief enemy of the West is simple enough. He argues that the conflict between them goes back at least 1,300 years, beginning with the military expansion of Islam beyond the Arabian Peninsula. It manifested itself in numerous historical battles between Muslim and Christian armies. His historical narrative, however brief, includes the Moorish advance into Europe, the Crusades, the Ottoman attempt (and failure) to take Vienna, and the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. He notes that the conflict later manifested itself during the European colonisation of much of the Islamic world and later still during the wars of liberation, in which France and Britain fought to suppress a number of insurgent Muslim populations. Among these, the most notorious was the FLN-led Algerian uprising. The conflict between Islam and the West has taken on a renewed significance only in the post-Cold War era, in which Muslim fundamentalism and terrorism (both modern phenomena) are pitted against American interests in the Middle East. The conflict, moreover, is not limited to Islam and the West. Islam, Huntington argues, has had, and continues to have, conflicts with at least three other civilisations with which it shares a border: Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, and African. As he rather provocatively puts it, "Islam has bloody borders."
Those who defend Huntington's thesis have, not surprisingly, pointed to a wide and disturbing range of recent events that seem to confirm, almost deafeningly, a clash between Islam and the West. These events include the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the Madrid bombings, the London bombings, the Bali bombings, the riots in France, the outrage in the Muslim world over the publication of the Danish cartoons, and, to invoke but one local example, the highly controversial proposal to introduce Shari'ah tribunals in Ontario. For many, these events exemplify in the extreme a fundamental incompatibility between the very essence of Islamic and Western civilisations. For some of Huntington's defenders, the clash is between the conservative religious values of Islam and the secular, progressive values of the West. For others, most notably among the religious right in the United States, the clash is between Islam and Christianity. In either case, Islam is seen as a veritable wellspring of irrationality and violence, while the West or Christianity, depending on who speaks, represents rationality and civility.
Huntington's critics challenge his thesis on both factual and normative terms. Some argue, for instance, that his descriptions of Western and Islamic civilisations are inaccurate. The late literary critic Edward Said is perhaps best known for this line of criticism. Said argued repeatedly that Huntington's characterization of the Islamic world was exceedingly reductive, even to the point of absurdity. He took issue with Huntington's monolithic conception of civilisations, arguing that the Islamic world, as a case in point, is far more diverse and heterogeneous than Huntington is willing to allow. In a similar vein, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has recently argued that Huntington's self-congratulatory description of the West as the origin and bastion of democracy and secular values is belied by a more careful reading of Indian history. Sen points out that the spirit of pluralism, tolerance, and open debate, which Huntington upholds as uniquely Western, was and remains part of a millennia-old argumentative tradition in India that goes back long before John Locke and even ancient Athens. This democratic spirit was historically represented by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and atheists. Sen points out, for instance, that the celebrated Mughal emperor Akbar (d. 1605) encouraged the thriving of rival and competing religious traditions and even organised intellectual debates between the representatives of those traditions. Another prominent contemporary intellectual, the legal scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl, has argued that Islam and the West share common intellectual traditions that are conspicuously overlooked in the feverish clash of civilisations discourse. Acknowledgement of these common traditions, Abou El Fadl insists, ought to temper highhanded claims about the supposed incommensurability between Islamic and Western values.
The normative arguments of Huntington's critics generally proceed from their factual critiques. If Huntington's descriptions of Western and non-Western civilisations are flawed¨indeed, if his very concept of civilisations is flawed¨and if his historical narrative can be effectively challenged by a convincing counter-narrative, then his overall thesis of a clash of civilisations may no longer hold water. In that case, the critics argue, his policy prescriptions need to be seriously revised. We should not be preparing for a clash of civilisations, they plead, but rather working toward the conditions that will prevent such a clash. Whereas Huntington speaks in terms of inevitabilities, his critics speak in terms of potentialities. The emphasis upon history as evidence of the potential for Islamic and Western civilisations to thrive in relative concord with one another largely forms the basis for their optimism and reconciliatory attitude.
What might a counter-narrative look like? We are fortunate to have no shortage of history books whose central point is precisely to challenge the popular idea, encouraged by Huntington, that the historical encounters between Islam and the West were limited to only so many crusades and jihads. One book that effectively and admirably does away with that idea is Stephen O'Shea's Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World. For O'Shea, it is vital to appreciate the history of encounters between Islam and Christianity, not least because that history "provides a backdrop to much of what informs, and misinforms, public opinion on present-day conflicts." O'Shea makes it clear who he thinks is informing, and misinforming, public opinion. As he puts it, "A shared history should be familiar to all, especially in a day when the idea of an inevitable civilizational clash has once again gained currency." Without succumbing to the temptation to romanticise the past, O'Shea attempts a balanced narrative that accords due consideration to the facts of conflict and coexistence, which together defined the historical encounter between Islam and Christianity.
Sea of Faith is divided into ten chapters, each focusing on a crucial encounter between Muslims and Christians.The story begins with the weakening of the Byzantine and Persian empires and the birth, early struggle, and eventual triumph of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. The initial conflict with Christianity begins, understandably, with Islam's astonishingly rapid expansion throughout the Middle East, which left both the Byzantines and the Persians in a state of shock. O'Shea takes care to point out that "[t]he popular western idea of the early Arab conquests as the work of wild-eyed warrior missionaries, converting the quivering masses at swordpoint, should be retired." While Muslim political rule could indeed be attributed to military victories, the actual widespread conversion to Islam was due to other reasons, such as the pragmatic intention to avoid paying the jizyah, or poll-tax, which discriminated against non-Muslims. While this fact is hardly flattering to Islam, it certainly paints a less threatening portrait.
In just over a century, the Muslims managed to conquer North Africa and much of Spain. To the east, they conquered as far as Central Asia during the same period, though this history is summarily ignored, as O'Shea's focus is exclusively upon the westward incursions. We read about the famous defeat of the Muslims at Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel. Although Martel is today revered by many as a great defender of Christianity, we are reminded that he overthrew a bishop, imprisoned another, and sent yet another into exile.
Upon their defeat at Poitiers, the Muslims retreated into Spain and, when not killing each other, they devoted their energies to art, science, literature, philosophy, and law. This marks the beginning of what many historians refer to as the Golden Age of Islam, which lasted about 700 years. O'Shea's interest in this period has less to do with its actual cultural and intellectual developments and more with what he calls conviviencia, or coexistence between the Abrahamic faiths. While Christians and Jews were accorded a decidedly inferior status under Muslim rule, the social cooperation and mutual influence between the members of these respective faiths are clearly the dominant themes in O'Shea's narrative. In words that seem almost nostalgic, he tells us that "Muslim, Christian, and Jew had managed, in the centuries known elsewhere as the Dark Ages, to light a fire that burned true." His later chapter on Palermo and Toledo underscores further instances of conviviencia between Muslims and Christians, one impressive example of which involved al-Idrisi (d. 1165), a distinguished Arab geographer and cartographer, who served at the court of King Roger II (d. 1154) of Sicily, and who constructed a map of the world that was used for several centuries by European navigators. O'Shea notes in fairness that while the Muslims set the model for conviviencia, it was later adopted by the Christians in Toledo.
The model of conviviencia was eventually put into practice by the Ottomans when they succeeded the Arabs as the dominant Muslim power. Affirming the conventional view that the Ottomans did indeed visit considerable cruelty upon the peoples they conquered, O'Shea points out that the Ottomans later created "as enduring a moment of conviviencia" as the Arabs in Spain. He points out, for example, that upon the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, Mehmet II protected the Greek Orthodox patriarchate from both Latin Christian domination and authoritarian Muslims who arrogantly hoped to convert Orthodox Churches into mosques. Another important case of conviviencia involved the Jews of Spain, who, upon fleeing the nightmare of the Spanish Inquisition, were given refuge in the Ottoman Empire, where they were permitted and even encouraged to thrive as merchants and scholars. O'Shea rightly notes that Thessalonica became a city predominantly populated by Spanish Jews. He repeatedly underscores the multicultural and cosmopolitan character of the Ottoman Empire, whose ability to accommodate so many different cultures is precisely what sustained it until the 20th century.
For all its impressive detail and its wonderfully engaging style, Sea of Faith is wanting in certain respects. We are not, for instance, given even a minimal account of the practice of Islamic law in the medieval era, a topic that cannot fail to be of interest to us today. We are not told of the extraordinary rise of humanism, whose origins cultural historians have traced to Moorish Spain and Sicily. Neither, for that matter, are we told of the equally extraordinary rise of the university in the lands of medieval Islam. It was upon the model of Islamic colleges of law that the famed medieval universities of Southern Europe were originally based. Those familiar with medieval Islamic, Christian, and Jewish history will also likely be surprised to find that such intellectual giants as Averr¸es, Avicenna, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Moses Maimonides are barely even mentioned in O'Shea's narrative. Is it not the most exemplary case of conviviencia that Maimonides, the most celebrated philosopher and theologian in Jewish history, was the personal physician of Saladin?
Despite these shortcomings, O'Shea does succeed in providing a memorable historical account that effectively undermines the popular mythology of exclusive violence between Muslims and Christians. The lessons of conviviencia, of course, ought to be heeded not only by Huntington and his defenders. There are just as many Muslims who compete with Huntington himself in pronouncing the inevitability of a clash between Islam and the West. They, too, have their own popular mythology, which differs in its parody of history only by degree. Although clearly intended for Western readers, Sea of Faith is written with the sort of fairness and sensitivity that renders it perfectly appropriate for Muslim readers as well. ˛

Jason Hannan is a doctoral candidate in Communication at Carleton University

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