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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

Clash of civilizations could boil down to culture

By Llewellyn D. Howell

In the two months since Sept. 11, we have struggled to determine how to regard the origins of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and, especially, the motivations for them.

We've described the attackers as evil, criminal, barbarian, nihilist, fanatic, or any of many pejoratives. We've been hesitant and profuse in ascribing legitimacy to the acts.

We are hesitant in that we neither want an argument that there was any just cause on the side of the hijackers nor an outcome that would force us to identify or pursue the enemy based on a religious identification. Political correctness overwhelms us, even in this time of disaster and potential Armageddon.

We are profuse in recognizing legitimacy by way of the constant references to a "clash of civilizations," even in rebutting this thesis. The reference has become so commonplace that it has lost its quotation marks in much of the op-ed literature.

The term's source? In a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" Harvard's Samuel P. Huntington began a debate about this paradigm as a replacement for the Cold War construct that had served analysts so well for the previous 40 years.

Huntington's hypothesis is that "the fundamental source of conflict in this new world (of the 21st century) will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. ... The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics ... conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict."

To coexist with West, Islam needs reform, according to author Salman Rushdie.

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The arguments against the clash of civilizations thesis miss a critical point: It is not whether we are choosing to wage a war on Islam or any civilization but rather, are Muslims waging war on us as a civilization?

In regard to Huntington's hypothesis, we have to answer two questions:

  • How do the terrorists define themselves and their efforts?
  • Were the terrorist attacks a clash with humanity or with American culture?

The terrorists' definition of themselves has clearly to do with religious beliefs. These men sought martyrdom, not suicide. We have to assume an interpretation of Islam was the source of their beliefs, their values, their culture, their civilization. Their target was not humanity. These men are not criminals.

Their target was "America," not the U.S. government or the U.S. population. If it were the latter, four aircraft crashing into nuclear power plants would have done much more damage. The targets were symbols of a civilization that threatens Islam in many ways.

Like the people responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on America, Izzedine al-Masri, the bomber in an August bombing of a pizzeria in Jerusalem, sought martyrdom from his actions.

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The first is in the simple attractiveness of the secular worlds generated by Judeo-Christian culture. Apparently even some of the hijackers succumbed to alcohol and strip clubs.

A second is the growth of the Western concept of universal human rights, especially in the treatment of women.

Equal rights and equal opportunity for women are a direct challenge to fundamental principles of Islam.

A third is American support of Israel and Israel's continued existence. The issue in the Middle East is not the Palestinians or Palestine. It is Israel. Israel's intrusion into Islamic sacred ground can be interpreted as an attack on Islam, and therefore, reason for jihad in Islam's defense.

Together, these and other acts and consequences of American thrusts and character can easily be interpreted as a "clash" initiated from the Western (American) side that requires a defense, and that enables martyrdom.

Writing recently in the New York Times, Salman Rushdie pronounced this war to be "about Islam." He argues that there is conflict here within Islam as well as between Muslims and the West, so it is not a simple clash between civilizations. He agrees, however, that Islamic civilization as it exists today requires reform if it is to ultimately coexist with modernity and the West. Without it, the magnitude of the clash within Islam and between it and the rest of the modernizing world could grow to catastrophic levels.

If Huntington's thesis isn't exactly right today, it soon will be.