One A Clash of Civilisations?

On the face of it, the attacks on New York and Washington, DC on 11 September 2001 (termed subsequently ‘9/11’) seemed to vindicate the thesis originating with the influential Princeton scholar, Bernard Lewis, and popularised by the Harvard political scientist, Samuel Huntington, that a ‘clash of civilisations’ was looming between ‘Islam’ and ‘the West’. Without rejecting Huntington completely, I found his position simplistic. There may be conflicts of values between what might broadly be called Western and Islamic cultures, particularly over issues such as gender roles and sexual display, while there are numerous disputes over land and resources between Muslims and non-Muslims in many parts of the world, where ‘defending Islam’ can become a rallying point. But it is wrong, I believe, to subsume a wide variety of conflicts involving different ethnicities and competing value systems into a single headline-grabbing ‘clash of civilisations’ comparable to the Cold War standoff between the West and the Soviet Union.

All the review essays in Part 1 of this book address the ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis, and ensuing debates about Islam from different perspectives. While anthropologist, Jack Goody, and historian, Richard Bulliet, reveal the commonalities between Islamic and Western cultures and civilisations, Carl Ernst exposes the complicity between the Western media and some Islamic authorities in fostering images of bigotry and intolerance at the expense of the ‘squeezed middle' of Islam comprising more nuanced, tolerant and mystical interpretations of the faith. Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss-born Muslim professor, whose grandfather, Hasan al-Banna, founded the Muslim Brotherhood, argues against the ghettoisation of Muslims living in Western countries, urging them, rather, to become models of responsible citizenship. Bruce Lawrence, an expert on the militancies that cross religious boundaries, finds evidence to support Ramadan’s position in the professional attainments and business success of South-Asian-born immigrants - many, if not the majority, of them Muslim - now living in the United States. On a related but highly controversial theme, my review of Fred Donner’s pioneering book about Islamic origins aimed to inform sophisticated American readers that, contrary to the received accounts of Muhammad’s career that dominate the textbooks, revisionist versions exist. These have suggestive affinities with the ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible that troubles conservative Protestant believers, in the same way as their Muslim counterparts are unhappy. Before writing this review I searched in vain for John Wansbrough’s name in the New York Review of Books’ electronic database. It seems extraordinary that the scholar whose pathbreaking textual studies launched an impassioned debate about Islamic origins in the 1970s was so little known in the country of his birth.

The essay Politics and the Prophet, published in 1996, features anthropologist Michael Gilsenan’s superb account of the patriarchal culture in a Lebanese Muslim village - a book that dents the Huntington thesis, since, far from being specific to Islam, the values of masculine honour it describes could equally be found in Sicily or the Balkans. The passages covering a new publishing venture - the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World - and the late Fred Halliday’s essay on the ‘myth of confrontation’ challenge the Huntington thesis more directly. In a brilliant formulation, Halliday exposes the unspoken intellectual complicity between ‘Huntingtonians’ and militant ‘Islamists’. Complicity of a more menacing kind completes this section, with a review of A Brutal Friendship: The West and the Arab Elite, in which Said Aburish, a foremost Arab journalist, shows how the Western arms industry, abetted by greedy oil consumers, keeps the gerontocratic Al Saudi dynasty in power, along with other Arab dictatorships now threatened by the uprisings of the ‘Arab Spring’.

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