Is a Clash of Civilizations Unavoidable? A Western View

Ismail Royer

MUTUALLY HOSTILE camps drag the world to the brink of total war while the rest of us watch, trampling the rights of the innocent in the process. What are the roots of this conflict? Can the process be reversed?

Graham E. Fuller, former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA and former Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington DC, speaks with Ismail Royer on the prospects of averting Armageddon.

What is the single most important contemporary root cause of hostility between the Islamic world and the West?

The sources of conflict are multiple, but if I had to name just one, I would point to Western interventionism in the Muslim world that takes the form--and this includes the Bush Administration--of unconditional support for a very right-wing government in Israel, and unconditional support for Israel in general.

But it goes beyond that, because there has been American and Western military intervention over the years in this region due its extreme strategic importance, due to oil and its geopolitical locations. So I think there’s a sense among the Muslims that the West has overpowered them militarily, and continues to intervene militarily and politically and to impose its will on a region that feel itself too impotent to be able to withstand this kind of pressure.

And what are the other major factors that create the conditions for hostility?

The Muslim world has fallen under terrible times over the past 400 to 500 years. There is the terrible shock and anguish of having been the world’s leading civilization for 800 years or so, when they dominated in the fields of philosophy, art, medicine, and technology, to find themselves subordinate, weaker and left behind by a rising West, starting sometime in the 16th century. So I think the anguish of this event is still present. “What went wrong? Why did God avert his face from the Muslim world?” is one way to word the question.

How does that translate, in a practical sense, into an aggravating factor in inter-civilizational relations?

As a result of this, the Muslim world is exceptionally sensitive and prickly toward the exercise of Western power—and toward the Western culture more broadly, not just military, but the cultural power of the West imposing its lifestyle, its philosophies, its clothing, its entertainment, etc. So I think there is a sense that the Muslim world cannot readily resist the force, and they are struggling to find their voice, which I would argue they definitely have failed to do.

Ironically, one of the problems that the Muslim world has today is partly because of its past. The fact that it was such a comprehensive and broadly successful civilization for such a long time made the transition to having to accept a Western-dominated world more difficult. Had it been a much weaker culture; it would have folded more rapidly. Chinese culture and Indian culture are two other great world civilizations, but they are much more limited to a particular region, whereas Islam was dominant all the way from Indonesia to Russia and down into Africa. So I think having had a fairly successful civilizational paradigm, it is harder for it to let go.

The task for Muslims today is not so much to give it up, as it is to re-interpret it, find what is essential in the culture and how those essential elements can be brought up to date in the contemporary environment in which it finds itself. And I think that here it has been notably unsuccessful. Of the three great civilizations I mentioned, Islamic, Chinese, and Indian, I think the Islamic world has had the biggest failure in re-interpreting and recreating its civilization under contemporary conditions. And there are many different reasons for that.

What do you feel the Islamic world needs to change in terms of attitudes, assumptions, and behavior, in order to help move the East/West relationship towards one of dialogue?

I think part of the difficulty today is that Muslims—because they feel under siege from the US, culturally, militarily, and otherwise—they are clinging to the most traditional forms of Islam as a kind of reaction to this. When cultures are under pressure, they don’t think about how they can be new and creative; instead, they go back to basics. This is true of other religions as well, including Christianity and even the Christian right in this country, which feels under heavy pressure from forces of modernization in a post-modern world.

Additionally, Islam represents more than religion to Muslims, it is also an important symbol of identity, and I think they feel reluctant under these conditions to change that identity.

But when we look at Turkey today, which was forced through these radical changes of so-called “modernization” which severely suppressed Islam, they are not an exceptionally advanced nation.

It’s still better in many senses than virtually any other Muslim country in the world.

Let’s look at the Turkish case. It’s not only that they had a Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who tried to modernize certain kinds of traditions. It also happens to be the country that is geographically closest to the West, it was part of the West and involved and affected by the West very early on, and so the transition to certain Western kinds of thinking, especially in politics, was less difficult.

Secondly, modern Turkey moved towards the West under the threat of Soviet imperialism, so at that time, Turkey felt it had absolutely no option but to move closely towards the West. Whereas, in the rest of the Muslim world, that threat never existed, and on the contrary, due to the Israeli threat that Muslims felt, they turned to the Soviet Union. So the process of coming to terms with Western political institutions was delayed.

But my point is that when Turkey was governed by an Islamic authority, it was a leader in art, architecture, and poetry; today, its cultural output is unremarkable. This despite the fact that today, the country is more secular than the United States, where a Muslim woman can wear a headscarf…

I think Turkish culture is quite alive; they’ve continued to develop their music, the novel is much more important in Turkey than in any other Muslim nation.

I also disagree very heavily with the notion that Turkey is a secular nation. Prohibiting headscarves and suppressing religion doesn’t mean they are more secular, it means they are more authoritarian. I would challenge even the very use of the word secular, because what secularism means is the strict division of church and state, where neither interferes in the affairs of the other. In Turkey, the state interferes in—in fact, totally controls—the affairs of religion, and there’s no independent religious sphere whatsoever. This is a false form of secularism, with roots in the French revolution, a form of state control of religion.

Furthermore, although Ataturk was a great man without whom a modern, vibrant Turkey would not exist, he suppressed elements of Islamic culture and civilization fairly firmly at the beginning. Today we are beginning to see a return of Muslim identity and religious feeling—not in any fanatic any way at all, but it is coming back, much to the dismay of the state.

What assumptions and behaviors does the West need to change to improve the conditions for dialogue, on an individual level, and on the level of leadership?

Individuals in the West need to start understanding Islam a lot better; it tends to be quite stereotyped, especially in political expression. Much of the pro-Israeli lobby likes to stereotype it in certain negative ways. I think all Americans—and Europeans, for that matter, where Islam is growing as well—need to have a far greater understanding of the multiple complex forces of evolution that are taking place within the Islamic world.

But a much more important issue is at the governmental level. There is a key task that falls upon both the Muslim world and the West, and that is to develop and stimulate a tradition of democratic practice in their countries. I might have put this as the most important source of conflict, in response to your first question. The absence of democratic rule is one of the key sources that is leading to the present backwardness of the Muslim world, and confrontation with the West. It is a source of bitterness, frustration, anger, impotence; it drives people to extremism. Often all political parties are banned, which gives the Islamists a sole monopoly on underground politics of opposition.

I think Islamists should be part of the political spectrum, if they are not violent, but we also need competing voices, so that Islamic politics can evolve and grow and mature.
Until there is a greater degree of liberalization, democratization, and greater freedom of speech, I think the Muslim world will be weak, doomed to be preyed upon by other powers of the world. It is doomed to be radical, probably with a great deal of political violence, and I think it will fail under those conditions, to create any kind of new modern Islamic civilization. Anyone today in the Muslim world who wants to think creatively about how to understand Islam, historically or today, is almost immediately victimized by either the state or the radical Islamists. Under these conditions, there will never be any progress at all. I see a very dark future if this problem is not solved.

What share of responsibility for this condition belongs to the West, in terms of failing to support political pluralism, and what share belongs to the masses of the Muslim world?

I think the West has to take some responsibility, particularly in the Arab world, where it has tended to support the status quo and support dictatorships as long as they could keep the area stable and come to terms with Israel. I think the presence of Israel early on, shortly after the liberation of the Arab states from colonialism, also contributed to a militaristic, security mentality.

Speaking of the responsibility of the people of the Muslim world, as we saw in the case of Iran, although the United States heavily supported the Shah, there was a popular revolution to remove him. I think if Muslims in other countries wish to change their regimes through popular demonstrations or uprisings, the United States could not and would not be in a position to stop it.

Muslims have to decide how they are going to bring these changes about, and it isn’t easy. In a place like Iraq, it is virtually impossible, because the powers of the state are so ruthless and so dominant that any kind of rebellion would be crushed. But that is not true in a great many other countries.

I have heard CIA director Tenet express views that are very different than yours. As a former US government official in a key position to influence foreign policy, how many of your former colleagues in the foreign service do not have an automatically negative reaction to the notion of the Islamic movement gaining real political power?

It’s a minority view, but I don’t think it’s a small group at all. I think people who really know the Muslim world, who have lived there, who know Muslims, who have talked to Islamists, and who are interested in the region’s problems, generally share these views.

The people who are the most allergic to Islamic participation in the political arena are people who know virtually nothing about the region, and they are thinking in terms of stereotypes that are projected by one group or another about the problem. And sometimes the stereotype is projected by threatened regimes themselves, about what a threat the Islamists are. So I think with greater understanding, some progress will be possible.

Here again, I think we have to look at Turkey. This is the one country where the Islamists have a very good chance of coming to power peacefully, through the ballot box. And the Turkish army this time may be very reluctant to try to stop it. For Washington, this may be the first time there is an Islamist government they may not love, but will find acceptable, and they will therefore start dealing with them. This, I believe, may begin to break new ground in a new American willingness and experience in dealing with Islamists. They may not be the favorite party, from the US point of view, but nonetheless an acceptable partner in bilateral relations.

What ultimately are the chances that we will begin to move away from hostile relations between Islam and the West, and towards dialogue?

In the short term, I have a rather pessimistic point of view. If Osama bin Ladin’s goal was to poison relations between Islam and the West, and any conversation between them, he has succeeded quite dramatically. Therefore, I think that the idea of an inevitable clash of civilizations is growing, both in the West and among many Muslims, because that’s what’s happening.

As long as we have hard-core ideological terrorists of the kind that Bin Ladin represents, who have no program except hostility to the West, and if we continue to have such a harsh and narrow vision of the problem as I think is represented by the Bush administration, then we’re in for two more years, at the least, of very bad times. I hope that on both sides, things will begin to calm down after that. I think the trends are very negative.

I’m not talking about Palestinian violence, which is a whole separate question, because the Palestinian goals are quite concrete, and quite finite. They are not talking about struggling against Western civilization.

In the longer run, I’m more positive. I think the real issues between the two civilizations are not that strong at all, but an incident like September 11 has brought the two most extreme and radical elements of the two sides into direct conflict.

Graham Fuller is a former Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation in Washington D.C. and former Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. In 1982, he was appointed as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia at the CIA. While working for the CIA he was responsible for long-range Intelligence Forecasting. In l986, Mr. Fuller was named Vice-Chairman of the National Intelligence Council, with overall responsibility for all national level strategic forecasting. In early 1988, Mr. Fuller joined the RAND Corporation; his primary work was on the Middle East, Central Asia, ex-Soviet nationality affairs, Russian-Middle East relations, Islamic fundamentalism and problems of democracy in the Middle East.

He is also the author of various books, including Islamic Fundamentalism in Afghanistan: Its Character and Prospects and A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West.

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