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Asunto:PAN- The Clash of Ignorance / Edward W. Said
Fecha:Jueves, 16 de Junio, 2005  19:34:53 (-0500)
Autor:Anahuak Home <redanahuak>

To: LuxWeb <LuxWeb@...> 
Date: Thu, 16 Jun 2005 18:12:27 -0500 
Subject: [LuxWeb] The Clash of Ignorance / Edward W. Said 
The Clash of Ignorance 
by Edward W. Said 
Samuel Huntington's article "The Clash of Civilizations?" appeared in the 
Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, where it immediately attracted a 
surprising amount of attention and reaction. Because the article was 
intended to supply Americans with an original thesis about "a new phase" in 
world politics after the end of the cold war, Huntington's terms of argument 
seemed compellingly large, bold, even visionary. He very clearly had his eye 
on rivals in the policy-making ranks, theorists such as Francis Fukuyama and 
his "end of history" ideas, as well as the legions who had celebrated the 
onset of globalism, tribalism and the dissipation of the state. But they, he 
allowed, had understood only some aspects of this new period. He was about 
to announce the "crucial, indeed a central, aspect" of what "global politics 
is likely to be in the coming years." Unhesitatingly he pressed on: 
"It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new 
world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great 
divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be 
cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world 
affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between 
nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations 
will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be 
the battle lines of the future." 
Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notion of 
something Huntington called "civilization identity" and "the interactions 
among seven or eight [sic] major civilizations," of which the conflict 
between two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of his 
attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 
article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colors 
are manifest in its title, "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In both articles, the 
personification of enormous entities called "the West" and "Islam" is 
recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and 
culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each 
other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper 
hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much 
time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, 
or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the 
definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive 
possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is 
involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the 
West is the West, and Islam Islam. 
The challenge for Western policy-makers, says Huntington, is to make sure 
that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam in 
particular. More troubling is Huntington's assumption that his perspective, 
which is to survey the entire world from a perch outside all ordinary 
attachments and hidden loyalties, is the correct one, as if everyone else 
were scurrying around looking for the answers that he has already found. In 
fact, Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make "civilizations" 
and "identities" into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that 
have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate 
human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that 
history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also 
to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing. This far less 
visible history is ignored in the rush to highlight the ludicrously 
compressed and constricted warfare that "the clash of civilizations" argues 
is the reality. When he published his book by the same title in 1996, 
Huntington tried to give his argument a little more subtlety and many, many 
more footnotes; all he did, however, was confuse himself and demonstrate 
what a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker he was. 
The basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition 
reformulated) remained untouched, and this is what has persisted, often 
insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of 
September 11. The carefully planned and horrendous, pathologically motivated 
suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants has 
been turned into proof of Huntington's thesis. Instead of seeing it for what 
it is--the capture of big ideas (I use the word loosely) by a tiny band of 
crazed fanatics for criminal purposes--international luminaries from former 
Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to Italian Prime Minister Silvio 
Berlusconi have pontificated about Islam's troubles, and in the latter's 
case have used Huntington's ideas to rant on about the West's superiority, 
how "we" have Mozart and Michelangelo and they don't. (Berlusconi has since 
made a halfhearted apology for his insult to "Islam.") 
But why not instead see parallels, admittedly less spectacular in their 
destructiveness, for Osama bin Laden and his followers in cults like the 
Branch Davidians or the disciples of the Rev. Jim Jones at Guyana or the 
Japanese Aum Shinrikyo? Even the normally sober British weekly The 
Economist, in its issue of September 22-28, can't resist reaching for the 
vast generalization, praising Huntington extravagantly for his "cruel and 
sweeping, but nonetheless acute" observations about Islam. "Today," the 
journal says with unseemly solemnity, Huntington writes that "the world's 
billion or so Muslims are 'convinced of the superiority of their culture, 
and obsessed with the inferiority of their power.'" Did he canvas 100 
Indonesians, 200 Moroccans, 500 Egyptians and fifty Bosnians? Even if he 
did, what sort of sample is that? 
Uncountable are the editorials in every American and European newspaper and 
magazine of note adding to this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each 
use of which is plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader's 
indignant passion as a member of the "West," and what we need to do. 
Churchillian rhetoric is used inappropriately by self-appointed combatants 
in the West's, and especially America's, war against its haters, despoilers, 
destroyers, with scant attention to complex histories that defy such 
reductiveness and have seeped from one territory into another, in the 
process overriding the boundaries that are supposed to separate us all into 
divided armed camps. 
This is the problem with unedifying labels like Islam and the West: They 
mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly 
reality that won't be pigeonholed or strapped down as easily as all that. I 
remember interrupting a man who, after a lecture I had given at a West Bank 
university in 1994, rose from the audience and started to attack my ideas as 
"Western," as opposed to the strict Islamic ones he espoused. "Why are you 
wearing a suit and tie?" was the first retort that came to mind. "They're 
Western too." He sat down with an embarrassed smile on his face, but I 
recalled the incident when information on the September 11 terrorists 
started to come in: how they had mastered all the technical details required 
to inflict their homicidal evil on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and 
the aircraft they had commandeered. Where does one draw the line between 
"Western" technology and, as Berlusconi declared, "Islam's" inability to be 
a part of "modernity"? 
One cannot easily do so, of course. How finally inadequate are the labels, 
generalizations and cultural assertions. At some level, for instance, 
primitive passions and sophisticated know-how converge in ways that give the 
lie to a fortified boundary not only between "West" and "Islam" but also 
between past and present, us and them, to say nothing of the very concepts 
of identity and nationality about which there is unending disagreement and 
debate. A unilateral decision made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake 
crusades, to oppose their evil with our good, to extirpate terrorism and, in 
Paul Wolfowitz's nihilistic vocabulary, to end nations entirely, doesn't 
make the supposed entities any easier to see; rather, it speaks to how much 
simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing 
collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are 
dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, "ours" 
as well as "theirs." 
In a remarkable series of three articles published between January and March 
1999 in Dawn, Pakistan's most respected weekly, the late Eqbal Ahmad, 
writing for a Muslim audience, analyzed what he called the roots of the 
religious right, coming down very harshly on the mutilations of Islam by 
absolutists and fanatical tyrants whose obsession with regulating personal 
behavior promotes "an Islamic order reduced to a penal code, stripped of its 
humanism, aesthetics, intellectual quests, and spiritual devotion." And this 
"entails an absolute assertion of one, generally de-contextualized, aspect 
of religion and a total disregard of another. The phenomenon distorts 
religion, debases tradition, and twists the political process wherever it 
unfolds." As a timely instance of this debasement, Ahmad proceeds first to 
present the rich, complex, pluralist meaning of the word jihad and then goes 
on to show that in the word's current confinement to indiscriminate war 
against presumed enemies, it is impossible "to recognize the 
Islamic--religion, society, culture, history or politics--as lived and 
experienced by Muslims through the ages." The modern Islamists, Ahmad 
concludes, are "concerned with power, not with the soul; with the 
mobilization of people for political purposes rather than with sharing and 
alleviating their sufferings and aspirations. Theirs is a very limited and 
time-bound political agenda." What has made matters worse is that similar 
distortions and zealotry occur in the "Jewish" and "Christian" universes of 
It was Conrad, more powerfully than any of his readers at the end of the 
nineteenth century could have imagined, who understood that the distinctions 
between civilized London and "the heart of darkness" quickly collapsed in 
extreme situations, and that the heights of European civilization could 
instantaneously fall into the most barbarous practices without preparation 
or transition. And it was Conrad also, in The Secret Agent (1907), who 
described terrorism's affinity for abstractions like "pure science" (and by 
extension for "Islam" or "the West"), as well as the terrorist's ultimate 
moral degradation. 
For there are closer ties between apparently warring civilizations than most 
of us would like to believe; both Freud and Nietzsche showed how the traffic 
across carefully maintained, even policed boundaries moves with often 
terrifying ease. But then such fluid ideas, full of ambiguity and skepticism 
about notions that we hold on to, scarcely furnish us with suitable, 
practical guidelines for situations such as the one we face now. Hence the 
altogether more reassuring battle orders (a crusade, good versus evil, 
freedom against fear, etc.) drawn out of Huntington's alleged opposition 
between Islam and the West, from which official discourse drew its 
vocabulary in the first days after the September 11 attacks. There's since 
been a noticeable de-escalation in that discourse, but to judge from the 
steady amount of hate speech and actions, plus reports of law enforcement 
efforts directed against Arabs, Muslims and Indians all over the country, 
the paradigm stays on. 
One further reason for its persistence is the increased presence of Muslims 
all over Europe and the United States. Think of the populations today of 
France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Britain, America, even Sweden, and you must 
concede that Islam is no longer on the fringes of the West but at its 
center. But what is so threatening about that presence? Buried in the 
collective culture are memories of the first great Arab-Islamic conquests, 
which began in the seventh century and which, as the celebrated Belgian 
historian Henri Pirenne wrote in his landmark book Mohammed and Charlemagne 
(1939), shattered once and for all the ancient unity of the Mediterranean, 
destroyed the Christian-Roman synthesis and gave rise to a new civilization 
dominated by northern powers (Germany and Carolingian France) whose mission, 
he seemed to be saying, is to resume defense of the "West" against its 
historical-cultural enemies. What Pirenne left out, alas, is that in the 
creation of this new line of defense the West drew on the humanism, science, 
philosophy, sociology and historiography of Islam, which had already 
interposed itself between Charlemagne's world and classical antiquity. Islam 
is inside from the start, as even Dante, great enemy of Mohammed, had to 
concede when he placed the Prophet at the very heart of his Inferno. 
Then there is the persisting legacy of monotheism itself, the Abrahamic 
religions, as Louis Massignon aptly called them. Beginning with Judaism and 
Christianity, each is a successor haunted by what came before; for Muslims, 
Islam fulfills and ends the line of prophecy. There is still no decent 
history or demystification of the many-sided contest among these three 
followers--not one of them by any means a monolithic, unified camp--of the 
most jealous of all gods, even though the bloody modern convergence on 
Palestine furnishes a rich secular instance of what has been so tragically 
irreconcilable about them. Not surprisingly, then, Muslims and Christians 
speak readily of crusades and jihads, both of them eliding the Judaic 
presence with often sublime insouciance. Such an agenda, says Eqbal Ahmad, 
is "very reassuring to the men and women who are stranded in the middle of 
the ford, between the deep waters of tradition and modernity." 
But we are all swimming in those waters, Westerners and Muslims and others 
alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plow 
or divide them with barriers is futile. These are tense times, but it is 
better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular 
politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and 
injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give 
momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis. "The 
Clash of Civilizations" thesis is a gimmick like "The War of the Worlds," 
better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding 
of the bewildering interdependence of our time. 
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