[Transnational Religion & Fading States]

By Kingston, Paul; Rudolphe, Susanne et al. | International Journal, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview
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[Transnational Religion & Fading States]


Kingston, Paul, Rudolphe, Susanne, Piscatori, James, International Journal


A virtual industry has sprung up in academic and policy circles over Samuel Huntington's 'clash of civilization' thesis. Most of the responses have been punishing critiques of its essentialist tendencies and arguments for more contingent and complex understandings of the role of culture and religion in international conflict and co-operation in the post-cold war era. Yet, curiously but perhaps not surprisingly, Huntington's ideas have had particular resilience when it comes to analyses of Islam. The volumes under review here provide us with some recent additions to this ongoing debate.

Of the four books reviewed, one gives an interesting version of Huntington's thesis, two offer critical perspectives on the role of Islam and religion more generally in the modern world, and the last provides a historical chronicle of American foreign policy debates on political Islam from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton. Along the way they reveal interesting insights into how the debate has played out in practice. At the roots of these debates is the extent to which culture and religion are emerging as significant, if not destabalizing, variables in world politics.

Political Islam and Global Disorder

Tibi's The Challenge of Fundamentalism offers a clear and analytically interesting version of Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis. A devout Muslim, Tibi is both an apologist for Islam as a religion and a 'hawk' when it comes to its fundamentalist manifestation. 'For me as a Muslim,' writes Tibi, 'Islam itself, being a tolerant religion, is not and can not be a threat ... But Islamic fundamentalism, or political Islam, is a horse of another colour: this brand of fundamentalism poses a grave challenge to world politics, security, and stability' (p ix).

Tibi's starting point for understanding Islamic fundamentalism is the process of globalization, a term he takes great care to define. First and foremost, globalization is intrinsically linked to the spread of modernity around the world. This process has been facilitated by the emergence and promotion of a variety of uniform structures on a global basis that he calls 'institutional modernity.' This is most clearly seen in the political division of the world into secular nation-states, but it has been strengthened in recent years by an acceleration in the global spread of technology and the emergence -- not unrelated -- of a more integrated global economic system.

However, the globalization process is incomplete because it has failed to spread the cultural aspects of modernity that will lead to the emergence of universal norms and values at the global level. Cultural modernity, for example, is something more than 'McDonaldization, the drinking of Coca-Cola, or the watching of soap operas on television' (p 25). Rather, it is underpinned by the emergence of individuals who have broken free of their ascriptive civilizational roots and are capable of determining their individual destiny and social and natural environment (p 24). Preventing the more holistic spread of modernity has been the strength of non-Western civilizations -- defined as world-views that unite a variety of different and local cultures. The normative foundations of these world-views are often at odds with those of the West. Suppressed during the bi-polar days of the cold war, they have re-emerged onto centre stage in the global arena. This has created a real potential for conflict, especially between the West, founded on the idea of a secular, democratic nation-state, and Islam, which Tibi sees as having more universalistic, theocratic, if not authoritarian, imperatives.

To avoid a civilizational dash, Tibi calls for 'civilizational accommodation' on grounds of mutual equality, respect, and recognition (p 3). This process of accommodation has certainly been made more difficult by the hegemonic nature of Western civilization. Tibi's sympathies clearly lie with the modernity project emanating from the West.

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