Civilization Clash? (Impressions)

By Wall, James M. | The Christian Century, November 7, 2001 | Go to article overview

Civilization Clash? (Impressions)


Wall, James M., The Christian Century


AFTER LEADING the West to a victory over Iraq in the gulf war, President George Bush boldly promised a new world order for the 21st century. That hope received a major blow on September 11. In response, his son George W. Bush launched a military assault on Afghanistan. This action resonates with Samuel Huntington's much-debated 1993 essay, which rejects the new world order and announces an impending "clash of civilizations." Huntington predicted that future wars would be fought not between nations but between competing cultures, and most notably between the West and Islam.

Many conservative intellectuals, journalists and politicians were searching for a new enemy to replace the communist evil empire. They eagerly embraced Huntington's overly simplistic thesis, and began to reduce complex cultural, religious and political conflicts to an easy-to-read, easier-to-report, good guy-bad guy narrative. Osama bin Laden replaced Saddam Hussein as the new Arab villain. Terrorist attacks in 1993 (World Trade Center) and 1998 (U.S. embassies) were attributed to bin Laden. That series of events reached a sensational conclusion in the attacks of September 11.

President Bush was ready with his declaration of war. Huntington's thesis appeared to be a prophecy fulfilled. But there was one political problem. To fight terrorism Bush needs the cooperation and at least the tacit support of Muslim and Arab states. Eager to hold together his coalition, the president insists that his war is with terrorism, not Islam. He is fighting against a fide. The Huntington thesis has already penetrated deeply into the consciousness of a Western culture that likes to see its enemies in sharp focus.

There are early ominous signs that because of the fervor of this war, darkness could descend on cherished civil liberties and freedoms. In the Washington Times (October 18), Mona Charen proposed that thousands of Arabs currently in the United States with student and travel visas "should all be asked, politely and without prejudice, to go home. This will work hardships in many cases, and that is regrettable. But, there ... is no constitutional right for foreign students to study here." Charen concludes, "We cannot take chances. This is no more than common sense."

Jonathan Kay, writing in Canada's National Post on October 18, echoed Charen's tough line, insisting that this is no time to worry about the danger of discrimination. "We should not pretend that an effective fight against terrorism can be waged in a truly color-blind fashion. The fact is, those who plot the annihilation of our civilization are of one religion and, almost without exception, one race."

What form will this abandonment of basic civil liberties take, in Kay's judgment? "We are talking about ethnic profiling at airports, the use of informants in suspect mosques [several North American imams have recently been implicated in terror activities] and tracing the expenditures of Muslim charities. …

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