The Clash of Civilizations Thesis and Muslims: The Search for an Alternative Paradigm

By Al-Ahsan, Abdullah | Islamic Studies, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Clash of Civilizations Thesis and Muslims: The Search for an Alternative Paradigm


Al-Ahsan, Abdullah, Islamic Studies


Abstract

The clash of civilizations thesis, first formulated by Bernard Lewis and popularized by Samuel Huntington in the 1990s was, in the course of time, embraced by President George W. Bush for execution, virtually making it the cornerstone of US foreign policy during the early years of the 21st century. The situation thus created has pushed the Muslim world to the centre-stage of international politics. An in-depth analysis, however, finds the thesis to be seriously flawed. Despite differences, Islamic and Western civilizations share a number of common values such as human dignity, trust, justice, transparency and freedom of choice. The idea of a clash between these two civilizations appears to be based on a misapprehension of certain events in history and its implications for world peace are simply horrendous. Luckily there are indications that the new American administration under President Obama seems to have realized the essential flaw of the clash of civilizations thesis. The present article ventures to explore the outlines of an alternative paradigm that might pave the ground for peaceful civilizational co-existence.

Introduction

The term civilization has come into focus in current intellectual and political discourse especially since the publication of Samuel Huntington's controversial "clash of civilizations" thesis on the subject.1 Since Huntington's recent writings revolve around ideas that concern the future of humanity, a number of scholars have joined the debate. However, several observers of the current affairs, particularly in the mainstream media, are convinced that the clash of civilizations is a fact of international politics today.2 It has now become quite pertinent for every historian, philosopher, and social scientist concerned about world peace and amity to contribute to this debate. Some of the questions in this regard that stare us in the face are: Has the idea proven to be a reality? Or is it just a myth which some groups and individuals have contrived in order to promote their interests and ambitions? Moreover, what results can be expected to ensue if the thesis were to be widely accepted as true by the world community? Will this theoretical framework necessarily lead to an all-out conflict between civilizations? Or is it possible that this conflict and its attendant consequences can be averted?

We shall attempt to answer these questions in the pages that follow.

The Context of the Thesis

It is widely recognized that the clash of civilizations thesis emerged in the 1990s in the context of the end of the cold war in international politics. Therefore, one needs to have a careful view of history to be able to properly understand the phenomenon.

Toward the end of the 20th century Robert Nisbet (1913-1996) wrote his History of the Idea of Progress.3 The last chapter of this work was entitled "Progress at Bay" in which he concluded that "the skepticism regarding Western progress that was once confined to a very small number of intellectuals in the nineteenth century has grown and spread to not merely the large majority of intellectuals in this final quarter of the century, but to many millions of other people in the West."4 Nisbet recommended a religious awakening or "even a major religious reformation" to revive faith in and optimism about the progress of Western civilization.5

The subject was of such a wide interest that several other scholars were motivated to express themselves. As a result in 1987 Paul Kennedy published The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.6 Even though his approach varied from Nisbet's, yet he arrived at similar conclusions. He analyzed the economic and military changes that have taken place in the European civilization since 1500 CE and expressed the view that big powers have always maintained their supremacy in world affairs by keeping a prudent balance between the creation of wealth and military expenditure. The failure to maintain such a balance in modern Europe had caused the fall from supremacy of Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain at different times in history. …

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