:: Article

Star Wars, Episode 7: The Clash of Civilisations

By Jeff Gibbs.

In the June 21 issue of the Boston Phoenix, there is an editorial under the caption ‘News’ about the recent knighting of Salman Rushdie. An organization in Iran has offered a bounty, apparently, to anyone who can bring in the head of ‘Sir’ Salman — it’s the kind of schoolyard, right-back-atcha tactic that the country’s president Ahmadinejad enjoys so much. The bounty and the entire history of Rushdie’s struggle with his bloodthirsty would-be censors are rehashed to remind the Phoenix‘s liberal Boston and Cambridge readers that although Rushdie proves that “no culture [The West] has a monopoly on art… the clash of civilizations is very real.”

The Clash of Civilizations. Capitalized like that it looks even better — the two big C’s on either end give it the feel of a new Playstation game or a Star Wars sequel’s title. The word ‘clash’ is certainly more poetic, more cinematic than any comparable synonyms like ‘fight’, ‘war’, or ‘conflict’. The Battle of Civilizations sounds like a WWF match — which might be more appropriate anyway. In fact, the Sheikh, I believe, is still a major villain in the pro-wrestling circuit, a profession better suited to this kind of video game mentality than journalism. But words often influence reality, or at least how it’s perceived by human beings, and ever since Samuel P. Huntington first coined the term, people all over the globe have rallied to its banner –and somehow, recently, the clash is always describing the ‘West’ in its relation to ‘Islam’.

Huntington’s theory takes into account all the civilizations of the earth, from Mongolia to Chile –and it is only a theory, a hypothetical paradigm for describing world conflict. So why has the ‘Clash’ now come down to an epic war between monolithic Islam and the monolithic West? I first heard the term bandied about by Bush ideologues trying to build a case for war in Iraq. But then it popped up again when the hullabaloo over the Mohammed cartoons hit the papers, only now liberals employed it in the same sense that their Bushian adversaries had. And they continue to do so, as evidenced by the article in the Phoenix. It’s certainly easier to think of the world in terms of a two party battle royale, in which one’s team is always on the side of human rights, liberty, and democracy and the other side is always a reactionary, Medieval, nut-job. But if censorship and execution of writers are the measure of being a nut job, then why isn’t China or half of non-Muslim Africa included in the great clash? Hell, if a penchant for executions, detention without trial, and religion in politics earn one membership on the enemy’s side then why not include ourselves?

The United States and its military allies are facing a resentful Muslim world. Of that, there is no doubt. In some cases, that resentment results in fanaticism and terrorism, in others, political maneuvering. Moreover, as Muslim refugees flee into Europe and the U.S., the inevitable race conflict occurs. And of course, the U.S. is currently embroiled in a never-ending war in Iraq (a fight we picked ourselves) and has been messing around in Israel for decades. But if the goal isn‚t mainly war and spoils, then is bringing all of this under the easy-to-digest label of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ really the best way to go about achieving the peace?

As I said words have power. When you give something a name, you in a sense, create it. In the Middle East, a lot of complex politics and history, which, even after years of amateur study on my part still seem muddy and confusing, suddenly becomes much easier to understand when you think of it as a Clash of Civilizations. It’s not hard to understand once you’ve turned into a cage fight like a cage fight with the Sheikh. Right versus wrong. Now I don’t really have to think of which side I’m on, or consider the pros and cons of this or that battle, or think about why Turkey or Indonesia or Morocco might react to my country’s policies in this or that way, or learn anything at all from them. They are all essentially the same country. They do everything because — if I’m on the right wing of the spectrum — they are the enemy of democracy and want to turn the world into some sort of Mullah-run dictatorship. If I’m on the left wing of the spectrum — because they do not have separation of politics and religion and are trapped by their allegiance to Islam in a state of backward, Medieval ignorance untouched by our rational Enlightenment.

I have traveled widely in Turkey and Malaysia and, as an ESL teacher, have taught students from Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Palestine, Egypt, Indonesia, Libya, and Jordan. My co-workers have been Iranian and Iraqi and one of my best friends is Turkish. They have all been wildly different people, from stupid jock to nerdy intellectual to vapid shopaholic. Give them familiar sounding names and take away their accents and Americans would not be able to distinguish them from their neighbors and family and friends. My Turkish friend is quite devout in his Islam, and his approach to worship is dignified and humble, in great contrasts to many of the militant Southern Baptists in my own family or Catholics I have met among my students in Western Europe. I have taught several Saudis and Turks who use the multiethnic milieu of Boston to attend Pentecostal churches, Catholic masses, Quaker meetings, and Buddhist temples. They are open and curious about other religions whereas most Christians I know would say I might be going to Hell for having recently prayed with my friend in a mosque. On top of that, more liberal New England friends wonder if my new interest in Islam, as indicated by all the visits to mosques, is indicative of some reactionary direction I am falling into.

Clearly, it is not simply the conservatives in the U.S. who believe in this ‘Clash’, but liberals as well. For us liberals, and I am one of them, God help me, the more reactionary Muslims are the enemy of free speech, science, and rational inquiry. Yet should these values always take precedent? Have we nothing to learn from the societies we‚ve labeled ‘backward’? One of my most thoughtful students was a young Saudi woman who, despite being a computer scientist, was constantly questioning the monopoly on virtue that rational thought supposedly commands. Has it not brought us pollution, she asked, and the threat of atomic war? I might add a history of ethically questionable human experimentation starting with the first vaccine tests back in the 1700s and ending with the notorious syphilis experiments on African Americans which, by the way, were only stopped after forty years in 1972. Is it so insane, she asked, that these sorts of ideas be moderated by a religious ethic? Where is there room to feel superior? Or even different?

When my Japanese friend, Kuniko, a fifty year old social worker in Tokyo, recently asked the difference between Islam and Christianity, she never quite seemed to accept my explanation.

“You both believe in one God, right?”


“And Abraham and all that?”

“Yes, but we have Jesus.”

“Do Muslims believe in Jesus?”

“Well, yes. But not that he’s the Son of God, just that God impregnated Mary with the baby Jesus.”

She laughed, “It,s the same!”

Well of course it’s not, but to a woman who comes from an Asian country that is mostly Buddhist and Confucian, if anything at all, the difference between Islam and Christianity seems nit-picky at best, and the idea that the two peoples are trying to ‘understand’ each other, absurd.

“Like little kids,” she said.

There are real problems between many Muslim countries and the United States, but they are not caused by simple ideological differences but by a complex morass of political maneuvering, history, chance, economic policy, misguided military adventures, personal grievances, bad leadership, misunderstandings, and a hundred other factors. The problems need to be solved, they need to be untangled, but tossing them under the facile label of Clash of Civilizations will only hinder that effort and doom us to a stupid war of our own creation.

At one point in the documentary, Fog of War, Robert McNamara said that we must learn to empathize with our enemy, to put ourselves into the shoes of the other — and God knows, the architect of the Vietnam War and the Tokyo firebombing should know. He quotes Nikita Khrushchev when warning of the consequences of a failure to empathize. “We know that war ends when it has rolled through cities and villages, everywhere sowing death and destruction. For such is the logic of war. If people do not display wisdom they will clash like blind moles and then mutual annihilation will commence.”

On a recent trip to Turkey to visit my friend, I spent a few months studying the language. I could barely speak it when I arrived, but the effort won me endless admiration from his family and friends. Most Turks seemed pleased that an American had bothered to learn anything about them at all. It showed a bit of humility and, more importantly, respect. It is such a simple, small thing. The smallest of gestures, but it is a much better way to face our brothers and sisters in the West than as battle-ready patriots under the soundbite slogan ‘Clash of Civilizations.’

Jeff Gibbs is an expat Southern writer who writes and teaches ESL in Boston. He has published poetry in the Heat City Review, Dazzling Mica, and the Cypress Dome, short stories in The Bridge and Diagram, and essays in Word Riot, Miranda, and Blood Lotus.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 24th, 2007.