THEOLOGY AND THE CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS
by Jack Miles

Peace will come not when any one terrorist and his network of secret agents have been "surgically" excised but when an authentic alternative vision has emerged within the House of Islam.

JACK MILES, Senior Advisor to the President at the J. Paul Getty Trust and a member of the Pacific Council on International Policy, is the author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Alfred A. Knopf).

In the 1940s, the most important foreign policy intellectual in the United States was George F. Kennan. Kennan, who served briefly in the Truman Administration, was among the first to recognize that the United States could not defeat communism outright but could contain it and the nations infected by it, beginning with the Soviet Union. What came to be called the Cold War seems in retrospect to have been inevitable, but it was not inevitable at all. Instead of the Cold War, the world could all too easily have fought World War III. Containment was the bold and politically creative alternative to that war. The 1947 article in Foreign Affairs in which Kennan, writing as "X," first laid out containment as a strategy remains, unsurprisingly, the most popular article ever published in that periodical.

In the 1990s, the most important foreign policy intellectual in the United States may yet prove to have been Samuel P. Huntington. The second-most-popular article in the history of Foreign Affairs has been his controversial 1993 "The Clash of Civilizations," an attempt to see what lay beyond the end of Kennan's Cold War. What Huntington saw was, on the one hand, economic and cultural globalization and, on the other, resistance to it by those who saw it as merely the latest form of Western, historically Christian, and at this late date specifically American imperialism. Though Huntington noted that many non-Western powers had cast their lot with the emerging global order, it seemed equally clear to him that China and world Islam had not done so, might never do so, and might even join forces in a joint counteroffensive against the West.

"The Clash of Civilizations" was ferociously criticized when it appeared, and events have not entirely confirmed it. Thus, though relations between China and the West remain strained, many informed observers now predict that the aging leadership of the People's Republic will soon be succeeded by a generation open to the West politically as well as economically. The Beijing Olympics may yet become the symbol of this rapprochement. A week after the World Trade Center was destroyed, China was admitted to the World Trade Organization.

But what of world Islam? The border separating what Muslims call dar al-islam, the "House of Submission (Islam)," from dar al-harb, the "House of Warfare" seems increasingly to define a long irregular battlefront, one that as of September 11, 2001, stretches across four continents. With striking frequency, those post-Cold War conflicts typically termed "local" or "parochial" or at most "sectarian" turn out to be battles between historically Muslim and historically non-Muslim populations. An incomplete list would include, moving from east to west:

  • Roman Catholics vs. Muslims on Mindanao in the Philippines
  • Roman Catholics vs. Muslims on Timor in Indonesia
  • Confucians and Buddhists vs. Muslims in Singapore and Malaysia
  • Hindus vs. Muslims in Kashmir and, intermittently, within India itself
  • Russian Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Afghanistan
  • Russian Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Chechnya
  • Armenian Catholics vs. Muslims in Nagorno-Karabakh
  • Maronite and Melchite Catholics vs. Muslims in Lebanon
  • Jews vs. Muslims in Israel/Palestine
  • Animists and Christians of several denominations vs. Muslims in Sudan
  • Ethiopian Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Eritrea
  • Anglicans and Roman Catholics vs. Muslims in Uganda
  • Greek Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Cyprus
  • Serbian Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo
  • Roman Catholics vs. Muslims in Algeria
  • Anglicans and Roman Catholics vs. Muslims in Nigeria.

Left off this list are conflicts that, however bitter, have not risen to the level of outright civil war. On a list of this sort we might find, among others: Assyrian Orthodox Catholics vs. Muslims in Iraq and Coptic Catholics vs. Muslims in Egypt.

My point in drawing up this list is to suggest that for the umma -- an ancient Arabic term that has come to denote the totality of Muslims in the world at any given time -- the House of Islam must surely seem a civilization under siege. I use the word civilization, as Huntington did, because umma refers to so much more than our word religion comprehends. In the formulation of one contemporary scholar, it refers to "religion, shared values, and common concerns" yet "does not denote nationality, kinship, or ethnicity." The umma is Islam's version of what secular diplomacy likes to call the international community, and there is no third contender. India and China are each enormous, and each has a large diaspora, yet of neither can it be said that "it does not denote nationality, kinship, or ethnicity." Only the umma matches the international community in internal variety, geographical dispersion, and potentially global ambition.

The clash-of-civilizations question, from the Muslim side, is whether the umma can join the international community or whether it must incorporate the international community into itself. From the Western side, the clash-of-civilizations question, though essentially the same question inverted, must begin with the perhaps grudging recognition that there exist, in the first place, two bona fide international communities separated by a genuine cultural border along which for a long while now there has been more war than peace. No single statement in Huntington's Foreign Affairs article attracted more critical comment than "Islam has bloody borders." In the subsequent book, Huntington wrote: "I made that judgment on the basis of a casual survey of intercivilizational conflicts. Quantitative evidence from every disinterested source conclusively demonstrates its validity." The book assembles that evidence, and further evidence has accumulated since.

It is easy in the historically Christian cultures of Europe and America to dismiss conflicts between Hindus and Muslims or even between Jews and Muslims as alien fanaticism. It is almost equally easy to regard the struggles of exotic Christianities like Ethiopian Orthodoxy as irrelevant to any such struggle that the once Christian but now secular West might have with Islam.

But to do this is to make a serious mistake if only because from the Muslim side where modernity, Christianity, and the West are a single unholy stew, all these struggles are understood to be the same struggle. For the West, the defining struggles of the twentieth century have been, in succession, democracy vs. fascism and democracy vs. communism. But for the umma, these are simply the latest civil wars in the long, bloody history of the House of Warfare. In the last days of World War II, what mattered in a Muslim country like Morocco was not that racist fascism had been defeated but that the yoke of Christian France might at last be thrown off. In the last days of the Cold War, what mattered in a country like Afghanistan was not that godless communism had been defeated but that the knout had fallen at last from the fist of Christian Russia. The umma had its own reasons for holding the view -- common enough in the West, for other reasons -- that the Soviet Union had simply continued the Russian Empire in a more malignant form. Secularized Christianity, as seen from inside the House of Islam, is simply degenerate Christianity and as such is even more alien to Islam than its ancestor.

Americans argue over whether Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan deserves more credit for defeating the Soviet Union. Osama bin Laden, to American astonishment, thought that the umma, rallying to a jihad in Afghanistan, had won the real victory and would now proceed to win a second victory over the United States itself. American astonishment at the grandiose claim and American horror at the lethal ambition may stand as a measure of the chasm that separates Western and Muslim civilization. Unless this chasm can be bridged, the world may slide into a war of terrorist reprisal and counterreprisal with no end in sight. Where should the work begin?

In my judgment, it should begin with theology, a term that na´ve enthusiasts for globalization tend to use as a synonym for that-which-may-be-dispensed-with or, worse, that-which-gets-in-the-way. But real theology is more than that, and the moment may be at hand for religion -- and for theology as its intellectual dimension -- to come in from the cold as a topic in international diplomacy.

Because of the secularization of the state in the West and the concomitant privatization of religion, Western governments, when dealing with one another, do not expect to be required to deal with one another's religious beliefs or religious leaders. But in the House of Islam, religious leaders typically have a far greater claim on the public than do civilian leaders, and it is a fatal mistake to leave the Muslim public -- the umma -- out of the equation. At the end of World War I, as historian David Fromkin cogently demonstrates in A Peace to End All Peace, Britain and France vastly overestimated the importance of Arab nationalism and correspondingly underestimated the importance of Muslim religion as an organizing principle in the polity they sought to construct on the ruins of the Turkish Empire. In effect, the British and the French were psychologically incapable of dealing with the Middle East other than through leaders manufactured to resemble their nominally religious but passionately nationalist selves. They were at a loss when confronted with a culture whose real leaders were passionately religious and only nominally nationalist.

After 1956, when the United States became the dominant power in the Middle East, it made the same mistake -- vastly overestimating Iranian nationalism as represented by the Shah and correspondingly underestimating Muslim religion as represented by Ayatollah Khomeini. It was as if the United States had to find someone like the Shah to deal with because, well, how could a self-respecting secretary of state possibly do business with an ayatollah? What would they discuss? Theology?

Yes, friends, theology. And secretaries of state may have to learn some theology if the current clash between Western and Muslim civilization is to yield to disengagement and peaceful coexistence, to say nothing of more fruitful kinds of relationship. If Osama bin Laden is a spiritual leader with military designs on the United States, the first, crucial insight should be that he and his movement must be dealt with as what they are. To suppose that we can achieve security by dealing with him as a common criminal and with the Muslim governments that harbor his movement as secular governments unconcerned with the religious dimension in his appeal is to fight this new war as if it were the last war.

To say this is not to dignify the man but to recognize that containing the threat he poses may entail promoting a true alternative to him in the world where he originates. This task, in turn, will require more theology than it takes to issue a routine and utterly uninformed declaration that, of course, Osama bin Laden does not represent true Islam. Who does represent true Islam? "Will the real Islam please stand up?" This is the kind of question that our military and diplomatic institutions are designed never to ask and never to notice that they are not asking. In his 1997 memoirs, Kennan characterized the world the West faces as one for which "neither our ingrained habits nor our international institutions have prepared us." He was right, and in no regard more so this one.

Engaging a jihad for the soul of Islam as if it were an international manhunt for a common criminal is a battle plan guaranteed to fail. How can we make war against all the nations that have harbored the agents of Osama bin Laden when the United States itself is one of those nations? We have done so unwillingly and unwittingly, but how witting or willing was Egypt to harbor the Muslim Brotherhood agents who assassinated President Anwar Sadat? So far, the paper trail left by the World Trade Center saboteurs has led to friendly Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates rather than to Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Is this not just what one would expect of a movement out to conceal its tracks and frustrate retaliation? Though bin Laden declared himself the enemy of virtually every Muslim government except the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, some Muslim regimes clearly stood higher on his enemies list than others. How very clever to implicate just those regimes in his crimes.

But in the long run, there cannot be any definitive sorting out of good Muslim states from bad ones. It is the Muslim umma as a whole that has harbored this murderous movement within it, and it is the Muslim umma as a whole that must somehow be persuaded to break with it. Here we begin to see the novel defensive strategy that might become in this new global confrontation what Kennan's containment was in the last one. Just as militant communism could not be militarily defeated in the last clash of civilizations, so militant Islam cannot be militarily defeated in the new one. Decapitation does not deal a death blow when the enemy has many heads. Peace will come not when any one terrorist and his network of secret agents have been "surgically" excised but when an authentic alternative vision has emerged within the House of Islam that makes the vision of victory-by-terrorism irrelevant and unwelcome.

The development of such an alternative vision, however, will require a major paradigm shift in Western diplomacy. It will no longer suffice to treat religion as a mere happenstance ("I happen to be Jewish," "I happen to be Muslim") and therefore as a political irrelevancy. This method of dealing with religion politically may have served us well enough in overcoming Christianity's own hideous wars of religion. But the old way will not meet this new challenge, for it takes off the table just the topic that militant Islam finds most compelling. One can no more discuss that topic without discussing theology than one can discuss communism without discussing ideology. Theology is the ideological element in religion, and nothing at this moment could be more tragically evident than that we have ignored it to our peril.

Our leaders, in sum, must find a way to untie their tongues on a topic of world-historical importance. Fortunately, there are those near at hand to whom they can turn for help in doing so. In 1968, anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote a book called Islam Observed in which he compared and contrasted what were then the western and eastern extremes of the House of Islam: Morocco and Indonesia. Since 1968, however, the western extreme has moved westward from Morocco to North America and, in fact, all the way to California. So far, no paper trail has connected the September 11 terrorists to any American or Canadian mosque, and there is every reason to believe that Osama bin Laden's contempt for the acculturated Muslim communities of North America is total. But in the years and decades ahead, why may it not be the voice of these Western Muslim communities rather than his voice that is heard most loudly in the world umma? Rather than the enemy within, the Muslims of the West should be seen as the ally within.

Muslims often, alas, have reason to fear other Muslims. The bloodiest war of the latter half of the twentieth century, surpassing even the genocide in Rwanda, was the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. For American and other Western Muslims who dare to claim an international role, the personal risks may be as large as the intellectual challenge. But if this community of often recent immigrants can rise to the historic challenge, the good news is that they will not be without allies in the House of Islam. Is there a single Muslim nation in the world that aspires to the condition of Afghanistan? Is there not good reason to believe that an authentically Western and authentically Muslim voice would find a wide audience? Time will tell, but the enemies of our enemy may yet prove to be the friends of our Muslim friends.

If American Muslims, clearly a key community at this juncture, can muster the necessary courage and intelligence, the question that must then be asked is: Will they find correspondingly courageous and appropriately educated allies in Washington -- allies for whom theology is not "theology"? To make the needed difference, the Muslim communities of the West must be dignified with much more than the occasional courtesy invitation to the diplomatic dinner table. They must be not just cultivated as allies of convenience but heard and honored as teachers. They must be protected and supported both materially and spiritually as they take on the enormous challenge of raising from their own ranks the leadership that will save two worlds at once.

 

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Source: Cross Currents, Winter  2002, Vol. 51,  No 4.