Clash of ‘non-civilizations’

Clash of ‘non-civilizations’

Nobody admits to doing so openly, but some have recently considered rethinking whether Samuel Huntington’s infamous prophecy of the “Clash of Civilizations” is actually correct after the rise of Islamism, and especially the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). All of us know that ISIL does not, or should not, represent Islam and cannot even be defined as the same as Islamism, but at the end of the day, Muslims do not seem enthusiastic about denouncing radicalism. If they do, they first accuse the West of creating a fertile ground for Muslim resentment; “progressive” Westerners, meanwhile, share this view. Nobody seems to bother that such a view strips Muslims of social, political and historical “agency” and reduces them to passive recipients of Western agency. 

Under the circumstances, even Huntington sounds less Orientalistic than some Muslim and progressive views. Nevertheless, Huntington is another essentialist, “civilizationist,” even if he is not as grand as Arnold Toynbee. In fact, the idea of the plurality of “civilizations” is rather a new idea; the pre-modern ideas of “civilization” have always been based on superiority and exclusion. The idea of civilization was defined in opposition to barbarity and was a claim of a superior worldview, its institutions and aesthetics. The idea of “modern Western Civilization” was also based on the idea of superiority, but it was historical superiority in tune with the historicism of the Enlightenment. It recognized “other civilizations,” even if only as pre-modern historical forms which failed to engender the highest form of human achievement, which was modern Western Civilization. Modern Western imperialism was justified by this historicist superiority claim.

The radical questioning of this view rescued us from the idea of Western supremacy, but then the Enlightenment critique turned out to be a total rejection of the idea of “civilized” life, civilized society and civilized politics. Now the Western world not only denounces the idea of Western Civilization with a capital “C,” but also avoids any claim of “civilization,” even with a small “c,” as remnants of Western-centrism.

In fact, there is no reference to civilization on behalf of the Muslim world either. It seems that Islamism is based on the idea of a distinctive civilization, but in fact it is not. Because, various forms of Islamisms either denounce the historical heritages of civilized Muslim societies as “heresies,” be they Sufism or Islamic arts, including music. Or, in fact, Islamisms have nothing to do with civilizational aspects of historical Islam, as long as these aspects have mostly been the monopoly of elites. After all, Islamism(s) are another name for “the revolt of the masses.”

I do not mean to snub Islamisms as forms of mass revolt against elites and their cultured life or suggest that only high Islam can represent the “true religion.” I just want to note that we are not witnessing any “clash of civilizations,” since there is no reference to civilization either on behalf of the West or of Islam. Radical Islamists do not mention Islamic Civilization, but only “Islam.” But it is true that mostly moderate Islamists often challenge the West or Western Civilization with reference to “Islamic civilization;” Indeed, our President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a recent example; just last week, he claimed that Muslims discovered America. Nevertheless, the reference was to Islam and Muslims rather than civilization.

The basic idea of Islamisms, be they moderate or radical, is to denounce most aspects of Muslims’ history in the name of the fundamentals of religion. It does not mean that the Islamists of Turkey are core fundamentalists; on the contrary, they are eager to compromise fundamentalism with the pride of the glorious Ottoman times. Nonetheless, their idea of the Ottoman past is far from focusing on civilized Ottoman heritage, but rather centers around political and military might. So it is no surprise to see that the Ottomanist revivalism of the last decade under the Islamists’ rule has no finesse.

Finally, it would be wise to drop the idea of a clash of civilizations, not only in the name of humanistic ideals, but also because it fails to help us understand the problem concerning Islamism and the Western world. Even if it is a matter of clash, it is a “clash of non-civilizations.”