Dr Tanzil Chowdhury: Politics as the Clash of Civilisations

Photo by Hannah Bouattia

The fundamental question of our time, is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have the desire and courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert or destroy it?
— US President Donald Trump, 2017, Poland

A few months after Trump’s speech, an independence commemoration rally in Poland drew scores of far right demonstrators who held placards bearing the words: ‘Islamic trojan horses’ attempting to enter a ‘fortress Europe’. The ascendancy of the alt-right, preceded by a surge in popularity of far-right parties in Europe, has changed many rules of the game. Most notably, it has emboldened the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis; the framing of domestic and international politics in a seemingly indissoluble battle between East and West, of irreconcilable cultures, one forward-thinking and ‘the other’ regressive and authoritarian.

An early articulation of the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis was precipitated by the Great Schism of 1054 in which the communion between the Eastern Orthodox Churches, led by the patriarch of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) and Roman Catholic Churches, led by Pope Leo IX, parted ways. The division, which has provided the enduring ’east-west’ appellation that penetrates into today, was largely predicated on theological disagreements that were later exploited to consolidate power in respective geographical regions. Its contemporary articulation was popularized by the US political scientist, Samuel Huntingdon and his best seller, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntingdon’s book made a series of claims as to how globalisation would engender a ‘civilizational consciousness’ which would be fortified by the effects of globalization. While ‘the West’ would be charging toward social and economic progress, Religion would fill the gaps created by economic modernisation and a ‘return-to-roots’ phenomenon would take hold in the ‘non-West’, compelling them to shape the word in ‘non-Western ways’. For policy makers in power, it provided a politically expedient- though empirically wanting- understanding of the world, shaping domestic and foreign policy in Europe and the US- from military interventions to counter-terrorism, immigration to social legislation. Huntingdon’s thesis provided a popular and pervasive brand through which contemporary political discourse would be articulated.

However, his positions were predicated on presumptions that wholesale failed to live up to empirical and historical scrutiny. The most well-known riposte to Huntingdon’s expressions was by the late Edward Said. In an essay entitled The Clash of Ignorance, Said criticised Huntingdon’s reductionism of ‘civilisations’ and ‘identities’ as sealed-off entities that had been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate history. According to Said, Huntingdon had failed to acknowledge the heterogeneity and dynamicity of cultures and criticised him for general amnesia of imperial conquest in the shaping of those identities.

Despite Huntingdon’s failures and Said’s astute observations, the Clash of Civilisations has re-emerged beyond the US. At the Lord Mayor’s banquet in November 2017, the UK Prime Minister Theresa May accused Russia of election meddling and ‘weaponising information’ to sow discord in ‘the West’. Indeed, the apparent threat of Russian cyberwarfare is largely framed by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Boris Johnson, as ‘attempts to influence democratic processes in the West’. The EU Referendum, in addition to the pangs of imperial nostalgia that inebriated parts of the Leave campaign, had also been tinged by “threats” to the West’s mortality. The European Council President, Donald Tusk, before the vote said that the UK leaving would be a threat to ‘Western political civilisation’. Contrarily, the disgraced former Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, remarked that ‘the only thing that is destroying civilisations is the euro.’ More recently, the hatred against refugees whipped up by one of its main architects, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, reared its head once again when he met with the Polish PM in Budapest last week claiming ‘Western Europe had lost its way’. Orban said that 2018 would be a great battle against multicultural values and Europe can only be strong by ‘preserving its Christian values.’ Even the ‘liberal counterweight’, French President Emmanuel Macron, recently courted controversy when he said that the African continent had civilisational problems to blame for its malaise.

Part of the reason for the durability of the Clash of Civilisations approach is that it is ever-dormant. In his theorisations, Aijaz Ahmad describes colonialism as trans-historical, ‘always present and always in process of dissolution in one part of the world or another, so that everyone gets the privilege, sooner or later, at one time or another, of being coloniser, colonised and post-colonial’. The Clash of Civilisations thesis is similarly analogous in that it is always immanent and often undergoes multiple reformulations. Before the US had any idea that a billionaire white-supremacist enabler would be US President, his Republican Party predecessor sounded the war drum for Iraq as if it were the 21st Century crusade. Similarly, former Imperial powers’ relations with immigrant populations or how they seek to control what Muslim women wear, the defence of ‘Judeo-Christian values’ to the Hungarian Prime Minister’s rehearsing of Renauld Camus ‘The Great Replacement’ rhetoric warning of a ‘Muslimized Europe’, all pay allegiance to reformulations of civilizational clash.

There is cause for anxiety in the re-emergence of the antiquated Clash of Civilisations thesis, not least because it belies the real failures of market fundamentalism and fetishized individualism. However, its enduring nature comes from, in part, its easy-to-regurgitate cover for systematic and structural malaise. Though a politics is beginning to emerge which attempts to imagine new futures and paradigms, the clash of civilisations perhaps also warrants a reflection of a past; a past which is betrayed by the revisionism of civilizational clash.

Tanzil Chowdhury is an academic in the law school at the University of Birmingham.

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