[Reader-list] Edward Said "The Clash of Ignorance"

abir bazaz abirbazaz at rediffmail.com
Fri Oct 12 23:57:34 IST 2001

The Clash of Ignorance
by Edward W. Said

Samuel Huntington's article "The Clash of Civilizations?" appeared in theSummer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, where it immediately attracted a
surprising amount of attention and reaction. Because the article was intended to supply Americans with an original thesis about "a new phase"in world politics after the end of the cold war, Huntington's terms 
ofargument seemed compellingly large, bold, even visionary. He very clearly had his eye on rivals in the policy-making ranks, theorists such as Francis Fukuyama and his "end of history" ideas, as well as the 
legions who had celebrated the onset of globalism, tribalism and the dissipation of the state. But they, he allowed, had understood only some aspects of this new period. He was about to announce the "crucial, indeed a 
central,aspect" of what "global politics is likely to be in the coming years."Unhesitatingly he pressed on:
"It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this newworld will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great
divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between
nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future."

Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notionof something Huntington called "civilization identity" and "the interactions among seven or eight [sic] major civilizations," of which the conflict between two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of his attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a
1990 article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideologicalcolors are manifest in its title, "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In both articles, the personification of enormous entities ca
icated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto
bash each other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and 
plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture,or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.The challenge for Western policy-makers, says Huntington, is to make sure
that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam inparticular. More troubling is Huntington's assumption that hisperspective, which is to survey the entire world from a perch outside all
ordinary attachments and hidden loyalties, is the correct one, as if everyone else were scurrying around looking for the answers that he has already found. In fact, Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to
make "civilizations" and "identities" into what they are not: shut-down,sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of 
religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing. This far less visible history is ignored in the rush to highlight
the ludicrously compressed and constricted warfare that "the clash of civilizations" argues is the reality. When he published his book by the same title in 1996, Huntington tried to give his argument a little more
subtlety and many, many more footnotes; all he did, however, was confusehimself and demonstrate what a clumsy writer and inelegant thinker he was.

The basic paradigm of West versus the rest (the cold war opposition reformulated) remaine
 and this is what has persisted, often insidiously and implicitly, in discussion since the terrible events of September 11. The carefully planned and horrendous, pathologically
motivated suicide attack and mass slaughter by a small group of deranged militants has been turned into proof of Huntington's thesis. Instead of seeing it for what it is--the capture of big ideas (I use the word loosely) by a tiny band of crazed fanatics for criminal purposes--international luminaries from former Pakistani Prime 
Minister Benazir Bhutto to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi have pontificated about Islam's troubles, and in the latter's case have used Huntington's ideas to rant on about the West's superiority, how "we" have
Mozart and Michelangelo and they don't. (Berlusconi has since made a halfhearted apology for his insult to "Islam.")

More information about the reader-list mailing list