Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Were the cartoon riots part of the Clash of Civilizations?

In his work, “The Clash of Civilizations,” Samuel Huntington argues that the “clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” Huntington calls this clash the “latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world,” contrasting the “clash of civilization” from Palmer’s “wars of kings,” “wars of people” and Huntington’s self-described “conflict of ideologies.” By “conflict of ideologies,” Huntington refers to the contest among “communism, fascist-Nazism and liberal democracy, and then between communism and liberal democracy.” (Huntington) He also goes on to note that with the defeat of the Axis and the fall of communism, the conflict of ideology ended and was replaced by the clash of civilizations. Huntington defines civilizations are the “the broadest level of identification with which [an individual] intensely identifies.” Different civilizations in contact lead to conflicts over territory and power. (Huntington)

In “Clash of Civilizations” Huntington identified seven or eight civilizations in friction around the world. These civilizations include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin America and African. Recent examples of friction across these borders include Janjaweed Islamic militias versus tranhumanance animists in Southern Sudan, Westernizing Russians versus Chechyan Muslims and Muslims in Southern Thailand versus Northern Confucian Thais. In addition, some observers see the recent contretemps over the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed published in Western newspapers as a manifestation of this clash.

The genesis of the “Cartoon Riots” occurred on 30 September 2005, when the Danish newspaper “Jyllands-Posten” published what came to be known as the Mohammed Cartoons. Starting on 4 February 2006, many Muslims around the world began to riot, often violently, citing the publication of cartoons as the reason. (BBC) Riots spread throughout the world and were especially intense in Pakistan. Even Western countries with a tradition of open press and free exchange of ideas saw large scale demonstrations by Muslim citizens. The pervasiveness of the protests alarmed many in the West. Aamer Ahmed Khan points out that the rioters targeted businesses and media outlets which often only had a symbolic relationship to the West in order to communicate their anger. “Western observers may be baffled at the images of Muslim rioters burning the properties of other Muslims in protest at sacrilege committed by Danes. But they may find the situation easier to understand if they give a thought to what might be the real target of the rioters.” (Khan)

For Westerners, the Mohammed cartoons seemed like a benign stimulus to trigger such destruction. Because it seems nonsensical for cartoons to cause riots, observers sought to discern what Khan called the “real target” for the rioters. In general terms, the real target of any riot are difficult to determine, but rioters generally have some goal in mind. “Crowds are affected by emotion and may sometimes get out of control, but that they are also fundamentally rational responses to specific political, social, religious, racial, and/or economic catalysts.” (Alvarez, 215) Given Alvarez’ categories of motivations, the “real targets” of the rioters can be identified.

For the many rioters in the winter of 2006, the proximate cause was the cartoon depictions of Mohammed, but those pictures provided a convenient excuse for those with a grievance to act. “But given the nature of the violence, few seem convinced the riots are either spontaneous or driven purely by public indignation at the satirical cartoons. For one, most of the public and private property attacked by the rioters cannot even remotely be linked to the cartoons.”(Khan) Even if the targets of the rioter’s destruction seem disassociated from their purported grievances, the rioters were nonetheless sending a message. The real target was to communicate to the West regarding Muslim dissatisfaction and grievances. Francis Fukuyama, commenting on the cartoon riots, warned that “we should be alarmed at the scope of the problem, but prudent in responding to it, since escalating cultural conflict throughout the Continent will bring us closer to a showdown between Islamists and secularists that will increasingly look like a clash of civilizations.” (Fukuyama)
While this episode of cartoon riots would seem to illustrate Huntington’s thesis, on closer examination, there is something missing. Huntington described a clash of civilizations, not petulant grousing about other civilizations. The rioters obviously felt real antipathy towards the West, but apparently not enough antipathy to actually cross the civilization frontier to confront the West. The most violent riots were confined within Muslim dominated countries with almost no Western presence. Muslims who protested within the West were angry, but not violent. The cartoon riots did not represent a contest for power or territory; instead, the riots were a way to vent anger using the cartoons as a pretext.

The riots highlight the relative disparity in power between the two civilizations. Since 1978, it seemed like Islam was advancing on the West and there was a true clash of civilizations beginning. Starting with the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran, the bombings in Lebanon, assassinations of American diplomats, the initial bombing of the World Trade Center, attacks on the American embassies in Africa and culminating with the attacks on 9/11, the Islamic civilization was bringing the fight all along its frontier with the West. Once the West began to retaliate, Islamic civilization’s gains were quickly rolled back. The Pan-Arabic governments in Iraq and Islamic government in Afghanistan were toppled with great rapidity and were replaced by pro-Western rulers. Israel smashed attacks on three frontiers. The Islamic Civilization is being rolled back and remade so that it will be less likely to cause friction on the frontiers.

The remaking of Islam is similar to the transformation of the Japanese Civilization, following World War II. Showa Japan prior to and during World War II developed the concept of “State Shinto,” and amalgam of governance and religion designed to solidify the bonds between the people and the state using the trappings of worship. “State Shinto helped to suffuse the national mind with notions of a noble past rich in great traditions, a superior racial stock destined to endure as an eternal national family, and a matchless state headed by an unbroken, inviolable, divinely descended imperial dynasty.” (Shunzo, 31) Substitute “State Shinto” for “Islam” and Osama bin Laden would agree with that statement.

The utter defeat of Japanese forces discredited the “State Shinto” ideology. This politico-religious ideology was supplanted when occupying Western forces imposed Western-style democracy on the Japanese. The Japanese people internalized pacifistic world-view and have been at peace with their neighbors since 1945. For a period, the Japanese civilization with its attendant political-religious ideology, seemed ascendant and unstoppable. Contemporary political observers predicted the likelihood of friction on the frontier of the Japanese civilization frontier with the West and with the Confucian world that would extend indefinitely into the future. However, the abject defeat of Japanese forces irreparably discredited the losing ideology. Now, the Japanese civilization is no longer a threat or source of friction on any frontier.

The German people experienced a similar arc, moving from a murderous, supremacist ideology to pacifism following a military defeat. The German example is illustrative but less relevant to this discussion since, in Huntington’s construct, the war against Germany occurred completely within the West. The conflict against of the West against Japan occurred across civilization frontiers.

The example of Japan’s transformation from ideological belligerent to ideological pacifist further obscures the clarity of Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis. As noted above, Huntington quickly glosses over the defeat of Japan by lumping it in with Germany as “fascism-Nazism” and as part of the “conflict of ideologies.” However, Huntington would have been well served to dwell on the similarities between Showa Japan’s vision of the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” and radical Islam’s belief in a world-wide caliphate. The details of the ideologies are different, but the effect on those in the way is identical, death or enslavement.

Perhaps “the clash of civilizations” is not actually the latest phase of conflict, but is only a re-branding of the ongoing “conflict of ideologies.” The real lesson of the 20th century seems to be that civilizations endure but ideologies only last until they are defeated. Huntington himself hinted at this within the essay when he noted that the “central axis of world politics in the future is likely to be, in Kishore Mahbubani’s phrase, the conflict between the ‘West and the rest.’” (Huntington) The most startling part of Huntington’s observation is that he is silent about who is in the “West.” The reality is that once these countries that were formally ruled by murderous ideologues were defeated, those countries then became part of the “West.” Thus, we see countries like Germany, Japan, South Korea, India, Singapore, Taiwan and now Iraq, all joined as liberal democracies confronting illiberal ideologues. What characterizes the new “West’s” confrontation with the new “Rest” is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash of ideas about how people should be governed and allowed to live.

Sources Cited.

Alvarez, Alex and Ronet Bachman. 2007. Violence: The Enduring
Problem. (Thousand Oaks: SAGE).

BBC. 2006. “Muslim cartoon row timeline.” Middle East News, 19
February at
accessed 10 March 09.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2006. “Europe vs. Radical Islam.” Slate, 27
February at accessed 10
March 09.

Huntington, Samuel. 1993. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Affairs 72:3.

Khan, Aamer Ahmed. 2006. “Hidden motives behind cartoon riots,”
BBC South Asia Report. 15 February at accessed 11 March 09.

Shunzo, Sakamaki. 1968. “Shinto: Japanese Ethnocentrism” in
Charles Alexander Moore and Aldyth V. Morris. The Japanese
Mind. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).