A fundamental fallacy

November 9, 2001


Characterising relations between the Middle East and the West as a clash of civilisations plays into the hands of fundamentalists, argues Thomas Meyer.

Since the September 11 attacks on the United States, there has been a revival in the debate about clash-of-civilisations theory. According to its founding father, Samuel Huntington, this clash is unavoidable and the main civilisations at risk are Islam and the West, because the two cultures are unable to bridge the gulf that divides their interpretations of basic social and political values.

The scenario seems plausible in the light of the atrocities that ethnic communities have inflicted on each other in the crumbling Yugoslavia and the activities of Osama bin Laden's terror network. Consequently, the theory is beginning to win attention from the media, among academics and in the corridors of power. In doing so, it is helping to promote the concept of fundamentalism.

But on closer scrutiny, Huntington's approach reveals the hallmarks of the ideologies of which it is so critical. It is selective in its real world examples, moulding them to its needs, drawing general conclusions and deliberately omitting anything that does not fit its argument. It can therefore be used by politicians and others to justify their own interests - interests that cannot be defended with any degree of conviction if they are viewed from an impartial standpoint.

Huntington treats civilisations as though they consist of nothing but fundamentalism. But fundamentalism, wherever it exists, is just one interpretation of culture among a huge array of options. An extreme form of the politicisation of cultural differences, it is neither confined to the civilisation of the West, from where the term originates, nor is it characteristic of, or for that matter the preserve of civilisations such as Islam. Neither is it a western instrument for analysing and defining other cultures. On the contrary, all cultures can be described as "spaces of social discourse" that are intrinsically diverse and dynamic. Fundamentalism occurs in all of them, to a varying degree, but in none is it the unchallenged expression of the culture's identity as a whole.

Studies show that, under certain conditions, every culture generates currents of fundamentalism alongside the omnipresent modernising and traditionalist ones. The fundamentalist stream has, in both its structure and functions, the same characteristics wherever it appears and caters to similar political and psychological needs. A closed system of thinking that artificially excludes difference, doubts, alternatives and openness, it aims to provide security, an assured goal, a clear identity and absolute truth, and acknowledgement of those who feel excluded or threatened by superior forces. It brings in its wake a disregard for human rights, pluralism, tolerance, law and democracy.

In every culture - be it Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, ethno-fundamentalism in the Balkans, Nazi Germany, Islamic fundamentalism or the various guises of Marxist-Leninist dictatorship - fundamentalism has declared war on modernism, defending its goal of redeeming the "true" traditional culture from its sullied state.

It is clear from research that no cultures are homogeneous and that differentiation exists within and between cultures. Moreover, there are no well-demarcated divisions between cultures in terms of their core fundamental social values. Individual cultures do differ in their regard for particular basic sociopolitical values, such as individualism, equality and so forth, but there is also a considerable overlap between them.

In any case, the historical experiences of individual countries and the level of their socioeconomic development clearly have a greater impact on their respective sociopolitical values than their religiocultural roots. Countries may be culturally different but share sociopolitical values, but there is no guarantee that if they share the same culture, they will have the same sociopolitical values. For example, Portugal and Britain belong to the same civilisation but are at opposite ends of the scale with respect to shared political values such as individualism and acceptance of inequality, whereas Portugal and Turkey belong to very different cultural traditions but share the same sociopolitical values. Empirical research does not, therefore, substantiate the idea of a clash of civilisations on the grounds that there are irreconcilable differences between different civilisations in terms of their basic social and political values. The actual lines of conflict can instead be found within civilisations.

This is in line with attempts to arrive at a common understanding about social values recently made by representatives of most of the world's religions and laid out in the Universal Declaration of Global Ethos. This declares the right of every individual to humane treatment, the principle of freedom from violence and respect for life, solidarity between people all over the world, advocacy of a just world economic order, tolerance for other religions, opinions and cultures, equal rights for all and partnership based on equality between men and women. There is then a common basis for understanding and coexistence in all of the world's civilisations.

The politicisation of cultural differences takes place from within as well as from without. The former represents the strategy of fundamentalism, which seeks to convince us that the afflictions of the world can be wholly cured only when it comes to power and is able to fulfil without fear of contradiction the claims of certainty promised by its charismatic leaders. The latter represents the strategy of those such as Huntington, who, without being fundamentalists themselves, pave the way for fundamentalist action by declaring that the different civilisations of the world are by their very nature nothing but fundamentalist action programmes that compel even non-fundamentalists to respond with like for like if they do not want to jeopardise their own powers in the supposed global clash of civilisations.

Fundamentalism is a political ideology that has challenged modernity ever since its inception, but it is not until the last quarter of the 20th century that we witnessed its worldwide emergence as a popular movement in all cultures. It recruits members based on their shared ethnoreligious background. Experiences of humiliation, misery, desperation and lack of acknowledgement play a big role in its political success. It manages to combine elements of the late modern age in an ambiguously pragmatic manner with aspects drawn from the dogmatic stock of pre-modern traditions, seeking to attack the basic structures and results of the modern era's culture of tolerance - which it despises - and does so all the more effectively by using modern methods and tactics, such as the democratic system.

Its obsession with identity is a political tool used to heighten a sense of cultural difference, although often with varying intentions and emphasis. Its followers acquire their identity through their claim to supremacy, a claim that is usually asserted against those of the same culture who resist it. Almost without exception, the fundamentalist leadership uses the energies of those it has mobilised for the purpose of acquiring or consolidating political power or to justify violence against the declared enemy.

Today's cultures are defined in the first instance by their people's common social experiences and life situations. Included in these formative experiences are crises, ruptures and deprivation - such as the kind that may be caused by fundamentalism. But the broad social values that all cultures share create space for the coexistence of people with different cultural or religious identities. Despite the opportunities for mutual understanding, there is an imminent risk that the politicisation of cultures may become a self-fulfiling prophecy. Those who are working from the outside, such as Huntington, are playing into the hands of those who pursue it from within. Their explanations and prognoses corroborate each other: their energy is mutually reinforcing.

As with any society, the emerging global order requires some common values and norms for coexistence. Such basic ideas exist at the heart of all cultures, though they may be expressed in different ways. Effort is needed to facilitate understanding between and within these different cultures. This is the real challenge after September 11.

Thomas Meyer is professor of political science at Dortmund University, Germany. His book, Identity Mania , is published by Zed Books this month, £12.95.

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