Religion & Public Life
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Beyond the clash of civilization

Internal conflicts within societies can be more dangerous than international conflicts

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

‘Clash of civilizations?’
“We need to understand what’s happening within every universal discourse rather than just see these battle lines drawn between them.”
– Adam B. Seligman

The world order has changed so dramatically since the end of the Cold War, figuring out who is allied with whom – and who is an adversary – is no simple task.

The “clash of civilizations” hypothesis, put forth by Harvard professor Samuel Huntington in a 1993 monograph of the same name, seems to provide a reasonable explanation for the geopolitical events that led up to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. According to Huntington, the world is divided along eight major civilizations, with Islamic civilization being particularly agitated with its neighbors.

"In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia," Huntington wrote. "Islam has bloody borders."

Controversy over Huntington's hypothesis has generated its own "clash of ideologies" within the Academy, and also in the media, the pundits and beyond.

Boston University Professor Adam B. Seligman said he often hears the “clash of civilizations” hypothesis bandied about recklessly and without understanding of the meaning of “civilization” or knowledge of the different forms of it.

“These terms are used without thinking, and that’s very dangerous," he said. "Broad generalities are painted with a huge roller on the wall of history.”

Seligman put forth an alternate version of the "clash of civilizations" theory, what he calls the “clash within civilizations.”

Clash OF vs. clash WITHIN civilizations
“We are involved in clashes within different cultures and different civilizations – and I use that term hesitantly.”

Huntington delineates the world among Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and African civilizations. In his article, Huntington predicted that "civilization identity" will become increasingly important, and the most important conflicts of the future will occur along cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another.

“Differences among civilizations are not only real; they are basic,” he wrote. “Civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion. The people of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority, equality and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear.”

Seligman contends that this view can be misleading and even dangerous. “‘Clash of civilization’ is sometimes used in discussion unadvisedly – without thinking of what is entailed when you use the word ‘civilization,’” he said. “People talk very easily about ‘Judeo-Christian’ civilization against Islam. But in many ways Judaism has more in common with Islam than it does Christianity. In terms of the fundamental orientation of religion, in terms of the role of law, in terms of the injunctions of bodily purity and ritual, Judaism is much closer to Islam than it is to Christianity. This is not to advocate Judaism against Christianity.”

Seligman points out that the term, “Judeo-Christian,” is a relatively new invention. “The whole idea of a Judeo-Christian West only arose after World War II. To see Judaism and Christianity, after two millennia of persecution, somehow miraculously joined together standing against Islam is nonsense,” he said.

In order to understand the clashes between civilizations, Seligman said it is important for people to understand the clashes WITHIN civilizations.

“The end of the Cold War and the emergence of America as the one superpower have fundamentally changed the nature of relations between states and within states," he said. "We are involved in clashes within different cultures and different civilizations – and I use that term hesitantly.”

For example, he said there is a deep conflict in the United States between evangelical Christianity and America's liberal, secular consciousness. Similarly, in Israel there is a deep rift in between the secular state and religious conservatism. There are broad conflicts in the Islamic world – from Indonesia, Arabia to Morocco – about the role of Islam in modern society and democracy.

“I see it as much more important at this stage – if we really want to understand what’s happening, if we want to try to avert further bloodshed and wars – to understand what’s happening within every universal discourse rather than just see these battle lines drawn between them,” Seligman said.

Wars and religion

When a conflict involves material resources – land or borders – at some point the cost of warfare becomes too great; too many people die, and the dispute can usually be resolved. But if the conflict is over the meaning of God, compromise is more difficult and wars become more intractable and bloodier.

“When conflicts over resources take a religious dimension, you’re in trouble, because you can’t disengage,” Seligman said. “When you are fighting over grazing rights, water wells or other resources, you can work something out. But if we have a conflict over God – if the real estate we are fighting over is sacred real estate, then there’s no way out.”

In the Middle East, the conflict between the Jews and Arabs has, for most of its history, been about two peoples fighting over the same land. This has changed in the past 20 years with the increasingly religious tone among both Palestinians and Israelis – culminating most recently with the ascension of Hamas in Gaza and the radicalization of the Israeli settlers’ movement.

“Over the years, different groups have attempted to give the conflict a religious dimension, but it never really caught on until recently,” Seligman said. “With the breakdown of peace and the failure of the Oslo Accords, the discourse has become more religious and the problem more intractable.”

The religious aspect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stretches to America, with many American fundamentalist Christian groups supporting the settlers out of a belief that the Jews’ return to Israel is a fulfilling of biblical prophecy.

Any reference to this conflict requires a great amount of context and historical background to present accurately, Seligman said.

“What makes it so difficult for journalists to write about is you have to be well-versed in the history that goes back about 100 years or more,” he said. “You can write the human interest story about a child killed on either side of the conflict. But to understand to roots of the conflict, you have to go back to the beginning of the whole Zionist enterprise and the nature of the relationship between the Jews who immigrated to Israel before the state and the Palestinian population. Much of that history, like the real estate, is contested.”

Faith and reason in action

Seligman directs the Tolerance Project, which is part of Boston University’s Institute for Religion and World Affairs. Part of the project involves developing curricula to teach tolerance in religious high schools – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – in Berlin, Sarajevo, and Jerusalem.

Seligman also works with the International Forum Bosnia to develop summer school programs on religion, democracy and tolerance in Sarajevo, Mostar and Dubrovnik. Another project involves organizing groups of young people from all over the world to help rebuild mosques and other religious buildings destroyed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. About 1,200 mosques were destroyed during the war.

Saudi Arabia is vying for a presence in the region by funding the construction of new mosques. “The new Saudi Arabian-inspired mosques represent a very different Islam than the Bosnian European Islam that had existed there for 400 years. A way to combat fundamentalism is not to build Wahabi-inspired mosques drawn up by Saudi Arabian architects, but to rebuild precisely the European mosques that existed in Bosnia since the beginning of the 16th century,” Seligman said.

“This is engaging a culture and a way of life on its own terms. If you want to talk about the way to fight fundamentalism, it is not with the military, tanks and armies; this is the way to do it; this is bringing different people together. Can you imagine if you had Jews and Palestinians and Egyptians and Turks and Christian evangelicals all working together to rebuild mosques in Bosnia?”

Seligman believes putting people to work on solving practical problems, rather than grand theological and philosophical questions, is a better way to find common ground and tolerance.

“My theory is if people deal with problems like how to get the mortar up to the second floor and building a scaffold, then there’s not a problem if these guys go to the church on Sunday, those guys to the synagogue on Saturday, and those guys go to the mosque on Friday. The point is not to erase those differences. People can preserve all of their differences. They don’t need to find their commonalities in Abraham,” Seligman said.

“I’m not saying if you rebuild a half dozen mosques you’ve solved the problem, but this is the direction I’m pointing in.”

Further reading
Modernity’s Wager: Authority, the Self and Transcendence

Adam B. Seligman, Princeton University Press, 2000
“The centerless world of radical secularization – this fundamentalist doctrine of enlightened reason – has called into being its own nemesis in the form of an often fundamentalist religiosity. Both are in a sense the outcomes of what I term ‘modernity’s wager.’
“The development of pluralism, democracy and toleration in the West has been marked by a retreat of religion from the public arena, its privatization, and the general growth of secularization as the defining context of public life. Pluralism as a value implies the ability to exist together with other, competing visions of society and of the cosmos.”

The United States Institute of Peace

Includes the Balkans Initiative, intended to foster reconciliation and prevent further conflict in the former Yugoslavia

Modest Claims

Adam B. Seligman, 2004, the University of Notre Dame Press Includes a set of arguments about religious tolerance and the importance of finding arguments for tolerance in religion.