Friday, March 4, 2011

What Would Samuel Huntington Say?

Several years ago the late Harvard historian Samuel Huntington wrote a seminal book entitled, The Clash of Civilizations. 

Since Huntington is, unfortunately, no longer among us, David Brooks has taken it upon himself to reread Huntington’s chapters on Islam and to summarize what Huntington might be thinking if he were watching the events unfolding in the Middle East. Link here.

A Brooks explains: “Human beings, Huntington wrote, are divided along cultural lines — Western, Islamic, Hindu and so on. There is no universal civilization. Instead, there are these cultural blocks, each within its own distinct set of values.

“The Islamic civilization, he wrote, is the most troublesome. People in the Arab world do not share the general suppositions of the Western world. Their primary attachment is to their religion, not to their nation-state. Their culture is inhospitable to certain liberal ideals, like pluralism, individualism and democracy.

“Huntington correctly foresaw that the Arab strongman regimes were fragile and were threatened by the masses of unemployed young men. He thought these regimes could fall, but he did not believe that the nations would modernize in a Western direction. Amid the tumult of regime change, the rebels would selectively borrow tools from the West, but their borrowing would be refracted through their own beliefs. They would follow their own trajectory and not become more Western.

“The Muslim world has bloody borders, he continued. There are wars and tensions where the Muslim world comes into conflict with other civilizations. Even if decrepit regimes fell, he suggested, there would still be a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The Western nations would do well to keep their distance from Muslim affairs. The more the two civilizations intermingle, the worse the tensions will be.”

I am sure we all agree that we are indebted to David Brooks for providing a clear and concise summation of Huntington’s views.

Of course, they are not just Huntington’s views. A few weeks ago I reported on an interview that the Jerusalem Post conducted with Bernard Lewis, Princeton professor and eminent scholar of Islam. Lewis was making a similar point: we cannot really follow what is going on in the Middle East without understanding how people in the region understand concepts like freedom and democracy. And without understanding that their concepts have very little resemblance to ours. Link here.

As it happens, Brooks takes exception to Huntington’s view, and also, I assume to Lewis’s view. He is trying to rely on psychological science to posit a universal human nature that will supersede localized cultural influences.

To do so he will mix universal narratives with what he sees as the latest in cognitive science. He does not say so, but Brooks seems to be using an updated version of a myth invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As Rousseau famously wrote: Man is born free but he is everywhere in chains.

Brooks is not quite so radical about the pervasiveness of human oppression, but he does believe that rebellion has swept through the Middle East because the peoples of the region are overthrowing their wicked autocrats because they now yearn to breathe the air of freedom and dignity.

If the high cost of food, coupled with disgracefully high unemployment has something to do with the rebellions, Brooks takes that to be of secondary or tertiary importance.

Strangely, Brooks seems to believe that current events disprove Huntington.

In his words: “ He [Huntington] argued that they [Muslims] do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West. But it now appears as though they were simply living in circumstances that did not allow that patriotism or those spiritual hungers to come to the surface.”

Actually, Bernard Lewis believes and has argued the same point that Huntington made. When two of the greatest scholars of  a culture agree, we need more than the pious assurances of David Brooks to dismiss them.

Without an in-depth study, and without seeing how events unfold, we do not really know why these people rebelled against their dictators. To attribute it to spiritual hunger and patriotism seems, most charitably, to get us much too far ahead of ourselves.

Currently, the State Department is preparing for the time when Islamist parties will gain political power in the Middle East. It think it’s fair to say that Muslim spiritual hunger may not be thoroughly consonant with Western liberal democratic values.

Again, Brooks does not present any evidence from the events themselves. He falls back on the latest and trendiest form of psychobabble. He bases his conclusion on the idea that we all have “multiple authentic selves.”

In his words: “It now appears that people in these nations, like people in all nations, have multiple authentic selves. In some circumstances, one set of identities manifests itself, but when those circumstances change, other equally authentic identities and desires get activated.”

I am not sure what Brooks means when he says that these different identities are “equally authentic.”

If one Egyptian Muslim moves to Germany, thus changing his cultural circumstances drastically, and becomes  Mohammed Atta, is his new terrorist identity as authentic as that of the Egyptian who moves to Germany and becomes a respected physician.

And why have we fetishized authenticity? It almost seems that people trot out the concept to rationalize bad behavior. Truth be told, the physician is a far better human being than is Mohammed Atta. Calling them equally authentic can only muddy our thinking.

To explain how changing circumstances will change hearts and minds, Brooks writes: “For most of the past few decades, people in Arab nations were living under regimes that rule by fear. In these circumstances, most people shared the conspiracy mongering and the political passivity that these regimes encouraged. But when the fear lessened, and the opportunity for change arose, different aspirations were energized. Over the past weeks, we’ve seen Arab people ferociously attached to their national identities. We’ve seen them willing to risk their lives for pluralism, openness and democracy.”

As everyone knows, Muslims who have moved to Europe have very often failed to assimilate. Apparently, they are not yearning for freedom as much as David Brooks would like. Leaders of the major European democracies have recently denounced the idea of multiculturalism because it has been too tolerant of those who do not assimilate.

Admittedly, this looks like factual evidence. It suggests that some human beings, for cultural reasons, are not exactly enchanted by the prospect of Western freedoms. To imagine that a change of circumstances will, in and of itself,  cause people to think differently, to behave differently, and to grow new authentic selves does not feel right.

But Brooks is a  universalist. He sees human nature having certain universal characteristics independent of culture and, I would assume, community. If that is true then you can figure out what the Egyptian or the Libyan is thinking by introspecting and by imagining how you would feel under the same circumstances.

At the least, this feels presumptuous. As Brooks puts it: “But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.”

Clear to whom? Grant that most of these people are devout Muslims, you still have to ask yourself where in Islam it says anything about freedom and democracy. As everyone knows by now, Islam demands submission. That is the meaning of the word.

As for pluralistic yearnings, Islam does not, as Bernard Lewis famously emphasized, accept any separation between mosque and state.

Ought we to hope for an outbreak of liberal democracy in the Middle East? If you want to feed on a steady diet of hope, you would certainly want to do so. Yet, when Western intellectuals assert with perfect confidence-- and Brooks is hardly alone here-- that they know how Egyptians and Libyans and Bahrainis are thinking, then we must try to shine the light of reason on their fantasies.


Anonymous said...

TO: All
RE: Interesting

Of late I've been reading Culture & Conflict by Philip Carl Salzman. It's a study of Arab culture. Including Islam.

I'm only into Chapter 2, however, I was struck by this comment in Chapter 1.

It reads....

....opponent to the umma: the world of the infidels, which had to be confronted for the glory of [their] god and for the PROFIT OF PLUNDER (DEEMED AS ALREADY BELONGING TO MUSLIMS). [NOTE: Emphasis added.]

That 'plunder' being currently in the hands of anyone who is NOT a Muslim.


[Gird up your loins....]

March 4, 2011 2:10 PM

Anonymous said...

TO: Dr. Schneiderman
RE: Where Is Democracy?

Grant that most of these people are devout Muslims, you still have to ask yourself where in Islam it says anything about freedom and democracy. -- Stuart Schneiderman

Based on what little I've garnered from the book I'm reading, democracy exists. However, it's at the tribal, village level. A lot like most other tribal cultures, anyone can speak in village council. Vote by the village elders decides an issue. It doesn't go beyond that.

Where Islam figures in, the mullahs/imams/ayatollahs/whathaveyou 'interpret' religion. It's similar to what the West experienced under the Roman Catholic church before the the invention of the Guttenberg Press and the subsequent Wars of the Reformation. In other words, the religious class has the (1) education and (2) controls interpretation of their 'holy' writings.

This sorry state of affairs came about after the Mongol invasion, whom Islam came to look upon a scourge upon the scientific culture that dominated the Muslim world up to that point. After that event, the clerics took control. And 'voil√°'....


[The influence of the religion [Islam] paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world -- Winston Churchill, 1899]

Anonymous said...

P.S. ANY officer, commissioned or non-commissioned, who is bound for Afghanistan MUST read Churchill's account of the third Afghan War, late 19th Century. This in order to gain an appreciation of what he/she is getting into.

You can download it via Eucalyptus to your iPad/iPod. It's titled...

The Story of the Malakand Field Force: An Episode of Frontier War.

He wrote it as a Royal Army Officer on extended leave from his regiment to be a correspondent to a London paper during the operations.

JP said...

It's only been 100 years since the last remanants of Islamic civilization were dismemebered and they show no signs of reconstitituing anything, so I'm not particularly concerend with the so-called Islamic world these days.

They have oil and that's it.

And peak oil is here.

Personally, I view Islam as the puritan version of Orthodox Christianity. If the Mongols hadn't dismembered a significant portion of the Magian Civilization, their civilization could have continued on for hundreds of years.

However, once it was smashed...and once the West was done smashing Constantinople, well, the Ottoman Empire eventually arose, peaked, and then declined, basically unable to counter the rising force of Faustian culture from the West.

Anonymous said...

RE: Heh

You may think differently after Iran pops a nuke at 300 miles above Omaha, Nebraska.


[Be Prepared. -- Boy Scout motto]

Anonymous said...

C of C occupies an honored place in the Islamic Civ. section of my personal library.

Prof. H (late lamented) was/is vilified by Liberal bien pensants - and always will be. His truths are Taboo, he is Evil.

Thus, I can't blame Brooks too much for his wooly prevaricating. He works for NYT, lives w/Libs somewhere.

If he were honest, he'd be shunned, shamed, and trashed - every door and cocktail party closed to him, a social pariah.

I also recommend "The Arab Mind" by Raphael Patai. -- Rich

Anonymous said...

So why are my comments not showing up?

The latest was here a while ago, but I come back and now it's gone.

Anonymous said...

TO: All
RE: Klavan....

.... on Brooks' Multiculteralism.


[Fools never learn.]