Osama bin Laden Has Given Common Identity Back to the West
Samuel P. Huntington is the famed Harvard professor
and author of The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking the World Order
(1996). He spoke with NPQ editor Nathan Gardels in October.
NPQ | To what extent do events since Sept.
11 bear out your theory of a "clash of civilizations"? Are we
at war with an isolated terrorist fringe, or terrorists with a large,
perhaps vast, civilizational hinterland of sympathy?
SAMUEL HUNTINGTON | Osama bin Laden has declared war on Western
civilization, and in particular the United States. If the Muslim community
to which Bin Laden is appealing rallies to him, then it will become a
clash of civilizations. So far, they appear deeply divided.
Bin Laden is an outlaw expelled from his own country, Saudi Arabia, and
later Sudan. The Taliban which supports him was recognized by only three
of 53 Muslim countries in the world. All Muslim governments except Iraq-but
including Sudan and Iran-condemned his terrorist attack. Most Muslim governments
have at least been acquiescent in the US strategy to respond militarily
in Afghanistan. The Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Bin
Laden's terrorism-but did not condemn the US response.
At the same time, Bin Laden appears to have growing popularity "on
the street," particularly in the Arab world where he is able to capitalize
on resentment against ruling regimes, Israel and the wealth, power and
culture of the US.
Appropriately, the US thinks of its response not as a war on Islam, but
as a war between an extensive, transnational terrorist network and the
Yet, undeniably, the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden have reinvigorated
civilizational identity. Just as he sought to rally Muslims by declaring
war on the West, he gave back to the West its sense of common identity
in defending itself.
NPQ | Your book, The Clash of Civilizations, was not about terrorism,
but about the contesting world-views of civilizations bound to clash in
the wake of the Cold War.
Bin Laden's view of the world is that it is now divided "between
believers and unbelievers." Many, like the Japanese writer Haruki
Murukami, have chosen to interpret that as a division between "the
closed-circuit mind" of any type of fanatic and the "open-circuit
mind" cultivated by a pluralist society.
But isn't the conflict deeper-between the secular pluralism of the nominally
Judeo-Christian West and the political monotheism exclusive to Islam?
Indeed, the late Nobel poet Octavio Paz once argued: "Islam today
is the most obstinate form of monotheism in a world that otherwise accepts
plural truths. We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals
to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of
the worst sins of Western civilization-the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism-can
be traced to the monotheistic mindset.
"For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith
could monopolize the truth. Outside Islam, the world again sees it that
way. Islam stands alone. It is the most reactionary force in the world
Similarly, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said to me: "The
whole world is implicated in the fragmentation and uprootedness of postmodern
pluralism, including China and Russia. There is one exception: Islam.
It stands alone as the challenge to the indifference (cultural relativism)
sweeping the world."
HUNTINGTON | It is true that the vigor of the intolerant mindset that
can come from monotheism waned in the West after being exhausted in religious
wars of the late Middle Ages. Pluralism has been empowered since by a
division between religion and politics unknown in the Islamic world. This
merger of political and religious life generates conflict in societies
both where there is a Muslim majority and non-Muslim minority or a Muslim
minority in a country like India, where most are Hindus.
Since Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheistic religions,
the practical question is whether they are monotheist and tolerant of
other religions, or monotheist and intolerant. All three of these religions
have behaved differently in different times. Tolerance was hardly a quality
of Christianity during the Crusades.
At the moment, Islam is the least tolerant civilization of the monotheistic
NPQ | You have proposed the "abstention rule"-that the West
should abstain from intervening in the internal conflicts of other civilizations-as
a way to avoid a clash. Osama bin Laden's biggest issue is the presence
of US troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia to defend one Islamic
country from another. Should the West not be there?
HUNTINGTON | I qualified my abstention rule by saying that it might
have to be broken if a vital national interest was at stake. In the Gulf
War, our vital national interest was at stake because we could not allow
Iraq to take sole control over the bulk of the world's oil reserves. And
our principles were at stake as well. We could not tolerate one country
just invading and annexing another at will in violation of all international
So, that was a legitimate action. The continuing American presence in
Saudi Arabia now is really minimal, and we are there with the approval
of the extraordinarily religious Saudi government.
NPQ | Of the many reasons for resentment against America among pious
Muslims is the deluge of materialistic, sensate mass culture that spews
at them from Hollywood. MTV has gone where the CIA could never penetrate.
Madonna is the Muzak of globalization.
Shouldn't the West be more sensitive to the message its culture sends
HUNTINGTON | They don't have to watch that if they don't want to.
Many governments, including those of China, Singapore and France, have
made serious efforts to stem the penetration of American mass culture
whether it comes across the Internet or on TV by satellite. In Afghanistan,
the Taliban banned television sets.
NPQ | The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci has caused a sensation
with her passionate call on the West to vigorously defend itself against
political Islamists, saying it is us or them.
Beyond the current campaign against terrorism, what should Western civilization
do to defend itself in the broader strategic sense?
HUNTINGTON | I laid out several dimensions of such a strategy in my
book, The Clash of Civilizations, and they are just as valid today.
The Western powers of the US and Europe need to achieve greater political,
economic and military integration and coordinate their policies so states
from other civilizations cannot exploit our differences. Before Sept.
11, Europe and America were moving apart on a whole series of issues from
genetic foods to missile defense to a European military. The events of
Sept. 11 have for the moment changed that dramatically. After the terror
attacks, the headline of Le Monde read "We are all Americans."
Echoing Kennedy, Berliners declared "We are all New Yorkers."
As I said at the outset, in this sense Osama bin Laden has given back
to the West its common identity.
Beyond this, we need to continue the expansion of the European Union and
NATO to include the Western states from Central Europe, that is, the Visegard
countries, the Baltic republics, Slovenia and Croatia. The US also needs
to encourage the "Westernization" of Latin America.
To avoid conflict, the West must accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy
and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of
its southern borders, with whom we can cooperate in dealing with Islamist
The West must maintain its technological and military superiority over
other civilizations and restrain the development of conventional and unconventional
military power of the Islamic countries and China.
Above all, this consolidated West must recognize that intervention in
the internal affairs of other civilizations, except where vital interests
are at stake, is the single most dangerous source of potential global
conflict in a multicivilizational world.
NPQ | Will the anxiety and fear caused by terror end globalization
by disrupting the free flow of ideas, people and capital? Or might we
see a "two-speed" or "two-tier" globalization as the
core countries of the West hasten their integration as they fight terrorism,
leaving the rest of the world behind?
HUNTINGTON | Globalization has already been proceeding at several
speeds for different parts of the world. Indeed, globalization has both
stimulated and enabled the likes of Osama bin Laden to plot his attacks
on downtown Manhattan from a cave in impoverished Afghanistan.
For the immediate future, I believe Europe and the US will come closer
together, faster, driven by the rediscovery of their common interests
as a civilization of free societies. Perhaps Latin America and Japan will
Overall, and in the longer term, the economic forces of the market will
promote further globalization. This in turn will continue to produce a
legitimate reaction because of the income inequality globalization generates
within societies, but also between them-including between the tighter
Western tier and the rest.
Russia, China and India, while necessarily outside this integrating core,
will for the moment, for the practical reasons of their own problems with
Islamic unrest and terror, work with the Western-led coalition.