Today's date:
Winter 2002


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 civilized world.

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.

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 today.''

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."

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 religions.

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?

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 laws.

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.

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 out?

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.

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?

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 terrorists.

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.

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?

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 join them.

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.