The Clash of Civilizations Doesn't Exist... Yet

"Seriousness" has become the word of the day for the Islamophobic set.

According to some of our more serious hawks, anyone who doesn't buy that the liberal democracies of the West are engaged in a death-match with hordes of dusky Muslim fanatics is "unserious" about America's security and can't be trusted.

It's the latest in a series of attempts to forestall any meaningful discussion of the causes of violent Islamist ideologies, much less how the United States should respond to them. It locks us into the global "war on terror."

Unfortunately, all too many otherwise sane people seem to accept the terms.

But it's hard to imagine anything more profoundly unserious than taking a dozen complex conflicts that originated in a dozen countries, stripping them of all historical and political context and lumping them together in an amorphous blob called the "Clash of Civilizations." But that's exactly what we're talking about.

So let's take them at their word for a moment and think seriously about the framework they use to understand a dangerous and confusing world.

Consider this: in the epic struggle between East and West, some of our staunchest allies are the undisputed champs in spreading violent Islamic extremism. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan established fundamentalist, anti-Western madrassas all across the world, funneled gobs of cash to extremist groups, and nurtured and supported them in their infancy. It wasn't just random individuals within those countries; Saudi Arabia made it a foreign policy priority to spread its brand of Wahhabism, mostly to counter the perceived threat of Pan-Arabism and other anti-colonial ideologies. Pakistan's intelligence service, the ISI -- sometimes called a "state within a state" -- not only supported the Taliban in Afghanistan but funded, equipped and helped train some of the most notorious terror groups that grew out of that country in the 1990s. Talk all you want about Syria and Iran supporting Hezbollah, these are the great terror-sponsoring states, and they're on the side of the Western democracies.

What's more, the West isn't all that unified in this great existential struggle to save itself from destruction. A recent poll of citizens in the United Kingdom, our most loyal ally and a country that largely believes the Clash of Civilizations meme, found that -- "by a margin of more than five to one -- the public wants Tony Blair to split from President George W. Bush and either go it alone in the 'war on terror', or work more closely with Europe." Just 14 per cent believed "Britain should continue to align itself with America." A Pew Global Attitudes survey in June found that in Spain, supposedly a target of "Islamic Imperialism" and the victim of one of the most spectacular terror attacks ever, "four times as many people oppose the war on terror as support it (76 percent to 19 percent)."

Of course, the hawks' response is that there must be something wrong with the rest of the world. Outside of the United States, they argue, the West is "feminized," spineless and too "politically correct" to take on the Muslim hordes. That's like an ugly, unhygienic man's sincere belief that every woman who rejects his advances must be a lesbian. If there's a consensus among your closest friends that you're wrong about something, you probably are.

We're fortunate that most of the Clash of Civilizations rhetoric is obvious nonsense peddled by cynics playing to our latent xenophobia, rather than something inherently violent or nihilistic in Islam (it is violent, but no more than any other religion).

"Not all Muslims are terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims" is a common refrain on the many "war-blogs" that have proliferated since 9/11. That's wrong, and purely racist -- like saying all crack-heads are African-American. Last year, excluding the mess in Iraq (it's awfully tough to distinguish between terrorism, insurgency, sectarian violence, etc.), U.S. government statistics (PDF) show that the country with the most terror fatalities was India. Some were inflicted by Muslims, but more were perpetrated by secessionist groups from the Northern provinces, the Communist Party of India and various Hindu extremists. Next up was Colombia, a country with a population that's over 90 percent Roman Catholic. Following in fifth place -- after the mess in Afghanistan -- were the victims of secular Maoist terror groups in Nepal.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Lex Rieffel noted that while Indonesia -- the most heavily populated Muslim country in the world -- is considered by Western analysts to be a hot-bed of Islamic terror, "violence against innocent civilians has been ... committed by secessionist movements in Sumatra and elsewhere, by Christian and Muslim fanatics [and] by indigenous people threatened by migrants ..." The University of Chicago's Robert Pape, who has studied terrorists exhaustively (and seriously), found that the group that led the world in suicide attacks between 1980 and 2004 was the Tamil Tigers, a secular group that draws its adherents from Sri Lanka's predominantly Hindu population. Saying that terrorism is a result of some deep flaw in Islam just isn't serious at all.

Even a serious analysis of Islamic extremism makes clear that these groups are not fighting one ill-defined and melodramatic conflict with the "West," but a host of conflicts with national or regional origins. For the most part, their primary targets are not liberal democracies or Western decadence, but some of the most brutal, authoritarian regimes in the world, many of which are considered "moderate" by our own extremists. The fact is that virtually all terrorist attacks outside of the disputed Kashmir region are perpetrated by extremists in their own country or in the homelands of states that are occupying their country. The only exceptions are stateless peoples whose desire for self-rule are violently suppressed -- Palestinians and Kurds the most prominent among them.

To the extent that some terrorist groups have recently turned their eyes to us, it's not a matter of hating our freedoms or our women's bare shoulders. It's because we've supported many of those repressive regimes -- often with troops on the ground -- from Indonesia to Iran.

As Katha Pollitt asks in the Nation:

Who are the "Islamo-fascists" in Saudi Arabia -- the current regime or its religious-fanatical opponents? It was under the actually existing U.S.-supported government that female students were forced back into their burning school rather than be allowed to escape unveiled. Under that government people are lashed and beheaded, women can't vote or drive, non-Muslim worship is forbidden [and] a religious dress code is enforced by the state through violence …
Similar arguments can be made about the governments of Yemen, Sudan, Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt (which has tortured tens of thousands of Islamic activists, both violent and not). Some of them are on our "side," others aren't; viewing them as part of one cosmic East-West struggle isn't serious at all.

Consider a specific example: The terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. They're loosely connected to Al Qaeda, they're violent, they're extremists -- if you buy the global Clash of Civilizations/War on Terror/Struggle Against Islamic Fascism, then logically, you can't view them only as a serious problem for the Philippine government -- which they are -- but as a sworn enemy of America.

And the U.S. government certainly does. In 2002, 600 troops were sent to the southern Philippine islands of Basilan and Jolo to fight Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups. The operation was a miserable failure, and a year later the troops were pulled out having had virtually no impact.

According to Steven Rogers, a Phillippines-based journalist writing in Foreign Affairs ($$), much of that can be explained by U.S. officials' simplistic analysis of the situation:
Washington's flawed understanding of the problem has hamstrung the mission and lowered its chances of success. Policymakers treat the conflict as a case of a violent Muslim population terrorizing its Christian neighbors under the influence of radical Islamist agitators. They emphasize reports of al Qaeda support and the presence of operatives from the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah network. They have failed to recognize, however, that terrorists did not create the conflict in the southern Philippines and do not control any of the combatants. The troubles are rooted in specific local issues that predate the war on terror by centuries, and neither soldiers nor money will end Mindanao's war.
Manilla -- capital of the Philippines -- is 8,952 miles from where I sit, and Abu Sayyaf poses exactly zero threat to me or my loved ones. We may abhor the group's tactics, but there's no reason to consider ourselves at war with them. The counterargument, of course, is that U.S. interests mandate that we protect "pro-Western" governments in the Islamic world (as long as they keep the oil flowing), regardless of how nasty or authoritarian they may be. It would be a compelling argument but for one thing: in all of human history, no government has ever been taken down by terrorist attacks.

In the end, the Clash of Civilizations rhetoric is, by design, a way to cut short any discussion of neo-imperialsim (the same reason we hear gibberish that foreign policy critics "hate America," that "they hate us for our freedom" or that "you're with us or against us"). Osama Bin Laden himself said, famously, "Unlike what Bush says --- that we hate freedom ---- let him tell us why didn't we attack Sweden, for example." No answer was forthcoming from the Bush administration.

Political and economic issues eclipse religion; terror attacks on oil workers and infrastructure in Colombia represent a huge proportion of international terror attacks in the past five years (according to our government's definition). The overwhelming majority of Islamic terrorism is aimed at business friendly pro-Western elites in their own culture, not ours. There is a Clash of Civilizations, but its dividing line is not between East and West but North and South.

Ultimately, these conflicts, like civil conflicts in the non-Muslim world, are about power, control of finite resources or long-term ethnic and tribal friction, regardless of whether they're packaged as religious-inspired "Jihad" or not. Those who embrace the idea of a global struggle against "Islamic fascism" would never suggest that decades of violence in Ireland could be reduced to a story as simplistic as Catholics against Protestants, much less that it was an indictment of Christianity as a whole. They'd be quick to admit that the sectarian divide in Ireland was just one of a number of factors that caused so much bloodshed, just as religion is one of a host of causes of violence in Egypt, Lebanon or Turkey.

Even the ideology spread by Bin Laden -- who originally targeted the "apostate" regime in Saudi Arabia before turning his eye to the West -- is a mish-mash of Islamism and the nationalism and pan-Arabism that preceded its rise. Al Qaeda's brand of Islamism has gained popularity among a diverse community of extremists, but that isn't primarily about the warriors of Islam battling the pernicious influence of Western culture either, although it's often dressed up that way. Robert Pape pointed out in an interview with the American Conservative that "the central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective …"

The truth is that we're threatened by a number of lethal organized crime networks -- with politics rather than profits as their chief motivation -- spread out over dozens of countries. We fight organized crime with law enforcement and intelligence, and have done so for a long time, with notable success (much more success than we can see by any objective measure in the "war" on terror). We should approach terror groups the exact same way, and that's not an ideological position -- it's a simple matter of applying "best practices" to a problem.

But the danger of a Clash of Civilizations developing is there. It's a self-fulfilling prophesy: If we keep saying we have one on our hands and keep acting on it, we will effectively create some kind of long-term, massive historical enemy from whole cloth. It's already happened to a degree; before 9/11, large majorities in the Muslim world had a favorable view of the United States, and Bin Laden and his followers were swimming against the tide of popular opinion. That's changed dramatically, and Bin Laden and his fellow killers are now lionized as heroes of the masses. The rise in locally grown copycat groups -- especially those of young Muslims in places like the United Kingdom and Canada -- shows that when our own extremists declared an ill-defined war against an equally murky "them," they sowed the seeds for an epic battle that didn't previously exist.

That's why it's so important to understand that those reactionaries within our own society who are pushing the Clash of Civilizations are mirror-images of the terrorists that inspire their hyperbolic fear; they're just as xenophobic, just as irrational and, ultimately, are just as great a threat to our security. Both have to be challenged aggressively before they give birth to another, even bloodier generation of culture warriors.

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