Friday, June 22, 2007

Clash of Civilizations: Real or Imagined?

Clash of civilizations: Real or imagined?

Juwono Sudarsono, the Jakarta Post, June, 23, 2007

I have been asked to address the topic presented for this meeting: "Clash of Civilizations: Real or Imagined?" I have come to the conclusion that the clash is both real as well as imagined, simply because "facts", or reality, are often inseparable from perceptions, or the "imagined". The more so because much of the debate has been exacerbated and distorted by the media.
Western media have used such expressions as "Islamic fundamentalism", "Islamic terrorism", "Islamic jihadists" and even "Islamic fascists". Some television and radio stations, as well as trash tabloids, are prone to using these terms. They feed on one another so that "fact" becomes fiction, and fiction "ignites" facts.
The Muslim world as a whole has suffered from this massive media manipulation. It has given rise to many different sets of perceptions about "clashes within civilizations", including among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia. You can also say that it is a clash of ideas about civilizations across all continents.
The notion of a "clash of civilizations" was first publicly raised in 1993 in an article written in Foreign Affairs magazine by Professor Samuel Huntington, and it is useful to remind ourselves of the context of when and why the question of a clash of civilizations was brought up.
First, it appeared in the wake of the "victory" of liberal capitalism over communism, symbolized by the unification of the two Germanys in October 1991 and the dismantling of the Soviet Union in December. The 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait added to the sense of western triumphalism. American hegemony was at its peak.
Second, the crises in the Middle East and the rise of militant Islamist movements against Western interests throughout the world in the mid-1980s began to be perceived by many in the West as "radical Islam" supplanting Communism as the principal challenge in the global ideological contest. Bombings against western interests in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Gulf region resulted in the rise of faith-based neo-conservatism.
Thereafter, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, confirmed the notion in the West that there would be a global contest between the liberal capitalist world led by the United States and the Islamic world led by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda movement.
While there may be superficial truth about this worldwide contest for ideological supremacy, the fact of the matter is that there were even more serious clashes within civilizations, both in "the West" and even more so in the "Muslim world". Within the Western world, there began a series of cleavages between Christian fundamentalists and progressive schools, both in the Protestant as well as Catholic churches, in North America, Europe as well as in Latin America.
In the U.S., the role of the Christian right representing various church denominations became powerful in influencing both domestic and foreign policy debates. From prayer in schools, abortion, gay marriages and stem cell research, to preaching Christian civilization and pushing western-style "democracy" abroad, these self-righteous views influenced the perception that the current American administration has been subtly influenced by the right-wing constituencies.
In Europe, crises of identity among Muslims within each of the European democracies in part have been compounded by worries over illegal immigration.
Contrary to popular opinion both in the West and within the Muslim world itself, there began serious clashes about civilization in the Islamic world itself. While a tiny minority may have been attracted to the notion of a "worldwide caliphate" imbued by Islamic values, as propounded by Osama Bin Laden, there have been different "realities " at the ground level.
Serious differences of the interpretation of Islam in Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia began to proliferate. Differing interpretations of the practical application of Muslim values are present in the Middle East among and within each Arab state, between Arab states and Iran, between the larger Middle East and Turkey, between Muslims in Pakistan and Muslims in India. And indeed, among Muslims within Malaysia and Indonesia.
At the end of the day, it is the clash of local political interests that define and divide the conflict in the Middle East. Much of the root causes of these conflicts ultimately rest on tribal rivalry and clan contests for access to status, group privilege, personal power or a combination of the three.
The Palestine Authority is divided by factionalism between Fatah and Hamas, which, ironically, has little to do with Islamic values. In contemporary Iraq, violent clashes occur between Sunnis and Shiites, as well as among Sunni parochial groups. And then there are the criminals and thugs who profit from incessant chaos. The issue of anti-Americanism is marginal to all of these situations.
Historically, the Muslim world in the Middle East has been marginalized by the structural juxtaposition of three issues:
First, the Palestine-Israel conflict going back to the early 20th century,
Second, the nexus of energy dependence and strategic military projection of the West going back to the 1930s.
Third, the conflicting claims by Islam, Christianity and Judaism over the heritage of the holy sites in the region. There has to date been no international initiative that has been able to sustain the painstaking tribal and clan accords that are imperative to make any progress viable. Thus far, all manner of agreements have unraveled by these micro-dimensions of clashes of civilization.
Indonesia has often been seen as a model "moderate" Muslim country which can play a significant contributing role to the peace process in the Middle East. But we all realize that the realities of the Muslim world in the Middle East are strikingly different from the situation in Southeast Asia.
We must not be too tempted to preach, much less transpose, our version of Islam on the situation in the Arab world in particular and the Middle East in general.
Within Indonesia itself, there is much work to be done in the days, months and years ahead to prevent clashes within our own micro-civilizations at the ground level.
Only then can we be vindicated by our common commitment to not only promote dialogue and cooperation among Indonesians of all faiths, but provide real-world practical solutions on the ground that replenish the true traditions of pluralism, tolerance and openness within the widening embrace of Indonesian-ness. Let us conduct dialogue and work cooperatively. Let us all practice what we preach.
The writer is Indonesia's Defense Minister. This article is based on a presentation given at the launch of the Center for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations, in Jakarta on June 15


Steve Hayes said...

I haven't heard anything about the conference on dialogue and cooperation between civilizations, but it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.

Muhamad Ali said...

Yes, dialogue and cooperation between civilization still seem a luxury today, but there are non-governmental initiatives in Asia, Europe, and the U.S.. Indonesian mainstream Islamic organizations, such as Muhammadiyah and Nahldlatul Ulama, have been involved in these efforts. Publication, documentary programs, school and college curriculum, on these issues are still lacking however. Our global village certainly needs cross-boundary leaders. Another challenge is how to make dialogue and cooperation grass-root movements, not simply the religious and political elites. There are so many things to be done, but small things to bridge the imagined and real gaps between cultures matter a lot.