Reza Aslan and Rod Dreher had a disagreement about the general concept of “Clash of Civilizations” on the latest bloggingheads.tv. I think people who actually read Samuel Huntington’s original book would feel that the caricature of his thesis is a bit unfair; granted, such macro-scale typologies invite criticism, and there were some embarrassing factual errors. But Aslan himself himself is coming back with Platonic seeming typologies (e.g., “Arab culture”) while at the same time ridiculing the whole enterprise.1 The reality is that the human mind is geared toward these clear and distinct types, despite the fact that reality exhibits continuity. I am, for example, always surprised at the alliances of convenience which confound our expectations based on higher-level categories. For example, the Abbasid caliphs & the Carolingians engaged communications in the interests of forging common cause against the Byzantines, prefiguring the later French alliance with the Ottomans against the Hapbsurgs. This is a case where it seems geographic parameters overruled the historically contingent cultural affinities between various states (during the time of Charlemagne the Latin and Greek churches were not even in schism!). The Umayyads of Spain similarly attempted to act in concert with the Byzantines against the rising Muslim powers of North Africa who were pushing into southern Italy and challenging their status as the paramount Islamic power in the western Mediterranean. And in the last case, cities such as Amalfi long served as federates in the North African Muslim cause against other Italian Christians for decades, enabling the endemic depredations of the Muslims upon their co-religionists in exchange for a cut of the plunder and strategic alliance. In China the Hui (or Dungans), the Chinese speaking Muslims, were used by the Manchus to conquer & suppress the Turkic speaking Muslims of Xinjiang toward the interests of consolidating the hold of the Chinese Empire upon these marginal regions. And in a peculiar case, rebellions of the Hui against their non-Muslim rulers predicated on religious differences tended to succeed only when Muslim preachers embedded within their sermons metaphors and analogies drawn from common Chinese (often Daoist) mythology! And yet, you often see this:
Omar, the Kurds claim, was once an inconsequential deputy to the now-deceased terrorist chieftain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Omar disputed this characterization. By his own telling, he accomplished prodigies of terror against the pro-American Kurdish forces in the northern provinces of Iraq. “You are worse than the Americans,” he told his Kurdish interrogator. “You are the enemy of the Muslim nation. You are enemies of God.” The interrogator-I will not name him here, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment-sat sturdily opposite Omar, absorbing his invective for several minutes, absentmindedly paging through a copy of the Koran.
It is true that may Islamist Arabs have an operational tendency to conflate the “Muslim nation” with the “Arab nation,” but, I do not think one can deny the internationalist tendencies of a particular tendency with Islam. Reza Aslan in the diavlog with Rod asserts the multiplicity of identities which individuals tend to have. Cultural anthropologists also tend to make this claim. It seems an obviously true claim. But, the problem to me is that Aslan (and cultural anthropologists) take this complexity and use it as a cudgel against any attempt to construct general trends or patterns of relations (outside of their own preferred narratives!). There are sociological and historical analyses of the manner in which people identify; for example, middle class Bengali speaking Muslims before the partition, and under British rule, tended to coalesce around their identity as Muslims who were marginalized by the Hindu elite of Calcutta. After independence under Pakistan Bengali speaking Muslims were dominated by a non-Bengali speaking Muslim elite; whereas before they were marginalized as mussulmans, now they were marginalized as crypto-Hindu kala Bengalis. In my own family this has manifested in a generational difference; my mother noted that her parents, especially her father who was often the only Muslim physician among his colleagues (he was born in 1896), was extremely attached to the idea of Pakistan. In contrast, her own generation experienced little discrimination from Hindus, who were by that period a minority out of power, as opposed to Urdu-speaking immigrants from India (“Biharis”) who would engage in attempts to assert naked dominance in public such as forcing Bengalis out of seats on a bus if all spots were already taken (and yelling loudly in Urdu, which the bus driver might not understand, when they were denied what they wanted).
Context matters. Most of us get that. Obviously we use them as heuristics in our day to day life (among a bunch of white Americans I suppose I’m the “brown guy,” and among a bunch of non-American brown guys I’m “the American”). Rather, people should engage in more scholarship to map out how how these identities apply in particular contexts and what their long-term effects are. For example, it is trivially easy to find alliances across the religious chasm for states during the medieval period; but it might be interesting to see how much deviation from expectation based purely on real-politik there was over the centuries. I think that the sincere Christian religiosity of Louis IX of France did have geopolitical consequences which could not be inferred from pure calculation of interest. It may be that though most state-action can not be derived from civilizational adherence (after, most conflict is intra-civilizational), the deviations from expectation can be, and those deviations might be particularly significant hinges of history.
Finally, I think that though broad social and historical studies are essential, we need to explore the psychology of identity in more detail. There is a difference between what people say, and what people do. I suspect many Syrian Muslims would avow more affinity to a South Asian Muslim than to a Christian, at least to the South Asian Muslim. But I also suspect that racial prejudice and to a lesser extent Arab chauvinism strongly shape realized choices, and in reality association with a Syrian Christian might actually be more likely (this doesn’t take into account variables such as food, where local geography and culture matters a great deal). Ultimately, these questions of identity are empirical, and it would be nice if people spent less time arguing and more time collecting data and analyzing it.
1 – Do Syrian Christians, Arabs of Khuzistan in Iran and the Arabs of Morocco truly have in common with each other than each does with an Armenian Christian of Syria, a Persian from Fars and a Berber from the Rif?