The “clash of civilizations” is a thing, just not the only thing

A few days ago I put up a post, The “Islamic World” Was Not Invented By Europeans. Since then, I have been reading the author’s book, The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History.

It’s an interesting work with a lot of facts. Though so far no facts have been surprising to me, and, many facts were known to me. For example, the author talks about the reality that Muslims were subjects of the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. I happen to have read a book about the topic. Specifically, how the ulema in the Russian Empire adjusted to rule under an Orthodox Christian monarch. The author mentions that Protestants fought with the Ottomans at Vienna, and exhibited a cool attitude toward Indian Muslim nationalism against the British. Both of these facts, I knew.

The basic thesis seems to be similar to what I had inferred earlier: that the idea of a unitary Muslim world is a reaction to the European colonial experience, and not deeply rooted. The problem is that a lot of these assertions hinge on semantic interpretations. What does “unitary Muslim world” mean for example? The author, Cemil Ayden, seems to also suggest that both the “West” and the “Muslim world” are modern constructions. And they are. That does not mean these modern constructions don’t build upon and extend pre-modern self-conceptualizations which are very important. We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Reading Ayden reminds me of encountering Bryan Catlos’ work on Muslim Spain years ago. Catlos’ publicity people at the university press tried to make it as if he was arguing that the line between Muslim and Christian was incredibly fluid and that his work refuted the “clash of civilizations.” But anyone, which includes me, who is aware of the large numbers of conversions of Christians to Islam and then back to Christianity, not to mention the Jews, knows that the categories are a bit more complex than the modern cartoon. Nevertheless, nothing in Catlos’ scholarship refutes the reality that religious identity was a critical, and perhaps the most important, building block of self-conceptualization in medieval Iberia.

One way to avoid the baggage around the word civilization is to rename it a “meta-ethnic” identity, as Peter Turchin does. A meta-ethnic identity allows people from different tribes and ethnicities to unite around something greater. Often, though not always, it is religion. The initial decades of the rise of Islam are complicated by the possibility that the religion wasn’t a meta-ethnic identity, but rather a tribal cult specific to a group of Arabs. This was not sustainable if Muslims were to maintain a multi-ethnic polity. Like the Mongols, they would have been absorbed by those whom they conquered. The rise of the Abbasids around 750 is often characterized as the revenge of the convert peoples, with Iranians in especially prominent in the early years of the dynasty.

Something similar happened with Christianity, which in its early centuries was fundamentally a Roman religion in Western Europe. Eventually, the expansion of the commonwealth of European kingdoms in the early medieval period occurred through the expansion of the Roman religion, and its transformation into something that was post-ethnic (during the medieval period in parts of pagan Eastern Europe Christianity was considered a “German” religion!).

There is certainly something commendable in Ayden’s work in situating current geopolitical tensions and alignments with their early modern precursors. But to the naive these arguments often erase the real deep roots of these configurations and their durability across the millennia. For example, I have stated, justifiably I think, that modern Iran was fundamentally and essentially shaped by the Safavid transformation of the region in the 16th century. That is, unifying the various Iranian and Turkic peoples in present-day Iran under the banner of Twelver Shia religion. But this is not to deny the reality that elements of Persian national self-conception predate the Safavids by thousands of years!

To bring it back to conflict, Christian cities such as Amalfi in southern Italy, often aligned themselves with Muslim pirates and corsairs in the first few centuries Islam. This does not mean that Amalfi was not Christian. Or that the distinction between Christianity and Islam meant nothing. Amalfi came under sharp criticism from Christian polities for its pragmatic alliances with Muslims. Similarly, France’s traditional friendly relations with the Turks due to the common Habsburg enemy came under criticism during the second Ottoman siege of Vienna.

Because of profit or in the exigencies of the moment, strange bedfellows often emerge. The Hungarian Protestants that marched with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs were marching for their cultural survival. The Habsburgs were suppressing and slowly extinguishing the Reformed movement in Hungary and had been doing so for decades. Hungarian Protestantism persisted only under Ottoman protection. This does not mean that Hungarian Protestants are not aligned with Christianity. But before their civilizational commitment could come into play, they had to safeguard their existence, which forced them into making a decision to march with the armies they had and not the ones they would have wished (Viktor Orban is a Hungarian Protestant).

What quantitative scholars like Turchin, and Azar Gat in War in Human Civilization, have shown is that conflicts across meta-ethnic or civilizational boundaries tend to be particularly brutal and characterized by the dehumanization of the enemy. On average. The fact that most Christian states in the pre-modern world bordered on Christian states means that most conflicts would occur between Christian states. But the conflicts at the civilizational boundary would be characterized by more extreme levels of brutality, coercion, and a lack of chivalry.

One might see in most conflicts that they occur within meta-ethnic groups, or that in a large number of cases the alliances cross meta-ethnic identities. For example, Pakistan today is under the grip of Sinophilia, despite China’s objective reality that it is an anti-Islamic state which oppresses Muslims, and Pakistan’s objective Islamic extremism. The fact on the ground currently though is that Pakistan as a nation-state benefits much more from being pro-China in its rivalry with India then rejecting Chinese entreaties on principle due to meta-ethnic solidarity with China’s Muslims. The pragmatic aspect of this alliance does not negate the reality that Pakistanis are sincere Muslims who have strong commitments to a trans-national Islamic identity, as evidenced by the fact that Pakistanis are often represented in trans-national Muslim movements.

Anyone who has read my thoughts knows I reject the idea that religions have fundamental clear and distinct essences. Religions are what people believe they are. What people practice. But people with particular confessions exhibit more solidity in their understanding of group identity than most post-colonial treatments seem to allow. Islam and Islamic identity do not exist only in contrast with Western Christians. In the east Islam interfaces with Indian traditions, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. Across all these interactions Muslims have a certain sense of self as distinct and can grade differences between various out-groups (e.g., Christians are not clearly idolaters, Jews are clearly monotheists, and Buddhists are idolaters).

It is simply a fact that post-colonial peoples had a pre-colonial history, and that pre-colonial history is just as important in their self-understanding as the post-colonial one.

2 thoughts on “The “clash of civilizations” is a thing, just not the only thing

  1. There is really a negative selection and competition going on in the scientific literature. It spread from the Anglosphere and is still most pronounced there. The authors reduce too much to just one basic issue, actually in a non-scientific and oftentimes almost ridiculous way. Just to get heard by the mainstream media and steering up a fierce debate. For attention, quotations and in the end money and ideological benefits from their supporters.
    Actually I think thats quite the opposite of true science and the the true scientific approach, but the result of the way scientific institutions, the mass media and even society as a whole function nowadays, especially in the Anglosphere.

    Sometimes you can say the scientific truth is the opposite of what common sense and simple logic would lead us too, but in reality thats rarely the case and basically just stupid “scientific” theories and reductions being pushed by some authors and agents. Even if there is truth in a lot of those hypotheses and the motivation behind this flawed thinking and behaviour is understandable, the reductionist way is still wrong and a shame for science in general.
    Thats part of the rightful discreditation of mainstream science, together with political correctness, with which those reductionist ideas go usually hand in hand. Because if they would be politically incorrect, there would be much more and much harsher criticism for such flawed pieces of work, if they would make it to the public audience at all. But if it fits the PC expectations, people seem to have both eyes closed.

  2. “The Hungarian Protestants that marched with the Ottomans against the Habsburgs were marching for their cultural survival.”

    How long will it be until Evangelical Christians in the United States realize that they have more in common with Muslims culturally, in terms of acceptance of different kinds of political tactics (and often economically as well) than Evangelical Christians do with the non-religious, mainline Christian, black Christian and non-Christian people with whom Muslims in the U.S. are aligned politically out of the existential imperative that Evangelical Christians want them dead or exiled?

    When it comes to social issues and personal conduct, in particular, Evangelical Christians have much more in common with Muslims (even “moderates” like the Kurds, or Turkish Muslims living in Germany) than they do with Donald Trump and his cronies. “Islamist” politicians and political movements in much of the world are popular, and Islamic law has wide public support as a concept, to a great extent in much of the world where there are large Muslim populations, because they are perceived as less corrupt than the crony capitalists of the existing regimes in their countries – and opposition to corruption is a much more comfortable stance for pastors and their flocks to rally around than the current “hold your nose because this is God’s will” line that they are pushing today.

    Similarly, Muslims and Evangelical Christians have a lot more in common with each other in terms of values and attitudes than Israeli Jews and Evangelical Christians do, even though Evangelical Christians are strident supporters of the Israeli state for their own apocalyptic reasons. It is hard to sustain alliances like that based on remote doctrines when you and your allies are usually uncomfortable interacting with each other in a room.

    And, like the Hapsburgs, Evangelical Christians, after all, are battling for their cultural survival. They have to resort to extreme tactics like denying almost everything that the mainstream media and educational institutions tell them to create a bubble where they can survive. White Protestants are on the verge of being a minority in the U.S., if they aren’t already. The young are not following in their footsteps on a great many issues from gay rights to the environment to guns. It took them a decade or so longer, but they are suffering from the general trend towards secularization with fewer and aging adherents, just as mainline Christianity in the U.S. did. Their political power may be waxing at the moment, but anyone in big business or big law or academia or the private sector scientific establishment or who has to operate a multi-national business who tries to walk the walk that Evangelical Christians in U.S. politics do, is squashed like a bug.

    Evangelical Christians may not be oppressed de jure the way that the Hapsburgs were, but the whole of modern society not just at home, but globally, is leaving their worldview behind.

    The dramatic shift of the Republican base from having been anti-Russian since the late 1940s until President Trump took office, and the recent dramatic shift of Muslim rebels in Chechnya from being the dominant anti-government insurgent force to the uber-loyal bull dogs of Putin, suggests to me that this is a much more realistic and plausible possibility than most people give it credit for being.

    An Evangelical Christian-Muslim political alliance may not be a sustainable alliance in the long run, but it could be a viable basis of cooperation for a decade or two, and particularly if Pope Francis continues to exert a liberalizing influence on the Roman Catholic Church and they lose their current complete control of the Presidency, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and U.S. Supreme Court. They may be really hard up for allies and willing to reconsider their options after some time in the wilderness.

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