The Myth of Confrontation

I wrote this review shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in February and then, as often happens, lost it in my stack of unfinished writing. Here finally are some thoughts on my late professor Fred Halliday's book on religion and politics in the Middle East - Book Review - In the wake of the January 7 massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, millions around the world rallied for freedom of speech and the press, and stood against Islamist terrorism. On social media, the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag was an instant hit that allowed supporters to identify with the victims of the shooting, and the Paris Unity Rally on January 11 was a symbolic display of Western solidarity, politics aside. Similar rallies took place in London, Washington D.C., and Berlin, to name a few, and journalists opined at length on the right to blaspheme (see Douthat, for example). But not everyone agrees that Charlie Hebdo should have published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, and not everyone holds sacrosanct the right to free speech. Just two weeks after the attack, over 100,000 people gathered in Diyarbakir to protest Charlie Hebdo. Turkey’s Prime Minister supported these protests saying, “The region suddenly has a reaction whenever a shameless act happens toward the Prophet Muhammad. I greet each and every brother who defends Prophet Muhammed here.” And in February, thousands of British Muslims gathered near Downing Street to protest Charlie Hebdo. The cartoons are a stark reminder, they said, “that freedom of speech is regularly utilized to insult personalities that others consider sacred.”

To use Samuel Huntington’s phrase, one is inclined to see a “clash of civilizations” in these and other recent events. That is, a conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations. And this may indeed be the reality. I do not wish to make a definitive argument here in favor of or against Huntington’s thesis, but rather present, by way of a book review, a counter argument that puts it into question. Whether one ultimately agrees with this alternative interpretation or not, it is useful for refining what we actually mean when we speak of a clash of civilizations, and anchors arguments for and against in geopolitical and foreign policy realities.

In Islam & the Myth of Confrontation, Fred Halliday, a scholar of the Middle East, dismisses Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” as a myth. He insists that “the Islamic world” and “the Arab mind” are essentialist fictions, and that the Middle East intellectual should try to specify and demystify rather than speak in undefined generalities. To that end, Halliday points to common problems the Middle East shares with the rest of the third world. Instead of focusing on the "timeless essence of cultures" as many social scientists do, he works in universal analytic categories and places less reliance on the idea that the Middle East is unique and unquantifiable (also useful is his critique of orientalism).

Colonialism and domination, along with the state structures and interstate boundaries that reflect the decisions of colonial administrators, are common to many third world countries. Nationalism is often prevalent, as is the simultaneous rejection and acceptance of the international system dominated by Western states. This generates tensions and quite often leads to popular unrest. He considers various forms of repression, massacre, demagogy, censorship, and bribery in local state structures and ruling classes that shape political attitudes and outcomes. These similarities must be factored into the analysis, he says, because they are likely more important than the Islamic political and social character of the Middle East. Even a defining historical event like the Iranian Revolution cannot be explained by reference to the influence of Islam alone. One must also consider the decade of rapid socio-economic change that took place in the major Iranian cities prior to the Revolution. The perennial Israel-Palestine conflict, seemingly unique to the Middle East, is not so anomalous in light of its origin in the colonial situation. Additionally, he notes that the largest Islamic countries – Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nigeria – are not a part of the Middle East.

Of course, there are particularities about the Middle East that Halliday acknowledges. Unlike other third world regions, the Middle East is markedly influenced by the individual character of its pre-colonial societies, such that many have maintained their archaic social and political structures even after acquiring independence. The Middle East is also characterized by the virulence of ethnic and confessional differences, and by the peculiarities of the oil industry. The anomalous economic and social consequences of oil production (see generally the patterns and problems of economic development in rentier states) have demonstrably affected the development of the region. Yet, even given these more unique characteristics, the most conspicuous issue to surface after the Cold War was the alarming condition of Middle Eastern economies. Military confrontation, oil money, and the language of Islam, Halliday says, have masked this mundane underlying crisis.

Along with the tendency to make the Middle East a sui generis case, there is also the problematic concept of a unified Islamic threat. Halliday rejects the idea that there is some enduring transhistorical conflict between the 'Islamic' and ‘Western’ worlds (the categorizations themselves are facile). The rise of Islamist movements and the invocation of Islam, he says, are mere justifications for political action and do not represent a general phenomenon. In terms of a threat to the non-Muslim world, Halliday reminds us that even Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islam dar khatar ast (Islam is in danger) rhetoric was a call to Muslims, not a call for jihad. Today, ISIS has given top priority to the “near enemy,” what it views as the corrupt secular Arab regimes in the Middle East (though this assertion has been put into question of late, especially with the killing of Coptic Christians in Egypt in February).

According to Halliday, the myth of the Islamic threat endures not because of timeless religious or ideological determination, but because social problems faced by these groups continue to be expressed in the language and symbols of religious identification. He says, “The Islamist movements, although themselves determinedly committed to taking and using state power, are above all revolts against policies – authoritarian, secular and intrusive – of the modernizing state…” It follows, then, that until the basic problems of these states are resolved, different varieties of Islamism will retain their appeal. The rhetoric will continue to be layered on top of the diverse social and political crises between and within the different countries of the Middle East. What should be evident in all this, at least from Halliday’s point of view, is that the core problem is not religion or ideology, but economic and social issues common to most developing states.

Finally, the term “Islamic,” used in some general religious or cultural sense, is problematic because it is often conflated with adherence to beliefs and policies that are strictly Islamist or fundamentalist. Interestingly, Islamist rhetoric matches that of the West. This makes the situation even more difficult to deal with because, “If there are myths about Islam, they are ones invented and propagated not just in the supposed hegemonic world of Europe and the USA, but also within the supposedly dominated and oppressed arena of ‘Islam’ itself.” Things were much easier during the Cold War when Washington and Moscow were diametrically opposed, both in rhetoric and ideology. To put “Islam” in perspective, then, one has to challenge ideas dominant in the Western world, as well as those propagated by progenitors within the Muslim world who use the rhetoric to meet their own political and social ends.

If the clash of civilizations is a myth, how should we approach issues like Charlie Hebdo? Are we to look through the lens of international human rights and international institutions built by the West? For Halliday, an unapologetic universalist and secularist, the answer is clear: Yes. While secularism is no guarantee of liberty or protection of rights – he tells us to look to the very secular totalitarian regimes of the 20th century – it is nevertheless an indispensable precondition. If the third world problems of the Middle East are to be solved, then the rights of individuals have to be preserved against authority. There must be a secular framework, he argues, one that is associated with a broader culture of individualism and toleration.

Halliday begins and ends the book with the assertion that the Middle East is not unique, except possibly in the content of the myths that are propagated about it, from within and without. I tend to think that religion and culture play a larger role than Halliday suggests, but I find his scholarship useful and important. The events following the terrible massacre at Charlie Hebdo seem to have divided the world more starkly along the lines of Islam and the West. Whether one accepts Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis or hews more closely to Halliday’s approach, we should take the powerful suggestion in this book to heart: “The conditions under which Islamic fundamentalism and Islamization projects have arisen, and their human rights record, suggest the need for a critical assessment of what lies behind their discourses.”