Huntington's Polarizing Essay on Islam-West `Clash' Takes Center Stage

By Marc Champion

The Wall Street Journal Europe

(Copyright (c) 200
For a clash of civilizations this week, watch the bishops, muftis,cardinals and rabbis who will be attending the World Economic Forumin the largest such gathering the organization has seen.Not that any shouting is likely among the roughly 50 religious figureswho have been invited to talk with each other. Galvanized by theSept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the last few months have seen anextraordinary flowering of high-level good will and dialogue amongmoderate leaders of the major faiths, from Egypt to Rome. No, a clash is more likely between some of the Muslim leaders arrivingin New York and the man they love to hate, Samuel P. Huntington. The Harvard professor is one of the stars of "Davos in New York" thisweek, largely because of a Foreign Affairs magazine article he wrote10 years ago called "The Clash of Civilizations?"

In his article, which he later expanded into a book, "The Clash ofCivilizations and Remaking of the World Order," Mr. Huntingtonfamously argued that with the Cold War at an end, the world's
troubles weren't over -- they were shifting into a different gear.Instead of wars over ideology, the coming century would be markedby wars between civilizations, which he defined in cultural and
religious terms. Most of this conflict, he predicted, would takeplace between Islamic and Confucian civilizations on one side,and the West on the other.In the wake of Sept. 11 and the soul searching that has followed,Mr. Huntington's thesis now seems prophetic. But it hasn't won himmany friends among Islamic moderates.
"This man bears a lot of guilt," says Sheikh Zaki Badawi, aLondon-based Egyptian scholar of Islam who will take part in the forum's religious program and was instrumental in organizing the list of Muslim attendees. "His book has given extremists the meansto justify their claims about a jihad between Islam and the West."Tarek Mitri, coordinator for interreligious relations at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, agrees that "the more you talk aboutbloody borders between religions, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy." And he is skeptical that conflicts in Chechnya, Bosnia or elsewhere are caused by clashing civilizations or religions, ratherthan by old-fashioned politics and territory. "Armies clash, statesclash, but civilizations don't clash," says Mr. Mitri. "The history of Islam in Europe wasn't one of war between civilizations but ofexchange between two civilizations."Raficq Abdullah, secretary of London's Kingston University, whotook part in a large Muslim-Christian seminar in London two weeks ago, calls Mr. Huntington's thesis "unhelpful" and cliche.Prince Hassan of Jordan took Mr. Huntington to task in a writtenhe said, because today there is only one universal civilization.This is strengthened -- not threatened -- by "the civilizing powerof faith," he said.

What upsets some Muslims about Mr. Huntington's concept of competingcivilizations is that he defines only some by their religions. "Why doesn't he define the West by its religion?" Sheikh Badawi asks. That complaint echoes numerous protests since Sept. 11 against the labeling of groups such as al Qaeda as Islamic terrorists, while the nail bombers of Northern Ireland, for example, are rarely described as Catholic or Protestant terrorists. Mr. Huntington says he is being misinterpreted. In an interview, the Harvard professor compares himself with political thinkers of the 1950s and 1960s such as George F. Kennan, who warned that the untrammeled nuclear-arms race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union made nuclear war inevitable. "Nuclear war didn't happen in large part because people were saying those things," he says. "Hotlines were set up, arms-control agreements signed and informal rules were established for the conduct of the Cold War. I would hope that people would react to my concern about a major clash of civilizations in a similar way, and I think they have."

As for being guilty of caricaturing the closed nature of civilizations, Mr. Huntington says that the whole premise for his thesis is that civilizations are indeed porous. The problem he identifies is that they are interacting and influencing each other more today than ever before -- and this bears risks.

"The point is that these civilizations are not going to become Western," Mr. Huntington says. "I argue in the conclusion of my book that we have to find ways for these civilizations to coexist with each other. There's a need for dialogue and for them to identify what they have in common."

If there is one thing that has been going on since Sept. 11, it is dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- so named because they all trace their roots back to the Old Testament figure of Abraham. In just the two weeks since the seminar in London: Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders concerned with the conflict in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories have met in Egypt to sign a joint declaration against violence; the pope has held a multifaith prayer meeting at the Vatican; and the archbishop of Canterbury and grand mufti of Al-Azhar University in Cairo have signed an agreement of mutual understanding.

"Interfaith dialogue has now taken off in a very big way because of the danger that people see," says Sir Sigmund Sternberg, a veteran of interfaith dialogue who will also be in New York. Or as another
WEF participant, Bishop Margot Kaessmann of the Evangelical Church in Germany, puts it: "We have about 3.5 million Muslims in Germany, and suddenly since Sept. 11 our (Protestant) parishioners are asking us: What is Islam ? How do they live? What do they believe in? That changes everything."

But while all this goodwill is laudable, there are doubts as to whether well-meaning religious leaders and scholars can have an impact on policy makers, global business leaders or the so-called Arab street -- let alone Osama bin Laden.

One potential limitation is that those who attend interfaith dialogues tend to be English speakers who have views moderate enough to want to sit in a room with the religious opposition. The radical clerics of Yemen and the Bible thumping Christian fundamentalists of America's deep South won't be in New York.

And even choosing from moderates, the forum's job wasn't easy. Monica Lodygensky, who is coordinating the event for the WEF, explains that when she sent out invitations to go to New York
last year, it was the middle of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. "In the beginning we had to work quite a lot of convincing (the Muslim invitees) to get them to come," she says. The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who will also be in New York, insists that gatherings of religious moderates can make a difference. "I think we underestimate the degree to which political and religious visions are intertwined," he says, pointing to the examples of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair as examples of political leaders, even in the secular West, who are influenced
by religious values. Rabbi Sacks also believes that it is precisely because Mr. Huntington's "prophecy" was timely and accurate that religious gatherings such as the one in New York are needed. That is because only with a strong interfaith network already in place can moderate religious leaders act quickly to help calm their respective communities by issuing so-called pacific joint statements after events such as Sept. 11. "Interfaith relations are all about preparing for the storm," he says.