Huntington’s spectre

The following article is from the Pakistan newspaper, Dawn, January 10, 2002. It is an opinion piece that offers a perspective of the cold war and terrorism, from Pakistan. The original article was on line at

Huntington's spectre
By Sayeed Hasan Khan & Kurt Jacobsen
10 January 2002

When the Second World War ended in the radioactive embers of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the United States started to play the role of world power as it pushed for the liquidation of the tottering European empires.

American leaders at first displayed sympathy for liberation movements but soon shored up or replaced the older imperial powers where they perceived that the Soviets were gaining influence among the natives.

The litmus test for communist influence was whether the nationalists bent to American strategic and commercial designs. if not, they were Stalin's stooges. Even "non-alignment" was viewed with deep suspicion. In America itself a vast right-wing scare campaign (McCarthyism) contrived to find the Reds under the unlikeliest beds, foreign policy experts lost their jobs, and arrogant ideologues asserted that even China somehow was "theirs" to lose to Mao.

Real politik mattered, although this clear-eyed if hard-hearted kind of calculation were tinged by homegrown hysteria. The US supported the French campaign in Indo-China primarily because of cold war arithmetic, in order to cement a revived and imperial France within the western alliance. The intertwining of capitalist greed with foreign policy was always so seamless that few ordinary Americans ever noticed it, at least not until the US badly miscalculated and plunged into a costly Southeast Asian war. Still, the communist spectre gave American officials an excuse to intervene wherever they saw fit and for whatever actual reasons. The spectre was a valuable asset.

During the cold war, the US agencies hit on the bright idea of using Islamic fundamentalists to counter Godless communism even if these fanatic recruits thought just as little of Godless capitalism. American agents were confident they could stuff the fundamentalist genie back in the bottle or else didn't care. Apart from inducting Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and other Muslim nations into military pacts, the US financed fundamentalists to harass annoyingly independent rulers such as Nasser in Egypt and Soekarno in Indonesia. Secular nationalism in the Muslim world was deemed to be the dire threat and the fundamentalists were America's friends. The fall of the Shah in Iran in 1978 killed this highly volatile strategy.

In Afghanistan the Americans enlisted jihadis to fight the Soviets. Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recently boasted of arming the mujahedin long before the Soviets rolled in. As the soviets departed a devastating decade later, the utility of the fundamentalists vanished along with the US support. Picking up the pieces was someone else's business. The Afghan resistance, including Osama were left dangerously to their own devices.

When Gorbachev almost single-handedly ended the cold war, no one was more shocked than the American hard-liners who portrayed it as a sinister Soviet trick but soon resigned themselves to claiming all the credit for the inadvertent triumph. In the scramble to find a substitute spectre, Samuel Huntington floated a shopworn theory that "conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict," especially clashes between the West and Islam (and, please note, Confucian society insofar as China is recognizable as such).

Here was a thesis that thrilled fanatics like Osama bin Laden. Yet both Huntington and Osama know full well that what is at stake is not the "West versus Islam." America wants foremost to secure its clients in the Arab oil-producing world while Osama wants to overthrow these same Arab ruling elites and install pathologically religious regimes. This fraught situation resembles the age-old ideological and economic rifts that Huntington claims are obsolete.

To their credit, the American policy makers wisely shied away from embracing Huntington's thesis, which is riddled with inconsistencies and flaws. They stipulate today that they are targeting only violent Islamic factions who, however, express dissent the only way that the US-backed authoritarian Muslim regimes permit. Not unlike the Polish Catholicism during the Soviet era or the Irish Catholicism under British colonialism, popular resistance takes on a deceptively religious dimension.

The grievances of the poor and excluded are formed to some degree in the repulsive shape of religious terrorism. They become the new spectre and the underlying causes of the violent acts of a few of them are again ignored. So, although most foreign policy analysts and officials know better, the "clash of civilizations" thesis remains very useful for domestic consumption in the US to consecrate foreign policy adventures undertaken for realpolitik or commercial reasons.

The "clash of civilizations" thesis distracts from the real war waged between global capitalism, increasingly unchecked by any political institutions, and the deprived, who are concentrated in Latin America, Asia and Africa. And, on this score, Huntington is admirably candid: "The very phrase "the world community" has become the euphemistic collective noun (replacing "the Free World") to give global legitimacy to the actions reflecting the interests of the United States and other western powers. Through the IMF and other international economic institutions, the West promotes its economic interests and imposes on other nations the economic policies it thinks appropriate.

In any poll of non-western peoples, the IMF undoubtedly would win the support of finance ministers and a few others, but get an overwhelmingly unfavourable rating from just about everyone else." Even democracies brimming with Christians are kept in thrall, as we see in Argentina today, by an IMF that sternly favours pampering especially (but not only) the First World's firms and banks over meeting the Third World's indigenous needs.

It is the oldest tactic in the conqueror's book to divide groups along religious lines and pit them against one another. Poverty and oppression know no religious boundaries. What sense can one make of Huntington's thesis during a dark farcical moment when Israeli tanks prevent a Muslim Palestinian leader from attending a Christmas eve mass to which he was invited? Yet actions premised on religious division tend to be self-fulfilling. There are enough fodder like Osama who willingly fill the role of demonic "other." At root all fundamentalists - Muslim, Jew, Christian, whatever - are alike: selfish, dogmatic, myopic and too often malignant. Religious affiliation is a terribly poor guide and too often an absolver of atrocious actions.

Suharto, for example, was given the green light by America in 1975 to invade East Timor which underwent a blood-bath while its freedom was thwarted for twentyfive years. No Muslim country displayed much concern over the crimes inflicted on the Timorese by a Muslim power. Nor did brutal Indonesian behaviour disturb American policy makers, who are mainly Christian and supplied many of the instruments of slaughter. Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Vietnam and Chile experienced US-aided repression but in most cases the Muslim world was not interested or too involved with the US to protest. Even in the Israeli-Palestine conflict there is little mention of the role of Arab Christian struggle in the Muslim press.

At the same time Muslim communities sprouted throughout the West where they often have more freedom to practise their way of life than in their former lands. Minarets of the mosques shoot up in the sky in Germany, France, England and even in Spain, where Muslims were expelled in the 15th century. Muslims are found in every walk of life, including parliaments, in their adopted industrialized countries, where different traditions meet and change and enrich one another. There is no inherent clash. As always, what really matters is whether the distribution of power, rights and wealth improves or worsens.

Yet Huntington is a serious scholar whose entire work cannot be dismissed. In fact, Huntington warns that it is "most important, to recognize that western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multi-civilizational world." One hopes the western leaders heed Huntington's apt advice so that they do not collectively become a spectre too.

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