Many new thoughts emerged in the global political science and strategic communities after the Cold War ended. Among the most prominent was Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ in 1993, which came in response to, or probably provoked, by his brilliant pupil Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, published a year earlier.
It would be hasty to say both lie in the rubble of Bucha, Mariupol and Kharkiv yet. But enough is happening to reopen most post-Cold War debates and theories.
Here’s what we have. Slav fighting Slav, so it’s within the same white race; the Christian Orthodox (listed by Huntington among his various civilisations) fighting the Orthodox, so that takes religion/ religious order out of the equation. And it has brought back the Western powers in conflict again in Europe. The big, powerful, unidimensional (military) superpower they confront in Russia has a near ally in the biggest power in Asia, namely China. And a new Cold War is well and truly on.
All we need to list now are the many new ironies, contradictions and paradoxes the situation offers and reach our usual limit of the weekly 1,200 words for National Interest. After all, old Soviet-era T-72 tanks being transported by trains from former Warsaw Pact member Czech Republic, S-300s from Slovakia and the entire effort being bankrolled by America and NATO, directly or indirectly, European nations buying $38 billion worth of energy from Russia in the period they spend a billion on arming Ukraine against it etc. each make a story. But this week, we aren’t going there. Because that’s too lazy for this column where we search for a complexity every week.
Which brings us to the Islamic world. Surprised? What do the poor Muslims have to do with any of this? They can’t even be blamed for the rise in crude oil prices. Why drag them in then? Which is precisely the point.
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While a lot of different probabilities were debated in Huntington’s American Enterprise Institute speech, Foreign Affairs essay and finally the book, what endured in global imagination was the likelihood of Western (Christian) and Islamic civilisations clashing.
This was long before the rise of al-Qaeda, almost a decade before 9/11. There was no Islamic country of any size economically or politically to threaten the Christian/ Western powers. Pakistan reputedly had the bomb, but never the weight. It has more bombs now, and even less weight. No one nation looked scary enough, not even China until then. So, strategic futurists had to conjure up something out of a force capable of uniting many nations. And that could only be Islam, particularly given the concept of the Ummah.
Three decades after these theories, two decades (9/11, 2001) after this particular thread in the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ looked so credible, it is now nowhere on anyone’s radar screen. Instead of one civilisation fighting the other, the war has begun even more within the same civilisation, race and geography than was the case in the two World Wars.
In the early 1990s, since a new future conflict had to be imagined, the Islamic world looked like the usual suspect. Huntington, broadly, gave three reasons for why he thought Christian (Western) and Islamic civilisations were the most likely to clash. Both were theological, he said, missionary, vowing to convert others, and while both were monotheistic and the God they worshipped was the same, each believed its way of reaching Him was the only one. All of it sounds perfectly plausible. Why did it not work out the same way?
The Muslim world hardly ever features on the global front pages now. Not when the Saudis bomb the hell out of fellow Muslims — and Arabs — in Yemen, or when the Israelis push at the Palestinians with greater impunity than ever, not when this big political tamasha breaks out in the only nuclear-armed Islamic republic in the world, the Rohingya continue to be tortured and killed, and definitely not when the Chinese carry out what’s currently the worst mass atrocity in the world, over the Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Alright, the Russians in Ukraine may have beaten them to it for now.
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The Muslim world, by now, was expected to rise as one, a civilisational threat. Today, it’s involved in a few conflicts but all of these are within. The larger fault line is Iran versus Saudi Arabia and the rich Gulf Arabs. Yemen is a proxy war for this, as are the conflicts in Lebanon and even Syria. Turkey, mostly Sunni unlike Iran, has been jostling in the same melee for the same goal. Ukraine has disrupted even this.
Turkey’s Erdogan is making a hurried course correction, giving the Israeli President an unprecedented reception, pretty much burying the probe into Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder to suck up to the Saudis, who he detested till the other day.
The super-holy Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) at its latest summit, in Islamabad, didn’t so much as whimper about the Uyghurs but invited Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi as their most honoured guest. And the powers that be in Pakistan are making a course correction on their ties with the West, having put to pasture one who fantasised about leadership of the Muslim world, Imran Khan. Especially because he believes he had succeeded in persuading the UN into observing an annual day against Islamophobia. The leadership of the Islamic world is mine, he probably thought. Now he’s out of it in his own country.
Christianity and Islam were supposed to fight because both are monotheistic, fight over the same God, and are missionary in character. Throw in that mix the Jewish world too. The same God, similar origins, scriptures, holy figures. There was a chronic conflict between them and the Muslim world raging anyway. This is what, in the debate on the Indian Hindu Right, is often described as the universe of Abrahamic religions. Today, all three have come together in the Middle East after signing what else, but Abraham Accords.
If Christians, Muslims, and Jews are making peace among themselves, if Muslims fight only fellow Muslims in dirty little wars here and there, if two of the three nations Huntington ranked among the Hindu civilisation, India and Nepal, are locked in a new mess of territorial claims (Bhutan is the third in the Hindu category), if, when the Muslim minority in India is pushed around by the Hindu Right and the only word of sympathy from the Islamic world comes from where they don’t need it, al-Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri, with all major Islamic nations giving their top national honours to Narendra Modi, if the greatest threat to world peace after World War II has emerged again from the heart of Europe and within the Christian civilisation, this world has changed in a manner nobody imagined. Definitely not those who imagined that people need to be divided by religion, culture, civilisational differences to go to war with each other. The reasons that drive nations to wars are still the old ones — greed, power, arrogance, hatred and hubris.
Also read: 5 reasons for the crisis in global Islam