February 4, 2005


The News Media and the “Clash of Civilizations” (Philip Seib, Winter 2004-05, Parameters)

Ever since Samuel Huntington presented his theory about such a clash in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993, debate has continued about whether his ideas are substantive or simplistic. For the news media, this debate is important because it helps shape their approach to covering the world.

In Huntington’s article, which he refined and expanded in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he argued that “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” In the book, Huntington said that “culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” Huntington’s corollaries to this proposition, in summary form, are these:

* “For the first time in history, global politics is both multipolar and multicivilizational.”

* As the balance of power among civilizations shifts, the relative influence of the West is declining.

* A world order is emerging that is civilization-based.

* “Universalist pretensions” are increasingly bringing the West into conflict with other civilizations, especially the Islamic world and China.

* If the West is to survive, America must reaffirm its Western identity and unite with other Westerners in the face of challenges from other civilizations.

One reason that Huntington’s clash theory initially had appeal was that policymakers, the news media, and others were moving uncertainly into the post-Cold War era without much sense of how the newest world order was taking shape. They were receptive to a new geopolitical scheme, particularly one that featured identifiable adversarial relationships that would supersede those being left behind.

The us-versus-them alignment of the Cold War’s half-century had been convenient for the news media as well as for policymakers. The American perspective was that the bad guys operated from Moscow and its various outposts, while the good guys were based in Washington and allied countries. Not all the world accepted such a facile division, but those who did found it tidy and easy to understand.[...]

Critics of Huntington’s theory abound, focusing on a variety of issues, such as the idea that “civilizations” are superseding states. Johns Hopkins University professor Fouad Ajami has said that Huntington “underestimated the tenacity of modernity and secularism.” Terrorism expert Richard Clarke has said that rather than there being a straightforward Islam-versus-West conflict,

We are seriously threatened by an ideological war within Islam. It is a civil war in which a radical Islamist faction is striking out at the West and at moderate Muslims. Once we recognize that the struggle within Islam—not a “clash of civilizations” between East and West—is the phenomenon with which we must grapple, we can begin to develop a strategy and tactics for doing so.

Scholars Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit take a broader view. They have written that “radical Islamists no longer believe in the traditional Muslim division of the world between the peaceful domain of Islam and the war-filled domain of infidels. To them the whole world is now the domain of war. . . . The West is the main target.” Buruma and Margalit add that this radicalism is not going unchallenged and that “the fiercest battles will be fought inside the Muslim world.” International relations scholar Charles Kupchan has said that “the ongoing struggle between the United States and Islamic radicals does not represent a clash of civilizations,” but rather is the result of extremist groups preying upon discontent within Islamic states. “The underlying source of alienation,” writes Kupchan, “is homegrown—political and economic stagnation and the social cleavages it produces.”

Along similar lines, Zbigniew Brzezinski has written:

The ferment within the Muslim world must be viewed primarily in a regional rather than a global perspective, and through a geopolitical rather than a theological prism. . . . Hostility toward the United States, while pervasive in some Muslim countries, originates more from specific political grievances—such as Iranian nationalist resentment over the US backing of the Shah, Arab animus stimulated by US support for Israel, or Pakistani feelings that the United States has been partial to India—than from a generalized religious bias.

Journalist Thomas Friedman disagrees with Huntington’s approach on different grounds, arguing that Huntington did not appreciate the effects of globalization on cultural interests and behavior. Huntington, according to Friedman, “vastly underestimated how the power of states, the lure of global markets, the diffusion of technology, the rise of networks, and the spread of global norms could trump [his] black-and-white (mostly black) projections.”

Some observers, while not embracing Huntington’s theory, do not write it off altogether. They note a gravitation toward “civilizational” interests. Friedman, for instance, wrote in early 2004: “9/11 sparked real tensions between the Judeo-Christian West and the Muslim East. Preachers on both sides now openly denounce each other’s faith. Whether these tensions explode into a real clash of civilizations will depend a great deal on whether we build bridges or dig ditches between the West and Islam in three key places—Turkey, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine.” University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami noted a shift in self-identification in the Arab world. “Historically,” he wrote, “Arabs have three political options: Islam, pan-Arabism, or nationalism linked to individual states.” But a survey Telhami conducted in six Arab countries in June 2004 found that “more and more Arabs identify themselves as Muslims first.” This trend is not uniform. Telhami noted that in Egypt and Lebanon, people identified themselves as Egyptians and Lebanese more than as Arabs or Muslims, while in Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan, majorities or pluralities cited their Islamic identity above others.

The debate about Huntington’s clash theory continues, with Islam-related issues receiving the most attention, at least for now. Some observers see new fault lines that may contribute to cultural clashes. Niall Ferguson points to the declining population of current European Union members—it is projected to shrink by about 7.5 million by 2050, the most sustained drop since the Black Death in the 14th century—which will leave a vacuum that might be filled by Muslim immigrants. Concerning the consequences of this, Ferguson wrote, “A creeping Islamicization of a decadent Christendom is one conceivable result: while the old Europeans get even older and their religious faith weaker, the Muslim colonies within their cities get larger and more overt in their religious observance.” Other possibilities, said Ferguson, include a backlash against immigration or perhaps “a happy fusion between rapidly secularized second-generation Muslims and their post-Christian neighbors.” Each of the three could occur in various places, he added.

In response to the initial wave of criticism that his Foreign Affairs article stimulated, Huntington stood his ground. In late 1993 he wrote:

What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for. And that is why the clash of civilizations is replacing the Cold War as the central phenomenon of global politics, and why a civilizational paradigm provides, better than any alternative, a useful starting point for understanding and coping with the changes going on in the world.

The supply of theories—and theories about theories—is inexhaustible. Fortunately for journalists, they need not—and should not—adopt just one as the foundation for building their approach to coverage. They should, however, become familiar with the diverse array of ideas about how the world is changing. The news media must go somewhere; they cannot simply remain at a standstill while yearning for the return of their neat Cold War dichotomy.

In news coverage, as in politics, a vacuum exists if there is no “enemy.” Professor Adeed Dawisha wrote that “in the wake of the demise of international communism, the West saw radical Islam as perhaps its most dangerous adversary.” Thus, an enemy, and so a vacuum no more. This was apparent immediately after the 2001 attacks, when mainstream American newspapers featured headlines such as these: “This Is a Religious War”; “Yes, This Is About Islam”; “Muslim Rage”; “The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror”; “Kipling Knew What the US May Now Learn”; “Jihad 101”; “The Revolt of Islam”; and so on. Several discussed the Crusades and were illustrated with pictures of Richard the Lion Heart.

Events have pushed many in the news media toward a de facto adoption of the Huntington theory, regardless of its many critics. The 9/11 attacks, the resulting Afghanistan War, and the Iraq War begun in 2003 all lend themselves to political and journalistic shorthand: We have a new array of villains, and they have Islam in common. That must mean that a clash of civilizations is under way.

It is difficult for Americans to make knowledgeable judgments about the existence of civilization-related clashes if the public knows little about the civilizations in question. Although the news media should not bear the entire burden of teaching the public about the world—the education system also has major responsibilities, which it consistently fails to fulfill— news coverage is a significant element in shaping the public’s understanding of international events and issues. Aside from their occasional spurts of solid performance, American news organizations do a lousy job of breaking down the public’s intellectual isolation.

It's hardly surprising that the media understands so little about Islamic civilization, but, as the election showed most recently, they have little comprehension of Judeo-Christian civilization either.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 4, 2005 6:06 AM

Journalist,n.- One without the Law who writes. See also barbarian.

Posted by: Luciferous at February 4, 2005 2:14 PM