Islam and the West: Is there a clash of cultures? (1995) | THINK TANK

Islam and the West: Is there a clash of cultures? (1995) | THINK TANK

Ben Wattenberg: Hello, I’m Ben Wattenberg. The Islamic population of the world is over
one billion people and growing. Through the centuries, Islamic and Western
cultures have often been at odds even though their teachings share many of the same basic
tenets. Joining us to discuss the role of Islam in
the modern world are Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at the School of
Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University; Milton Viorst, senior scholar
at the Middle East Institute and author of “Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the
Modern World”; and John Esposito, professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown
University and author of “The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?” The topic before this house: Islam and the
West: Is there a clash of cultures? This week on “Think Tank.” The West has long seen Islam as a rival culture. A thousand years of conflict, from the Crusades
to the recent Gulf war and terrorism in New York and Paris, have bolstered this view. But is the clash perception or reality? Islam is the world’s second-largest religion,
second only to Christianity. Islam continues to expand, especially in Africa. Devotion is often intense, from daily prayer
to the pilgrimages to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. Today many Islamic countries are developing
modern economies, but most have not adopted Western-style democratic institutions. All the countries of the world that are not
free are in the Eastern hemisphere except for Cuba. The countries that are not free as defined
by the human rights organization Freedom House are shown in red on the map. The next map shows in green the distribution
of Muslim-majority countries in the world. Clearly, most of the not-free countries are
Islamic. Some analysts see in Islam a culture that
is permanently opposed to democracy and to the West. Others argue that there is no such thing as
a single Islamic culture. They say that Islamic societies can and will
go their own ways without posing any threat to the West. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Fouad, let me ask you a question. A few years ago, Samuel Huntington wrote a
very controversial article in Foreign Affairs called “The Clash of Civilizations.” Maybe you could just lay out his thesis and
then — I know you have a problem with it — and then why don’t you tell us what’s
your problem with it, and let’s talk about that for a moment. Fouad Ajami: I’ll try to do a Huntington
— Ben Wattenberg: You are now Huntington, right. Fouad Ajami: Exactly. I am now Sam Huntington. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Fouad Ajami: You know, I wrote — you may
recall, I wrote a response in Foreign Affairs — Ben Wattenberg: Yes, I know that. Fouad Ajami: — to Sam Huntington, entitled
“The Summoning.” Sam, in effect, made the argument that in
the aftermath of the Cold War — and this is really a caricature of his argument — that
we will not have a clash of ideologies, that we will have a clash of civilizations, and
that we will, if you will, from almost the — sort of the wreckage of the Cold War,
we will resurrect these old civilizations. It will be Islamic, Confucian, African civilization. He — Sam identified Latin America as a civilization
and then of course the West, and that these will be the fault lines in the world. These will be the fault lines that matter. Myself, I took an exception to it. Ben Wattenberg: And he said, if there was
going to be a war in the future — Fouad Ajami: It will be a war — Ben Wattenberg: — it would be a war of civilizations
rather than of countries. Fouad Ajami: Yes, it will be a war of civilizations. And my response to Huntington and my sense
at the time was, it was almost interesting that Huntington, who has been one of the most
brilliant students of the state, decided to dispose of nation-states. I thought that modernity for me is universal
— modernity is universal, and that the clash will still be the clash of states, that we
still live in a world of nation-states. And the idea that civilizations are blocs,
that you can take a look at the whole length and breadth of the Muslim world, all the way
from Morocco to Indonesia, and subsume it under one category, was false. The thing that really moves the world is the
logic of interests. States are stubborn beings. They’re monsters. I mean, they’re very unsentimental. And the world economy is what really matters. I mean, if we really want to talk about something,
when we say that, you know, several societies in the Muslim world are in trouble, they are
in trouble because they cannot compete in a modern world economy. Ben Wattenberg: Okay, now, are you all Huntingtonians
or Ajamiites? Milton Viorst: Well, I am — I think there
is a clash of civilizations in the sense that there — but this is not new. I mean, Christian Western civilization has
been in conflict with Muslim Eastern civilization now for 1,400 years. It’s likely to continue. Whether this means war or occasional terrorism
or whatever is a different story. I think that Sam Huntington made a wonderful
rhetorical leap here into something quite, perhaps, useful to debate, but I think even
if one accepts certain premises — and I do — in what he is saying — Ben Wattenberg: When you sit down and deal
the cards, you don’t deal — Milton Viorst: Yeah, it’s going to come
out a lot different. Ben Wattenberg: — with Islamic civilization,
you deal with a variety of nations. Milton Viorst: Well, you deal with a variety
of nations, and you deal also with something that has been both a constant and a — and
something in flux throughout all of modern history. My view is that the West defeated Islam, if
you want to say that, sometime during the era of the Ottomans three or four hundred
years ago. I don’t think that Islamic civilization
is likely to be a threat to the West at any time in the foreseeable future. It is trying to catch up with itself, and
if occasionally it dumps on the West, denounces the West, gets angry with the West, I can
understand that. But it’s certainly not going to be a threat
to the West. Ben Wattenberg: If you view Islam as a civilization
rather than as a series of discrete nations, it becomes much more threatening, doesn’t
it? John Esposito: I think part of the problem
is that we still tend to deal with these sort of broad categories. You know, we talk about Islam, and it’s
as if there is some sort of monolithic civilization out there. I think also where — I think what Huntington’s
article also reveals is his generation missing the point in terms of the role of religion
and international affairs. And so what’s happened is in recent years,
we see not just in the Islamic world, but globally, a resurgence of religion in politics,
whether it’s in Sri Lanka or it’s in India, wherever, okay. And I think that — Ben Wattenberg: Or in the United States of
America. John Esposito: And in the US. And I think that what you see in the Huntington
piece is suddenly, having gone through what I call the politics of underestimation and
overreaction with regard to the role of religion and ethnicity, and forgetting that, as Fouad
said, that it’s often interest and national interest that become the key variables. I mean, when you look at the relationship
of the Muslim world, let’s say, to America and you look at Muslim countries, there are
countries that have had a hostile relationship with the US — Libya and Iran — and there
are other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, that have had good relations. And a good deal of that is not so much based
on civilizational as national interests. Ben Wattenberg: But aren’t American interests
everywhere throughout the Islamic world threatened by Islamic fundamentalism? I mean, Saudi Arabia fears Islamic fundamentalists,
and Egypt fears it, Morocco fears it, Algeria fears it. I mean, I guess the argument is, within Islam,
is this tendency toward fundamentalist Islam which too often expresses itself in some sort
of terror — or at least such is the perception — is that a powerful movement within Islam? Is it a movement that could take over additional
states? And would it then threaten us? I mean, I guess that’s the argument. John Esposito: I think you have to break out
the term, though. See, I think part of the problem is we use
this term “fundamentalism” for a whole group of Islamic political and social activist
organizations. And I think that, again, these organizations,
like nations, are diverse. There are indeed extremist groups out there
who in the name of Islam threaten their governments and their people much more than they do, when
you think about it, the West. But you also have a whole set of Islamically
oriented political and social organizations or Muslims in Muslim societies who in fact
participate socially and politically and, if allowed to do that, would continue to participate
in society. I think if we don’t make those kinds of
distinctions — just as we have to distinguish among nation-states, we have to distinguish
among Islamic activists, whatever we want to call them — then I think we do feed a
clash-of-civilizations approach. We’ve got a monolithic threat. Fouad Ajami: See, a generation after the Iranian
Revolution, you see, we were traumatized by the Iranian Revolution. When Di Arme Inam came by jumbo jet from Paris
to — Ben Wattenberg: Bearing audiocassettes. Fouad Ajami: Exactly. When he returned — Milton Viorst: Riding on audiocassettes. Ben Wattenberg: Excuse me? Milton Viorst: Riding on audiocassettes. That was the fuel that was in that jet. Fouad Ajami: When he returned home, we thought
surely we were ready for — if you will, that we saw the Muslim world as a row of dominoes. It was a new domino theory. They would all fall. Myself, you know, I had a kind of a skeptical
view of this, that the Iranian Revolution would be almost a revolution in one country. It wouldn’t duplicate itself. And much as we talk about the imminent overthrow
of these Muslim governments and the defeat of the secular model, the facts really don’t
bear this out. The Egyptian state is not going to be overthrown. We always write its obituary, but it has been
around a long time, and it really is in the saddle. The Saudi state is not really going to be
overthrown. There is no likelihood that the fundamentalists
or the people who call them fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia will overthrow the Saudi state. There is no likelihood that they will win
in Jordan. And even in a place like the West Bank and
Gaza, there is no likelihood that they will prevail against Yassir Arafat. The power — Ben Wattenberg: The Hamas group is going down
apparently. Fouad Ajami: The Hamas people, they will thrive
only if there is poverty and despair to feed off. When Khomeini returned to power, the great
man, at the time he said, “Look” — someone came to him and asked him about economics,
and Khomeini said, “My revolution is about Islam. It’s not about the price of melons.” It is about the price of melons everywhere
worldwide, and the same is true in the Muslim world. Ben Wattenberg: Has there been in the Islamic
world anywhere a successful functioning democracy? I mean, if that is one of the criteria by
which one says modernity has arrived. John Esposito: But the difficulty, I think,
in asking that question, in posing it, is if you look at the majority of the Muslim
world, you’re talking about — until roughly World War II, you’re talking about two centuries
of European colonial rule in so much of the area, which did not encourage these institutions. Then you’re talking about the rise of modern
nation-states, most of which emerged artificially, most of which wound up with governments that
were run by kings, military and ex-military, and therefore you have not had a period of
history in which you could wind up with the political sort of culture and institutions
being allowed to develop which enable this transformation to democracy. Ben Wattenberg: Is there anything in the Islamic
culture or the Islamic religion that would stand in the way of a developing democracy? Fouad Ajami: See, I — on the question of
democracy, I mean, I take a slightly sort of conservative orientation myself. I believe really George Kennan is right when
he says, you know, we talk about the incidence of democracy in the world. Democracy is but a habit. Democracy is but the ways of that peninsula
of Asia that he described as Europe. It’s really like if you take a look at the
world as a whole, I mean I know people think that the stocks of democracy is up. Is Russia capable of a successful transition
to democracy? I have my doubts. Are the people of the Ukraine capable of a
transition to democracy? I have my doubts. Ben Wattenberg: I mean, the argument has been
from an American point of view that democracies don’t really go to war with each other,
so there is a reason for us to be other than — Fouad Ajami: Yes. Ben Wattenberg: — our great humanitarian
— Milton Viorst: How about if we redefine this
a little bit, not in parliamentary terms, but merely to say participation? Is there something in Islamic civilization
which stands in the way not of democracy, because we — that’s hopeless. Ben Wattenberg: Right. Milton Viorst: In terms of participation,
can the common — Ben Wattenberg: Freedom of expression, for
example. Milton Viorst: Well, but not just freedom
of expression. Can we have government run for the people
rather than for the sake of the perpetuation of the state? And the fact is, there has been — I would
go even further than what your question suggests. I’d go further to say that not only is there
not the germs of democracy, but there really is not much hope even for — or much precedent
even for participation. The state has been such a monster throughout
all of the history of this region, and there has been so little ideology which would provide
some popular basis for rebelling against this kind of state. So I’m not only feeling gloomy about the
prospect for democracy, but even participatory government. Ben Wattenberg: Isn’t there — what one
reads about it — isn’t there a sort of a tropism toward the modern way of life, toward
American television and American movies? And you hear stories of Saudi Arabia that,
you know, they’re officially against drinking and against Western dress, but in the privacy
of their villas, there is a very different sort of a life going on and so on and so forth. I mean, is that bubbling? John Esposito: I think that as states open
up — because I agree with what Milton said. I mean, the way the situation is now, there’s
a problem, but if states open up, then I think one can expect to see political participation
develop. But this doesn’t necessarily — the problems
of the past don’t necessarily have to be equated simply with the nature of Islam. Because remember that all religious traditions
— I mean, Judaism and Christianity had to, in a sense, reinterpret themselves to make
themselves compatible with modern democracy. And even Sam Huntington two decades ago said
that he saw Judaism and Christianity making the transition, but he wasn’t sure if one
group could do it, and that group was Roman Catholics. And that’s changed, but he was right when
he made the observation. You know, in the 20th century, you’ve had
a papal bull that in fact condemned what would normally be seen as modernity, and it wasn’t
until Vatican II that pluralism was accepted. And so, you know, traditions do reinterpret
themselves. So what I am saying is that on the one level
it’s political and economic factors that are important, but then if we say, you know,
can the religious tradition come along, I think that in fact traditions do reinterpret. And if one looks at what’s going on in the
Muslim world today, there are many Muslim intellectuals who are dealing with the question
of political participation and trying to reinterpret cultural categories. Ben Wattenberg: Look, I think from an American
point of view, I mean when people think of is it good or is it bad, I think the phrase
“gangster state” comes up. With the exception of North Korea, the world’s
gangster states, so-called — Fouad Ajami: Right, the pariah states. Ben Wattenberg: — are Libya, Iran, Iraq,
I guess Syria, whatever, where you would have the possibility, for example, of state-sponsored
terrorism. Is that an accident that the great preponderance
of these kind of states are in the Islamic world, in the Arab world? And is that a passing phase, or is that something
that we have to really worry about? Fouad Ajami: Look, they are renegade states,
and I think we should view them as renegade states. I mean, I know there are people who say we
should, you know, we should offer the Iranians an olive branch and so on. We should offer them nothing. We should see the Iranian state, we should
see the Iraqi state, we should see the Syrian state, we should see the Libyan state as renegade
states, and they should be treated as such. I mean, I don’t think we should look for
other ways of saying, oh, well, what is the connection between these states and the large
civilization and the large cultural container from which they come, because I just don’t
think it’s really about that. I mean, these are revisionist states. And we were just talking about participation
in states in the Muslim world. The fact of the matter is, if you take a look
narrowly at the Middle East, there are the dynastic states in the Gulf and the monarchical
states, and they are a breed apart. And then there are these national security
states, the Syrians, the Iraqis, and the like. And you’re right. I mean, if you take a look at these national
security states, they belong to a different world. They came out of the anti-colonial world. They came out of a military container, and
unless they transform and reform, the life in these societies will remain to be the Hobbesian
existence it continues to be. Milton Viorst: Your question, Ben, is the
right one in the sense that because Iraqis or Saudis or whoever like television, like
occasional drinking, like to come to the United States or to Paris in order to enjoy themselves,
doesn’t that mean that somehow Western civilization or Western values, including democracy, are
having some impact upon these cultures? Ben Wattenberg: I mean, you hear stories of,
for example, when “Dallas” was running — Fouad Ajami: Right, very popular. Ben Wattenberg: — very popular — of the
mullahs coming into the mosques the next morning and preaching their text from what happened
on the television the last — Fouad Ajami: Well, that’s the thing, just
— Milton Viorst: Well, all that is correct,
and then the next question is: Is this having an impact intellectually, spiritually? And the fact is that Islam is a very powerful
religion. It has a huge impact. It has really — you see very few instances
of conversions from Islam. You see very few instances of the retreat
of Islam. Whatever you may feel in analyzing Islam and
its compatibility with modern values, the fact is that Islam has served this civilization
very well for a long time in preserving its identity, and it is doing that now. I think Islam is a lot stronger than “Dallas.” Fouad Ajami: Just on this line of culture,
some years back, not to invoke our host, you know, you did something. Instead of taking a look at what Huntington
says about the clash of civilization, it was about America as a universal nation. The fact of the matter is the American model
is ascendant in the world. Now, it doesn’t mean that everything about
it is going to be exported. Democracy doesn’t travel so well. What travels about the American model — a
friend of mine, Ali Mozimi, once said that people love that unique American combination:
high technology and low culture. Pop culture travels very well, and it’s
indeed kids with sneakers and T-shirts who took on the American example in Beirut and
other places. The irony is in the Muslim world from 1973
onward, when the Arabs, the heartland, if you will, of this Islamic civilization, became
rich — and Iran, because of oil wealth — the irony is two things came in tandem, Americanization
and anti-Americanism. The places became much more dipped into the
American orbit, if you will, and they were being assaulted and seduced. And particularly the young were being seduced. Milton says that, you know, that Islam is
very powerful. It is powerful, but modern culture is also
extremely powerful. And the temptations of modern culture, this
push and pull of modern culture, is enormously powerful. And it’s really these cross-currents in
the world of Islam: From one side your ancestor is summoning you back, if you will, to the
past; from the other side, the world of the foreigner. And modernity is many things. It’s many things. It’s a messy thing, this creature called
modernity. John Esposito: For many people — Ben Wattenberg: My sense is the war between
the ancestors and television is almost always won by television. Fouad Ajami: Yes, that’s — John Esposito: Well, but for many people in
the Muslim world, it’s the cultural threat. Milton Viorst: Well, but see, I don’t think
that’s — Ben Wattenberg: All right, let John go. Then you. Milton Viorst: Okay, excuse me. John Esposito: For many people in the Muslim
world, it’s the cultural threat much more than, if you will, the American or Western
political threat that is seen as the most insidious. Ben Wattenberg: And this is what has engendered
that fundamentalist backlash. John Esposito: Daniel Pipes and I were at
a meeting recently, and Dan talked about the fact that — he quoted a, quote, “Pakistani
fundamentalist” who denounced Madonna and Michael Jackson as cultural terrorists, you
know, visited on the country. Well, my comment on that was also that Dan
had his source wrong. It was probably myself. Even though I’m Western, I happen to see
them as cultural terrorists. [Laughter.] But the point is they do represent a certain
kind of cultural impact — we can call it low culture or whatever — but that has had
an incredible impact throughout the world, not just in the Muslim world. Ben Wattenberg: But just, I mean, if the culture
of our allegedly low pop — I’m not so sure how low it is, but if that culture is
ascendant, aren’t the things that go with it — individualism, pluralism, merit, upward
mobility, all those sort of American ideas, which culminate I think probably in political
democracy, aren’t they traveling under cover as cultural imperialists? Milton Viorst: Yeah, but I think it’s a
little self-serving to think that they will. Let me put it in a slightly different framework. I think that what has always gone on in all
religions and has particularly gone in Islam in recent decades is a struggle for control. Islam for 1,400 years, or whatever you like,
has been under the control of very, very — a very rigid clerical class who has defined
the dogma. I mean, you could sit down and read the Quran,
as all of us around here have done, and find in it all kinds of conflicting different — open,
closed, horrible, wonderful —messages. Take what you like. It’s who’s the guy who determines what
the orthodoxy has been. And I think that Islam has been under the
control of a very rigid group of people who have passed their law on from generation to
generation for more than a thousand years. I think that there is genuinely a struggle
now over who might grab Islam. It’s going on in Egypt probably more than
anyplace else because Egypt is always kind of the spearhead of intellectuality in the
Islamic world, but it’s also going on elsewhere. You can also see it in Saudi Arabia. You can also see it even in Iran. There is an effort to take the momentum of
the religion away from this narrowly based class. I’m not terribly optimistic that the modernists
will win, but I think the struggle is going on. Ben Wattenberg: All right, thank you, Milton
Viorst, Fouad Ajami, and John Esposito. And thank you. Please send your comments to New River Media,
1150 17th Street, NW, Washington, DC, 20036. We can also be reached via email at [email protected]
or on the World Wide Web at For “Think Tank,” I’m Ben Wattenberg. Announcer: This has been a production of BJW
Inc., in association with New River Media, which are solely responsible for its content.


  • Chuck Myers says:

    Zionists are funny, they pushed Trump to sign an executive order to protect the Jews from our first amendment rights, yet, we have the freedom of speech to make fun of Muslims 24/7.

  • Nathan Thompson says:

    The better question is if Islam clashes with modern society. Which yes, yes it does.

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