January 6 in the "The Clash" in the New York Times
Huntington’s cartography was drawn with a sharp pencil. It was “The West and the Rest”: the West standing alone, and eight civilizations dividing the rest — Latin American, African, Islamic, Sinic, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese. And in this post-cold-war world, Islamic civilization would re-emerge as a nemesis to the West. Huntington put the matter in stark terms: “The relations between Islam and Christianity, both Orthodox and Western, have often been stormy. Each has been the other’s Other. The 20th-century conflict between liberal democracy and Marxist-Leninism is only a fleeting and superficial historical phenomenon compared to the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity.”
Shortly after the appearance of the article that seeded the book, Foreign Affairs magazine called upon a group of writers to respond to Huntington’s thesis. I was assigned the lead critique. I wrote my response with appreciation, but I wagered on modernization, on the system the West had put in place. “The things and ways that the West took to ‘the rest,’” I wrote, “have become the ways of the world. The secular idea, the state system and the balance of power, pop culture jumping tariff walls and barriers, the state as an instrument of welfare, all these have been internalized in the remotest places. We have stirred up the very storms into which we now ride.” I had questioned Huntington’s suggestion that civilizations could be found “whole and intact, watertight under an eternal sky.”
Huntington had written that the Turks — rejecting Mecca, and rejected by Brussels — would head toward Tashkent, choosing a pan-Turkic world. My faith was invested in the official Westernizing creed of Kemalism that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had bequeathed his country. “What, however, if Turkey redefined itself?” Huntington asked. “At some point, Turkey could be ready to give up its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.”
Nearly 15 years on, Huntington’s thesis about a civilizational clash seems more compelling to me than the critique I provided at that time. In recent years, for example, the edifice of Kemalism has come under assault, and Turkey has now elected an Islamist to the presidency in open defiance of the military-bureaucratic elite. There has come that “redefinition” that Huntington prophesied. To be sure, the verdict may not be quite as straightforward as he foresaw. The Islamists have prevailed, but their desired destination, or so they tell us, is still Brussels: in that European shelter, the Islamists shrewdly hope they can find protection against the power of the military.
And Huntington had the integrity and the foresight to see the falseness of a borderless world, a world without differences. (He is one of two great intellectual figures who peered into the heart of things and were not taken in by globalism’s conceit, Bernard Lewis being the other.)
They flee the burning grounds of Islam, but carry the fire with them.
More ominously perhaps, there ran through Huntington’s pages an anxiety about the will and the coherence of the West — openly stated at times, made by allusions throughout. The ramparts of the West are not carefully monitored and defended, Huntington feared. Islam will remain Islam, he worried, but it is “dubious” whether the West will remain true to itself and its mission. Clearly, commerce has not delivered us out of history’s passions, the World Wide Web has not cast aside blood and kin and faith. It is no fault of Samuel Huntington’s that we have not heeded his darker and possibly truer vision.
Some of us have.
Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.