Choosing a clash of cultures to blame

Explanations: President Bush sees "evil" in terrorist attacks

others suspect conflicts between civilizations. Could they be overlooking something?

October 21, 2001|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

The time has come at last for political theorist Benjamin Barber. His 1995 book, Jihad vs. McWorld, is now climbing toward best-sellerdom. Calls at his offices in New York, New Jersey and Maryland regularly bring invitations to address the public. One Sunday, he's quoted in The New York Times; the next, he's penned a cover story for The Financial Times.

The University of Maryland professor, adviser to the Clinton administration and recent director of a center for democracy at Rutgers University, is quickly stepping into the upper echelons of public intellectuals offering ways to understand the events of Sept. 11. For a nation that remains frightened, angry and bewildered, a quest for someone who can provide the one great narrative that will make inexplicable terror explicable might be one of the most significant undertakings of coming months.

"Americans are asking questions like, `Why do they hate us? Who would do something like this? How can people be so perverse?'" Barber said last week at his office in College Park. "That speaks to the role of the public intellectual. Ideally, it's not a role where we give certain answers, but frame questions, expand the time horizon and offer some possible forms of explanation."

Almost six weeks after the terrorist attacks, the range and variety of explanations from academic quarters reflect an astonishing perplexity. At the Johns Hopkins University, for example, scholars invited to take part in a campus teach-in initially demurred because, as one historian said, "People were awed by the mandate to define a perspective." At the same time, said Hopkins anthropologist Ashraf Ghani, a native of Afghanistan, "Before Sept. 11 there were five of us [in the United States] specializing in Afghanistan who kept knocking on the doors of everyone to get a hearing, and of course it was difficult. Now there are 500 instant experts and another thousand lining up."

Casual soundings of the political landscape do, however, indicate that two prevailing stories might have become dangerously salient, according to Barber. The first, which found voice in President George W. Bush's initial pronouncements, is "the simplistic claim that terrorism literally comes from hell, comes from people who are diabolical, who have no cause, who have no explanation or rationale for what they do other than represent some abject evil."

The second did not so much spring from reactionary ignorance but from a 1993 essay by Harvard University's Samuel Huntington in Foreign Affairs titled "The Clash of Civilizations?" Written as a kind of post-Cold War premonition, Huntington's article had enormous influence among policy-makers at the time. In it, Huntington suggested that global politics had entered a new phase in which the fundamental source of world conflict would no longer be ideological or economic but cultural. To be more precise, Huntington predicted tensions between civilizations would leave the world spinning around one central axis: "The West versus The Rest." Not only did he name the interaction between Islam and the West as an example of such a clash, but he also predicted that what he called the Muslim World would bring the West's next confrontation.

Although Huntington has rapidly backpedaled since Sept. 11, saying the terrorist attacks do not exemplify his theory, the Clash of Civilizations idea has been raised repeatedly to explain the supposed enmity within Muslim nations for Western culture and pointed to as the fuel that fires fundamentalist rage.

"This is the primary alternative explanation right now," said Barber, who has joined a growing chorus of scholars objecting to Huntington. "But what's interesting is that this is also bin Laden's argument -- that certainly this is not a few of them against us, but an onslaught against Western civilization and everything the West holds sacred." In fact, other scholars are now pointing out that, more than 40 years ago, Muslim fundamentalist writers formalized the Clash of Civilizations notion to galvanize their forces against modernism. "The idea," Barber said, "is palpably false."

Like Huntington, Barber seems to have divined the present-day conflict several years ago. The mere title of his book, Jihad vs. McWorld, sounds surprisingly fresh. Although the title suggests a fractious dichotomy like Huntington's, the thesis is more along the lines of "Jihad via McWorld." In other words, Barber believes the globalizing culture of Western commercial values and policies that hold financial markets more important than the rights and needs of everyday citizens encourages the militant response -- not only among Islamic fundamentalists, but Americans, as well.

The intemperate rants of the Rev. Jerry Falwell and senseless violence of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh might be two examples of America's own aberrant responses.

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