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When the Myth of the Clash of Civilizations Collapses in Kyiv

When the Myth of the Clash of Civilizations Collapses in Kyiv

Monday, 6 June, 2022 - 12:00

A lot is being said about the war between Ukraine and Russia: its facts, motives, and implications for the world. This article does not delve into these matters, nor does it present a projection regarding its outcomes. Instead, it asks, far away from the loudness of war though not separate from it, how will this war affect human culture, regardless of its potential conclusions, militarily and politically?

It seems the answer is as follows: The myth of a “clash of civilizations” has collapsed. This myth has been shaping global culture for more than a quarter of a century, especially since 1996, the date of publication of the book by American political scientist Samuel Huntington, who used this phrase as his title.

This myth has been embedded in all cultures. The dominant powers saw in it justification for their dominance when it supposed that the “other” was malevolent, seeking its downfall (this was one of Huntington’s theories). And the dominated world saw in it a justification for rejecting reform, arguing that it is an alien demand aimed at solidifying that hegemony.

The great Arab philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri responded to the theory of the “clash of civilizations” in a book titled “Criticizing the Need for Reform” (2005). Among his more prominent arguments is the need to abandon the notion of “reform” because it is a Western demand. We are still embroiled in this debate for more than a quarter of a century; neither are we reforming nor are we overcoming others’ hegemony, nor will the other reform us nor remove its influence on us.

The “clash of civilizations” thesis was not broadly adopted because of the strength of its arguments, the clarity of its concepts, and the depth of its implications. Rather, it was popular because of major events that it seemed to have predicted before they occurred. It provided the simplest explanation for these developments, the most prominent of which is what was called the second and third Gulf War, i.e., the US interventions in Iraq between 1990 and 2003.

Writing about this matter, the Arab philosopher Mahdi Elmandjra, in The First Civilization War, predicts the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein along the exact same lines that some have interpreted Putin’s war in Ukraine. He saw it as a defensive act and the invasion and the West’s reaction as the beginning of a new phase, one of “disobedience,” referring to the myth of a clash of civilizations and using it against the dominant party.

However, the clash of civilizations is nothing but a myth that can be used by both the dominant and dominated party. It was not necessary for Arab thinkers to busy themselves with building their ideas on the basis of that myth or for Huntington’s book to be translated into Arab several times while other, more important modern works have yet to be translated. Arab thinkers did not have to choose between Huntington’s clash of civilizations hypothesis and that of the End of History and the Last Man, which Francis Fokoyama published years ago and is also a myth.

And in any case, this ongoing war in Ukraine has disproved the clash of civilizations hypothesis for all to see. It is a war between two neighbors who share the same religion; indeed, not only are they both Christian, they are also both Orthodox. Moreover, they share the same (Russian) culture and history (Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, is the historic capital of the Russian nation and its first empire), the countries’ borders used to be open, and millions of Russians used to vacation in Ukraine. Despite all of that, war nonetheless broke out. Like the second Gulf war, which began with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, two countries that also share the same civilization, this is not a clash of civilizations.

The question here is not why the war in Ukraine broke out. That question implies political analysis, but everyone listening to the long speech given by the Russian President hours before the war, in which he justified it, noticed that it is rooted in the distant past. There is no reference to any clash between civilizations or even the Cold War, though the Soviet period was violently criticized. His rhetoric is that of the conflicts nineteen century and the first half of the twentieth century, when it was normal to justify wars with questions of strategic depth and national security. That is how wars were justified at that time, including the First and Second World Wars. These wars reached an unimaginably horrific scale with Nazism, and the justifications of old seemed a thing of the past because of how heavily the impact of these conflicts on our conscience.

In the final analysis, why do wars break out? Firstly, for interests. The Cold War was not a clash between imperialism and socialism like Lenin wanted it to be. Instead, it was fought between an imperial project led by the US and another led by the USSR. It propelled a confrontation between new geo-economic poles, with Russia the weaker of the two because its economy remained dependent on the export of raw materials. Thus, it took the initiative in starting wars because it could not continue to compete economically. As for the West, which pays lip service to democracy, pluralism, and acceptance of difference, it is once again reaffirming that it does not tolerate seeing a power outside the global economy and does not share its view of how the world should operate.

Second to furthering interests, we have ideology. Certain cultural traits could be catalysts for war or used as a pretext to perpetuate even after interests are not realized. We can classify religious wars within this category, and the same could be said of the conflict between the Arabs and Israel, which continues despite the parties not furthering any interests through it.

And on this basis, the clash of civilizations theory is not a useful analytical tool. It does not help explain the new world order, which has nothing new about it to begin with. The Ukraine war has made this uselessness all the more evident. As for the relationship between wars and interest, the two influence one another; theirs is a “dialectical” relationship, as Marx put it.

Neither are interests merely the fodder of a clash of civilizations, as Huntington believed nor is culture a pretext for furthering interests as Marxism claims. A particular cultural conviction can intersect with a particular interest, and the same conviction can intersect with a different or contradictory interest. Therefore, no culture can be associated with class or nation’s interests, nor can any class or national produce a culture of its own.

In the end, no hypothesis can provide a comprehensive explanation; neither the holy wars hypothesis, the imperialism hypothesis or the clash of civilizations hypothesis. Every historical case has its particularities. As for the anthropology of war, it is the anthropology of man’s relationship with violence or violence in man. Man is, of course, civil, and of course, violent as well. The clash between violence and civilization dates back to the Stone Age, as no one can know for sure whether the first men sharpened the stones to build dwellings, enjoy the beauty of their shape, or kill their rivals. But they undoubtedly declared, with this obscurity surrounding their intentions, the emergence of civilization, which is a mixture of all that.

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