February 13, 2011

Egypt Turns ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis on Its Head

Arun Kundnani (h/t Paul Woodward):

Since the end of the Cold War, conservatives have argued that the world should be seen through the lens of a clash between civilizations. The world could be divided, they argued, on the basis of different cultures and their distance from Western values…

Liberals had their own version of such thinking, particularly after 9/11. Rejecting the necessity of a clash between civilizations, they spoke of a dialogue between civilizations. But they shared with conservatives the assumption that culture was the primary driving force of political conflict…

Significantly, both sides in the debate assumed that the fundamental divisions in the world were cultural rather than political.

In the case of the Middle East, conflict was seen as rooted in a cultural failure of Islam to adapt itself to modernity, rather than a political aspiration to freedom from regimes the West was backing.

The Egyptian revolution has finally demonstrated in practice that this cultural assumption no longer holds. Popular sovereignty, not God's sovereignty, has been the basis of the revolution. Muslims and Christians have marched together on the streets. [More on this here.]  The slogans have been universal demands for rights, dignity and social justice. At the same time, the Muslim Brotherhood has been one among the many strands of the movement, accommodating themselves to its democratic and pluralist thrust. [According to a recent poll conducted by the Washington Institute of Near East Policy: “Asked to pick national priorities, just 12% [of Egyptians] choose shariah over national power, democracy, or economic development. Asked to explain the uprising, economic conditions, corruption, and unemployment (30-40% each) far outpace ‘regime not Islamic enough’ (7%).”]

All of this confounds the "clash of civilizations" thesis which holds that the 'Islamic world' has necessarily "bloody borders." It also confounds the "dialogue of civilizations" approach, which seeks to address the people of the Middle East as a culturally distinct "Muslim world" rather than as populations whose demands are political and universal.

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