TIM COHEN: Bin Laden's demise ends 'the clash of civilisations'
THE killing of Osama bin Laden is still so fresh in the news and on our minds, it is hard to make sense of its consequences. Everything is coming at a mad rush: the details of the event, the immediate political consequences, the quick historiographies, the mad theories, the little quirks.
It's all a big jumble. But through the mist, there is one clear conclusion that we can glimpse: we can at last dispense with the silly notion of a "clash of civilisations".
How so? Because, in a sense, Bin Laden's existence was the one irrefutable trump card that the notion would play against its many sceptics. Claim that the "Islamic" world was not actually or necessarily at ideological loggerheads with "the West", and within milliseconds, the name "Bin Laden" would be tossed in your face.
The notional utility of the idea of a "clash of civilisations" is that it predicted that the post-Cold War conflicts would be rooted in cultural differences, and at the apex of those conflicts stood Bin Laden, in all his gory, creepy horror.
Just as Karl Marx claimed at one point he was not a Marxist, I wonder now whether the founder of the notion of a clash of civilisations, political scientist Samuel Huntington, would claim himself to be a "clashist". He, after all, posed the notion shortly after the end of the Cold War, long before the clashes actually came about.
Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs, he said: "It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.
"Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations.
"The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future."
The idea, itself a critique, was criticised at the time, but it really took off after the September 11 2001 attacks, perhaps in a form that Huntington himself would not entirely endorse. "Clash of civilisations" became, as these ideas tend to do, a kind of rallying cry with a jingoistic edge.
Still, looking back on it now, it's amazing how quaint the theory seems. Huntington divided the world into Orthodox (most of the old Soviet Union), Eastern, Western, Muslim and sub-Saharan Africa.
Eastern was divided into Hindu, Sinic and Japonic, and Buddhist as well.
There were some odd "cleft" countries that couldn't make up their minds (India, Ukraine), and some unique cases (Israel and Ethiopia).
The theory had the great virtue of apparent classificatory rationality. It also had the great vice of reducing human beings to their aggregate culture - not that it would regard this as a reduction. But despite the virtue of being right about the al-Qaeda threat, the notion was wrong about everything else. Yet the dominating power of the al-Qaeda notion was so all-embracing and resplendent, it has served to obscure deeper and more enduring trends.
One of those has been cultural fusion. This notion was for me brought home in a simple and funny way by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Asked about language policy in his country, he rejected the notion of linguistic nationalism with a dismissive sweep. "If we don't learn English, how on earth will we do business with the Chinese?," he said.
Although there have been sporadic examples of "cultural" conflict over the past 20 years, more and more, cultures seem to be amalgamating, or at least adapting to one another. The great "Sinic" civilisation appears to be quite enjoying its transition to "western" ways, for example. The "Arab awakening" seems more and more a version of the collapse of the Soviet Union than unique to itself.
In retrospect, the positive prediction of "the end of history" has defeated the negative notion of a clash of civilisations.
. Cohen is contributing editor.
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