Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

Published: March 11, 2011

Once I had lunch with Samuel Huntington at the Harvard Faculty Club. I was eager to talk to him because he had used my 1991 book, “La Revanche de Dieu” (“The Revenge of God”), in his famous article and subsequent volume, “The Clash of Civilizations.”

I had argued that the emergence of religious political movements from the 1970s onward had comparable roots in Islam, Judaism and Christendom: They were all born of a reaction to the passing of the industrial age and had to do with a global rewriting of political identities that shifted from social to religious parlance.

Paradoxically, Huntington had focused only on the chapter that dealt with the Islamic world, and made use of it to help develop his idea about the exceptional character of the Muslim civilization; he had no interest in the study of the opposing forces that fought for hegemony over that new political discourse and competed with secular groups to control the central values of society. To him, Islam was homogenous — and “other.” We had a good talk, though our views remained quite dissimilar.

A few years later came 9/11. Huntington was elevated to a second media apotheosis: Al Qaeda terrorism proved him right, many believed, as it demonstrated on the ground that Islam had an absolutist dimension, and that the mass of the faithful could become Osama bin Laden’s followers.

In the meanwhile, I had written another book, “Jihad,” whose subtitle in the original French was “Expansion and Decline of Islamism.” The English-language translation, published in early 2002, skipped that part. I contended that Islamism, as a cohesive ideology, was doomed to decline, because it bore a fault line between two irreconcilable trends.

On the one side were the radicals, who would use more and more demonstrative violence to underline the weakness of the powers-that-be in an attempt to mobilize the masses on their side, and who would finally find themselves isolated and ostracized by those same masses, as the failure of Egyptian and Algerian radicals had proven in the 1990s.

On the other side, a growing amount of Islamists were converting to the creed of pluralism and democracy, as was already then the case in Turkey. That change would not take place without turmoil within their ranks, but at the end of the day their ideological purity — based on the “absolute sovereignty of Allah” concept — would be corroded by parliamentary participation. Hence the movement would lose its unity and integrity.

After 9/11 those views were not the most popular; some in the French press suggested I be fired from my university chair. To them, the theory of a decline of Islamism was laughable, while Samuel Huntington became a prophet of sorts.

A decade later, many are surfing on the wave (and the Web) of Arab democratic revolutions. The same people who had extolled Huntington now make an auto-da-fé of his book, saying he misled us in pointing at Arabs and Muslims as radically “other”; now we know them to be just like us — they tweet, they’re on Facebook, and the figurehead of the Egyptian revolution is Google’s Middle East manager.

Things may actually be slightly less simple — and they should be put in perspective in the frame of the modern history of Islamism and its decline. Jihadi radicalism failed to mobilize the Muslim masses. Conversely, the authoritarian regimes of the Ben Alis and the Mubaraks, whose life expectancy had been extended by their Western allies for a decade because they bragged they were the bulwark against jihadism, became irrelevant.

Today, Arab civil society has dispelled its curse: It has moved on from “Either Ben Ali or Bin Laden” to “Neither Bin Laden nor Ben Ali.” The Arab revolutions have reached Phase One in Tunisia and Egypt — toppling the dictators — but they face the same ordeal: The parlance of democracy and human rights in which they coined political mobilization now has to deal with pressing social issues and address huge cohorts of jobless young urban poor.

Lacking it, the secularized middle classes that took the lead in Tunis and Cairo will be at risk. Islamists kept a low profile — even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has the biggest and best organized network of charities, mosques and local associations. They couldn’t beat the democrats, so they joined them.

Listening to their slogans, reading their publications in Arabic, one is struck by the fact that — as opposed to Khomeini in 1978-79 — they were unable to control the revolution’s vocabulary. Now, they must either keep on that track — and relinquish “sovereignty to the people,” albeit with their own religious tradition and culture — or they must capitalize on the dissatisfaction of the disinherited and push their old “Islam is the alternative” agenda.

The Islamists, for the time being, are divided along generational and ideological lines, but they have not vanished from the Arab street — let alone from Tahrir Square, where Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, back from Qatar, addressed the crowd for the Friday prayer. They find themselves, along with the whole of society, at a defining moment. It has little to do with the grand schemes of the clash of civilizations, and far more with grass-roots issues. All Arab politics are local — and Western academe could pay slightly more attention to that field than to the World Wide Web.

Gilles Kepel is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and a senior fellow of the Institut Universitaire de France.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on March 12, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.

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