Printer Friendly

A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West.

Since Samuel P. Huntington initiated discussion in his now famous article, "The Clash of Civilizations?", published in the summer 1994 issue of Foreign Affairs, literature of both the scholarly and polemical variety concerning whether or not Cold War polarities are to be succeeded by a confrontation between the "West" and the world of "Islam" (or an "Islamic-Confucian alliance") has been voluminous. Among the more notable scholarly contributions have been the energetic dissents to Huntington's thesis published in Foreign Affairs in September/October 1993 (including, surprisingly, comments by Fouad Ajami and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick), James Kurth's critique of Huntington's argument in an essay entitled "The Real Clash" which appeared in National Interest in the Fall 1994 number, and Roy P. Mottahedeh's probing analysis of Huntington's thesis in his article, "The clash of Civilizations: An Islamacist's Critique," published in the Harvard Middle Eastern and Islamic Review 2 in 1996. For their part, Graham E. Fuller and Ian O. Lesser, both affiliated with RAND Corporation, have now composed what is easily the most substantial and empirically grounded study of this entire question. A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that Huntington's thesis is both conceptually untenable and factually inaccurate.

With Fuller focusing primarily on matters relating to the Muslim world and Lesser giving attention mainly to the West's historical and contemporary view of Islam, the co-authors make clear that Huntington's attempt to revive Spenglerian and Toynbeean notions of homogeneous and organically distinct "civilizations" makes even less sense today than it did half a century and more ago. In the fundamental sense, there is today "no 'Islam' and there is no 'West'", the authors maintain (p. 1). Rather, Islam is both in and of the West, as the West is in and of Islam. For demographic, geostrategic and cultural reasons alike, A Sense of Siege warns against efforts to reify either religions or "civilizations," and highlights the variety of political tendencies which exist both in Euro-America and among Muslims in the Middle East, and the former USSR, and South Asia. "Islam as a faith is not on a collision course with the West," the authors observe. "The issue is not between Christianity and Islam" (p. 3). "We use 'Islam' . . . in quotation marks," they note, "because there is no Islam that can be treated as a single, cohesive, coherent, comprehensive, monolithic entity . . . Islam will never constitute a single entity. . . . The concept of the West is at least as diverse" (pp. 1-2). Concerning the United States, Fuller and Lessing ask what "America" is meant when the word is employed. "Is it simply U.S. government policy, or is it American culture. . . ? And what of the large numbers of Americans who are now Muslim . . . or those Americans [who may] . . . identify with some of the grievances of the Third World?" (p. 6). In arguing convincingly that there is simply "no single, coherent 'West" opposed to Muslim countries, any more than there is a single 'Islam' expressing hostile views toward the West" (p. 6), A Sense of Siege unsparingly reveals the Huntingtonian notion of the "West versus the rest" for precisely the sort of special pleading that it is.

But Huntington's argument is not only conceptually flawed. More frequently than not, it is also factually erroneous. For the most part, what Huntington calls Islam's "bloody borders" fall within the Muslim world, and his thesis ignores wars and relationships which are not religiously sectarian or involve such non-Western and non-Christian states as Confucian China or Hindu India. Fuller and Lesser point out that one of the bloodiest conflicts in the newly independent states of the former USSR is that in Tajikistan which pits Muslim Uzbeks against Muslim Tajiks. Civil war also rages among Muslims in Afghanistan, where Taliban Islamists besiege Rabbani's more moderate government in Kabul. Meanwhile, in the Caucasus Christian and Muslim Ossetes make common cause on issues that confront their community, and Christian Armenia and Christian Russia work quietly together and with Islamic Iran to oppose Muslim Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh. The authors note that China has initiated a program of ethnic cleansing against eight million Muslim Uighur Turks in China, while Hindu mobs in India massacre their Muslim fellow citizens and the Indian government threatens war against Pakistan over Kashmir. If defensible neither on the conceptual nor on the empirical level, what can be said to remain of Huntington's thesis of a "conflict of civilizations," and what purpose is served by the continuing propagation of his notion of looming conflict between "Islam" and the "West"?

Of particular interest in this volume is the emphasis which Fuller and Lesser place on the role which Muslims in Europe and the United States may play in the evolution of Islamic thought. Specifically, they suggest that the large Muslim diaspora in Euro-America may, over the longer term, contribute importantly both to ijtihad and to political moderation in the Middle East. The presence of Islam in the West, the authors note, "may hasten its move toward a process similar to the Christian Reformation" (p. 88). The fact that Western secular states (quite unlike most regimes in the Islamic world) today provide protection for Muslim religious rights has of course hardly gone unnoticed among Muslims. In Fuller and Lesser's opinion, new ground is being broken in Islamic thinking which will have "major repercussions for decades to come. . . . The West has now become one of the primary laboratories for rapid, virtually 'forced' Islamic evolution" (p. 93).

Nevertheless, A Sense of Siege makes clear that the most exigent problems lie in the Muslim world and in the here and now. The authors give special attention to the sorry tale of Western intervention in the Middle East and Africa. "Today Muslims see themselves on the run all over the world," they write. "Muslims are convinced that Western policies are consciously dedicated to weakening Muslim power wherever it arises" (p. 43). Fuller and Lesser report that Muslims of all educational levels currently tend to believe to that the "same old war against Islam is still carried on unchecked from 1,000 years ago. . . . The West is seen to be comfortable only with a supine Muslim world." (p. 43). None of this will come as any surprise to readers of this journal.

Otherwise, the authors give attention to many of the problems which do trouble relations between Euro-America and the Islamic world. The international arms trade and nuclear proliferation are discussed, as is the issue of terrorism. Fuller and Lessing point out that since 1982 Shi'i groups have been responsible for only eight percent of all international terrorist incidents, but these incidents have accounted for some thirty percent of the total number of deaths. "The lethality of radical Muslim terrorism," they observe, "is an important aspect of its prominence in Western perceptions" (p.72). The probability that Western powers will find new occasions for intervention in the Islamic world leads the authors to the grim conclusion that "radical Islamic terrorism and responses to it will be a fixture of the strategic environment for some time to come" (p. 74).

To the United States, the authors offer sage counsel. Most Islamist movements should be understood as political rather than as security problems, they suggest, and the United States should treat with caution those strictures against "fundamentalism" regularly propounded by failing and undemocratic Middle Eastern regimes interested only in eliminating domestic opposition. Specifically, the U.S. should encourage the inclusion of Islamists within the political process, since only thereby can they be deprived of "proclaiming the 'solution' without actually having to demonstrate just what their solution is to so many intractable problems" (p. 199). Indeed, it is precisely the refusal to extend legality to the Islamist opposition which the authors argue "intensifies its most radical and polarizing features" (p. 166). They maintain that a policy of inclusion would provide greater "controls" over Islamist movements and contribute significantly to their moderation (pp. 122, 166).

This book is written in accessible prose and merits attention by scholars, policy makers and educated general readers alike. The fact that the authors hold senior positions at RAND Corporation which has published their study in conjunction with a major commercial press offers at least some hope that such may actually transpire.

Antony T. Sullivan is an Associate in the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies, the University of Michigan.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Association of Arab-American University Graduates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sullivan, Antony T.
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Previous Article:Algerian Islamists' conception of democracy.
Next Article:Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World.

Related Articles
The Arab Christian - A History in the Middle East.
The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?
Political Islam and the New World Disorder.
Faces of Lebanon: Sects, Wars, and Global Extensions.
Telecom Timeline.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters