Americans Must Learn More About Real World History

Is There a Clash of Civilizations?

Americans Must Learn More About Real World History

Is There a Clash of Civilizations?

Americans Must Learn More About Real World History
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 5 2006 11:52 PM

Is There a Clash of Civilizations?


Dear Mr. Kagan,

Many thanks for your very interesting communication. I am rather sad that this is our last round on the present occasion, since you have been raising so many important issues. I also take the point that you have communicated to me from one of your correspondents: that the narrowly Islamic interpretation of the Muslim heritage (against which I argue in my book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny) "is less acute outside the Arab world and more troubling inside the Arab world." I also see the force of your "concern that at least in that [Arab] part of the Muslim world, the self-identification of most community leaders as Islamic rather than democratic is quite troubling and certainly fuels the idea we are in a clash of civilizations."


Despite seeing the reasoning behind that concern, let me try to present a somewhat different interpretation, linked to the main arguments in my book. I hope that my focusing on "difference" rather than on "agreement" will also be pleasing to our hosts at Slate, since they may be a bit worried that, having recruited two persons from two contrasting sides of the "left-right dividing line" for a debate, they find us agreeing far too much! I should, however, mention at the same time that the fact that we agree on so many things is wonderful for me both because I have always respected your arguments greatly, despite our political differences, and also because the importance of democracy is not—and should not be—a divider along the left-right axis. Indeed, if there is anything in public reasoning, which is so central to democracy, it should be possible for us to narrow down our differences when we are willing to listen to each other (a point that has been made with compelling clarity both by the philosopher John Rawls, who is broadly on the "left," and by the economist James Buchanan, who is broadly on the "right").

Our difference does not lie, I should also make clear, in my disagreeing with your apprehension that political leaders with a strong Islamic agenda who come to office through democratic elections may nevertheless promote "Islamism, not democracy." The issues I want to discuss are: 1) how to interpret the expansion of Islamic extremism in Arab politics, and 2) what the Arabs themselves and the rest of the world can do about it.

In my book, I discuss how the broad identities of Muslim people, linked with their commitment to science, mathematics, architecture, engineering, culture, language, and literature, allowed them to play such a leading role in world civilization over more than a thousand years. That capacious understanding has, of course, been challenged over the centuries by those who have advocated undermining all those achievements through the unique prioritization of a sectarian—and often belligerent—Islamic identity. Sometimes the advocates of narrowness have won for a while, but the broader understanding has been a living presence in the flourishing of Arab culture and in the richness of Muslim contributions to global civilization. If the broader understanding is under severe challenge today (as it certainly is), that narrowing is being fed not only by the "pull" of resurgent Islam but also by the "push" of distancing coming from the West.

There are, of course, straightforward political features in that distancing, including differences related to Israel and Palestine, and also the perception that Western leaders have seen nothing wrong in supporting dictatorships across the world when it has proved advantageous, but there are intellectual and communicational issues as well. It is exactly here that the implicit alliance between Western parochialism and Islamic extremism in ignoring or undervaluing the broader history of the Arab world and the Muslim people has done so much harm. Even though my critique of Huntington's categorization of the people of the world uniquely in terms of artificially segmented "civilizations"—defined mainly by religion—and of the related belief in the inescapability of a "clash" is primarily epistemic and empirical (through a critique of the foggy understanding of the past that the civilization categorizers bring to the interpretation of world history), I am also deeply worried about the political consequences that such distancing yields.

Instead of celebrating the fact that ideas on mathematics, science, literature, architecture, or tolerance have repeatedly crossed the boundaries of distinct "civilizations," the claim is made that Western science is quintessentially "Western" and that "a sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties" rampant in the West well before modernity is "unique among civilized societies." That parochial Western perspective has such following today that counterexamples are treated as "merely anecdotal," combined with a determined unwillingness to take any serious note of the plentiful examples of tolerance or of science and mathematics that can be found in the history of Arab people. This disposes, of course, of Arabic math and science, including, just to give one example (I suppose it would be seen as another "anecdote"), algorithmic reasoning, derived from the name of the 9th-century Arab mathematician Al-Khwarizmi (from whose book Al-Jabr wa al-Muqabalah the term algebra is derived). But this intellectual surgery is rounded up with the dismissal of the history of tolerance in the Muslim world, which is linked closely to Muslim intellectualism, not to mention its practical political impact on a Saladin or an Akbar. If the political leadership of the Arab Muslim world has been shifting toward a greater hold of narrow Islamism, in place of the more old-fashioned pride in the broad achievements of Arab countries, parochialism in the West has been a substantial contributor to the process, supplementing the internal dynamics of the growth of a narrowly religious identity.

What policy implications does this recognition have? It is not merely to address the practical policy issues that confront us with harsh urgency (that too, of course), but also to try to strengthen—rather than undermine—the internal pressures in the Arab world to resist Islamic extremism. For this a less-parochial understanding of world history is an intellectual necessity. There is a broad range of implications that can be linked to this basic point, varying from the reach of media coverage to the curriculum of schools and colleges. Just as Americans may be right in insisting that immigrants from the rest of the world learn to speak English (though I agree with Jacob Weisberg that the correct articulation of "The Star Spangled Banner" is not a particularly intelligent test), the world too may be right to expect that Americans learn more about real world history, rather than being—directly or indirectly—steered to a culturally parochial understanding. While the demands of a global identity cannot submerge all the other identities we have—national, religious, political, social, or linguistic—those broader demands are not dismissable, either. Indeed, in a world of real human beings, not miniaturized by singular loyalty to one unique identity, there is room for—and need for—both.

Again, my warm thanks to you for your very helpful observations and also for the important issues that you have made me address, and of course for your wonderful willingness to listen as well as speak.


Amartya Sen is the Lamont University Professor at Harvard and the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics. An excerpt from his most recent book, Identity and Violence, appeared in Slate in March.