Is There a Clash of Civilizations?

Understanding Violence in the World
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 4 2006 5:13 PM

Is There a Clash of Civilizations?


Dear Mr. Kagan,

My curiosity about your present assessment of the Iraq intervention is indeed well-satisfied now—many thanks for explaining your position with such clarity and patience. Since I was opposed to that intervention (and have not changed my mind on this), there are parts of your argument on which we can have engaging discussion, but I see clearly now that a possible difference that could have surfaced, has not (or at least not surfaced sharply enough).


Since you and I agree on the ultimately universal importance of democracy (this has, in fact, been an overarching theme in my efforts at political writing for several decades now), and since I also think, like you (unlike many of my other friends), that people from one country can certainly help another nation in this pursuit (indeed, I wish other countries did more right now for miserable Burma, Zimbabwe, and Sudan, as many did for South Africa earlier), I thought one difference could be around my conviction that despite the nature of the Saddam Hussein regime, the intervention was a wrong way to try to promote democracy in Iraq or the Middle East. But I see now that promoting democracy in Iraq was not your principal reason for supporting the Iraq intervention, and any future dialogue on Iraq that we may have should mainly concentrate on the other important issues you discuss. However, having satisfied my curiosity, I want to return to the extremely interesting questions you raised, presented along with your generous assessment, in discussing my new book, Identity and Violence. Indeed, this is also what you have suggested we should do.

I must, first, say a few words about why your questions are particularly important for me to address and pursue. My book was very ambitious in trying to present a different way of understanding violence in the world. I have faced two different types of reactions to date. Most comments have been, happily for me, very encouraging, since they have been supportive of what I have been trying to say, and I have taken the liberty of thinking that this might be some indication that I could well be on the right track. The second line of reaction has been fairly comprehensively negative. Since there have been only a couple such responses, I would not have worried particularly, but for the fact that in the most prominent case, I found not only an unwillingness to accept my arguments, but what seemed like a dogged refusal to see what my arguments were about. It is in this context wonderful for me to get your remarkably forceful questions that have stretched my thinking, without my having any sense of being misunderstood or misdescribed.

The apparently willing suspension of comprehension that we sometimes encounter when we attempt to present a different point of view has, of course, some explanatory merit of its own in that it helps us to understand better why the well-rehearsed and well-established points of view have such hold even when the intellectual case for them is weak. Consider Samuel Huntington's argument that "a sense of individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties" in the West was "unique among civilized societies" long before modernity. I gave counterexamples to that historical claim from across the world and also made the related point that "the history of democracy in the form of public participation and reasoning is spread across the world." To this, Fouad Ajami responds, in his review of my book in the April 2 Washington Post, that "it is the unease of Islam, of course, and the violence of some of its radical adherents that have given the question of identity its contemporary global relevance" and that "on that issue Huntington was at his most prophetic."

We all know that there is a lot of violent Islamic terrorism in the world today, but the issue at hand was a historical one—the non-uniqueness of the West in having some considerable practice of tolerance and dialogue. Even as far as Muslim history is concerned, I presented evidence of both tolerance and intolerance (as in the West), including the fact—relevant to assess Huntington's historical thesis—that when the Muslim emperor Akbar was making his "pronouncements on religious tolerance in Agra from the 1590s onwards (such as: 'no one should be interfered with on account of religion, and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion that pleases him'), the Inquisitions were quite extensive in Europe, including heretics being burnt at the stake." (Indeed, Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in Rome for apostasy even as the Muslim emperor was presenting his arguments for tolerance in Agra.) The issue is not, of course, the obvious presence of violent activities in the name of Islam today (or, for that matter, in the past, of which I also gave examples), but that there is nothing historically inescapable in Muslims having to go down that violent route today. (The focus of Huntington's largely historical book is on the reading of the past for understanding the present.) We can choose between different historical examples from the past to get our inspiration: Western liberals don't seek inspiration from the Inquisitions or the experience of Nazism, and others have a similar freedom.

When Ajami comes, at last, to my historical examples, a similar distancing occurs. For example, I mentioned that the Jewish philosopher Maimonides sought refuge in the liberal Muslim regime of Emperor Saladin in Cairo as he fled an intolerant Europe in the 12th century (by then even the previously liberal Muslim regimes in Spain had been replaced by an intolerant Muslim rule). In responding to this, Ajami points to the fact that the regime that Maimonides was escaping was Islamic, but he does not seem to notice my actual point that the Jewish philosopher did not seek refuge anywhere else in Europe, but, rather, in Cairo (after an initial abortive attempt at Morocco).

In the context of such misconstruction, it is really very nice to have to face your well-directed questions. I tried to answer them in my last e-mail. You have not had the chance to respond to them yet, and the responsibility for that belongs to me, since I ended by asking about your present position on the Iraq intervention. But now that we are moving away from that subject, I would really like to know the extent to which your queries were at all answered by what I said and what other issues I ought to address.

What has been particularly helpful—indeed, educational—for me is your entirely convincing argument that even if you and I may be right in remaining unconvinced by Huntington's thesis of the clash of civilizations, we have to explain why, dealing with contemporary events, "there often seems to be so little evidence to contradict the 'clash of civilizations' explanation of our era." No matter what the evidence of history is, if all the people in one group (and you are particularly concerned with Muslims here) are constantly seeing violence as a necessary part of a civilizational clash, then there is a need for me to explain that observed reality as well.

To this I have tried to give a two-part answer. First, even though the violent acts of Islamic terrorists tend to get all the popular attention, the Muslim people who pursue peaceful and constructive activities constitute a vastly larger part of the Muslim population of the world. Second, violence is deliberately cultivated by the instigators of sectarian brutality, and Islamic terrorists have excelled in this (for reasons that I have tried to discuss in my book). To interpret the cultivated—and potentially resistible—violence as evidence of an inescapable clash of civilizations would be, I have argued, a mistake, just as it would be wrong to deduce from the history of the Holocaust that Germans are doomed to be Nazis.

So, thank you—you are absolutely right that I have to address the question of appearance also, as an integral part of my thesis. I was reminded of an interesting argument presented nearly 2,000 years ago by the Indian Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna that in understanding how a person can confuse a rope for a snake, we need to study both the "rope concept" and the "snake concept" and the similarity between the two. It is absolutely necessary to explain why a thesis may look apparently plausible, even when it is incorrect. (I did far less of this in the book than I should have.) But ultimately we also have to see that despite the appearance, a rope is not a snake.


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.