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The Clash of Civilizations Conundrum and Controversy in The Ethiopian Context

By Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD
Tigrai Onlne December 07, 2013

This essay is intended to address some important issues surrounding 'clash of civilizations' as discussed by Seife Hailu in his article entitled "Is the war of the west equal to the war on the rest? What can we learn from the anti-Ethiopians "wars" in Saudi Arabia?" This article was posted on www.tigraionline.com on November 20, 2013.  I am interested in thematically highlighting the points I have concerns with only. Otherwise, the author has done a good job in his overall approach to solving or dealing with a problem, and I like to extend my gratitude to him. In the latter spirit, thus, I am going to make some input by way of critiquing the conceptual framework of ‘clash of civilizations’

At the outset Seife has suggested that we need to address the Ethiopian plight in Saudi Arabia by going “beyond expressions of emotional feelings” and by employing a system level analysis and by depending on the works of Samuel Huntington and Johan Galtung. The methodology of system level analysis in regards to phenomena, events, unfolding historical circumstances etc is palatable to me, but I have a major problem with Huntington’s paradigmatic analysis of religion-based theory that he calls ‘clash of civilizations’, which I think now is discarded despite its initial seemingly catchy concept in the 1990s.

I will discuss many views with respect to ‘clash of civilizations’ and also begin with my own thesis that I wrote in 2005, but before I delve into the conundrum and controversy of the concept, I like to make a passing remark on the significance of emotional expressions in the form of demonstrations as opposed to rational and analytic paper works especially when innocent Ethiopians were brutally attacked by Saudi thugs. We intellectuals, for the most part, exhibit propensity toward research, writing, and rational observations of events and I don’t see any problem in that. In fact, I myself have indulged in theoretically framed and empirically rigorous research methods in order to enhance my routine academic engagements. However, what we intellectuals do may not always evoke the urgent tones needed to seize the moment, as for instance the brutality of the Saudis leveled against Ethiopians. The demonstrations that were concurrently staged by Ethiopians throughout the world were by far more effective in exposing the torture and murder of Ethiopian migrant laborers in Saudi Arabia. Sometimes, it is necessary to make clamor and noise than wait for Amnesty International and Human Wrights Watch to act at their own pace. The uproar of Ethiopians all over the world was more effective than my essay, “Saudi Arabia Should be expelled from the UN and Ethiopia Should Take Serious Diplomatic Measures,” and all other similar essays posted on many websites.

I am also of the opinion that the Ethiopian government should have allowed one massive demonstration in Addis Ababa. The people should have the right to voice the plight of their brethren in Saudi Arabia. Understandably, the Government could have concerns regarding disorder, damage of property, unwanted or unexpected outcomes from the demonstration, and also negative diplomatic implications, but in spite of the latter ramifications, it could have allowed monitored and controlled demonstration and the protesters would have exercised their right as clearly stipulated in the Ethiopian constitution.

The Ethiopian PM Hailemariam Desalegn also should have made a nationally televised speech right away on November 11 when the world witnessed the rape, torture, and killings of Ethiopians on You Tube videos. The leader of a country has a solemn duty and responsibility to speak on behalf of his citizens. PM Hailemariam spoke on December 2, 2013 in an interview with the Ethiopian Television and he did a superb job in explaining what took place before and after the crisis in Saudi Arabia; he told viewers that his Government in fact tried to solve the problem as soon as Saudi Arabia declared the expulsion of illegal migrant workers long before the mayhem erupted and he said a high level delegation was sent to Saudi Arabia and brought some 400 Ethiopians on its way back home. This is great, but the PM’s official TV address comes a little too late. However, the foreign minister Dr. Tedros Adhanom, who also represents the Ethiopian government, should be given credit for his strong statements against the cruel atrocities that victimized Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

One other credit the Government should get, although we might say it is duty-bound to do so, is in its speedy repatriation of Ethiopians and bring them home by allocating budget and providing the necessary rehab services and facilities. As I write this essay, some 93,000 Ethiopians have been airlifted and brought back to their birthplace. This is commendable.

Going back to the main theme of this essay, I like to substantiate why Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ is theoretically bankrupt and why it could not gain currency in academic circles. On April 12, 2005, in my article entitled “Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Afrocentrism: Meanings for Ethiopia” (www.africanidea.org/modernism.html), I have reasoned as follows:

Before the recent resurgence of fundamentalism, Eurocentric professors Bernard Lewis (of Arab origin) of Princeton and Samuel Huntington of Harvard wrote on Muslim fundamentalism. Lewis wrote an essay entitled “Roots of Muslim Rage” in 1990 in which he used the term ‘clash of civilizations’. Soon after, Huntington picked up the term and he even wrote a book called ‘Clash of Civilizations’. The main thesis of Huntington’s book boils down to Islamic and Chinese civilizations clashing with the Judea-Christian civilization. He did not include African civilization because Huntington could not be sure of such thing as African civilization. Later on, Tarik Ali, the Pakistani editor of the New Left Review writes ‘Clash of Fundamentalism: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity’ in contradistinction to Lewis and Huntington. For Ali, the clash of civilization is fundamentally political and economic although he acknowledges the clash between ‘retrogressive and retrograde’ fundamentalists and American imperial fundamentalism.

Moreover, in the European context (Eurocentrism), the yardstick for modern and postmodern scholarly discourses has been ‘verificationist empiricism’ which considers the materialist interpretation of history as the only authentic methodology. This, however, is useless if employed to analyze African societies that prioritize spiritual as opposed to material, collective as opposed to individual, cooperation as opposed to competition. In a nutshell, as cited in ‘The Hero with an African Face’ by Clyde W. Ford, “to control the mundane, Europeans have sacrificed the sacred and to hold on to the sacred Africans sacrificed the mundane.” There is indeed clash of civilizations in this context.

Hundreds of reviews and commentaries were written by many scholars, but for the scope and purpose of this paper, suffice to mention some. One of these commentators, James Graham, writing on Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations on historyorb.com on May 2004 put it as follows: “The theory has been broadly criticized for oversimplification, ignoring indigenous conflicts and for incorrectly predicting what has happened in the decade since its publication. The claim made by many that September the 11th has vindicated Huntington is simply not supported by evidence.”

In a similar vein but in a different context, Carool Kersten of Kings College in London argues that “The doctrine of neo-liberalism is just as fundamentalist,” and in critiquing Huntington’s theory, he further argues, “The very value of The Clash of Fundamentalism is that it captures a mood, a mood prevalent among scores of people in what we like to call Third World.”

Beyond capturing moods and/or emotions, however, a profound critique and analysis of ‘clash of civilizations’ comes from Amartya Sen as thoroughly discussed in his book, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (Norton, 2006). The quote that I am using for this essay appeared on changingturkey.com on 2012. This is how Amartya puts it: -

The increasing tendency to overlook the many identities that any human being has and to try to classify individuals according to a single allegedly pre-eminent religious identity is an intellectual confusion that can animate dangerous divisiveness. …The world is made much more incendiary by the advocacy and popularity of single-dimensional categories of beings, which combines haziness of vision with increased scope for the exploration of that haze by the champion of violence.

A remarkable use of imagined singularity can be found in Samuel Huntington’s influential book The Clash of Civilizations and The Making of the World Order. The difficulty with Huntington’s approach begins with his system of uniqueness categorization, well before the issue of clash – or not – is even raised. Indeed, the thesis of civilizational clash is conceptually parasitic on the commanding power of a unique categorization along so-called civilizational lines, which closely follow religious divisions to which singular attention is paid. …The alleged confrontations of religious differences are incorporated into a sharply carpentered vision of hardened divisiveness.

The reductionist view is typically combined, I am afraid, with a rather foggy perception of world history that overlooks, first the extent of internal diversities, within these civilizational categories, and second, the reach and influence of interaction – intellectual as well as material – that go right across the regional borders of so-called civilization.

Increasing reliance on religion-based classification of the people of the world also tends to make Western responses to terrorism and conflict peculiarly ham-handed.

Amartya Sen’s critique of Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations is quite instructive but if it is not read carefully and between lines, the message he is trying to convey to the reader, could easily be lost. Those who read Huntington’s book when it first came out and view it as a handbook for policymakers, wittingly or unwittingly, promoted dangerous foreign policy parameters because some academics could influence some political leaders and the latter could dogmatically assert the tenets of ‘clash of civilizations’ and classify the world by single categories, as for instance, President Bush’s characterization of ‘Axis of Evil’ or “you are either with us or against us” phraseology that deep down could foster the West versus the Orient or clash between the former and the latter. Similarly this foggy paradigm of clash of civilization could be bluntly asserted without calculating the risks associated with offending other cultures. For instance, US Lt. General William Boykin said, “I know that my God is bigger than his”. The word “his” is subject to interpretation, but in the context of this essay’s main thesis, it could mean the Christian West versus the Orient Muslim, or Hindu, or Buddhist, and it could very much reflect Huntington’s theory of clash of civilizations.

If we rely on history and seriously employ the historical and comparative method, we can easily detect the origins for the theory of clash of civilizations and figure out that Huntington’s idea, after all, is not new. Christendom versus Islam, in which, one dominant category, religion became the cause for the Crusade wars, guided medieval Europe. History students who think that this was clash of civilization without critically examining other factors such as imperial ambitions, economic resources, and geopolitics would be unable to fathom the intricacies of the Crusade wars.

Historians also know very well that colonialism and imperial hegemony played major roles in shaping the contours of modern nations around the world as well as the psyche of the colonized people. The history of the Arab peoples is no different from the rest of the world because they too have shared the brunt of the colonial era. By way of colonial subjugation or imperial hegemony, the West in fact divided the Arab-speaking peoples as captured by Albert Hourani in his book, A History of The Arab Peoples. Hourani states, “part of the population of the mountain areas of the Atlas of Morocco and Kabylia in Algeria were Berbers, speaking dialect of a language different from Arabic and with a long tradition of local organization and leadership. In the period of French rule, the government had tended to maintain the difference between them and the Arab-speaking inhabitants.”(p. 434)

Now, let me digress a little bit and bring the erudite scholar, the late Edward Said, whose famous book Orientalism could substantiate the logic embedded in the above two paragraphs. The Orient in its micro sense refers to the Arab world or the Middle East as a whole, and it is also the making of imperial hegemony, but most importantly, Said tells us that “Orientalism is premised upon exteriority, that is, on the fact that the Orientalist, poet or scholar, make the Orient speak, describes the Orient, renders its mysteries plain for and to the West. He is never concerned with the Orient except as the first cause of what he says. What he says and writes, by virtue of the fact that it is said or written, is meant to indicate the Orientalist is outside the Orient, both as an existential and as a moral fact. The principal of this exteriority is of course representation: as early as Aeschylu’s play The Persians the Orient is transformed from a very far distant and often threatening Otherness into figures that are familiar (in Aeschylus’s case, grieving Asiatic women). The dramatic immediacy of representation in The Persians obscures the fact that the audience is watching a highly artificial enactment of what a non-Oriental has made into a symbol for the whole Orient.”

Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and the Making of the World Order is very much like The Persians in creating artificial boundaries between the West and the rest of the world based on a single factor. Samuel Huntington has indeed created the myth of the “threatening otherness” like modern-day terrorists and hid other important elements or forces that could play major roles in shaping world history. I very much doubt whether Huntington read Michel Foucault’s works; had he read them, however, he would have come across an important phrase known as ‘discursive formation’, coined by Foucault, by which we can understand human behavior and the world. Discursive formation enables us grasp the “multi-shaped pegs of human experience” as Foucault aptly put it. The ‘multi-shaped pegs’ imply multiple factors or many dimensions that need to be considered before one venture on writing on world history or global issues.

In light of the above analyses I have made, thus, the myth of Saudi Arabia being anti-West begs a critical analysis that in turn, should be supported by some tangible evidences. For all practical purposes, the Wahabi political establishment in Saudi Arabia is pro-West and also a darling of the West. There are no indications that make Saudi Arabia anti-West, let alone foster clash with the West. It is abundantly clear that the Saudi establishment is against progressive forces in the Arab world including in its own country. It has allied itself with Israel against the recent Geneva nuclear deal between the P5 + 1 powers and Iran and that clearly shows that the country, in spite of its image as leader of the Arab and Muslim world, has a vested interest in the West. The Royal establishment of Saudi Arabia has made enormous investments in the West, thanks to its enormous petroleum. In the United States, the most visible and giant Saudi investor is Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, who runs the United Saudi Commercial Bank (USCB) and the Saudi American Bank (SAMBA). The billionaire Prince has also heavily invested in Citibank, a global American financial institution and both of them have benefited mutually. The Prince and his Royal extended family are smart enough to maintain and sustain their vested interests in the West, and the ‘clash of civilization’ won’t occur to them.

On December 3, 2013, Hassan Nasarallah of Hezbollah said, “Saudi Arabia seeks to impose itself as the leader of the Arab world, and refuse any friend and companion. It wants all the governments of the Arab and Muslim world to follow (its) orders,” as reported by AFP. Clearly there is no united front of the Arabs or Muslims to clash with the West, and it is important to underscore the commonality and differences of the Arab world before we entertain the foggy idea of ‘clash of civilizations’. There is no doubt that Arabs are united by a common language, similar cultures with slight variations, and to large measure by Islam (all Arabs are not Muslims), but denominations within Islam have greatly divided Arab societies. “A situation of great danger and complexity existed in countries with large Shi’i populations: Iraq, Kuwait, Bahryan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon,” says Hourani, “The Iranian revolution seemed likely to arouse a stronger sense of Shi’i identity, and this could have political implications in countries where government was firmly in the hands of Sunnis.”

Hourani’s historical analysis helps us understand the cleavage and doctrinal schisms among Muslims in the Arab world, and we all know how Saudi Arabia was actively engaged against the people’s uprising in Bahryan in 2011. It logically follows, then, that Arabs are too divided to forge an ideologically driven unity against the West and Saudi Arabia is too busy squashing regional movements that could be potentially unsettling to the status quo in Saudi Arabia, let alone spearhead a clash against the West. It is neither capable nor willing to go against the West and doing so would mean signing a death warrant of its Wahabi establishment.

What I have done in the above few paragraphs is prove that Huntington’s theory is false and does not in any way explain the global reality simply because it ignores the political economy parameters of our world; the role of the transnational corporations (TNCs) that virtually have taken over; the emergence of China as economic powerhouse; the emergence of new blocs or alliances such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, China, India, and South Africa), and if all goes well, perhaps we could witness a new global interaction based on cooperation. If the latter is not realized, we may witness clashes between blocs but not á la Huntington’s paradigm of religion-based conflicts.

We have discussed ‘clash of civilizations’ in the context of the Ethiopian victims in Saudi Arabia but the theory falls apart when it is viewed against Saudi policy to expel illegal labor migrants. The latter workers, which are estimated to be nine million are mostly from Asia and Africa and neighboring Arab countries like Yemen. The victims that we have seen on video being harassed, tortured, raped, and killed were either Ethiopians or Pakistani or migrant laborers from Bangladesh. Close to 200,000 Yemenis were also told to leave Saudi Arabia; they were Arabs and Muslims who became victims of the clash unleashed by the Saudis; they were not the forces rallied behind Saudi Arabia against the West, and that is good enough to understand the fallacy of Huntington’s theory of ‘clash of civilizations’

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © Institute of Development and Education for Africa (IDEA), Inc. 2013 Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org