OPINION: Which clash? What civilizations? by Khaled Abou El Fadl

Despite its popularity among some intellectuals today, the "clash of civilizations" thesis is sufficiently fraught with methodological problems that it ought to be considered a serious hindrance to developing a genuine understanding of the contemporary Islamic realities.


I do not contest the possibility that the idea of civilization could be a distinctive, and even at times helpful, concept. For the sake of argument, I assume that particular values and norms might be sufficiently distinctive and prevalent that they could be considered characteristic of a particular culture or set of cultures. In fact, it is quite possible that a particular set of values, that run like a common thread, could unite the cultures of particular countries, which then could be described as Western.


When I use the expression "the West," for instance, I am thinking of European secular liberal democracies, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In this regard, the existence of a common language or common religion is largely immaterial. The notion of the West as a distinctive cultural entity is informed by common historical challenges that confronted a particular group of countries and which were dealt with and resolved in substantially similar fashions.


Of course, the concept of a civilizational entity like the West is elusive. I think that most people would argue that East Germany has become a part of what we describe as the Western countries, while Estonia, for instance, would be thought of differently. I don't normally think of Japan as a part of the West, although it is a liberal secular democracy. One can imagine that Poland could eventually be considered a part of the West, while Turkey, Albania, or the former Czechoslovakia, even if liberal, secular democracies, would have a much harder time being regarded as Western. The status and cultural identity of countries such as Israel and South Africa are hotly contested issues.


Although categorizing a particular country as Western is to a large extent informed by historical factors, there are also political and ideological elements to this process. Which countries are considered Western is affected by popular political conceptions that are susceptible to being influenced and reshaped.


Thus, for instance, while Turkey has put a considerable amount of effort into establishing itself as a Western country, I think more people would tend to think of Israel as closer to being a member of Western civilization than Turkey. This perception, however, is both contestable and changeable, and I suspect would also vary depending on the ideological biases of an observer.


The issues related to civilizations their nature, and characteristics are important because they implicate the problem of authenticity. In many ways, claims about civilizational characteristics are, in essence, assertions about what is genuine and true to a people. Such claims are a powerful heuristic device that could be used to undermine the legitimacy of dissenting views, or to brand certain orientations as marginal and unrepresentative.


Moreover, to the extent that one might imagine civilizations to be sufficiently unique and distinctive, one might also imagine that civilizations exist in competition, and even clash with each other. This paradigm of competing or clashing civilizations has serious implications for my argument about the vulgarization of contemporary Islam from what could be described as internal and external perspectives.


From an internal perspective, one could argue that what I claim to be a vulgarization of Islam is in reality nothing more than an expression of a genuine characteristic of the Islamic civilization. In fact, a Muslim critic could even assert that by speaking about the vulgarization of Islam, I am surreptitiously attempting to judge Islamic practices by standards that are not genuine and alien to Islam.


Arguably, I am taking what are essentially Western civilizational standards and superimposing them upon the Islamic context, as if these Western standards are objective moral universals. In effect, as the criticism goes, I am perpetuating the fallacy of false Western universals.


According to this position, it might be entirely consistent with the moral precepts of Islamic societies to sacrifice the lives of young girls for the sake of guarding rules of public modesty. Simply because Western societies might consider a particular type of behaviour offensive does not, and should not, mean that the behaviour in question is objectively and universally condemnable.


Most often, this type of criticism is levelled by Muslims against Muslim critics with feminist agendas, but it also has been utilized rather widely against Muslims calling for self-critical re-evaluations of contemporary Islamic practices in light of modern human rights standards.


This criticism is a powerful rhetorical device because the internal perspective critique often allows the critic to position himself as the guardian of Islamic integrity and authenticity, while positioning Muslim opponents as gullible and even simple-minded in failing to resist false universal paradigms.


Criticisms from external perspectives are substantially the same, except that such criticisms are typically made by non-Muslims. Quite often external perspective criticisms tend to be forbearing and even condescending towards Muslims and their imagined civilization.


Typically, the external perspective critic eschews the idea of universally valid standards, while firmly adhering to the idea of predominant and often invariable Western values. In this paradigm, the standards set by the West for itself are appropriate and fitting for the West, as authentic expressions of the Western historical experience, but it is wrongful and even immoral to expect others to adopt the same standards.


For instance, external critics, like the internal critics, will tend to treat my discourse on the vulgarization of modern Islam as a misguided attempt to hold Islam to standards that it is not equipped to meet. External critics claim that moral values or standards, inspired by the West, are false universals because they are unattainable and even undesirable to cultures belonging to non-Western civilizations.


Accordingly, it could be argued that what I have identified as morally repulsive behavior is so only to Westerners who adhere to a morality that is quite distinct from the morality of Muslims. As such, those events that I have labelled as extreme acts of ugliness are arguably no more than authentic expressions of Islamic normative values.


Those normative values, the argument goes, are often fundamentally at odds with Judaeo-Christian values, and therefore the current turmoil in Islam ought to be seen, not as part of an inner-Islamic struggle, but as a confrontation between two civilizations possessing variant and competing sets of values.


The internal and external perspectives raise difficult issues regarding the appropriateness of universal moral judgments, and in fact implicate the very concept of a common humanity that can or should transcend cultural and civilizational divides. This debate is vast, and it is one that I am not eager to engage here.


The fact, however, is that arguments that invoke the logic of exceptionalism and difference are methodologically risky. Often, such arguments cannot be separated from the power-dynamics that they camouflage and help conceal. Put simply, those who enjoy an advantageous position within a particular context have a strong incentive to immunize themselves from judgment by others by claiming relativism or exceptionalism.


For example, men who might enjoy the advantage of patriarchy have a strong incentive to resist notions of universal feminist rights by invoking cultural relativism or exceptionalism. But the fact that a particular paradigm tends to play a conservative legitimating role in relation to established power dynamics is not necessarily disqualifying.


Rather, what is called for is a healthy skepticism towards any paradigm that tends to legitimate instead of challenge established power dynamics. More specifically, instead of accepting the claim of exceptionalism at face value, and deferring to the supposed particularity of a culture, one ought to search for explanations that are subversive to established power dynamics.


It might be that subversive explanations are ultimately not convincing or unsatisfying, and therefore, ought to be abandoned, but I would contend that there should be a working presumption against explanations that tend to insulate and immunize traditional power structures from critical judgment.


As to the issue of civilizational characteristics that are purportedly of essence to a people, I think that a healthy amount of skepticism is warranted. One ought to be suspicious of any approach that tends to explain, and at times even excuse, acts of extreme ugliness and vulgarity as authentic expressions of civilizational distinctiveness or particularity.


This is especially so when, as I will explore in further articles, alternative explanations for the presence of extreme ugliness and vulgarity in contemporary Islam are possible, and, in fact, far more persuasive. In addition, considering the high risk of falling in methodological errors of interpretation, civilizational paradigms and explanations must be treated with extreme caution.


There is already a rather large body of literature on the historical validity of the civilizational paradigm, and I am not going to analyze this literature here. To an extent, the issue of civilizations and their distinctiveness has passed from the realm of rational conversation based on historical and doctrinal evidence to the realm of dogma and ideology.


I do not wish to deconstruct the notion that there are cultural values that become prevalent at a particular point in time, and I also do not contest the idea that, as put by Samuel Huntington and Lawrence Harrison, "culture matters." But there are several methodological difficulties that ought to be considered when thinking about cultural values and the role that they are purported to play.


These difficulties create a high risk of what I have called methodological errors of interpretation. When speaking of civilizational paradigms, there are four main points of methodological difficulty that are especially relevant for the Islamic context. The first point pertains to what I will call "claims of lineage," the second pertains to "claims about the other," the third relates to "the enterprise of meaning" and the fourth addresses what I call "competence."


Proponents of civilizational paradigms seem to rely on an unfounded claim about the specificity and purity of particular values. Accordingly, they are willing to classify particular values as squarely Judaeo-Christian while others as Islamic.


It is as if values have a genealogy that can be clearly and precisely ascertained, which then can be utilized in classifying what properly belongs to the West and what belongs to the Islamic "other." But the origin and lineage of values are as much of a socio-historical construct as are claims about racial genealogical purity.


Considering the numerous cultural interactions and cross-intellectual transmissions between the Muslim world and Europe, it is highly likely that every significant Western value has a measure of Muslim blood in it. But this is not merely a matter of acknowledging the Muslim contribution to Western thought.


Rather, by recognizing the mixed lineage of ideas, a simple and straightforward taxonomy of civilizations, their underlying values, and the geo-political objectives they pursue become much more problematic. Like racial categories, one ought to recognize that civilizational categories are artificial political constructs that do not necessarily fit comfortably with socio-historical realities.


Claims about the so-called pure lineage of values lead me to the second point. Often the attempt to identify one's own civilization and distinguish it from the "other" has much more to do with one's own aspirations than the reality of the "other."


Put differently, descriptions of the "other" - whoever the "other" may be - often tell us much more about the author of the description than the subject of the description.


For instance, when Westerners attempt to describe the Islamic civilization and what it represents, there is a real risk that the constructed image of the Islamic civilization will only reflect the aspirations and anxieties of those Westerners.


Therefore, for example, if those Westerners aspire to achieve a greater degree of democracy, or are anxious about their own shortcomings vis-a-vis women's rights, it is likely that they will invent an image of the Muslim "other" as the exact antithesis of their own aspirations.


By constructing the other as the exact antithesis, one is then able to be more satisfied and secure about one's own cultural achievements. The colonial images of the Orient - its exoticness, mystique and harems - had much more to do with the anxieties and fantasies of the Western colonizer than it did with the sociological reality of the Orient.


There is a further problem with approaches that focus on civilizational paradigms and conflicts. Values, and their meaning in culture, are not constant or stable. They are constantly shifting, evolving and mutating in response to a variety of influences and motivators.


For instance, concepts such as shura (government by consultation), the caliphate, or enjoining the good and forbidding the evil have had very different meanings and connotations from one century to another and one culture to another in Islamic history.


Even when one is considering divinely revealed values, such values acquire meaning only within evolving and shifting contexts. Interpretive communities coalesce around revealed injunctions and values, and then endow them with meaning.


Put differently, there is a socio-historical enterprise formed of various participants that partake in the generation of meaning. When one speaks of Islamic justice, for instance, one is really speaking of various interpretive enterprises that existed at different times in Islamic history, which gave the notion of justice in Islam a variety of imports and connotations.


When commentators speak of a civilizational conflict between the West and Islam, there is a further creative and inventive process engaged in by the commentator himself.


Since meaning is the product of cumulative enterprises that generate communities of meaning, a student of Huntington, for instance, cannot speak in terms of an Islamic notion of justice or an Islamic notion of human liberty. The most that this student can do is to speak of prevailing meanings within specific communities of interpretation.


Therefore, a student of Huntington, for instance, would have to speak in terms of a Mu'tazali notion of justice, or an Ash'ari notion of justice. This argument about meaning being the product of interpretive enterprises generated by various communities has both vertical and horizontal implications.


Vertically speaking, we are reminded of the point about the purity of lineage. There are a variety of historical contributors to the production of meaning, and it is quite difficult to find a value with a purely Western or Islamic pedigree.


From a horizontal perspective, what is identified as a civilization is in reality a complex bundle of competing interpretations generated by a variety of communities of meaning, with some interpretations becoming more dominant than others at different times and places.


This brings me to the final point, which I described as a problem of competence. Put simply, who has the authoritative competence to describe which of the competing communities of meaning becomes the legitimate and credible representative of the values of a civilization?


In this connection, I am not interested in the problem of the dynamics of power and authority within a particular system of thought. Rather, my concern here takes us back to the problem of the invention and construction of the "other."


It is imperative to keep in mind that when a student of Huntington, for example, claims that the Islamic civilization stands for a particular proposition, effectively, this student is endowing a certain interpretive community with the power of representation. This student is engaging in choice making by selecting what, in his mind, is the community that best represents the Islamic civilization.


For example, the interpretive community to which someone like Muhammad 'Abduh belongs may assert "Y." Meanwhile, Bin Laden, and his interpretive community, may have asserted "X." By claiming that the Islamic civilization stands for X, but not Y, Huntington's student is making a choice about representation.


Again, this choice might have much more to do with the choice maker - namely, Huntington's student - than with the actual dynamics of Islamic societies.


These various cautionary points are intended to emphasize that claims of civilizational distinctiveness and conflict are fraught with conceptual pitfalls. Claims about civilizational clashes must necessarily reduce complex social and historical dynamics into essentialized and artificially coherent categories.


From a pedagogical point of view, such claims are likely to degenerate into powerful vehicles for the expression of prejudice. As such, they tend to further misunderstandings and promote conflict. It is no wonder that when one examines the arguments of the Western proponents of the clash of civilizations, one finds that they invariably ascribe most of what they perceive to be good and desirable to the West, and most of what they find distasteful or objectionable to Islam or the Islamic Civilization.


As a means of maintaining the air of impartiality and objectivity, quite often the proponents of the clash of civilizations, rather condescendingly, assert that the values of the "other," as foreign and unacceptable as they might be for Westerners, ought to be respected.


Despotism, oppression and degradation, for example, might be terrible for Westerners, but they are acceptable for Muslims because, after all, Muslims themselves do not consider their social institutions as despotic, oppressive, or degrading.


What for Westerners, for instance, might be considered egregious violations of human rights must be considered bearable for Muslims because Muslims have a distinctly different set of social and cultural expectations than the Judaeo-Christian West.


The effect of the doctrinal commitment to the paradigm of clashing civilizations often serves to obfuscate the real dynamics that are, in fact, taking place in Islam. There are significant tensions within contemporary Islam that are bound to materially impact the world today.


Acts of cruelty, such as Bin Laden's terrorism, were not simply the product of an invented system of thought that can be treated as a marginal idiosyncrasy in modern Islam, but they are also not an expression of some profound authenticity. Rather, the violence of someone like Bin Laden is an integral part of the struggle between interpretative communities over who gets to speak for Islam and how.


Despite the practice of waving the banner of Islamic authenticity and legitimacy, Muslim actors such as the Taliban and Bin Laden are far more anti-Western than they are pro-Islamic. Their primary concern is not to explore or investigate the parameters of Islamic values or the historical experience of the Islamic Civilization, but to oppose the West.


As such, Islam is simply the symbolic universe in which they function. Their protest is framed in Islamic terms because they are Muslim, but it is not the case that they protest because they are Muslims or because they belong to a normative imperative that might be labelled as "the Islamic Civilization."


As I will explain in my next article, acts of extreme ugliness and cruelty did not emerge from a civilizational experience that can be described as Islamic. Such acts are the by-product of what can appropriately be described as a state of civilizational dissonance - a state of social schizophrenia in which the challenge of modernity and the alienation from the Islamic historical experience play the predominate roles.




Khaled Abou El Fadl is the Alfi Distinguished Professor of Law at the UCLA School of Law where he teaches International Human Rights, Islamic Jurisprudence, National Security Law and Political Crimes and Legal Systems. He was awarded the University of Oslo Human Rights Award in 2007 for his lifetime accomplishments in the field of Human Rights, and was named a Carnegie Scholar in Islamic Law in 2005. He is the author of numerous books on Islam and Islamic law, and in 2007, his book, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists (HarperCollins, 2005) was named as one of the year's Top 100 Books by Canada's Globe and Mail. His book, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books (University Press of America, 2001), is a landmark in contemporary Islamic literature.


Originally published on ABC Religion and Ethics.