On the origins of the “Clash of civilizations”

by Reda Benkirane

Behind the News, World Council of Churches, Geneva, No 13, February 2002

Editorial analysis: The cultural dimension of the current crisis

Among the many reflections on the events related to September 11, two of the most profound insights come from Christian thinkers who have focused their analyses essentially on the cultural aspect of the crisis.

René Girard, a French anthropologist from Stanford University, known for his Scapegoat Theory and his anthropology of violence and religion, sees in these events a "mimetic (mirror image) rivalry" of an unprecedented scale. According to Girard, the resistance to the current globalization process emerging from different parts of the world and the various Islamist armed actions against the US and the West are motivated not because of their intrinsic differences but because they are similar to what they fight against. "They fight us because they look more and more like us" René Girard would say. According to Girard, Bush and Bin Laden are "mimetic twins" who both want to have a global impact and reach a global audience. Both use the same religious terminology based on binary logic (Crusades/Jihad, Good against Evil, etc.). Yet even the profile of the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks against New York and Washington attests that they were totally assimilated into Western culture. Girard


Konrad Raiser provides a complementary analysis of the same events. In his presentation at the WCC meeting on "Beyond 11 September: Assessing Global Implications" (29 November-2 December 2001), he argues that a "symbolic conflict" of a new nature has emerged. What we are seeing is a confrontation over "symbolic power," rather than a struggle for natural resources, trade routes or territories. The particular nature of this conflict is especially reflected in the very symbols used and destroyed on September 11. The way in which the conflict has been presented and justified, and the fact that it is happening in an Information Age, amplified and distorted by the mass media, explain partly why "our traditional analytical models are inadequate to understand the conflict and why theology and religious insights are needed". Raiser concluded his presentation by highlighting the need to develop "new tools" for a better understanding of the religious dimension of the present confrontation and also "to resist the tendency to turn religion into an ideology for struggle."

On the war of civilizations
In order to address the crucial question of cultural diversity and the need to integrate "non-Euro-centric" models of "creative thinking," the success and the relevance of the concept of "war of civilizations" should be questioned. One of the most quoted theories proposed during the last decade to explain the current cultural challenge is Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations, first introduced in his Foreign Affairs' article (1993) and later published in a book (1996). While many have heard about this theory of war of civilizations, very few observers know that the concept did not originate with American political scientist Samuel Huntington. He is not even the person who first coined the term "war of civilizations". The first explicit mention of this concept came from Mahdi Elmandjra, a former Assistant Director General of UNESCO, President of the World Future Studies Federation and of Futuribles International (Paris), and member of the Club of Rome. Elmandjra, who teaches International Relations at the University of Rabat, published "the First Civilizational War" in 1991 referring to the Gulf war and the new "post-colonial" situation created after the end of the Cold War. The book was published in Arabic (1991), English and French (1992), and Japanese (2001). During the Gulf war, Elmandjra gave a seminal interview to the German newspaper Der Spiegel (allusively quoted in Huntington's book) where he introduced his own theory of the war of civilizations. In this interview, Elmandjra essentially stigmatized the Western fear of Islam, population growth in the South, and the growing importance of Confucianist societies. All these ingredients of Elmandjra's theory of "war of civilizations" were later included as basic assumptions in Huntington's thesis. It is instructive to know that this theory of "war of civilizations" initially was formulated as a "non-Euro-centric" point of view which denounced the bellicose perception of cultures and civilizations and which advocated increased recognition of the world's cultural diversity.


The problem with the application of Huntington's theory is that cultures and civilizations are now portrayed as playing the roles that nation-states played during the Cold War. Cultures and civilizations are seen as monolithic blocs acting on the geopolitical scene rather than as living and evolving organisms that need constantly to exchange and interact with their environment. A related concern is the political perception of religions, civilizations and cultures: even Islamist as well as Christian and Jewish "neo-fundamentalist" movements see themselves primarily as political actors rather than as spiritual movements. This brings to mind Girard's mimetic rivalry which is also denounced by Raiser in his concluding remarks on the "symbolic hegemony." Religions, civilizations and cultures should not be reduced to political entities and confrontations. Instead of "policing civilizations" as implied in Huntington's thesis, the world needs to "civilize politics". Political and economic analyses are not sufficient to comprehend the complexity of the world. Better understanding of the cultural and religious components could more adequately address the problem of present international disorder.


Furthermore, the fear of the Other is often based on the ignorance of the Other. Perhaps it is time in the West to learn more about Islam, about its spirituality, its arts, its poets, writers and scientists, and about its tolerance which has been demonstrated so many times – for example in Spain for 700 years and in the Ottoman empire until the beginning of the 20th century. There are also some universal issues – on political violence, arms race, poverty, illiteracy, pollution, pandemics, etc. – that transcend cultural differences and national borders and which must now be taught, learnt, discussed and shared by every citizen of the world. As stated by the Spanish writer Rodrigo de Zayas: "We must teach humanity to humanity".


Reda Benkirane



Further readings :


Konrad Raiser, Beyond 11 September: Implications for the Churches, Beyond 11 September. Assessing Global Implications, Geneva, 29 November-2 December 2001.


René Girard, What Is Occurring Today Is a Mimetic Rivalry on a Planetary Scale, Interview by Henri Tincq, Le Monde, 6 November2001, translation Jim Williams


Mahdi Elmandjra, Der erste Weltkrieg der Kulturen (This is the first civilizational war), in: "Der Spiegel", Hamburg, 11 February 1991.


Mahdi Elmandjra, Première guerre civilisationnelle, Casablanca, Toubkal, 1992.


Samuel P. Huntington, The clash of civilizations, in: Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, v72, n3.


Also by Samuel P. Huntington, The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order,
New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996.

"The conflict which broke out in August 1990 announced the advent of the post-colonial era. The beginning of hostilities set the stage for the first civilizational war. The Gulf war is but the first episode of a North-South conflict where the fundamental issue is basically of a cultural nature.
(Mahdi Elmandjra, Futurist, The First Civilizational War (1992)
Book available on the Web at: http://www.elmandjra.org/Contents.htm

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