It is de rigueur among tolerant liberals who don’t want to divide society further in our unsettling times to dismiss Samuel Huntington’s thesis of a “clash of civilizations.” But Huntington was right — though perhaps in a way he didn’t grasp.
The clash between the personal freedom of liberal modernity and traditional communitarian or tribal values doesn’t just, or even primarily, take place at the geopolitical level between the West and Islamic cultures, as Huntington saw it (He also a envisioned a clash with Hindu and Confucian-rooted Asian societies). It plays out within civilizations undergoing transition and in the very intimate interstices of the personal life of individuals. As globalization and the post-traumatic stress of military intervention bring immigrants to the West, and as Western mass culture spreads to all corners of the planet, the conflict between tradition and modernity seeps not only into each other’s territory but into the formation of personal identity itself.
As the child of immigrants, Omar Mateen, the Orlando shooter, embodied this struggle as he straddled what were seemingly two conflicting worlds. It appears that either his conservative Afghan family ethos fostered an obsession with homosexuality as a reprehensible sin, or perhaps he lashed out in hate against what he apparently perceived as the impurity of those in whom he saw himself. Though he pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in the moments before his horrific act, he was, in a way, ISIS writ small. As we also saw in Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels, ISIS is not confined to the Middle East. It is not so much a state as a state of mind that dwells in upended souls all over caught between sharply contending value systems, trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. When this combustible instability is armed, we are all exposed to the consequences.
In an interview I did with Huntington just after 9/11, he argued that, “the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden have reinvigorated civilizational identity. Just as he sought to rally Muslims by declaring war on the West, he gave back to the West its sense of common identity in defending itself.” Since then, it has often been said that there is a clash within Islam between moderates and conservatives. It is clear now that there is also a clash within the West itself, so evident in the phenomenon of Trumpian xenophobia, religious fundamentalism in the U.S. or in Israel and the steady rise of the anti-immigrant and anti-EU right in Europe.
The diametrically opposed responses to the Orlando tragedy in the U.S. presidential campaign only further illustrate the woeful polarization that has seized America. In an exclusive interview this week with HuffPost‘s Sam Stein, Hillary Clinton blasts her opponent. “Part of the radical jihadist recruitment strategy is to convince would-be recruits, here at home and around the world, that there is a clash of civilizations,” she argues. “So Donald Trump’s demeaning and derogatory comments about Muslims and Islam is not only counterproductive, it is dangerous.” Unlike Huntington expected, the West itself seems ever more sharply riven between two visions of its own identity, as if its inhabitants live on different planets instead of in the same societies. Today, the boundaries have been erased. All geopolitics now is local — and personal.
The battle between visions of identity has also claimed a victim in the European referendum in Great Britain. Writing from London, Paul Waugh profiles the life of Jo Cox, the “passionate, compassionate” anti-Brexit, pro-immigration politician gunned down this week on the streets near her hometown. Former CIA analyst Graham Fuller weaves together the disparate strands from geopolitics to outsider psychology that converged in the Orlando massacre, which, he says, cannot be traced to one cause. Yet, he writes, “We must acknowledge the huge degree of U.S. responsibility in creating and prolonging many of these conditions [of conflict] abroad. The anguish … is now spreading out across much of the globe and leaching back into our own American society. The U.S. cannot kill at leisure abroad and remain untouched at home.” In fact, even though ISIS didn’t plan the attack, it was, as World Reporter Nick Robins-Early notes, still quick to claim it and capitalize on it for propaganda purposes.
WorldPost Middle East Correspondent Sophia Jones points out the paradox of seeing all Afghans as guilty by association with the Orlando shooter. “Many Afghans who served as interpreters and support staff for U.S. forces in Afghanistan from 2001-2014 are still trying to seek asylum in the United States, in fear of their lives,” she reports from Istanbul. “The Taliban is known to murder those perceived as loyal to the United States.” And indeed, this week the U.S. Senate failed to secure a continuing visa program for American-allied interpreters from Afghanistan.
Patric Jean writes that you don’t have to cross any borders to find homophobic beliefs: “Jews, Christians and Muslims all have propagandists of radical homophobic hatred in their ranks.” He also contrasts the response to Orlando with the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo in France: “It should also be noted that among the heads of state who declared themselves ‘Je suis Charlie’ last year, half are unable to offer the same gesture to Orlando because their laws or national customs prohibit the expression of homosexuality.” Writing from Brazil, Lana Jones says “the overt homophobia of the Islamic State has a lot in common with the homophobia pervading Brazilian society. The religious fundamentalism of certain Muslim groups is no different from the fanaticism of some evangelicals.”
The other great realm of rising geopolitical tension these days is in Asia. Writing from Beijing, Fu Ying, the powerful chairperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, asks, “which is the real state of China-U.S. relations. Cooperation or confrontation? Or, are they both real?” For her, “the relationship [between the U.S. and China] has come to a state where, if they work together, they are capable of making a difference in the world, but if they fight, they can bring disaster onto the world.” Richard Javad Heydarian advises President-elect Rodrigo Duterte to recognize “the zeitgeist” and situate the Philippines in a “post-American, multipolar world” in which China looms large. Writing from Moscow, Vasily Kashin questions whether Russia’s “pivot to China” is a real alternative to a partnership with Europe. Also writing on Russia, Anastasya Manuilova sees Russian President Vladimir Putin’s condemnation of the Orlando nightclub attack — despite his anti-gay legislation — as a nod to his need to stay in the better graces of the West.
Eric Olander and Cobus van Staden this week examine how China’s new Silk Road initiative is taking shape in East Africa where major infrastructure and defense projects are being built with Chinese investment. Reporting from Beijing, Hong Soon-do sees China’s official policy of limiting the workweek to 4.5 days in order to boost domestic consumption and leisure spending as a boon for tourism in nearby South Korea.
In a fascinating, out-of-the-box rumination on the digital age, Abby Smith Rumsey worries that the information monopolists of our day — Google and Facebook — might end up fostering a monoculture not unlike the Christian rulers and Islamic caliphate that purged pagan texts from the Great Library of Alexandria in ancient times.
Prominent writers, scientists and environmentalists led by Mexican poet Homero Aridjis appealed to U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to act to save the monarch butterfly that lives and migrates across North America. Finally, our Singularity series this week looks at how human organs grown in pigs through genetic implants can solve the organ donor shortage.
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