ME and Ophelia

Sunday, May 23, 2004

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Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington foresaw the current crisis

An excellent article in today's Sunday Times by Sarah Baxter - copied here in full because, sorry to say, direct linking is not possible:

Harvard professor Samuel P Huntington foresaw the current crisis. Now, he tells Sarah Baxter, to beat terrorism America must first defend its own culture.

Few academics have more of an eagle eye than Professor Samuel P Huntington of Harvard University and author of the prescient The Clash of Civilisations. While the rest of us were celebrating the end of the cold war and jawing about peace in the Middle East in the 1990s, he was coolly surveying the crack-up of Yugoslavia and a host of other minor but bloody wars and warning of a collision to come between an insurgent Islam and a gently declining West.

An ivory tower is a natural location for surveying the grand sweep of history and its consequences. To my surprise I find the professor in a modern suite of offices on a high street away from Harvard’s ivy-clad halls. He is surrounded by books piled high on the floor, desk and shelves including many translations of his most famous tome, which launched 1,000 academic conferences before a bunch of suicide pilots turned theory into practice on September 11, 2001 and sealed his reputation as the world’s foremost scholar of the modern age.

Huntington has a limp handshake and soft voice, but he has too much intellectual self-confidence for shyness. He is lanky with a gentle, disarming smile that belies the toughness of his thinking. If his frame is weedy, his brain is supercharged. At 77 he has little tolerance for political correctness and some surprising views on the war on terror and the fighting in Iraq.

“It’s difficult not to be frank about this,” he says. “If we look around the world, polls in Muslim countries — and not just in Arab countries — reveal that Osama Bin Laden is among the most popular figures.” There can be few better examples of a clash of values than the hero worship of a mass murderer in large swathes of the globe.

When Huntington’s essay was published in 1993 (it became a book three years later), he was criticised for his pessimism. Those who believed that he was on to something have been shocked by the pace of unravelling events.

“We have now come to recognise something I didn’t,” he says. “The extent to which there was a growing network of militant Islamic groups with cells in dozens and dozens of countries that was waging a war on western civilisation. We’d had a few attacks by Al-Qaeda but tended to think of them in individual terms. We didn’t appreciate it was part of a broader pattern that materialised on September 11.”

One might expect Huntington to have a “bring it on” approach to the epic clash. If conflict is inevitable, why not go for it, I suggest.

On the contrary, the war on terror is “most unfortunate”, he insists. Battling Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was certainly justified because “that was the base they attacked us from”. But the “with us or against us” framing of the war on terror by President George W Bush has had catastrophic implications.

“What is happening now is that all the local wars between Muslims and non-Muslims are being incorporated into a broad clash of civilisations,” the professor warns, as he surveys ethnic and regional conflicts in Chechnya, Africa, the Philippines and elsewhere. “It has given nations a great excuse to say ‘we’re fighting terrorists and we’re enlisting in your war’.

“I opposed going into Iraq. My argument was that if we invade Iraq we’ll become involved in two wars. One against Saddam Hussein and his army, which we will win quickly, and a second with the Iraqi people that we can never win, because people don’t want to be dominated by a foreign power.”

Before the anti-war left brings out the garlands, a word of caution. In Huntington’s view the only way to fight a war of civilisations is to shore up one’s own cultural values. That means tossing aside liberal nostrums such as “multiculturalism” and robustly asserting the traditions that have led the West to be a beacon of freedom and prosperity.

This has caused him no end of trouble in his new book, Who Are We? (Free Press, £18.99), about the challenge to American national identity. He has been criticised for asserting that Hispanic migration threatens the predominantly white Anglo-Protestant foundations of American society, based on individualism and respect for the law.

Even right-wing commentators have described his fears as bigoted nonsense, although a handful have praised his courage. Huntington shrugs off the criticism as an example of “how difficult it is to have a serious and informed exchange on the fundamental question about the United States’s future as a nation and a culture”. In truth he is not bothered, feeling that history has a way of vindicating him in the long term.

When it comes to Europe, Huntington is just as alarmist. He has been reading about the Spanish government’s identification of 300 suspects in the Madrid bombing from 11 different sleeper cells. He is in no doubt that there are as many terrorists in Britain hidden in Muslim communities.

“Certainly the idea of a fifth column is an issue. There clearly is a sympathetic environment which varies from country to country,” he says.

In western Europe we are uncomfortable with asserting the fundamental values of our society, he suggests, picking “ridiculous” quarrels in which “there is nothing material at stake”, such as the one over headscarves for Muslim schoolgirls in France.

There is a much broader threat. When Huntington looks at the Christian West’s declining fertility rates and the expanding Muslim population he can feel the Earth’s cultural plates shift.

He is all for religious tolerance and is lax about his own religious habits — he never attends church, for instance. But to him Christendom is not an outdated term. “Some people are embarrassed to describe it that way, but I’m not,” he says. “The historical definition of Europe is countries that are western and Christian.”

It is “perfectly justifiable”, he says, to want the European Union to be a community of countries with a common culture — a Christian club in other words — just as it is preposterous for multiculturalists to condemn the vigorous assertion of America’s traditional values as “un-American”.

The best way to fight the battle of civilisations is by defending one’s own culture. Bush’s big mistake has been to believe that a nation’s values can be exported by soldiers. Attempting to impose western ideals such as democracy on a foreign culture is an epic blunder, Huntington fears: “There has been very little appreciation of how different Iraq is from the United States. This is a society where the family, the tribe and the clan dominate everything. If you ’re in a position to give a member of your family a job, you are morally obliged to do so.”

The more Bush insists on staying the course, the more conflicts are likely to spread across the globe: “Unfortunately it’s helping to create a feeling on both sides that this really is a raging clash of civilisations. In my book I was saying, ‘We’ve got to avoid this’.”

Huntington will be voting for John Kerry, the Democrat presidential candidate, this autumn: “I think he certainly would be a tremendous improvement on the present incumbent and he will have a more multilateral, realistic view of foreign policy.”

There is, however, no quick fix for the global passions and enmities that the war has unleashed. The answer lies with us, not with politicians. How much do we believe in our own culture? Are we willing to defend it with our hearts and minds? This is where Huntington believes western intellectual elites have let us down. “I am a patriot and a scholar,” he declares resoundingly. Note that for him patriotism comes first and begins at home.

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 5/23/2004
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