Twenty years after – an unfolding conflict

“It was twenty years ago today” – well perhaps not today, but certainly this year – that Samuel P. Huntington published his seminal article in Foreign Affairs and set the world thinking again about new rumours of war. Just a year earlier Francis Fukuyama had published The End of History and the Last Man. That book was an expansion of his essay in the summer issue of The National Interest in 1989, months before the fall of the Berlin wall on the night of 9 November in the same year.

 What we may be witnessing” he wrote, is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

 That was a very controversial view and for most people it was read – or perhaps misread – as an oversimplification of the consequences of the events of the 1980s. But on a positive interpretation we did seem to be witnessing the end of three hundred years of conflict – sometimes dynastic, sometimes nationalistic, sometimes nakedly imperial and latterly a conflict between two ideologies, the one socialist and totalitarian, the other liberal and capitalist. There did seem to be a basis for optimism that there was now nothing really powerful enough to divide the human race and drive its factions into a war which if unleashed in our day and age might render the very planet itself incapable of sustaining human life.

That optimism was short-lived and the first wake-up call came from Samuel Huntington, the late Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, with the publication of his Foreign Affairs article, The Clash of Civilizations. With that our cosy reading of history came to an end and we were confronted with the prospect of new and even more intractable conflicts rooted in the deepest recesses of human consciousness, supra-rational and sometimes irrational, depending on your point of view. These conflicts would be much less susceptible to negotiation and compromise than conflicts rooted in political and economic differences.

In Huntington’s view the world had more or less now returned to the pre-Westphalian condition when wars of religion plagued Europe, or to the age of the Islamic conquests and the reconquista of Spain in the late Middle Ages. Once again the primary axis of global and regional conflicts was going to be cultural and religious.

Twenty years on, how does his thesis stand up? Without its oversimplifications, pretty well. At the time of his writing that essay there is no doubt but that Islamic militants were already on the move. But they were still not perceived as the global threat to peace that they have now become, necessitating a global protective security shield which in its own way matches anything that had to be put in place by western democracies to protect themselves from the threat of communism.

While the range of potential clashes he proposed for consideration looks a little too extensive, nevertheless the emergence of militant Islamic movements is enough to validate his central thesis. This clash has well and truly re-splattered red markings along the “bloody borders of Islam”, both the external ones and the internal ones where Shia and Sunni factions slaughter each other on a daily basis.  It is hard to find a location along those borders where there is not currently some jihadist group at work – from western to eastern Africa, or among the Mediterranean nations of north Africa, the Middle to the Far East and into those western societies where substantial Islamic immigration has taken place.

This is a war-in-progress and it is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. By and large it seems to bear out Huntington’s main thesis. The intractability of the conflict can be seen in the  bleakness of the prospects for peace negotiation in one of the many theatres in which this war is being played out in full battle dress – that of Afghanistan and the conflict with the intransigent Taliban.

But there is another war brewing which also has all the characteristics of the clashes predicted by Huntington. This is not one to which he paid much attention but it is brewing nonetheless. It will probably remain a largely cold war but it promises to be war just the same and will bring its quota of victims and suffering in its wake. It is the war which has already broken out within the old West to which we have already pinned the term, “culture wars”, making it seem with that soft word “culture”, a little more benign than it actually is.

It is in fact, largely, a new war of religion although few dare to call it so as yet. Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, a robust defender of what he holds to be inalienable human rights – like the right to life from conception to natural death – and the moral teaching of his Catholic Church, said last year that he expected to die in his bed. He thought, however, that his successor would probably die in prison while the man who would succeed his successor would die the death of a martyr.

Within western civilization there are now two separate civilizations developing and the fault line between them is deepening with each year that passes. On the one hand are the adherents of the central Christian beliefs and moral laws. On the other are the nominal Christians for whom these beliefs and laws are a relative thing, susceptible to change and for whom the will of the majority is the guiding principle of life. These latter are allied with many who hold no religious belief and for whom all truth is essentially relative. These have bought into the version of modernity which exalts individualism over the common good, where marriage is redefined to eliminate the principle of indissolubility and its basis in the complementarity of the sexes is ignored, where sex itself is as much about recreation as it is about procreation and where the notion of equality is no longer linked to liberty or fraternity.

Huntington maintained that cultural conflicts were inevitable when adherents of the major religions – Christianity and Islam – found themselves confronted by a society dominated by the irreligious. Conflict became inevitable when the agents of government in that society begin to control and organise it in ways which change the very meaning of life itself and a people’s understanding of what the pursuit of happiness is all about.

His focus on all this was more in the context of conflicts between already constituted geographical blocks and much less about struggles between segments of populations within existing societies. It is in these theatres that this new cold war has now begun to break out.

Within Western societies – which are still largely but at best nominally Christian – there are now two emerging blocks. There are those who are essentially nominal in their allegiance to the ideals of Christian belief and practice and there are those who are actually committed to the effort, albeit sometimes failing,  of living their lives according to the principles enshrined in those beliefs and practices. This latter fits Huntington’s categorization of the type of civilization which is likely to provoke hostility and conflict. Its adherents are missionary, universal and teleological, that is: they seek conversions (mission), they see themselves in possession of the whole (universal) truth and that truth is where the end (telos) and destiny of mankind is revealed.

When, as is the case now in Western societies, laws begin to be put in place by one group – in this case the now dominant nominally Christian group under the influence of an irreligious version of modernity – which contradict and deny fundamental principles by which the other groups seeks to live, trouble is in store. What we call the “culture war” is in fact a clash of these two civilizations on a series of issues ranging through principles of religious freedom, freedom of conscience, principles governing the beginning and end of life, the nature of family, marriage as a social institution and the nature and purpose of human sexuality. For one group these are matters governed by expediency and a lassiez faire approach; for the other group they are non-negotiable issues founded in an immutable human nature and – for a believer in a divine creator – revealed in the teachings of their religion.

The conscientious Christian cannot, for example, accept as a basis for political legislation the principle enunciated by many politicians in all these societies, that while they see a particular human act as morally wrong they must still legislate to facilitate others to carry out such acts if they so choose. The following segment of a correspondence between a constituent and an elected representative in one Western democratic jurisdiction – Ireland – on the issue of abortion legislation illustrates the impasse between these two civilizations.

In the context of the lassiez faire  political approach to human abuse “the citizen” put the case to “the citizen’s representative” as follows:

In the case of deliberate abortion, the abuse is on the mother, on the child in the womb, and indirectly on the wider community. You didn’t say it, but I often hear other people say “It will happen anyway, so let’s legislate to allow it under certain circumstances.” Again, I’ve never heard this said about any other kind of crime (tax fraud, bank robberies, dangerous driving, drug dealing).

 There is enormous pressure worldwide to allow abortion, backed by a mighty industry and driven by so many people’s desire to have complete control of their lives, complete freedom in choice of lifestyle, escape from all suffering, escape from all constraints. These desires, often fostered by commercial interests, are based on illusions and ultimately lead to despair.

 The proposed change in (Irish) law seems very restricted, but in fact it would be taking a giant leap. It would be allowing people to decide which life is worth (preserving), and which life can be deliberately terminated. This is clearly pulling up an ethical and moral anchor, with drastic consequences.

 One day societies will look back in horror at the idea that they once used to kill their young, in much the same way as we now look back in horror at slavery. We can have the chance to take the enlightened approach, of resisting the pressure to conform in something which is inherently repulsive, no matter how it is dressed up.

 To this “the citizen’s representative” replied:

For an elected representative, one’s own feelings on a matter must not generally supersede what might be considered to be appropriate for the population as a whole. Where they are in common with each other, it is of course easier, but where there is a conflict the elected member must decide where the general interest lies – to attempt as best he/she can find the objective view.

 While I might not like the idea or practice of abortion, is it for me to impose these beliefs on the population as a whole? What is the balance between the State’s responsibilities and the individual’s rights? This is the debate that plays out.

 Therein lies the very fragile fault line between two civilizations, the one pragmatic in the extreme, responsive not to any principle but to the will of a majority – regardless of what that majority should wish. For those on the other side, rooted in firm and time-tested ethical principles, this is the philosophy which allowed and determined such human atrocities as slavery and the holocausts of the twentieth century. For them this is much more than a “debate that plays out”, it is a matter of life death and the destiny of mankind. It is something that in the last analysis they will be prepared to give their lives for – in one way or another. It is not a comfortable thought but Huntington’s explorations of the issue of the clash of civilizations twenty years ago cannot be seen as anything other than prescient.

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