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the clash of civilizations at ground zero

göteborg-posten, 21 august 2010

Should a mosque be built on Ground Zero in New York – the spot on which the Twin Towers stood before being razed to the ground on 9/11? That is the question dividing Americans. Rudy Guiliani, the former mayor of New York who was in office when the terrorists struck, called the building a ‘desecration’ and demanded ‘some respect for who died there and why they died there.’ Sarah Palin called, on Twitter, for New Yorkers to ‘refute’ the plans because the ‘catastrophic pain caused @ Twin Towers site is too raw, too real’. ‘As a citizen, and as President’, Barack Obama responded, ‘I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country.’

In reality, there will be no mosque at Ground Zero. What is being planned is the conversion of an old industrial building, the Burlington Coat Factory, in Park Place, a couple of blocks away from where the Twin Towers stood, into a Muslim community centre. It was originally to be called the Cordoba Centre but was rebranded Park51 after the controversy broke out.  The centre will include a swimming pool, restaurant, gym, child-care centre, performing arts space - and a prayer space.The conversion, part of the regeneration of lower Manhattan, has been in the planning for a number of years and was approved 29-1 by the local community board.

The ‘Burlington Coat Factory Prayer Space' is not a phrase that evokes much emotion. ‘Ground Zero Mosque’, on the other hand, is an image crafted to instill fear. It suggests the desecration of hallowed ground, the sullying of sacred memory and an invitation to our barbarian enemies to pitch camp in our midst.

‘Building an Islamic centre in the shadow of the World Trade Centre’, Abraham Foxman of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League suggested, ‘will cause some victims more pain.’ So the plans should be scrapped. Survivors of 9/11, just like survivors of the Holocaust, Foxman claimed, ‘are entitled to feelings that are irrational. Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.’ It would certainly be understandable if survivors of 9/11, or if relatives of the victims of the atrocity, felt uneasy about, or even hostile to, the building of the Cordoba Centre. But emotional anguish does not provide a pass to every political attitude. Just because we can understand why survivors of 9/11 may harbour certain fears and prejudices does not mean that we have to accept those fears and prejudices, still less that we have to base policy decisions upon them.

More importantly, how we respond to something like the Cordoba Centre depends largely on the narrative we weave around 9/11. If we view 9/11 as the product of Islam, rather than of Islamic terrorists, and if we see all Muslims as potential enemies, then inevitably we will feel great trepidation about the building of the centre and feel that it will aid the terrorists.

If, on the other hand, we look upon 9/11 as an act of terrorism towards which most Muslims feel revulsion, and if we accept that the best way to combat terrorism is to uphold basic liberal values of equal treatment and freedom of religion, then we can view the building of the Cordoba centre in a different way. ‘Let us not forget’, as the current New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has observed, ‘that Muslims were among those murdered on 9/11 and that our Muslim neighbours grieved with us as New Yorkers and as Americans.’ ‘We would betray our values and play into our enemies’ hands’, he added, ‘if we were to treat Muslims differently from anyone else.’ Or as Obama put it, ‘The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.’

It is, however, the first narrative, which sees 9/11 as part of a ‘clash of civilizations’, that has come to shape much thinking about the relationship between Islam and the West. ‘The survival of the West’, the American political scientist Samuel Huntington has written, ‘depends on Americans reaffirming their Western identity and Westerners accepting their civilization as unique not universal and uniting to renew and preserve it against challenges from non-Western societies.’

It was Huntington who popularized the phrase the ‘clash of civilizations’. The conflicts that had convulsed Europe over the past centuries, Huntington wrote in an influential 1993 essay, from the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics to the Cold War, were all ‘conflicts within Western civilization’. The ‘battle lines of the future’, on the other hand, would be between civilizations. And the most deep-set of these would be between the Christian West and the Islamic East, which would be ‘far more fundamental’ than any war unleashed by ‘differences among political ideologies and political regimes’. The West would need vigorously to defend its values and beliefs against Islamic assault.

It is an argument that has gained an increasing hearing in the wake of 9/11. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his new book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a culture of resentment, and not just within Muslim communities. In the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped both by fear and resentment, fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home.

The idea of the ‘clash of civilization’ has become a means through which to express that sense fear and resentment, a way of understanding notions of belongingness and enmity in emotional rather than ideological terms. That is why Osama bin Laden, too, sees the world through the prism of a civilizational war. ‘There is no doubt that the clash of civilizations exists’, Osama bin Laden told an Al Jazeera journalist a month after 9/11. ‘The clash of civilizations is a very clear story proved by the Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet and no true believer who proclaims his faith would doubt these truths.’

The clash of civilizations is not simply description of how the world is. It is also a prescription for how the world should be, a prescription that institutionalizes social conflict as a means of preserving identity.

‘There can be no true friends without true enemies’, observes one of the characters in Irish writer Michael Dibdin’s 1994 novel Dead Lagoon. ‘Unless we hate what we are not we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves!’ Huntington quoted these words approvingly in his seminal book on The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, adding that ‘For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential’. If you want to preserve American, or Western identity, in other words, you have to take a stand against Muslims and everything they believe in.

Of course, proponents of the clash of civilizations argument present it as a defence not of an identity but of a set of values, in particular of the values of the Enlightenment. September 11, the novelist Martin Amis has written, was ‘a day of de-Enlightenment’ - a theocratic assault on liberal democratic traditions and on a secular, rationalist culture. Re-Enlightening the world requires us to engage in a civilizational war. Yet, when viewed through the prism of the clash of civilization, the Enlightenment often seems less like a set of values through which to create a progressive politics than a myth by which to define the West.

‘One of the main claims of Enlightenment philosophy’, the writer Ian Buruma observes in Murder in Amsterdam, his meditation on the significance of the killing of Dutch film-maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan Islamist, ‘is that its ideas based on reason are by definition universal. But the Enlightenment has a particular appeal to some . . . because its values are not just universal, but more importantly “ours”, that is European, Western values.’

Once the Enlightenment is turned into a weapon in the clash of civilizations rather than in the battle to define the values and attitudes necessary to advance political rights and social justice, then it becomes more a measure of tribal attachment than of progressive politics. And once that happens everything from discriminatory treatment to torture becomes permissible in the name of defending ‘our’ Enlightenment values that are denied to others, and the pursuit of Enlightenment itself becomes a source of de-Enlightenment. Or as Tzvetan Todorov puts its, ‘placing Enlightenment at the service of a denigration of others’ is to ‘amputate the real tradition of the Enlightenment which was able to combine the universality of values with the plurality of cultures.’

‘If we are so afraid about something like this’, Mayor Bloomberg asked of the Cordoba Centre, ‘what does that say about us?’ The question that haunts the debate not just about the Cordoba Centre, but of much post-9/11 policy is this: for what reason do we wish to combat terrorism? Because we want to think about identity and culture as Osama bin Laden does? Or because we don’t want to do so? Because we wish to preserve an exclusive ‘Western’ identity? Or because we wish to defend basic Enlightenment ideas about equal treatment, open societies and universal values? How we answer these questions will determine whether we truly are able to defend those values.