Farivar, Cyrus

IAS 102, Profs. Karras & Lin


“No More than Starting Points”:

Huntington's and Landes' Mischaracterization of Islam

Writing history is never easy. What is even more difficult than telling history, is the attempt to find a commonality throughout all of history throughout the world—in essence, a theory of everything. While a theory of everything may be desirable and perhaps even feasible in other fields such as physics, a historical theory of everything can only be constructed on half truths, falsifications, and unbased assumptions. Two contemporary authors, Samuel P. Huntington and David S. Landes have distinct, yet similar historical theories of everything in their respective books The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order and The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Their theories essentially see history as a destined rivalry between the West and other non-Western entities, and that for the other entities to become modernized and developed, they must become like the West—the West will win out over all other forces.

While both of their works have significant holes which detract from the thrust of their arguments, I will focus on Islam—a single aspect that both authors approach in a similar way and ends up having the same net effect in each book. Both Huntington and Landes use false generalizations of and facts of Islam to promote their ideas that the only “true way” to political and economic success is based on the Western model, and they operate under the assumption that Islam is at the root of industrial retardation in the Islamic world. They promote the idea that Islam and Westernization are fundamentally incompatible with one another, and that this relationship, by the definition of Islam itself, cannot be changed, and therefore these worldviews have always been and will always be in conflict—a false syllogism that both Huntington and Landes propose.

Both Landes and Huntington open their discussions and assertions of Islam with outright falsities which are presented as fact. These “facts” are designed to serve as the first foundation of their argument—that Islam has innate pervasive antagonistic qualities. These facts serve as the basis to construct other conclusions which logically should not exist. By demonstrating that these facts are not true, we can see that their argument does not hold.

In the fifth chapter of The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington discusses the Islamic Resurgence, a phenomenon which Huntington describes as one that has taken over every Muslim country throughout the world, where every Muslim from Nigeria to Indonesia has had their collective Islamic conscience raised—as manifested through vast cultural, political, and social changes. He goes on to describe Islamic culture as “inhospitable”.

“The general failure of liberal democracy to take hold in Muslim societies is a continuing a and repeated phenomenon for an entire century beginning in the late 1800s. This failure has its source at least in part in the inhospitable nature of Islamic culture and society to Western liberal concepts.” (Huntington, 114)

Huntington makes a rather bold claim to state that Islamic culture is fundamentally inhospitable to Western liberal concepts—namely individualism, capitalism, and democracy. Landes makes a similar claim, albeit more articulate, it remains loaded with false dogmatic assumptions that are not based on anything.

“It lies, I would argue, with the culture, which (1) does not generate an informed and capable workforce; (2) continues to mistrust or reject new techniques and ideas that come from the enemy West (Christendom); and (3) does not respsect such knowledge as members do manage to achieve, whether by study abroad or by good fortune at home.” (Landes, 410)

Both of these claims are made with little evidence and with nothing to support their assertions that Islamic culture is inherently antagonistic towards the West. Both authors would agree that in their views, Islam is against the ideas of Lockeian liberalism, namely, of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. While this may be more true in certain parts of the Islamic world, particularly the more extreme ones, there is nothing in Islam that makes it inherently antagonistic to the West—despite Huntington's assertions of Dar al-Harb and Dar al-Islam. Neither Huntington nor Landes uses credible evidence within the Islamic world to establish these claims—Landes makes no attempt to show where his assumptions come from whatsoever, and Huntington quotes a politically conservative Lebanese political science professor (Fouad Ajami) at Johns Hopkins University, who is not a scholar on Islam.

In fact, one need not look deep into the Islamic world to find a counter-example. We can find this directly across the Atlantic in Senegal. Not only is Senegal a predominantly Muslim nation (94%, according to the 2003 CIA World Factboook), it is indeed a secular nation as well. In fact, its first president was a Catholic, and the current president is married to a Catholic. This illustrates firstly that a major Western religion (Catholicism) and Islam can coexist, contrary to what these authors propose.

In addition to that, Senegal's most religious group, an Islamic sect known as the Mourides, pride themselves on their capitalist drive and their hard-work. According to a professor at Columbia University, Linda Beck, their economic activity is known throughout all of Senegal, and even has branched out into New York City.

“My image of Mourides, and that of many Americans, is no longer the omnious 'Baaye Faux' begging on the streets of Dakar, but of the industrious Mourides merchants, grocery store clerks, taxi drivers and other workers on the streets of New York.”1

Huntington and Landes' false assertions that somehow Islam is fundamentally incompatible with “Western liberal concepts” serve only to antagonize the interplay between Islam and the West. By demonstrating that their base assumptions about Islam are false, it forces their arguments—that the West and Islam will inevitably fight and that the West will inevitably win—to collapse.

It is important to note that Mouridism has a theological backing for the ideals that it promotes; an argument can be made that Islam can incorporate Western ideas and still make them compatible within Islam. Some have even gone so far as to say that Islam needs its own equivalent of the Protestant Reformation—a harsh self-examination of its theology and practice. I would argue that an Islamic Reformation would be nothing short of helpful for Islam.

Huntington and Landes do not stop with the idea that Islam is not comaptible with Western liberalism—they continue with the idea that because this is inherent to the culture, that it cannot be changed. By showing that the assumption of an all-time static culture is false, it can be argued that the inevitable “victory” of the West over Islam as an over-arching historical theory of everything is completely false.

In Chapter 9, “The Global Politics of Civilizations”, Huntington argues that Islam will always stay the exact same way that it has throughout the centuries.

“So long as Islam remains Islam (which it will) and the West remains the West (which is more dubious), this fundamental conflict between two great civilizations and ways of life will continue to define their relations in the future even as it has defined them for the past fourteen centuries.” (Huntington, 212)

Somehow, it seems to Huntington, that in the case of Islamic culture, that it has and will always have this unchanging quality of being incompatible with the West. And yet, somehow the West has a unique ability as a civilization to adapt to become something non-Western as evidenced in the “which is more dubious” paranthetical comment. This makes little sense. Landes too, makes the same argument, although he sticks with his more articulate and elaborate style. Landes, however, does acknowledge that Islam can change, and has—but of course, not to the degree of being able to be “modern” and enlightened like the West.

“One defence would dismiss the regressive influence of Islam by pointing to Muslim economic, spiritual, and intellectual openness in an earlier golden age. If they could do it then, the reasoning goes, they can do it now. One would like to say yes, but for two reasons. First, the scope of competition and level of performance required is far greater now than it once was. The meaning of 'modern' has changed drastically, far more than Islam. (Such an argument is like saying that because the British used to produce tennis champions, they should be able to turn them out today.)” (Landes, 413-414)

Both Huntington and Landes seem to be of the opinion that the cultural quality of anti-Westernness is something that cannot be changed. Landes, to his credit, does acknowledge historical changes throughout the history of Islam, but says that it continues to be regressive on Islamic societies. Landes even points out a truth which he dismisses immediately as a falsehood—that if Islam could be tolerant and vibrant as it had been in the past, then it could flourish again. He compares this to the fact that the British have lacked tennis champions when they used to have them, and by the same logic scoffs at it. But the logic is the same, just inverted. If British tennis players, given the right combination of talent, hard work, and teaching could very easily match their contemporary non-British rivals. They would have to adapt to the newer, faster game, sure, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility. Likewise for Islam—nothing about it makes it inherently unable to adapt to becoming “modern”, despite the fact that the word “modern” may mean something newer and faster than it did in the past.

If we look historically at a part of the world which is now one of the seats of the Islamic world, Iran, we can examine how the Islamic world has indeed shown periods of tolerance and dynamic change. If we take the work of McNeill and McNeill, in their The Human Web, it can be shown that Iran—now thought of as the seat of highly conservative Islamic fundamenalism—was once an open and tolerant place.

“…but by the reign of Shah Abbas I (1588-1629), [the Safavids] adopted a policy of religious toleration, and encouraged Armenians and Jews to settle and trade in Iran. Abbas helped pay for a Christian church in his capital of Isfahan, built by Portuguese Franciscans from Goa. Abbas derived a good deal of his revenue from international trade (especially of silk), and he cultivated the linkages the web provided to improve his position with respect to his hostile Sunni neighbors. As it was in India for Akbar, a policy of intellectual openness became good politics in Iran.” (McNeill and McNeill, 40)

The fact that Shah Abbas I understood the idea of tolerance and openness is a credit to the glory of that era in Persian history. No doubt that without that trade, Iranian history would be much different without the numerous contributions made to Iran by non-Muslims and non-Iranians.

This historical narrative by McNeill and McNeill is in direct contrast to the argument presented by Hungtington and Landes, who move their argument up a notch from saying that Islamic culture is incompatible with the West, to saying that this incompatibility is built into the core framework of Islam and cannot be changed. If Iran can go from what the McNeill's describe as an “embattled theocracy” (40) during the early 16th century, to a “policy of intellectual openness” (40) by the 17th century, and then back to a theocracy during the 1979 Islamic Revolution, it can be easily demonstrated that nothing within Islam makes change an impossibility. If we remove this second level of reasoning from both Huntington's and Landes' arguments, modernization along Western lines is not something that is inevitable and unavoidable. Therefore, their theories of everything do not hold.

The third and final level of reasoning that Hungtington and Landes hold together in their portrayal of Islam is that because Islamic culture is defined as being anti-Western, and is incapable of change in this view, that it is only natural that Islam and the West will fight each other. This too, like the previous two assertions, are not based on any historical fact, and serves to dismantle their over-arching theories.

Huntington, in Chapter 10, “From Transition Wars to Fault Line Wars”, discusses the Muslim “high propensity to resort to violence in international crises” (Huntington, 258).

“The Muslim propensity toward violent conflict is also suggested by the degree to which Muslim societies are militarized. In the 1980s, Muslim countries had military force ratios

(that is, the number of military personnel per 1000 population) and millitary effort indicies (force ratio adjusted for a country's wealth) significantly higher than those for other countries. Christian countries, in contrast, had force ratios and military effort indicies significantly lower than those for other countries. The average force ratios and military effort ratios of Muslim countries were roughly twice those of Christian countries. 'Quite clearly,' James Payne concludes, 'there is a connection between Islam and militarism.'” (258)

Landes, too, makes an analagous analysis of Islam's tendancy toward violence.

“Islam, like all religions, has its pure and hard core, and in a society of extreme machismo, the combination is explosive. Hence the quick recourse to violence, for violence is the quintessential, testosteronic expression of male entitlement. Hence massacre of of religious opponents in Syria; revolution and suppression in Iran; autocratic despotism in Iraq and the Sudan; poison gas attacks against Kurds in Iraq; genocide in the black south of the Sudan; both random and targeted murder in Pakistan, Egypt, and Algeria.” (Landes, 414)

Landes gives the impression that these attacks are against non-Muslims—thereby furthering the stereotype that Huntington says a bit more explicitly that Muslims, due to their innate and unchangeable incompatibility with the West, are driven to fight the West. What is a bit less clear, is that many of the instances of the violence that Landes talks about are against other Muslims. Kurds, for the most part, are Muslims2. Much of the violence committed in Algeria and Pakistan has been against other Muslims. The instances of Muslims fighting non-Muslims, while often for religious reasons, tend to have reasons that have little to do with Islam—the civil war in Sudan can often be construed as a war of resources—the resource-deficient north against the resource-rich south.

One could quite easily make a similar argument that Christians are prone to violence, given that the two major wars in the last century were between Christian nations—but this argument is never made as it is perposterous. Similarly, the idea that Islam is a faith that clings to ancient ideas, that is incapable of change, that is inherently violent is nothing more than a rhetorical device used to divide people and to encourage the call to war. It is not based on any theological, scientific or historical fact. Within the last few decades, there have been those who will commit acts of violence in the name of Islam—but no one who knows anything about Islam actually thinks that these “believers” are any more representative of Islam any more than Pat Robertson is representative of Christianity.

In addition, if it were true that Islam is incapable of change, and that it is prone to being anti-Western, then the historical periods of Islamic coexistence with other major religious groups would never have been possible. Cooperative life between Jews, Muslims and Christians in Spain in the 10th century could not have happened if this were true. Similarly, Serbs, Croats and Muslims could not have lived in relative peace in Yugoslavia for centuries.

Thus, the idea that Islam itself is prone to violence, particularly against non-Muslims is one that fuels the worldview of both Huntington and Landes—and by showing that this third element is also false, in coupling with the fact that the previous two elements that it builds on are also false, it can be shown that Hungtington and Landes' worldview—an inevitable collision of two major world forces—is misguided and incorrect. The falsehoods that are perpetuated in these works, once demonstrated, serve to illuminate how an overall historical tendancy or theory is completely implausible.

The task of telling history, particularly world history, is a multi-faceted and complex task. The notion that there is a single narrative which can be used to describe all of history is a dangerous one—it can be used, in many instances, to justify particular contemporary actions. While we can come up with models which describe a particular discrete moment in the historical past, it is difficult to say that model can be applied across times, places, featuring different motives, characters, and contexts. However, through dogmatic facts, and overlooked historical truths, Hungtington and Landes both have arrived at the same conclusion—that it is natural for Islam and the West to fight each other. Certainly they have before, and they will continue to do so. Pursuing attempted scholarship along this road only results in misinformation, mistrust, and a characterization of the “other”—one who is never like us and can never be like us. If there is anything that we can learn overall from history, it is that there will always be one group mischaracterizing another group, saying that the other group cannot understand us for the purposes of political, economic, or military gain. Examples within the West are plentiful—from the Nazi characterization of the Jews, to the English “science” which proved that Africans were sub-human, and as far back as the Catholic church's condoning of the subjugation and colonization of indigenous peoples.

Indeed, the goal of humanity is to become more enlightened, and the more we understand the atrocities of our ancestors, the more we can hope to not make the same mistakes. In the end, we are all human—or, in the words of the late Palestinian author and professor Edward Said:

“No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or America are no more than starting points, which if followed into actual experience for one moment are quickly left behind…No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and justice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about.” (Said, Culture and Imperialism)