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Books: Is Samuel Huntington Right?

Little has been heard from political scientist Samuel Huntington since 9-11, but his book, The Clash of Civilizations, has helped shaped the debate about the war the United States has waged against Muslim extremists, to the dismay of some historians, including Robert Stacey, the chairman of the history department at the University of Washington. Stacey's specialty is the Middle Ages. He recently gave a talk at the university critical of Huntington's world view.

HNN: You concluded your talk noting that in many ways Islam is a"Western Civilization" and is possibly more"Western" than what Huntington calls"the West." Can you explain that?

Stacey: It depends, of course, on how you define West. Western Europeans, at least since the Renaissance, have liked to see themselves as the direct cultural heirs of Greece and Rome. So Greece and Rome constitute"Westernness" in a sense. I think one sees this in the way Western Civilization books are traditionally written. You start with the Sumerians, who are not in Europe, then you go to Egypt, not in Europe, then you go to the Hebrews, a people whose land is not in Europe, then you jump to Greece and then to Rome and then to the European Middle ages, then to the Renaissance, the Reformation, Modern Europe, the"discovery" of the New World, then on to the 21st century. Why is it that Western is not geographically Western, at least until after the break up of the Roman Empire? I think what it represents is a very arbitrary definition of"Westernness," in which we define certain values we agree with, then locate those ideas in Greece and Rome, while picking out certain other, earlier civilizations (like Sumeria, or Egypt) as"honorary Western civilizations," because they invented cities, and writing, and the wheel, and"the West" is also a land of cities, and writing, and wheels. But where is Islam, where is Byzantium in this picture? I would argue that if you start with a definition of"Westernness" as being represented by the Mediterranean world of antiquity, then both Islam and Byzantium take far more from those Greek and Roman, Mediterranean traditions than does this Western European world. And that Byzantium and Islam have also remained in many ways truer to those traditions than has Western Europe. So to claim a particular mantle of"Westernness" for Western Europe, if we define"Western" as meaning"from the Greco-Roman, Mediterranean cultural world of antiquity," is unwarranted.

HNN: Huntington argues that Islam is and has been a different culture from that of"the West." Your conclusion is that this idea is fundamentally wrong. Why?

Stacey: There is no question that the Islamic world and the European world have developed in different ways over the course of the last 1400 years. But my point is that both Islam and Europe, together of course with Byzantium, are all Western civilizations; and that this" clash of cultures" talk, that presumes that these three civilizations have nothing in common, is fundamentally misleading. It presumes a teleology in which Western Europe is the anointed heir of the Greek and Roman world of antiquity, and that other Mediterranean civilizations, like Islam or Byzantium, are somehow on the side of that"western" tradition, whereas in fact, it is European civilization which is the"oddball." Both Byzantium and Islam took far more from the Greco-Roman world of antiquity than did Western Europe.

HNN: Those differences are the sort of evidence that Huntington points to as the reason that our cultures will clash. Do you see that as a true statement, or do you think that our histories are inextricably linked and that we really aren't that different?

Stacey: I'm much closer to the second view. We are very different, but our differences in the historical span of time are relatively recent. By and large, they have arisen in the past 300 to 400 years. That is not a long time when you are talking about millennia.

The reason I feel so strongly about this is because Huntington's view presumes a gulf which is unbridgeable between"Islam" and"Europe" --or as he would prefer, between"Islam" and"the West." I don't believe that such a gulf exists. I believe that so many of the things we share with the Islamic world, because we are both Western Civilizations, are so much more fundamental than are the differences that have grown up between us over the past 300 to 400 years.

Monotheism, for example. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of western civilizations. This is in some ways a mixed blessing, insofar as the western monotheisms -- Judaism, Islam, and Christianity -- have tended to be pretty intolerant of all other religions, including each other. But it does render all three of these"sister civilizations" very close relatives indeed.

The traditional linkages between religion and politics in these three civilizations are another key similarity we share. In Western Europe and America, we can easily overlook this, because since the 17th century we have tended to think we can and should distinguish the political realm from the religious realm. But this is a very modern view, and one with which we continue to struggle even in Europe and America. Look at the debates over the Christian Coalition's activities over the past 20-25 years. There is a substantial segment of the American population that believes government does have a role to play in regulating social morality, and that social morality must necessarily have a religious foundation. That's not so very different from the Islamic outlook on the world (recognizing, of course, that within the Islamic world there is substantial diversity and disagreement on this issue also).

The other thing that annoys me about Huntington's approach here is that to talk as he does is to presume that there are these two cultural monoliths out there, one of them being"Western Europe and America," the other being"Islam." Clearly this is not the case. My gosh, the biggest Islamic country in the world is Indonesia. Islam is a hugely diverse world, and the demands of Islam are understood very differently in different places within it. To presume, or imply, that Wahabbi Islam is the prototype for the Islamic world, so we'll compare Saudi Arabia with the United States, and so have a valid comparison between"Islam" and"the West," leads to enormous misunderstanding.

HNN: One critic of Huntington has argued that his thesis is little more than"politics masquerading as scholarship" and that he is searching for a new enemy for the U.S. following the break up of the Soviet Union. Do you agree or disagree with that assertion?

Stacey: I think that is probably too harsh. The fundamental fact about Huntington is that he is a political scientist and he's interested therefore in trying to generalize, to create models that will allow him to compare situations that are superficially similar. Historians tend to be inclined in the opposite intellectual direction. If the scholarly world divides between lumpers and splitters, historians tend to be splitters, they are inherently suspicious of generalizations. They always see a diversity of practice, a host of local circumstances. In a very general way, political scientists are trying to get above that level of specificity. So I think it's not surprising that historians would look at many of Huntington's ideas and say,"well, wait just a doggone minute here." I wouldn't want to impugn his motives. I can think he's wrong without thinking that he is moved by any base impulse to recreate the Cold War or whatever.

Huntington has been a somewhat controversial figure in political science over the years, not the least because he has tended to be a little more to the right of center than are most political scientists. But I would reject, so far as I can judge it, that he was motivated by politics.

HNN: But you've also argued that both Huntington and Bin Laden have dangerously striven to break the world into"us" vs."them," a black and white separation of the world. You argue that the reality is that the relationship has been more gray.

Stacey: I think it is still a gray area. I think we have to resist the ideologues on both sides who want to paint out the gray. I didn't vote for George W. Bush, but I will give him credit for trying to maintain that gray area. I think Bush has done a very nice job in not falling into this"us" against"them" rhetoric. But clearly this is what Bin Laden is about. Bin Laden is trying to rally the Muslim world around his cause by portraying the American retaliation against him as retaliation against all Muslims. And I think, unfortunately, that's the implication of Huntington's approach as well. It's to fold this campaign in with all the other campaigns that involved a Christian attack on a Muslim territory, so that it runs all the way back to the reconquista of Spain and the Crusades. I think this is profoundly dangerous as well as misleading. So, yes, although I'm not in any way implying that Huntington is a"Bin Laden" figure, the implication of his remarks are basically the same as Bin Laden's, with respect to their world views. And I think it's wrong, I think it's misleading, I think it's historically inaccurate.

Robert C. Stacey is chairman of the University of Washington History Department and Professor of Medieval Studies. He is also the co-author of a new version of the textbook Western Civilizations (W.W. Norton and Co.) that will be published next month.

Samuel P. Huntington is a professor of International Studies and former chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. He is one of the founders of Foreign Affairs and served as the Director of Security Planning for the National Security Council during the Carter Administration. Huntington is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles.