Year XLIII, 2001, Number 3, Page 155
Europe and the Islamic World
The 11th September attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and the war in Afghanistan that followed in their wake, have turned the spotlight once again on the theory of the clash of civilisations. No one could have asked for a more glaring confirmation of Huntington’s prediction that the tensions between the West and the Islamic world would progressively build up in the second half of the nineties and the start of the twenty-first century and culminate in events of the most extreme gravity.
In truth, the clash of civilisations theory is an ambiguous one, founded on a concept the concept of civilisations which, moreover, is in many settings confused with that of religion — that has not been defined with enough clarity to serve as a useful instrument for interpreting reality, and that is, furthermore, open to the risk of a racist drift. It goes without saying that rejection of the theory does not amount to a denial of the political importance of cultures. Politics is based on consensus, and must therefore echo certain values and certain ways of living together. In this sense, Islam plays a central role in the lives of the peoples of the states that identify with it, and can thus serve as an ideological instrument of indisputable efficiency. But the intrinsic objective of politics is power, and the ideological instruments that can be used to win or conserve power change on the basis of internal and international equilibria. Moreover, all religions express, internally, profoundly differing tendencies, which can range from violent and intolerant forms of radicalism (certainly present in the Christian world, too) to interpretations based on love of one’s neighbour and on a belief that there is a place for dialogue with other religions. To confuse Islam with Islamic fundamentalism, as the clash of civilisations theory implicitly does, is thus a crude error. Rather, we should be seeking to understand the reasons why, today, it is religion’s most radical expressions that are the ones most open to political exploitation.
Indeed, we should not forget that the political manipulation of Islam (mirrored by the anti-Islamic political manipulation of so-called western values) assumed its current importance only in relatively recent times. During the Cold War, the contrast between the United States and the Soviet Union was reflected in the ideological conflict between communism and democracy, that is, between two entirely laic world-views. It must be noted in this regard that for as long as the American and Soviet empires continued to oppose one another from positions of equal strength, much of the world was split between their two spheres of influence, whose solidity the two superpowers sought to guarantee by assuming responsibility for ensuring both the security and an acceptable level of development of their respective satellites. This meant that the Cold War was, in spite of the serious dangers inherent in the logic of mutual deterrence, a period of stability. The Arab-Islamic world was not an exception to this rule. In the main, the states belonging to it were subject to the hegemony of one or the other of the two superpowers, and those that did manage, at least in part, to escape both of them, by defining themselves part of the “Third World”, used not religion, but the idea of neutrality to justify their position mid way between the two blocs.
The collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War left the United States with the burden of responsibility for filling the enormous political void that had been created. The old bipolar equilibrium had been replaced by relations of a new kind, characterised by the existence of a single hegemonic power. But this radical change seriously undermined the stability of the system. The Cold War certainly had not strengthened the power of the United States. On the contrary, America had been weakened by the arms race and by the economic and moral exhaustion that come with the exercise of leadership. In the phase following the end of the Cold War, the absence of the old enemy substantially emptied the old ideological weapons — democracy and the fight against communism — of all their significance. At the same time, the responsibilities of the United States on the world stage increased enormously and became more difficult to manage, since the disappearance of the Soviet hegemony had produced a fragmentation not just of the Soviet Union, but also of its entire sphere of influence, leaving the countries that had been part of either of these devoid of an ideological direction that might allow them to conserve a degree of internal cohesion and to find a place in a stable system of alliances.
Thus, just as some in the United States were starting to hail the “end of history” and the definitive triumph of democracy (i.e., of the United States), a period of growing global instability was actually beginning, marked, among many conflicts, by the Gulf War, by the long and bloody process of disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, by the proliferation of civil wars in Africa, and, finally, by the attacks on New York and Washington and the war in Afghanistan, the latter prompting a tragic escalation of the tensions between Israel and Palestine. Ten years on from Bush senior’s talk of the advent of a “new world order”, Bush junior finds himself faced with a situation that has been pertinently dubbed a “new world disorder”.
This, then, is the backdrop to the tragic events of New York and Washington. The United States has been forced, by the conclusion of the Cold War, to pay less and less attention to the development of the populations of the poorer parts of the world (an enterprise that would necessitate considerable and long-term employment of resources) and to focus instead on supporting the regimes, for the most part corrupt and authoritarian, that govern them. While the United States’ exercise of its world leadership has manifested itself, in an increasingly clear and exclusive fashion, through its armed intervention in crisis areas, the defence of national (American) interests has emerged, increasingly openly, as its main concern. The universal ideal of the affirmation of democracy has been replaced by the arrogance of nationalism. This is an attitude that cannot fail to be reflected, outside the United States, in a spread of anti-Americanism, and the poorer and more outcast the social and political settings in which this anti-Americanism emerges are, the stronger this feeling becomes.
Violence tends, inevitably, to break out in the areas most heavily penalised by an international equilibrium that is both unstable and unjust. The main concern of hegemonic powers has always been to preserve and strengthen the status quo, and thus to maintain order, while the stimulus to upset the existing balance, and thus to encourage disorder, has always been generated in countries that see the creation of a new equilibrium as the only path that will lead to their independence and economic development. This is the situation in which the world’s Islamic countries, to varying degrees, find themselves. It can be no wonder, then, that in a considerable section of their populations, religion, in its most intolerant and fundamentalist guises, has become, in the ideological void created in the wake of the end of the Cold War, the main catalyst to the vindictiveness that the current power situation in the world cannot fail to foster. Neither can it be any wonder that it manifests itself through terrorism, which is the only instrument of war that poor and technologically backward states can use to inflict severe material and moral damage on a great power.
The United States, like all imperial powers, tends to associate its own security and the stability of its hegemonic position with the weakness of its satellites and potential enemies. An exception to this rule can be seen in the United States’ attitude to Europe following the end of the Second World War, when an enlightened political class realised that America’s stability and leadership and the health of the US economy depended on the prosperity and unity of the country’s most important allies — the states of Western Europe. But, with the passing of the decades, and in part as a result of the Europeans’ refusal to assume their own responsibilities, the old logic of power inevitably began, gradually, to regain the upper hand. This is why, in the historical phase that followed the end of the Cold War, the United States promoted in every way possible the dissolution of the Soviet Union, failed to oppose the forces that led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia (actively encouraged, moreover, by the governments of the European Union), supported the secessionist movements of Tibet and Xinjiang and now views with approval the watering down of the European Union into a vast free trade area. But in reality, these policies have weakened rather than strengthened its world leadership. They have contributed to the creation of fragmented and politically irresponsible areas, in which weak and impotent states have “sold” their sovereignty and placed themselves at the service of the terrorism, international crime and money laundering, and thus to the proliferation of trouble spots in which there is tension and disorder. Under the illusion that it was favouring the birth of a more governable world, the United States has, itself, created, funded and trained its own enemies.
It is a dangerous mistake to think of bin Laden as the lunatic leader of a group of relatively isolated terrorist fanatics. Not only is bin Laden in possession of vast financial resources, he is also assisted by the governments of several states within the Islamic world and enjoys widespread popularity in the Arab and Muslim worlds generally. The ground in which he cultivated his terrorist enterprises is thus deep and vast, and this is a reality that his disappearance from the scene would not alter. Added to this, his actions appear to have been guided by a clear design: to undermine the power of the Islamic world’s conservative and unpopular regimes so as to be able to build a form of Islamic unity founded on fundamentalism.
It is clearly utopian to imagine political unity in the fragmented and heterogeneous Islamic world of today. But the need that underpins this dream is a very real one, because the world as a whole will not know a reasonable level of stability and security until there starts to be a movement towards a solution to this problem. Moreover, it is certainly possible that, in the framework of a more stable word equilibrium, aggregations capable of evolving into federal-type groupings might emerge within the Arab-Islamic world, and even embrace Israel. In no other way can the enormous section of the world whose populations identify with Islam break free from the spiral of injustice, poverty, violence and corruption that currently imprisons them. Moreover, it is inconceivable that the Arab countries, and in more general terms the Islamic countries, might be led towards unity by the regimes by which they are currently ruled. Neither is it conceivable that they will ever follow this path under the guidance of the totalitarian and obscurantist theocracies that bin Laden and Islamic fundamentalists are fighting to establish. They will be able to do it only if they evolve in the direction of democracy and greater social justice and if, within their populations, humane and tolerant expressions of religion can prevail over fanatical and violent ones.
American bombs can certainly do nothing to encourage an evolution of this kind, and neither, in a more general way, can the continued exercising of the hegemony of the United States, which the large majority of Islamic populations now tend to see as the antithesis of the very founding values of their own civilisation. What is needed to change the current world equilibrium is the entry on stage of another actor — one that is strong but that does not base its strength on its military might, one that is pluralist and thus accepting of those different from itself, and one that, because of its geopolitical position, is not interested in establishing itself as a hegemonic power, but in counterbalancing the hegemonic power of others, encouraging unity among peoples and peaceful dialogue between them.
Europe is the only possible candidate for this leading role. Only Europe has all the requisites, in power terms, to act as a mediator and to promote effective initiatives designed to bring about the start of processes of democratisation and economic and political integration within the Islamic world. But its capacity to fulfil this role, which history appears to have assigned it, depends on its capacity — having first achieved its own political unity — to be an authoritative and independent presence in the global picture and to show the world how unity in diversity can be achieved. Europe is thus faced with an extraordinary, historic opportunity. But if its states prove unable to seize it, refusing to be bound by federal ties and continuing to see the preservation of their sovereignty as more important than the pursuit of Europe’s common good and the progressive building of peace in the world, then they will be irremediably overwhelmed by the disorder and intolerance that — lacking the necessary courage and vision — they themselves will have failed to oppose.