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Must Civilizations Clash?

NOT LONG AGO, I attended a discussion group on the relationship between Islam and the West. During the question period, one of the participants began fulminating against Muslims and their religion, insisting that Islam was a jihadist faith and that “they” were intent on bringing the entire world under Sharia law. “We” had to stand up and fight for our values, he exclaimed, and since Muslims would no more adopt Western ideas than the West would convert to Islam, this was going to be a struggle to the death, one that could last for generations, even centuries. Then, red-faced and shaking, he paused, realizing where his emotions had taken him. “But there are so many of them,” he sighed. A light had gone off: he had grasped that he was on a highway to the Apocalypse, and there was no off-ramp.

The man’s ideas may not have been thought through, but they did have a legitimate pedigree. They were a debased—though not a distorted—version of Samuel P. Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations,” popularized first in an article in Foreign Affairs, then in a book called The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Huntington borrowed the phrase from Bernard Lewis, who was referring to the growing hostility between Islam and the West. Huntington expanded Lewis’s concept to encompass the seven or possibly eight civilizations—he wasn’t sure about Africa—that he identified across the globe, and warned that in the future, “emerging intercivilizational relations will normally vary from distant to violent.” He went on: “The fires of communal identity and hatred are rarely totally extinguished, except through genocide.”

In one sense, however, Huntington retained Lewis’s framework. He said that of all the civilizational clashes, the worst, and really the only one that mattered, was that between Islam and everyone else—and to describe the relations between Muslim countries and their neighbors, he coined the phrase “bloody borders.” Optimists might argue that the West’s quarrel was only with Islamic extremists, but that is not how Huntington saw it. “Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise,” he wrote. Nowhere had liberal democracy taken root where Islam prevailed. Where, after all, were the public protests against anti-Western violence within the Muslim world? “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” he declared. “It is Islam.”

So was Huntington on his own apocalyptic highway? It certainly seemed so. As his book built toward its inevitable end, Huntington imagined a global civilizational conflict. In his particular scenario, the United States, Europe, Russia and India wage war against China, Japan, and most of Islam, but he acknowledged that other sanguinary scenarios were also possible.

Huntington’s grim forebodings are what most readers remember of his book. What they tend to forget are the final four pages, and with reason. In that last, all-too-brief section, Huntington, much like the fellow in my discussion group, paused before the enormity of the vision he had conjured up—and did an abrupt about-face. In a multicivilizational world, he concluded, we have to “accept diversity and seek commonalities.” The major religions may have created deep, seemingly unalterable divisions among mankind but, Huntington wrote, they “also share key values in common,” and “if humans are ever to develop a universal civilization, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities.”

Enter Daniel Philpott, an associate professor of political science and peace studies at Notre Dame, who has read widely in several disciplines and whose thinking is informed by the latest work in philosophy, theology, psychology, history, and sociology. He is also an activist who has spent time as a mediator in war-torn lands such as Bosnia and central Africa; in Kashmir alone, he has devoted over seven years to interfaith reconciliation. Just and Unjust Peace: An Ethic of Political Reconciliation can be read as a book-length response to the “clash of civilizations.” Or it can be read as the book that Huntington didn’t write.

“What is justice in the wake of large-scale injustice?” Philpott asks. “That is the central question of this book.” The answer for him is deeper and richer than that found in most works on the subject. Justice is more than the “negative peace” of Hobbesian stability imposed in the aftermath of bloody conflict, and it is more than the “positive peace” grounded in the establishment of democratic institutions and the rule of law. Philpott is concerned with the victims of violence, not only their physical wounds but their psychological wounds as well, and he calls for emotional healing, to be achieved through public acknowledgment of past misdeeds and condign punishment of the perpetrators, along with dialogue and forgiveness on the part of individuals and governments. Such remedies, Philpott concedes, are a kind of “soulcraft” that makes many policymakers and academics uncomfortable. But they serve a practical purpose: they help to break cycles of hatred and suspicion, re-establishing the trust and legitimacy—what Philpott calls “the restoration of right relationship”— that are necessary if peace is to endure. At the same time, he stresses that they should be pursued for their own sake because they are, quite simply, the right thing to do. Reconciliation, he says, means “addressing the full range of wounds.”

Reconciliation in the sense of soulcraft has little place in international law, and Philpott looks to religious leaders such as Bishop Desmond Tutu as the public figures best positioned to be the kind of mediators he has in mind. Religion, he insists, does not have to be divisive. Indeed, since the identities of most warring peoples are intimately tied to their faiths—often the reason they are ready to die—it would be futile to “debar” religious thinking from peace negotiations. The antidote to the clash of civilizations is not some abstract, disembodied notion of justice but, as Huntington suggested, the shared values among different creeds. And this is why the central section of Philpott’s book is taken up with demonstrating the common ground of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (It is a bit odd that Philpott, with his experience in Kashmir, ignores other faiths like Hinduism, but this omission is hardly crippling, especially if our concern is with Islam and the West.)

The story of Joseph, with its narrative of forgiveness, is basic to all three faiths, Philpott says. In the Jewish Bible, an ethic of reconciliation reflects the ways of the Lord, and righteousness involves “right relationship” among people as well as between the individual and God. In Christianity, the justice that Jesus brings is much like the justice of the Old Testament. Philpott twice quotes a modern theologian who says that reconciliation is “the heart of the Christian message.” Pope John Paul II expressed similar views. (Philpott has less sympathy for Calvinism, but that is another story.) Islam, too, offers the possibility of reconciliation in its holy texts. According to Philpott, the Koran has two hundred admonitions against injustice. He says that “of the 99 names for Allah, ‘merciful’ is considered the most important,” and he cites several Islamic thinkers and reformers whose support for human rights and international law is based on their reading of Mohammad’s teachings.

Philpott’s treatment of Islam is relatively thin compared to his erudite chapters on the Judeo-Christian tradition, and his interpretation of Muslim ideas may seem one-sided (though the same could be said for his interpretation of Judaism and Christianity). But that is not to deny its validity, nor the legitimacy of Philpott’s search for a common ethic of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation in all three religions. Clearly Islam is much more than a “jihadist faith.”

But sometimes Philpott’s scholarship overwhelms his practical side, and makes reading his book more of a chore than it should be. He speaks of two tasks, six wounds, and seven relationships between justice and reconciliation. This fondness for taxonomy leads to grotesque sentences such as this: “Secondary restorations, too, are fruits of the six practices and involve the four ideal typical parties in political reconciliation.” But his on-the-ground experiences leaven these pedantic tendencies. They also produce in him an engaging modesty. He refuses to push his ideas too far or too absolutely. He gives full weight to critics skeptical of the possibilities of reconciliation, acknowledging the difficulties and the limitations. He is an idealist but not a utopian. Since the kind of dialogue that he advocates allows people to hold on to their traditions and beliefs, any agreements, he says, “will always be partial.” And yet he urges us to go for “the best that can be obtained.”

Just and Unjust Peace is a book of optimism, of hope, of insistently seeing the glass as half full. Humane but not fatuous or sappy, it is the exit ramp off Apocalypse Highway. One wants Philpott to be right, and wishes him the best in his peacemaking efforts. We should feel grateful that there are people like him willing to take on such hard, frustrating, unglamorous work. So why the hesitancy to go along with him, why that frisson of doubt?

To answer this question we might begin by looking at some of the individuals who inhabit the book as examples of reconciliation. Philpott tells us of a Muslim truck driver named Bashir whose father, uncle, and brother were killed by Islamic militants; Bashir himself was disfigured in an assassination attempt. For seven years he sought vengeance, but then decided that his religion required forgiveness. “Bashir has since dedicated his life to victims of the violence, particularly widows and orphans. He has found children of the murderers and has helped them to get an education.”

Then there is Gordon Wilson, a legislator in Northern Ireland whose daughter was killed by an IRA bomb. Wilson stated afterward: “I have lost my daughter and we shall miss her. But I bear no ill will.” And there is Eric Lomax. He was tortured by the Japanese during World War II but spent several days with one of his interrogators, Nagase Takashi, in 1998. “I could no longer see the point of punishing Nagase by a refusal to reach out and forgive him,” Lomax said. “Sometime the hating has to stop.”

These anecdotes of emotional healing are admirable, even inspiring, but they do not advance Philpott’s argument because they read less like models for behavior than like feel-good stories — accounts of how we want everyone to behave even when we know that most people won’t. Similarly, Philpott points to Nelson Mandela as a “paradigmatic” political leader who was able to forgive his jailers after 27 years in a South African prison and help bring peace to his troubled and racially divided land. Yet it is in large part Mandela’s remarkable, almost unworldly capacity for magnanimity that marks him off as such a revered figure. He is too extraordinary to serve as a paradigm.

In these instances, Philpott is describing saintly behavior—idealism raised to its highest level. And here is the problem. Saints may be necessary, but they cannot serve as examples for others to follow: they stand out from the rest of humanity by their readiness to sacrifice themselves for their convictions. They dwell beyond normal society, exploding institutions for the greater good as they understand it. Government for them is not a tool, not even a necessity, but an obstacle to their moral aims, because governing too often conflicts with the pursuit of justice. Unsaintly politicians must frequently make decisions in which justice has to give way to other considerations (like the Hobbesian stability that Philpott deems inadequate).

In this sense, the morality of holding power paradoxically requires knowing when to compromise, even with evil, so that our ideals do not send us self-destructively over a cliff. Philpott’s experiences have taught him the importance of pragmatism in governing, yet there is a part of him that adamantly refuses to compromise with evil, even if doing so is “the best that can be obtained.” Thus he says that “some kinds of wounds are rightfully redressed apart from their consequences for stability, democracy and peace.” These are wounds, he goes on, that demand repair “in and of themselves.” Philpott is not a fanatic. But this is a fanatical idea, and it drives us back to Huntington’s icier realm.

To accept Huntington’s perspective at its coldest, without the counterweight of Philpott’s humanity, can too readily result in cruelty and devastation. Yet to adopt Philpott’s good intentions at their warmest, without the skepticism of Huntington’s tough-mindedness, can produce fanaticism and self-destruction. We need Huntington and Philpott — in an “ethic of intellectual reconciliation,” if you will. Admittedly, this is a balance not easily achieved. In the real world, clashes of values (or civilizations) abound. Every situation, every crisis, is different, and policy is necessarily conducted in a fog of uncertainty.

All we can ask is that policymakers try to maintain the conflicting perspectives of Huntington and Philpott in a kind of unsteady, tense equilibrium, neglecting neither one nor the other. There are no formulas that can assure the correct balance, only the innate good sense of the decision-maker. In this, it should be said, the conduct of international affairs is like nothing so much as the practice of literary criticism, at least as T.S. Eliot once described it. “There is no method,” he said, “except to be very intelligent.”

Barry Gewen is an editor at The New York Times Book Review.