The campaign in Afghanistan, the first phase of a continuing U. S.-led war on terrorism worldwide, seems to be winding down to a successful conclusion. Elements of the Taliban and al-Qu’idah have been killed or dispersed in bombing attacks or rounded up or driven to seek such shelter as they can find in the now-famous cave complexes. As this is written, neither the notorious Osama bin Laden nor the fanatical Mullah Mohammed Omar have been found, either dead or alive. But if Washington is to be believed, they will be.
A couple of questions now arise, quite aside from the obvious uncertainties about what step to take next in the war. The United States, especially, and its anti-terrorist coalition likely will face decisions about undertaking — or not — follow-up campaigns in Iraq or Somalia or Lebanon or wherever the terrorist trail leads.
But I refer to two more basic questions that present themselves.
First, should we interpret this conflict, although confined thus far to one country, as possibly the beginning of a clash between civilizations, as envisioned nearly a decade ago by Professor Samuel L. Huntington? (See his article “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.) Will the war against terrorism soon entail warfare between whole cultures?
As Huntington formulated confrontations in the post-Cold War world, peoples would divide along fault lines marked by other than nationalistic or ideological disputes. He saw conflicts arising due to fundamental differences of cultural outlook and worldview, importantly incorporating religion in a significant number of instances. Huntington divided the world — the potentially warring parties — into six groupings that he labeled Western, Islamic, Slavic-Orthodox, Confucian, Hindu, and Japanese.
It’s obvious which “civilizations” Muslim fundamentalist extremists would hold as being at war. September Eleventh last year made that abundantly clear. We see, however, as a welcome albeit negative development, that such a wider clash shows no signs of developing. Opposition to and criticism of U. S. policies have surfaced as a consequence of the Afghan campaign, but nothing serious or sustained, nothing remotely like a forerunner of a collision between Islam with its more than a billion adherents on the one hand and the West led by the United States on the other.
Perhaps this absence of widespread confrontation has been because the Islamic world is no more monolithic than the Western world and because the Quran does not, as bin Laden would have one believe, hold with terrorist violence. Perhaps it has been also because Muslim leaders who might under some circumstances support the religious tenets of the Taliban or even the political views of al-Qu’idah, have noted well the devastatingly effective military campaign mounted by the United States. Islamic extremism is no longer an attractive contender on the world power scene, as it was up until a month or so after September Eleventh.
Whether or not simplistic as some commentators have held, the Huntington “clash of civilizations” thesis is indeed intriguing and suggestive. Does it have validity in explaining conflict in the post-Cold War world? Are there other instances of clashes underway or developing between other of Huntington’s groupings? In both cases, perhaps. But the thesis does not seem to hold in America’s war on terrorism.
Not yet anyway. This negative conclusion begs a second question, however, one of complexity and no less latent danger. Is it more a question of potential over time for a clash of civilizations, a potential not yet realized?
The very success of the Afghan campaign, it has been suggested, contributes to a growing preoccupation around the world — the non-Western world, at any rate — with the prospect of global American hegemony. This awareness of U. S. dominance likely has been present but not a matter of central concern since the end of the Cold War. Anti-Americanism, however, could actually be furthered in time by the evident collapse of the bin Laden brand of Islamic nationalism.
This possibility of achieving national political/military goals without adverse reaction in other regions of the globe is subject to limited empirical testing. An opinion poll conducted by the Pew Trusts Global Attitudes Project reflects the views as of December 19, 2001, on America’s war on terrorism. The Project questioned 275 opinion leaders in twenty-four countries. The results, to be found at http://www.people-press.org, are interesting but, in a word, inconclusive.
Leaving aside American and Western European respondents, a substantial majority of opinion leaders who were polled a bit over three months after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon expressed the view that U. S. policies were the principal cause of the attack. In the same survey, however, a majority of the same influential figures, including almost half of those in Islamic countries, thought the United States was doing the right thing in fighting terrorism. Few opinion leaders, even in Muslim countries, saw popular support for the al-Qu’idah position. Yet resentment of the United States’ power was widespread and global. On the other hand, large majorities of opinion leaders polled expressed admiration for America’s scientific advances and economic opportunities.
And so it goes in the poll. Ambivalent attitudes toward the United States reign supreme. It appears the jury therefore is still out on the question of whether or not the American-led war on terrorism, especially if markedly successful, will in time engender significant opposition in other regions of the world, most notably the Islamic states. The Pew Project promises to continue to afford glimpses of these attitudes over the coming year. We shall see.
The Editor, January 2002