Clash of Civilizations Re-Revisited

CAIRO -- Epic tragedy is what binds Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard political scientist, and Osama bin Laden: While the former prophesied a "clash of civilizations" nearly two decades ago, the latter spent two decades trying to ignite one. Even today, after Huntington's seminal work has been discarded once, revived after 9/11 and then discarded again, the clash-of-civilizations paradigm is creeping back into the headlines -- if only to be rejected somewhat less vigorously this time around. But in the context of the Arab Spring, Huntington's theoretical framework may be illuminating in a way that his insistence on "civilization identity" never allowed him to consider.

Cabbing through Cairo's Tahrir Square last Friday, I passed a shrine to the expired 9/11 mastermind: a montage of bin Laden photos, framed and displayed on the very same blacktop that was home to the pro-democracy demonstrators only a few weeks ago. Several hours before, hundreds of Salafi protesters had marched through the square en route to the U.S. embassy, where they chanted slogans like "Obama is the terrorist, not Osama," "Obama, Osama's blood was not shed in vain" and "America is the enemy of God." What could explain this if not a fundamental disconnect between civilizations?

Yet Egypt and the broader Middle East isn't experiencing a clash of civilizations so much as a clash within civilizations. Part of it is generational (as with the conflict between younger, more liberal members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the organization's Old Guard); part of it is economic (some have turned against pro-democracy activists simply because they want the protests to end and the economy to recover); and part of it is exactly the kind of conflict over ideas, values and beliefs that Huntington envisioned when he wrote that "The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict [in the post-Cold War world] will be cultural." The only difference is that it is happening within societies, not between them.

The cultural conflict that is still in the process of defining Egypt's "civilization identity" -- something that Huntington assumed was already established -- is much older than the revolution. For much of the 20th century, secular artists, journalists, reformers and writers have been battling the rising Islamist tide. As Samia Mehrez observes in her recent book, Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Practice, the secular, leftist leanings of these "cultural producers" have "pitted them against religious forces in society in general." In this contest, the state acted as a sort of referee between Egypt's secular reformists and its religious conservatives whose objective was "street censorship," a practice that Mehrez defines as constraining and contaminating the cultural field "by imposing conservative religious [values] on the secular players."

Now, with the state all but evacuated from the cultural sphere (it has bigger worries than punishing the literati for "pornographic" or "subversive" content), the battle lines have been redrawn. The Brotherhood has been transformed by the revolution into a serious political contender, announcing its intention to contest half the seats in the coming parliamentary election, and all but supplanting the youth movement that powered Mubarak's ouster. As Michael Slackman notes in the New York Times, "It is... clear that the young, educated secular activists who initially propelled the nonideological revolution are no longer the driving political force." Aside from heightening sectarian tensions, this has left secular democracy activists in an intellectual bind: democracy, it would seem, demands that the Brotherhood be allowed to participate, but liberalism might well demand that it be excluded or at least restrained.

Not everyone accepts this antagonistic framework. Indeed, Bruce Rutherford, author of Egypt After Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World, would beg to differ. According to Rutherford, the Brotherhood's ideology, which draws heavily on the writings of moderate Islamic constitutionalists, is largely compatible with the constitutional liberalism of the judiciary -- one of Egypt's most historically important opposition forces. He writes, "[L]iberal constitutionalism and Islamic constitutionalism... began to converge around advocacy of constraints on state power, improvements in the rule of law, and the protection of basic civil and political rights." Still, Rutherford readily admits that the Brotherhood views the state as a moral actor with broad authority to intervene in people's private lives. Moreover, individual rights, such as free speech, are protected only as long as they don't disrupt the "prevailing order and moral appropriateness." Women's rights are equally vulnerable, being bounded by the "traditional view of a woman's role in society," according to Rutherford. For the artists, writers and activists that Mehrez depicts -- many of whom were at the forefront of the protests in Tahrir -- it is this vision of the state as a moral actor that is most troubling. "We are all worried," says one secular activist quoted in the New York Times, "The young people have no control of the revolution anymore. It was evident in the last few weeks when you saw a lot of bearded people taking charge." Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, points to the resurgence of similar cleavages in an article in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs. No longer is the revolution a "leaderless movement," devoid of "ideologies or partisanship," pushing for democracy. Rather, he writes, "As [the post-revolution] challenges grow, the country's opposition groups have returned to their old fractious ways." Of late, the deepest divisions appear to be religious. On the night of May 7th, bands of Muslim thugs clashed with Christians in the Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, leaving twelve dead, more than two hundred injured and two churches ablaze. According to the Associated Press, this "sharp rise in sectarian tensions" can be traced, at least in part, to the newfound assertiveness of Salafi Muslims, who are "trying to spread their ultraconservative version of an Islamic way of life" and "have focused their wrath on Egypt's Christians."

Omar Kamel, 41, an activist who has seen some of the revolution's most violent moments, was less worried about the Salafis, dismissing them as a "tiny minority." Still, he told me, "I worry about the fact that people died yesterday. When the bodies start to pile up, it gets harder to get past sectarian violence." And Saturday wasn't the first time that violence between Christians and Muslims has claimed lives in post-revolution Egypt. An arson attack on a church prompted similar violence, leaving thirteen dead and injuring more than one hundred.

As Egypt flounders toward a democratic future, such clashes have been compounded by structural factors; in particular, the abbreviated transition period and the referendum that produced it. Almost immediately following the announcement of a nationwide constitutional referendum, the up-or-down vote took on a religious pallor. The Muslim Brotherhood, cognizant of its short-term organizational advantage, pushed hard for a "yes" vote, propelling the nation toward parliamentary elections in a matter of months. It presented the vote as a religious duty to its followers, and in some cases drew attention to fatwas by Muslim clerics, declaring that a "yes" vote was a vote for Islam. The fact that the "yes" box on the ballots was green -- the color of Islam -- and the "no" box was black only lent credence to their claims.

Whether or not Huntington's paradigm illuminates more than it obscures is not entirely evident. It is clear, however, that a clash within civilizations helps to explain the Arab Spring more than a clash between them. Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist and Nobel laureate, once wrote that revolutions are "plotted by the clever, fought by the brave, and profited from by cowards." Here's hoping that this time around, the civilizational clash breaks for the clever and the brave.