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Clash of civilization in Cairo and Grandpass

| by Ranga Jayasuriya

( August 16, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Twenty years have passed since Samuel Huntington wrote his 1993 seminal essay, Clash of Civilization, which he later expanded into a ground breaking book, Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order.

In his original essay, which was both lauded and disputed, Huntington, one of the pre-eminent social scientists of the 20th century, observed that the fundamental source of conflict in the future will not be political or economic, but cultural and religious.

The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating the civilizations, he wrote, 20 years ago. Yesterday, Egyptian Security Forces, considered as the last line of defence of the Secular Egyptian State, stormed two protest camps set up by the supporters of deposed president, Mohammad Morsi, killing 450 protesters. Morsi, the first democratically elected president of Egypt, during his one year tenure, did exactly what the secular liberals feared. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, vindicated the fears of critics who argued against transplanting electoral democracy in the Middle East and gradually dismantled secular independent institutions within Egyptian society in order to advance their Islamist agenda.

In an unrelated incident, a week before, in a rather diminutive event, mobs attacked a Muslim prayer centre in Grandpass, triggering clashes which lasted for two days.

Prophesy a reality

Huntington's prophesy has become an everyday reality in our present-day world, both at a micro level and macro level.

At the micro level, Huntington observed that, adjacent groups along the fault lines between civilizations, struggle, often violently, over the control of territory and each other. He referred to then Yugoslavia as an example, where, Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims fought each other, recreating a medieval carnage in 20th century Europe. Later, similar clashes, though less severe in magnitude, engulfed many other nations from Nigeria to Indonesia.

The Grandpass clash is microscopic of this confrontation, which is taking place at a global scale.

The developments in Cairo is a glaring example of the confrontation between two civilizations, one liberal, secular and modernist, and the other, overwhelmingly - and sometimes intimidatingly - religious, primitive in outlook and wanting to recreate a medieval caliphate among the modern skyscrapers of Cairo, at the expense of existing secular democratic institutions.

The strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood is, of course, gradualist and much more subtle in its approach, in contrast to Salafi jihad's much overt approach. Nonetheless, all roads lead to 'Rome.' Yesterday's crack down in Cairo is one rare instance in which the apparatus of the Secular State hit back for its survival, though, with a disproportionate force. The Secular State failed to strike with the same decisiveness in Iran in 1979, and paved way for the mullahs to hijack a twin revolution, one religious and the other of the secular left, and to establish a theocracy. At present, the apparatus of the Secular State has cowed in, for the first time in the Modern Turkey, as the mildly Islamist Prime Minister, Erdogan, is gradually dismantling the secular state that Ataturk painstakingly built. In Tunisia, youth disillusioned with the overt Islamist agenda of the post-Ben Ali Government, have launched their own Tamarod, the grassroots movement that organized mass protests calling for the resignation of Morsi, which,prompted military intervention and the final ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood leader.


In 1993, when Huntington penned the essay, Islamism did not have global ambition, though Osama Bin Laden has already formed al Qaeda in Peshawar in 1988. By 1993, Somali refugees, who had been fleeing a bitter civil war there, had just arrived in the West, and thousands more were following their footsteps. Pakistan was Islamic as it has always been. But, the first wave of Pakistani migrants who arrived in Britain during the first few decades of the partition was moderate. Much later, their offspring and the offspring of African migrants have proved to be less restrained and brought the civilizational confrontation to London, Paris and most recently, to the otherwise peaceful city of Stockholm.

What is equally puzzling is that most regimes that were confronted by the secular liberal sections of their society, tend to wield enormous public support of the other and less sophisticated masses who had voted them to power.

That is the dichotomy in the electoral democracy. That exactly is the concern raised by modernist autocrats such as Mubarak and Ben Ali against the introduction of electoral democracy in the Middle East. Liberal intellectuals were equally sceptical about the functionality of electoral democracy in some quarters of the Muslim World. Huntington's prodigy, Fareed Zakaria, in his book, 'Future of the Freedoms,' preferred what he called constitutional liberalism over electoral democracy.

Morsi and his Tunisian and Turkish counterparts have proved those fears.

Democracy is primarily identified with free and fair elections. However, elections are only one facet of democracy and the governments elected by people may tend to be corrupt, inefficient, and authoritarian in practice, whereas constitutional liberalism set in place mechanisms that defend the individual's right to life and property, and freedom of religion and speech. To secure these rights, liberal constitutionalism emphasizes checks on the power of each branch of government, equality under the law, impartial courts and tribunals, and separation of church and state.

The unfolding confrontation is also due to a transfer of power from the traditional elites to less cosmopolitan and sectarian local elite.

The old elite of most Middle Eastern countries, which are currently under threat of possible fundamentalist takeover, had been pro-Western and modernist in disposition, and educated in Oxford, Harvard, West Point, and so forth. They kept the populist impulses of their rather less sophisticated masses under check, through the use of the secular military, an elitist Judiciary and - as in the case of Turkey - a secular press. The sudden plunge to electoral democracy in most countries changed those dynamics, drastically and dangerously.

Spinoff in Sri Lanka

As far as Sri Lanka is concerned, the rising anti-Muslim attacks and the recent attack on a Muslim prayer centre in Grandpass is a spinoff of the clash of civilizations. While the most important confrontation is taking place between Islam of its medieval characteristics and secular liberalism, minor confrontations are taking place all over the world, from Myanmar to India to Sri Lanka.

In this confrontation, much like in the one that is taking place in the post-Arab Spring States, the aggrieved and the aggressor is less discernible. In some places, it is the expansionist and invasive Islamism driven by its set of historical grievances and the global agenda that fuel confrontation. In certain other places, the perceived fears of such encroachment by Islamism, have triggered pre-emptive action from other communities. In that sense, mobs in Grandpass have little difference from angry evangelists who campaigned against the construction of an Islamic community centre, which is also called Ground Zero Mosque in New York, in the vicinity of the World Trade Centre.

Managing those cultural differences is the challenge of our time. Both in the Middle East and other parts of the world, the unfolding confrontation is never meant to be a zero sum game.

It is much easier to manage those differences in a place like Sri Lanka, where all communities have lived together for centuries. In fact, it is perception and not reality that fuels tension in Sri Lanka. Therefore, managing those fears and not to let them overwhelm the public discourse is equally important in order to achieve a long-term peace.

( The writer is the news editor of the Ceylon Today, daily based in Colombo, where this piece was originally appeared)
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