by Barbara Eherenreich
The Progressive magazine, January 2002
There has been a lot of loose talk, since September 11, about
a "clash of civilizations" between musty, backward-looking,
repressive old Islam and the innovative and freedom-loving West.
"It is a clash between positivism and a reactionary, negative
world view," columnist H.D.S. Greenway writes in The Boston
Or, as we learn in The Washington Post While the West used
the last two centuries to advance the cause of human freedom,
"The Islamic world, by contrast, was content to remain in
its torpor, locked in rigid orthodoxy, fearful of freedom."
So it is a surprise to find, on turning to the original text-Samuel
P. Huntington's 1996 The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking
of World Order (Simon & Schuster)-a paragraph-long analogy
between the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the Protestant
Reformation: "Both are reactions to the stagnation and corruption
of existing institutions; advocate a return to a purer and more
demanding form of their religion; preach work, order, and discipline.
Whoa, there! Weren't the Protestants supposed to be the up-and-coming,
progressive, force vis-a-vis the musty old Catholics? And if we
were supposed to root for the Protestants in our high school history
texts, shouldn't we be applauding the Islamic "extremists"
Huntington doesn't entertain the analogy between Islamic fundamentalism
and reforming Protestantism for very long. But let's extend the
analogy, if only because it implicitly challenges the notion that
we are dealing with two radically different, mutually opposed,
Like the Protestants of the sixteenth century, the Islamic
fundamentalists are a relatively new and innovative force on the
scene. Wahhabism-the dour and repressive creed espoused by Saudi
Arabia, Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic fundamentalists throughout
the world-dates from only the mid-eighteenth century. Deobandism,
the strain of Islam that informed the Taliban (and which has,
in recent decades, become almost indistinguishable from Wahhabism),
arose in India just a little over a century ago. So when we talk
about Islamic fundamentalism, we are not talking about some ancient
and venerable "essence of Islam"; we are talking about
something new and even "modern." As Huntington observes,
the appeal of fundamentalism is to "mobile and modern-oriented
Islamic fundamentalism is a response-not to the West or to
the "modern"-but to earlier strands of Islam, just as
Protestantism was a response to Catholicism. Wahhabism arose in
opposition to both the (thoroughly Muslim) Ottoman Empire and
to the indigenous Sufism of eighteenth-century Arabia.
Sufism is part of Islam, too- much admired in the West for
its relative tolerance, its mysticism and poetry, its danced,
ecstatic rituals. But it is also, especially in its rural forms,
a religion that bears more than a casual resemblance to late medieval
Catholicism: Sufism encourages the veneration of saint-like figures
at special shrines and their celebration at festivities-sometimes
rather raucous ones, like the carnivals and saints' days of medieval
Catholicism- throughout the year.
Just as the Protestants smashed icons, prohibited carnivals,
and defaced cathedrals, the Wabhabists insisted on a "reformed"
style of Islam, purged of all the saints, festivities, and music.
Theirs is what has been described as a "stripped-down"
version of Islam, centered on short prayers recited in undecorated
mosques to the one god and only to him.
The Taliban imposed Wahhabism in Afghanistan as soon as they
came to power in 1996 and took on, as their first task, the stamping
out of Sufism.
The closest Reformation counterpart to today's Islamic fundamentalists
were the Calvinists, whose movement arose a few decades after
Lutheranism. Pundits often exclaim over the Islamic fundamentalists'
refusal to recognize a church-state division-as if that were a
uniquely odious feature of "Islamic civilization"-but
John Calvin was a militant theocrat himself, and his followers
carved out Calvinist mini-states wherever they could.
In sixteenth-century Swiss cantons and seventeenth-century
Massachusetts, Calvinists and Calvinist-leaning Protestants banned
dancing, gambling, drinking, colorful clothing, and sports of
all kinds. They outlawed idleness and vigorously suppressed sexual
activity in all but its married, reproductively oriented, form.
Should he have been transported back into a Calvinist-run
Zurich or Salem, a member of the Taliban or a Wabhabist might
have found only one thing that was objectionable: the presence
of unveiled women. But he would have been reassured on this point
by the Calvinists' insistence on women's subjugation. As a man
is to Jesus, asserted the new Christian doctrine, so is his wife
Calvinism-or "Puritanisrn" as it is known in America-was
of course immensely successful. Max Weber credited it with laying
the psychological groundwork for capitalism: work hard, defer
gratification, etc. Within the West, the Calvinist legacy carries
on most robustly in America, with its demented war on drugs, its
tortured ambivalence about pornography and sex, its refusal to
accord homosexuals equal protection under the law. It even persists
in organized form as the Christian right, which continues to nurture
the dream of a theocratic state. Recall the statement by one of
our leading warriors against Islamic fundamentalist terrorism-John
Ashcroft-that "we have no king but Jesus."
In a world that contains Christian Wahhabists like Ashcroft
and Islamic Calvinists like bin Laden, what sense does it make
to talk about culturally monolithic "civilizations"
like "Islam" and "the West"? Any civilization
worthy of the title is, at almost any moment of its history, fraught
with antagonistic world views and balanced on the finely poised
dialectics of class, race, gender, and ideology. We talk of "Roman
civilization," for example, forgetting that the Roman elite
spent the last decades before Jesus's birth bloodily suppressing
its own ecstatic, unruly, Dionysian religious sects.
There is no "clash of civilizations" because there
are no clear-cut, and certainly no temperamentally homogeneous,
civilizations to do the clashing. What there is, and has been
again and again throughout history, is a clash of alternative
cultures. One, represented by the Islamic and Christian fundamentalists-as
well as by fascists and Soviet-style communists-is crabbed and
punitive in outlook, committed to collectivist discipline, and
dogmatically opposed to spontaneity and pleasure. Another, represented
both in folk traditions and by elite "enlightenment"
thought, is more open, liberatory, and trusting of human impulses.
Civilizations can tilt in either direction. And individuals-whether
they are Christian, Muslim, or neither-have a choice to make between
freedom, on the one hand, and religious totalitarianism on the