By Amina Chaudary
The late Samuel Huntington will probably be best known for his controversial thesis - The Clash of Civilizations - which defined a worldview for many after the fall of the Soviet Union. In it, Huntington set forth the idea that civilizations, as opposed to just nations, would be an important factor in shaping the future of global politics. While his thesis addressed several different civilizations, it was perhaps most famous for its assertion that Islamic civilization constituted a coherent and opposing force to the Western world.
I am the only Muslim to whom Huntington granted a formal interview during his lifetime. My interactions with him led me to believe that what many people thought of him and his ideas - especially many people in the "Muslim world" - probably misrepresented what he actually believed.
Our interview also happened to be his last; several weeks later, he suffered a stroke and retired to Cape Cod. The symbolic timing of such an event itself is remarkable considering the political and intellectual arc that Huntington's thought generated around the world. When I interviewed him, fifteen years had passed since he first published his famous thesis, and much about the world had changed. He appeared more interested in identifying areas of cooperation between the "Christian West" and the "Muslim world" than his critics give him credit for.
I attended one of Huntington's final classes at Harvard in the 2005-2006 school year, during which a heated class discussion took place about United States involvement in Iraq. Huntington argued against the Bush administration's efforts at nation-building in the Middle East - an ironic position, since many of the war's supporters cited his thesis as a rationale for "restructuring" the Muslim world. As I watched students question how his thesis was used to justify policies he now disagreed with, I wondered whether Huntington remained committed to the basic arguments of his theory so many years after they were first published.
So, I walked up to him after class to ask for an interview for Islamica magazine, a Muslim publication. He looked at me skeptically, but politely, and responded, "Perhaps." It took eight more months of receiving polite, negative responses from his secretary - "Unfortunately, Professor Huntington cannot make a commitment at this point in time" - before I finally earned his trust and he agreed to meet with me at his home.
His home was a historic relic tucked away on a brick-lined street in downtown Boston, not too far from Boston Commons. I recall the moment when he answered the door. Nancy, his wife, was standing next to him. He politely introduced me to his wife and offered me something to drink. For a man who authored such a combative and controversial theory, Huntington was remarkably quiet and soft-spoken.
As we sat down at his dining room table, he asked me more about the publication, our audience and the reasons for the interview. I recall his warm, friendly personality but also slightly skeptical demeanor, as if he was probing to understand whether the interview would in anyway misrepresent what he had to say. I would later understand why he may have been concerned: he mentioned how often he felt his name was used to justify purposes of which he would never approve. I assured him of my honesty, clicked on my recorder and began a 45-minute conversation that covered his thoughts on his theories, foreign policy and his understanding of the Muslim world and its relationship to the "West."
Huntington was controversial for a reason. In Clash, he wrote that "current global politics should be understood as the result of deep-seated conflicts between great cultures and religions of the world..." Huntington erected a new Iron Curtain after the fall of the Soviet Union - "several hundred miles east...separating people of Western Christianity and Muslim people." For many, this perspective created a context for that conflict. Economic, social and political issues all fell to the margin; it was the Islamic faith that drove Muslims to rise up in anger and fight.
Yet, during the interview Huntington struck a far more conciliatory tone. When asked to clarify the quote, Huntington answered:
"The implication, which you say some people draw, is totally wrong. I don't say that the West is united, I don't suggest that. Obviously there are divisions within the West and divisions within Islam -- there are different sects, different communities, different countries. So neither one is homogenous at all. But they do have things in common. People everywhere talk about Islam and the West. Presumably that has some relationship to reality, that these are entities that have some meaning, and they do. Of course the core of that reality is differences in religion."
He went on to argue further that, "Western countries collaborate with Muslim countries and vice versa. I think it's a mistake, let me just repeat, to think in terms of two homogeneous sides starkly confronting each other." [Read the full Huntington interview in Islamica Magazine here.]
It is impossible to tell how much of an impact Huntington's thesis had on such events as the decision to go to war in Iraq or the execution of the "War on Terror" after 9/11. However, it was very clear that Huntington had little patience for the misappropriation of his ideas in policy circles. He never shied from criticizing the Bush administration during his last series of lectures at Harvard.
By the end of the interview, it became apparent to me why he decided to speak with me as a Muslim woman, and for Islamica, a Muslim publication. I believe that Huntington felt as misunderstood and maligned by Muslims and the rest of the world as many Muslims felt by his thesis. It was almost as if he wanted an opportunity to clarify his ideas in his own voice to the community that had associated him for so many years with the dark side of American foreign policy. He wanted a chance to define himself rather than be defined by others - something Muslims, and other communities, all around the world can understand. While not straying from his roots as a realist, Huntington introduced nuances and qualifications to his thesis during our discussion. He qualified the need for conflict, and clarified the possibility of cooperation. Perhaps he was even sympathetic to the way his thesis was used to demonize Islam in the post-Soviet era.
I thought the highlight of the interview was the final question I asked Huntington: "What is one thing about you that most people would be surprised to know?" His response: "Well I guess maybe you people...no, that would be unfair about you...but a lot people tend to think I'm a dogmatic ideologue - but I'm not." In an interesting twist of fate, it turned out that Huntington and the Muslim world shared something in common: the frustrating feeling that what many people believe about them is simplistic at best, and at worst, untrue.
Amina Chaudary is a doctoral candidate studying Western and Muslim world relations at Boston University. She has worked in the field of diplomacy, policy and human rights for over eight years, and is a contributing editor to Islamica Magazine. She is completing a master's from Harvard University and has earned masters' degrees from Columbia University, focused on Islam and politics, and from The George Washington University, in public policy.
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