As religious hardliners gain ground, civilisations have cause to worry
The clash-of-civilisations theory basically said that religion would be the cause of conflicts in the modern world. Liberal intellectuals disagreed. They wanted to believe that the multiplicity of cultures and the human instinct for decencies would disallow religious wars of the medieval kind.
Can that optimism survive the resurgence of religious fervour we see right before our eyes? Hardline Islamists and hardline Christian groups in America have been gaining political ground. And these are the two combatants the clash theorists had in mind. (We should see American Christianity as separate from European Christianity in this context. European Christianity and civilisation matured through a long period of wars, internal upheavals and intellectual revolutions such as the Reformation. By contrast, the dominant trend in American Christianity has been an emotional approach to faith.)
Samuel Huntington identified half a dozen reasons for the clash he saw coming. Among the most important was the fact that differences between the civilisations were too basic. He also argued that developments like economic modernisation led to a loss of traditional local identities and people turned to religious identities as a substitute.
The gist of it all is that fundamentalism has grown in all religions, making believers in one intolerant of believers in another. That certainly is a primary influence in the Arab region and in America’s Republican half. That is also the reason why current political trends in those areas are somewhat disturbing.
The Arab Spring, a spontaneous rebellion by ordinary people against dictators, struck the world as a victory for the spirit of democracy. But democracy necessarily leads to elections, and election in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen led to Salafis gaining the upper hand. This newly popularised term has a soft sound, like Sufis. But if Sufism was philosophical and intellectual, Salafism is fundamentalist and anti-intellectual.
The traditional Islamist movement in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, was considered extremist enough to be suppressed during the Mubarak dictatorship. The present Egyptian President, Mohammed Morsy, is a Brotherhood candidate. He in turn is trying to figure out how to keep the Salafis under control. Governments in many Muslim countries are scared of Salafis’ ability to whip up mass emotions. Behind the multination violence against the recent US-made movie on the Prophet were Salafis. In the forefront of the war in Syria are Salafis; they hope to be in a controlling position should the Assad regime fall. Add to this the financial backing the Salafis receive from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and we have a real problem on hand.
Christian groups in America gained ground during the George Bush years; he publicly claimed that he listened to a “higher authority” when confronted by war situations. Umbrella organisations flourished: The Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council. They were powerful platforms openly calling for a war to defeat secular society, and for constitutional changes to turn American democracy into a theocracy.
It is against this background that we should see a hitherto unknown Mitt Romney running neck to neck in the US presidential race with a still popular Barack Obama. Romney is an activist of the Mormon church which wants all Americans to conform to “the laws of the God of this land who is Jesus Christ”. Mormons believe that Christ’s second coming will be in Jackson City, Missouri. Their tradition is to marry and multiply because the church needs more members. Romney’s granduncle George Romney Sr. had 35 children from three wives. The Mormon practice persuaded Abraham Lincoln to ban polygamy in 1862.
Mormons and George Bush’s Born Again evangelicals dream of a world that will adhere to their line of faith, with no exceptions. The Salafis and the Wahabis of Saudi Arabia see even other Muslims as heretics and want a world that will have only one faith—theirs. The Christian Right wants the Ten Commandments as the law of the world. The Salafis want Shariat as the law of the world. We will need a miracle from God to avoid a clash between such civilisations.