'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Monday, 17 January 2011


 A Very Non-Huntington Cultural Fault Line

‘The great divisions among humankind and the dominant source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.’

-- Samuel P. Huntington, Foreign Affairs, 1993, 73(2), p.22

American society, in the wake of the Arizona shootings has been conducting soul-searching: Obama at his most eloquent demanding that:

at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized - at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do - it's important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

In the immediate aftermath of the act, conservative blogs blamed unknown jihadis whilst liberal bloggers blamed right-wing activists allied to Sarah Palin. It did not take long for screenshots of Palin’s gunsights to emerge which in itself sparked further left/right controversyBut America has not been the only nation struggling to control fissures in its society: the December 2010 martyrdom operation of al-Abdaly in Stockholm has led to a media-captured rise in right-wing sentiments. The Daily Telegraph have reported that al-Abdaly’s family may have to flee the country

Andrew Brown writing in Foreign Policy observed that, as in the United States, there was vindication for both left and right wings:

‘Jan Guillou, writing in the left-wing Aftonbladet, claimed that Sweden made the terrorism problem worse, partly by "joining in the American crusade inAfghanistan" and partly by repressive laws against "encouragement to terrorism" that would never be used against white Swedes. Meanwhile, Ulf Nilson, a former foreign correspondent writing forAftonbladet's right-wing rival Expressen, caused an uproar when he referred to the diminishing number of "pure Swedes" and the growing influence of Islam in the country.

Brown notes that the ‘figures for 2009 show that 14.3 percent of the Swedish population was born abroad. When you add second-generation immigrants, the total rises to 18.6 percent.’ The largest group is still Finns and other Scandinavians, but refugees from the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia have been the fastest-growing groups for decades.’ Yet the writer sees this change to the homogeneity to society as less of a problem than the rise of the Internet. When Brown was in Sweden some decades ago, he notes that he had to get books from the local Swedish library, and talk Swedish with his neighbours. The Internet by contrast affords all citizens to inhabit their own world – Arabic, English, French, with whatever community online that they most identify with and the problem being that it is not ‘geographically anchored.’

There have been other incidents to in Sweden recently: a lone gunman, still at large, who targets (and has killed) members of ‘minority ethnic’ backgroundsIn 2006, the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks incited numerous threats for his depiction of the Prophet which was initially printed in a Danish newspaper and reprinted in several Swedish dailies, prompting the Swedish embassy in Islamabad to stress that it ‘regretted’ the decision to print the inflammatory images, in talks with the Pakistani governmentBangladesh held street protests in 2010, burning the Swedish flag, after Facebook held a competition in drawing caricatures of the Prophet

Primarily, this societal friction has been about the Swedish right to freedom of speech and the victory of secularism over religion, but intrastate protests have been relatively easy to enable in the country. The Sweden Democrats, a right-wing immigration party, whose power base has been historically limited the southern province of Skane, won 5.7% (20 of the 349 seats in the Riksdag) of the national vote to exercise considerable influence in national politics. The party walked out of an anti-racism ‘sermon’ given by Bishop Eva Brunne in October 2010 to mark the opening of the new parliament. Electoral support suggests a clandestine wave of sympathy for this right-wing agenda in Sweden, which has been offset by immediate protests – 10 000 people took to the streets of Stockholm to protest in the wake of the Swedish Democrats electoral gains

Problems in Sweden, exacerbated by the Internet which heightens hysteria and can generate collective responses to perceived issues of injustice, have been set against the greater backdrop of Northern European angst  - Denmark too has encountered national angst arising from the perceived problem of non-assimiliating immigrant elements.

Huntington took the phrase ‘clash of civilizations’ from Bernard Lewis’ 1990 essay The Roots of Muslim Rage, both scholars seeing the fault lines between cultures as the predominant theme in world affairs. How then do these apparent internal fault lines play out? History suggests that internal state identities only rupture upon the arrival of a cocktail of circumstances – great economic instability, historical enmity between groups, rousing figureheads and catalytic incidents. “Great quarrels, it has been well said,” said Churchill shortly before the onset of World War II, “arise from small occasions but seldom from small causes.”  

Huntington was correct: states still do dominate the world stage and non-statist Islamist groups should find their stars dwindling as more research and policy focus on the states behind the non-state actors. Gunaratna and Iqbal’s recent book, Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero develops this idea. It is easier to initiate intrastate rather than interstate cultural conflict: states’ actions are dominated by realpolitik generated by a corpuscular sense of risk: in the seminal The Limits of Culture: Islam and Foreign Policy (ed. Brenda Shaffer, 2006, MIT Press), Shaffer concludes of state actors that, ‘when cultural interests conflicted with material interests, cultural ones rarely trumped material ones…once the cultural identity of a state has been articulated, constraints are set on the policy options that a state may utilize’ (p.326). Non-state actors have no such corpuscular, static concerns – physical presence is fluid and ideology can feature more prominently in action as well as rhetoric. Europe must embrace the problem and develop a solution – the Internet, global facilitator, seemingly also enables discrete identity and jeopardises the functioning of society. Since the collapse of Communism, rather than witness the victory of universal values, we rather observe the explosion of particularisms - how does a society intent on assimilation include rather than exclude whilst avoiding betrayal of the values it claims to protect?

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