U.S. vs. Them

Jameson Taylor
Copyright © 2005
Reproduced with Permission

World War III. How will it begin? Samuel P. Huntington's influential book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), predicted that the next great war would be caused not by disagreements over ideology, politics, or economics, but by inescapable differences in culture. In particular, Huntington cautioned that Western civilization (the United States and Europe) is on an almost unavoidable collision with Islamic civilization.

Considering the events of September 11, 2001, Huntington's warning appears prophetic. The perpetrators of the September 11 attacks undoubtedly hated Western civilization. They struck the United States because it is Western civilization's leading political and economic power. To be clear, such terrorists do not really hate Westerners, or for that matter, even Americans. If they did, the terrorists would have chosen a method of attack aimed at killing as many individual Americans as possible. Instead, the hijackers chose to destroy the icons of American economic and military might - the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They probably also targeted the U.S. Capitol, seat of America's political strength, but of that we may never be certain. These terrorists hated the West and thus targeted what the West represents to them.

Fifteen years ago, Bernard Lewis' "The Roots of Muslim Rage" noted that Muslim hatred "goes beyond hostility to specific interests or actions or polices or even countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes. These are indeed seen as innately evil, and those who promote or accept them as 'the enemies of God." Islamic tradition, continues Lewis, divides mankind into two camps: those who dwell in the House of Islam; and those who dwell in the House of Unbelief, which is also referred to as the House of War. Unlike St. Augustine's City of God, the House of Islam is immanently political, and Muslims are bound to wage holy war until all mankind is placed under Islamic law.

"In Islam," Huntington notes, "God is caesar." Only at great risk to the integrity of its faith and traditions, could Islam imitate the American experiment of differentiating religious from political power. As Lewis argues, not only do Muslims consider the West's separation of "Church and state" to be a cause of secularism and immorality, the distinction itself is entirely foreign to Islamic culture. What we see as perhaps the defining characteristic of Western civilization, Muslims rightly perceive as a direct threat to their entire way of life. For the Muslim fundamentalist, the war against Western civilization is thus a "holy" war.

In America, we do not fight holy wars. We do not fight holy wars because our ancestors finally recognized that love - especially man's love for God - must be freely given. This is not to say that Muslims do not love God, but that in Islam love is expressed more through acts of obedience than shared in a personal relationship with God. For our purposes, the most important point is that Christians and Muslims fundamentally disagree about the nature of religion and politics. For the Muslim, every war is holy; for the Christian, no war is holy.

Ironically, Huntington is also of the opinion that the next world war will, in fact, be a holy war insofar as religion is the most significant factor that defines a civilization. Holy wars, or clashes between civilizations, however, are terribly destructive because victory requires total annihilation of one's enemy. As Huntington puts it, "In conflicts between civilizations, the question is 'What are you?' That is a given that cannot be changed. ...A person can be half-French and half-Arab ... it is more difficult to be half-Catholic and half-Muslim." Such religious differences, it seems, are irreconcilable.

In the American Judeo-Christian tradition, a holy war is, by definition, an unjust war. For this reason, while Huntington's analysis of the clash of civilizations may help to explain how our enemies - in particular, Islamic fundamentalist terrorists - understand their own aims, Huntington's advice should be ignored by American policy makers when it comes to crafting a response to these terrorists. The war on terrorism should not be perceived as a war on Islam or on Muslims or even on Islamic fundamentalists - not all of whom are actually terrorists. In fighting this war, we must avoid demonizing an entire culture, civilization and religion.

In other words, our pursuit of justice must itself be determined by our country's dedication to the self-evident truth that every human being - regardless of religion, race or culture - is endowed by God with dignity and certain inalienable rights. Just war theory, as expounded in the Declaration of Independence, recognizes that war is only properly waged against those who would deprive us of these rights. To this, Huntington might reply that conflict between Americans and Muslims is inevitable precisely because Muslims cannot recognize the universality of the truths the Declaration affirms. As Huntington admonishes, we in the West must begin to accept that the principles upon which our civilization is founded are "unique" but "not universal."

As tempting as it sounds, Huntington's suggestion runs contrary to the promise of America, a covenant based upon the proposition that men the world over, given the chance, love freedom and equality as much as we do. For this reason, the Declaration expects that all "mankind" will readily recognize in the "Laws of Nature and Nature's God" the goodness of the American cause. For this same reason, we must continue to respect the rights of all men who love freedomno matter what religion they profess or what country they call home. As we wage this ongoing campaign against terrorism, let us be guided by the wisdom of one all too familiar with the hardships of war, our first president, George Washington:

"Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it? It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. ...The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated."