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Jonathan Power: Palestine and the War of Civilizations

Just what Barack Obama needs as he prepares to be the forty-fourth president of the United States: another Israeli/Palestinian war re-inflaming passions all over the Arab and Muslim world. Will that middle name of his count for something in this intense firefight?

Well, possibly—but only if he moves fast to change the long-time American emphasis on supporting, by both word and deed, the Israeli side at the Palestinian’s expense. It is as simple—and as complicated—as that. After the Bush years, during which the “clash of civilizations” became the de facto interpretation of American, and to some extent European, policy in the region, the West quickly needs to de-escalate its fixation with what it often interprets as the rabid policies of the Islamic world. The focus instead should be on restoring a sense of humility in dealing with the world-wide Muslim civilization, albeit one with its share of bad apples.

Comparison, even in the time of Al Qaeda, does not work in Christendom's favor. The West should not overlook its near-takeover by the Nazis, whose attempt to eliminate the Jews was launched from a country that was in many ways the fulcrum of modern Christianity. It would be a mistake to forget the inroads that atheistic Marxism made in Europe; or the everyday crime rates in Western nations that far, far exceed those in Muslim countries, especially in the Middle East.

“It is human to hate,” wrote Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington, who died last week, in his too influential book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. "In this new [post Cold War] world, local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilization. The rivalry of the superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations."

Huntington spent much of his book's pages attempting to persuade his audience that “the underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

It is not surprising that so myopic a conviction led him to see a future where the West would end up in an all out nuclear war with Islam and its apparent ally, another perennial antagonist of the West according to Huntington, Sinic civilization.

There is little historical evidence for Huntington's views. Although, as he does, one can argue convincingly that Islam is, and was almost from its beginning, a religion of the sword. Christianity, once the Emperor Constantine converted, was absorbed into the militaristic culture of the Roman Empire. In succeeding centuries there was indeed, often and regularly, a clash of civilizations. But there was one spectacular difference between the two religions. Islam, by and large, was a tolerant religion that respected the “Peoples of the Book,” granting subjugated peoples a great deal of autonomy. (The Ottoman Empire was even more tolerant than the unusually benign Hapsburg Empire.)

The Christians for their part were rarely tolerant, always angling to recapture Jerusalem—which they considered part of their heritage—all while being unable to come to terms with Islamic and Jewish minorities in their midst.

Since 1914, the West, in its ascendancy, has inflicted one grievous blow after another on the Muslim world, particularly on the peoples of the Middle East and Afghanistan. It should have come as no surprise that there was an almighty reaction, even if no one could have imagined the ferocity Al Qaeda brought to bear. Yet without the equally almighty reaction of President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair it is quite possible that with more temperate policies Al Qaeda would have withered away, similar to its Egyptian roots.

The West lives in a cloud of self deception, and Huntington was only a part of it. The war with Iraq is now being hailed as close to a victory. But intimidation by continuous and far-superior firepower is no victory, as the Palestinians and Hezbollah in Lebanon have demonstrated. The United States has found its own kind of Pétains in Iraq who, as he did, are trying to preserve their land from further destruction. But we shouldn't mistake them for the true leaders of opinion. Over the long run, the Iraqis will hate the Western world.

All might have been different if the West had remained true to the precepts of its own Greek and Christian founding and the wise notions of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, with their emphasis on the importance of reason and their enthusiasm for human rights and the substitution of dialog for war with people we disagree with.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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