In Memoriam of Prof. Samuel Huntington: Israel vs. Hamas


In Memoriam of Prof. Samuel Huntington: Israel vs. Hamas

Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University

Last week my PhD supervisor/mentor passed away. This would normally not be material for a blog post regarding Israel but the timing of his death is extremely interesting. Harvard’s Prof. Samuel Huntington – among other major studies he wrote – is famous as the author of what has come to be called the “Clash of Civilizations”. I can think of no better title for what is currently happening in Gaza!

His thesis runs like this: the world is currently divided into several “civilizations”, i.e. major groupings of peoples, each with a common world perspective and common values, goals etc. Thus, the Euro-American civilization is one such mega-grouping, the Sino-Asiatic another, and so on. Included among these contemporary civilizations is, of course, the Islamic one.

According to Prof. Huntington who wrote up this study in the early 1990s, well before Al-Qaida had become a household name, the Islamic and Euro-American civilizations are on a collision course – hence the clash of civilizations. When his book appeared, many scoffed and called his thesis overly simplistic. Certainly, it is somewhat over-generalized, but no one is scoffing anymore after Sept. 11, 2001 and subsequent mega-terror travesties – Mumbai being merely the latest one.

However, terrorism comes in many forms – sometimes even appearing as a “state apparatus”. Such is the case of Hamas that now rules Gaza. Despite massive economic and political pressure, it has consistently held to its stated ideology that the State of Israel is illegitimate and must be eliminated. Israel might have been able to swallow this bitter pill if Hamas’s actions had remained exclusively rhetorical, but this is a terrorist organization that puts its money (and guns) where its mouth is – firing missiles indiscriminately into civilian areas, the precise definition of “terrorism”.

Hamas is a microcosmic example of Huntington’s civilizational clash. He did not necessarily foresee a “world war” a la the 1940s but rather a decades-long war of attrition between the two politico-cultural adversaries from the (Middle) East and the West. And unfortunately Israel is caught in the middle. On the one hand, territorially it resides in the Islamic Middle East; culturally and religiously it is far more attuned to the (Judaeo)Christian West. Thus, Israel finds itself on the very front lines of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations, doing what it has to do to protect itself well in advance of the day the rest of the West will have to do the same (Iranian inter-continental ballistic missiles anyone?).

A further irony can be found in earlier works of Huntington – dealing with the relationship of the military and the state. Here too the connection with current events is palpable. One of the major sources of Islamic fundamentalist resurgence stems precisely from the Middle East’s penchant to have the military control the state, thereby suppressing any nascent democracy and impoverishing the public that ultimately turned to Allah for succor. The examples are legion: the Shah led to Khomeini; Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak (all military men) have spawned a growing Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt; Arafat’s leadership by the gun barrel has spawned Hamas; Assad father and son have been hanging on but for how much longer before radical Islam takes over there too?

What Israel is doing today in Gaza is necessary but in reality it’s only a holding action. What needs to be done over the long term is precisely what President Bush (W.) sought to do but carried out so incompetently: start the process of democratization in the Middle East (yes, we all know that “Islam can’t be democratic”; neither could “Catholic Italy” etc…). It is only when the Islamic world begins to share some values with the West (which is not to say that the West couldn’t learn a thing or two from the East about family values, social cohesion etc.) that Huntington’s thesis can be put to rest. Meanwhile, Israel has to do the best it can to ensure that it is not squashed in the violent vise of this mega-cultural clash.

As for Prof. Huntington personally, I can say that beyond his intellectual brilliance and vast scholarship, he was a model mentor for young scholars. I would inevitably receive back within 48 hours any chapter I submitted to him from my evolving PhD dissertation – a remarkable feat for someone (already back then in the 1970s) so busy and famous.

May he rest in peace – and may the day come that his major thesis rests in peace too. For the time being, as we can see from recent events in Mumbai, Gaza and elsewhere, it is unfortunately only too alive and kicking.

Dec. 30, 2008

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