By Amitav Acharya
The swift collapse of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan under the weight of American military power marks the defeat of one of the more prominent ideas to emerge from the ashes of the Cold War: Samuel Huntington’s thesis about a “clash of civilizations.”
The Sept. 11 attacks on the United States were the first real test of the Huntington thesis. Amid the initial shock waves of the attacks, many saw its vindication. This view gained strength when George W. Bush used the world “crusade,” with its connotations of a Christian holy war against Muslims. The attacks themselves were presented by the perpetrators as Islamic holy war against Christians and Jews.
Yet the response of governments and peoples around the world has proved that this was no clash of civilizations. What emerged was an old-fashioned struggle over the interests and principles that have traditionally governed international relations. Civilizational affinities played only a secondary role.
The world’s Muslim nations condemned the terrorist attacks. Many recognized the U.S. right to retaliate against the Taliban for sheltering Qaida. Some offered material and logistical assistance.
From Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, from Iran to Indonesia, Islamic nations denounced bin Laden. In Pakistan, President Pervez Musharraf and his associates denounced the terrorists for giving Islam a bad name. Reversing its long sponsorship of the Taliban and braving the wrath of Islamic extremists at home, Pakistan offered vital logistical support to U.S. forces.
Iran, which for decades had spearheaded Islamic revolutionaries’ campaign against the United States, also madeno secret of its disdain for the Taliban’s Islamic credentials. Iran saw an opportunity to rid itself of an unfriendly regime in its neighborhood.
Each of these nations put national interest and modern principles of international conduct above primordial sentiment and transnational religious or cultural identity.
Pakistan, for example, got badly needed American aid and de facto recognition of its military regime. Indonesia, whose support as the world’s most populous Islamic nation was crucial to the legitimacy of the U.S.-led anti-terrorist campaign, received American economic and political backing for its fledgling democracy.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, the war against terrorism presented an opportunity for governments to rein in domestic Islamic extremists who had challenged their authority and created public disorder.
Most nations accepted the U.S. counterstrike as an exercise in a nation’s right of self-defense. None granted the same right to the Taliban.
Asked to chose between America and the terrorists, nations of the world closed ranks to an unprecedented degree and sided against the terrorists. They did so despite reservations about America’s Middle East policy, concerns about civilian casualties in the Afghanistan war and misgivings about U.S. military and economic dominance of the world.
The “clash of civilizations” thesis fares no better in the domestic arena than on the international stage. Appalled by the terrorists’ methods and the loss of so many innocent lives, most religious leaders in Islamic societies condemned the attacks as un- Islamic.
Dire predictions were made that countries which acquiesced in or backed the U.S. retaliation would be torn apart by ethnic and religious strife, but such predictions did not come true.
In Pakistan, where the risk was most serious, General Musharraf was able to act more and more boldly against extremists as Islamic protests fizzled out. Hard-core Islamic elements in Indonesia failedin their attempt to rally widespread public support against the American action in Afghanistan. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad set aside his rhetoric against American hegemony and made it difficult for Malaysian jihadists to travel to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban.
The international response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks shows that religion and civilization do not replace pragmatism, interest and principle as the guiding motives of international relations.
In rejecting the call to jihad issued by the Taliban, Osama bin Laden and their supporters, some Islamic nations acted out of interest and others out of principle. Most were motivated by a combination of both.
The writer, deputy director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore, contributed this to the International Herald Tribune.
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