Friday, October 7, 2011

Clash of civilizations cancelled

After the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the attention of the public intellectuals was drawn by two influential books spelling out the post-Cold-War world situation. Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History claimed that utopia had started with the definitive victory of liberal-democratic capitalism, which would soon turn the whole world into a US suburb. Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations provided a dystopian counterpoint, predicting that all civilizational identities would reassert themselves and provide the grounds for new worldwide conflicts, especially between the still-dominant West and two challengers, the Islamic world and the “Confucian” civilization of China.

However, no one has really gone on to theorize the conflict of interests between the West and China in civilizational terms, framing it rather as old-style Great-Power politics. So, the “clash of civilizations” effectively means the conflict between the West and Islam. Incidentally, Huntington was not aware that already in the 1980s, Times of India editor Girilal Jain discussed the triangular Hindu-Islamic-Western conflicts of interest in civilisational terms. Apart from the clash’s Western and westernized-Indian theorists, the vast majority of adherents to the doctrine of civilizational conflict are militant Muslims, who see this as merely a continuation of the religious war declared by Mohammed against the Infidels.

Now two French intellectuals, demographer Youssef Courbage and historian-anthropologist Emmanuel Todd, have come out with a presentation of demographic and anthropological data that should undermine the whole notion of the fabled clash. It is titled Le Rendez-Vous des Civilisations (Le Seuil, Paris), i.e. “the meeting of civilizations”. In the main, they develop two theses. One, the demographic explosion of the Muslim world so feared by Westerners (and Hindus) is largely a thing of the past. Two, Islam is highly insufficient as explanation for the conduct and the policies of “Muslim” societies, because they preserve many local pre-Islamic customs and sensibilities, often sharing these with societies on the other side of the “civilizational” border, as well as adopting post-Islamic ideologies, most of all nationalism.

Muslims no different

The authors give a detailed overview of demographic evolutions worldwide of the past few centuries and identify the factors of a decline in birth figures. Exceptions notwithstanding, the best predictor of a decline in fertility is female literacy, with 50% female literacy typically coinciding within a decade or so with a sharp downturn in fertility. This trend is as visible among Muslim as among Christian and Hindu populations. But truth to tell, the authors’ own data, while confirming a similar trend among Muslims, also show that by and large, the resultant fertility level among educated and affluent Muslim populations is still sizably higher than among non-Muslims, even remaining very high in wealthy Saudi Arabia, so that they continue to gain demographic ground over the non-Muslim populations.

And in cases where Muslims do follow Christians (or, most ahead, the Japanese) to a fertility figure below replacement level, a threshold recently crossed in Iran and in Bosnia, the fact that it happened much later among Muslims assures further comparative demographic gains before a net population decline sets in. Thus, in Iran the number of children including girls has grown rapidly in the preceding decades, so now the number of young mothers is still rising and even with fewer than 2.1 births per woman, the number of births also continues to rise. And when that number finally starts to decline, it will still for many years be higher than that of elderly Iranians dying, so in the authors’ estimate, Iran’s population will still rise another 20 million or so before levelling off. Even if the reproductive conduct of Muslim societies cannot be described as “demographic aggression”, it does lead to a steady rise in Muslim percentage in practically every country concerned.

For South Asia, the authors’ data, based on many surveys and sources beside the official census reports, confirm the picture given by A.P. Joshi, M.D. Srinivas and J.K. Bajaj in their detailed study Religious Demography of India (Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai 2003). In every state in India without exception, including the economically and educationally most advanced, the Muslim growth rate is far above replacement level and far above the figures for the Hindu majority and for other minorities. If stated by a Hindu, Indian secularists usually dismiss this finding as mere “hate propaganda”. In 1993, Mani Shankar Aiyar claimed that the Muslim percentage in India would forever remain at 11%; but only 15 years later, it is easily 14%. And on top of this, India is outpaced by her Muslim neighbours Pakistan and Bangladesh, whence millions more are bound to seek living space in India.

With 4,6 children per woman in 2005, Pakistan grows faster than the Arab countries (except for Yemen and the Palestinians) and much faster than India. Indeed, it is on course to overtaking the US as third most populous country in the world well before the end of the century. Bangladesh used to be praised by demographers because it realised a downturn in birth rate in 1970, decades before reaching 50% female literacy (simply due to the physical pressures of overpopulation), but now disappoints them with a continually low marriage age and with a birth rate steady at ca. 3 per woman. According to Courbage and Todd, “the Muslim population of the Indian subcontinent would reach 820 million by 2050 against 1200 million non-Muslims. Equal numbers with and even bypassing of the non-Muslim would be possible by century’s end.” (p.103)

Mind you, these are the findings of two scholars who have set out to counter the current anti-Muslim alarmist feelings in Europe and, by extension, in India. If any bias could be detected here, it would be on the slightly pro-Muslim side. Thus, they claim that the stagnation in Bangladesh’s population control policies is due to low literacy rather than to the impact of Islam, overlooking the fact that religion does have an impact on a society’s enthusiasm for literacy. They relay, doubtlessly in good faith, the Pakistani-cum-secularist story that the “Urdu-speaking Mohajirs” were “expelled from India after the Partition in 1947”, when in fact the Mohajirs migrated by choice to Pakistan, the promised land they themselves had created by campaigning for Partition in the preceding years. The “symmetry fallacy” of evenly distributing guilt between two warring parties, in this case by pretending that Muslims in India had been given the same eliminationist treatment as Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan, is one of the cheapest disinformation techniques around, because it resonates with the public’s mental laziness so averse to making distinctions.

The “Islamophobic” image of the Muslims as a phalanx united and mobilized for demographic warfare is successfully deconstructed here, yet the hard data keep on showing a Muslim advance. While rising Muslim percentages may not stem from a conspiracy, Muslim leaders do read strategic implications into the trend. Thus, Algeria’s Houari Boum├ędienne and Libya’s Moammar al-Kadhafi have openly said that they expect to take over Europe by breeding a Muslim majority there. They certainly believe in a clash of civilizations and expect to come out victorious.

If there need not be much of a clash, as I am inclined to think, the reasons are other than demographical. It is simply that born Muslims may lose their commitment to Islam, and in many places are indeed leaving Islam, either formally or at least mentally. Even Islamic militants are interiorizing modern “Western” values and modes of thinking faster than they realize. Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran has a flourishing film industry. Even if films are made glorifying Muslim heroes in order to instil Islamic enthusiasm in the audience, the very use of the medium of cinema is already intrinsically un-Islamic. Apart from breaking the taboo on the depiction of human beings, it brings in all kinds of ideas and attitudes typical of Infidel centres of soft power like Jewish-dominated Hollywood and Hindu-tainted Bollywood.

In Holland, two competing Muslim media corporations are doing a good job of presenting the Muslim angle of current developments, and here again the medium proves to be the message that overrules the Islamic message. Smartly dressed and camera-savvy Muslims with a fine Dutch accent conduct group discussions or interviews brimful of borrowed Western values, e.g. invoking principles of free speech or freedom of religion while defending Muslim interests against the ambient Infidel society. They (like the “Islamophobes”) think they are making clever use of Western values as weapons in the service of Islam, but in the process they themselves are getting transformed.

Pre-Islamic customs

Courbage and Todd also develop another line of argument against the black-and-white view of civilizations in confrontation. Deep social and cultural structures exist underneath people’s surface adherence to historical religions. Often these constitute a common heritage of different societies now seemingly living in conflict. Thus, a common Mediterranean attitude to marriage and sexuality, e.g. emphasizing a bride’s virginity and threatening honour vengeance, exist both in Arab and (at least until recently) in Latin countries, contrasting jointly with Nordic or African mores.

In particular, the pre-Islamic layer in Muslim society may explain some unexpected or otherwise puzzling data. Islam is reputedly harsh to women, so why is it that the Arab countries don’t have the problem of massive female foeticide that afflicts Korea, China and India? The authors don’t explain this, as Muslim preachers would, with reference to Mohammed’s condemnation of female infanticide. They point out the ancient difference in family structure.

In patriarchal societies like Confucian China and Hindu India, a daughter leaves her family upon getting married. This affects the status of the girl child negatively, making her education into a burden on the family that will only profit another family. Arab society, pre-Islamic as well as Islamic, is no less patriarchal, but there the girl child benefits of an idiosyncratic factor: tribal inbreeding. Hindu society is thoroughly familiar with endogamy, but this inbreeding within castes was counterbalanced by gotra (clan) exogamy. Brahmanical tradition, like the Roman Catholic Church, frowned upon inbreeding and imposed forbidden degrees of consanguinity. This taboo does not exist in most West-Asian and North-African countries. More often than not, a young man will marry his first or second cousin; or a slightly older man, his niece. (A similar system prevailed in Dravidian societies until the penetration of the North-Indian marriage rules.)

One consequence is that a newborn girl is expected later to marry a young man who is now already known to her parents, viz. their young nephew living in the same home or at least growing up nearby in their brother’s house. Conversely, the bride joining her husband in his parents’ home is not a stranger on whom a frustrated mother-in-law can avenge her dissatisfactions. No, since birth she was known to her in-laws, a member of their extended family, and is treated accordingly. (One objection often raised against Western society by Muslims in e.g. the Dutch TV talk shows mentioned, is that it is lacking in the human warmth which they have experienced in their home families.) There is no occasion then for the Indian attitude that “raising a daughter is like tilling your neighbour’s land”, since that neighbour is a close relative and your daughter remains a member of your extended family even after being married off. This way, these Muslim societies have less of an incentive to treat girls like a wasted effort or to pre-emptively abort them.

So, that’s a point worth pondering, especially for certain wealthy communities in India who can easily afford a daughter’s dowry yet set records in female foeticide. But the deep pre-Islamic structures of Muslim societies also have entirely different consequences relevant to the “clash of civilizations” debate.

Consider the situation in Iraq. The Americans’ stated goal was to introduce Western democracy there, a post-Islamic system presupposing a new post-Islamic mindset. That was not a big success. Yet, recently major progress has been made in containing Al-Qaida and mobilizing Iraqis on the American side. The secret was not to insist on establishing post-Islamic institutions anymore, but to return to a pre-Islamic structure and mentality silently underlying the Islamic institutions that have held sway there for some 13 centuries: the tribe and its tribal loyalty. While only highly ideologized young men will take to arms to fight for a cause dictated by a shady leader living (or dead) in a cave on the Pak-Afghan border, it is easy to recruit fighters for the militia led by their own tribal leader whom they have known and learned to respect since infancy. This is not typically Islamic, it would be true anywhere, and it can be turned against those who wage the holy war of Islam.

In conclusion, this book is a welcome antidote to the narrow focus on the religious factor now common in analyses of the world situation. Especially because it is never sweeping and exaggerated nor dishonest, as “secularist” attempts at arguing the same point often are. The authors don’t deny the importance of religion in motivating societies, but keep it in perspective.

(VijayVaani, October 2008)

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