Theorizing Modernities article

Why are We Still Talking about the “Clash of Civilizations”? Anne Norton and the Search for the Andalusias of Modernity

lhambra, the complete form of which was Calat Alhambra (الْقَلْعَةُ ٱلْحَمْرَاءُ, trans. al-Qal‘at al-Ḥamrā’, “the red fortress”), is a palace and fortress complex located in Granada, Andalusia, Spain. It was constructed during the mid-14th century by the Moorish rulers of the Emirate of Granada in al-Andalus, occupying the top of the hill of the Assabica on the southeastern border of the city of Granada. Via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Long Legacy of Bad Scholarship

Why does a case of bad scholarship remain so pivotal for discussions of religion and modernity, specifically concerning Muslims and Islam, in the contemporary moment? The “clash of civilizations” thesis is a construct that Samuel Huntington did not invent but did popularize, and it is no doubt an example of bad scholarship. Huntington sits comfortably in a genealogy that includes Bernard Lewis in the twentieth century and Ernest Renan in the nineteenth century. Further, his scholarship is but another example of shoring up the power of European states under the guise of “objective scholarship.” As Dipa Kumar has shown, the vilification and othering of Islam during the time when European empires were expanding consolidated an air of Christian secular/modern superiority. Kumar’s materialist analysis underscores and traces how the othering of Muslims during this time also entailed their racialization: “the political economy of empire…creates the conditions for anti-Muslim racism, and Islamophobia sustains empire” (24). For Kumar, “anti-Muslim racism [is] a product of empire” and the “normal modality of imperial domination” (not only the right-wing fringe) with which the construction of “free” liberal societies in the west is constituted. Norton, for her part, reaffirms Kumar’s point that Islamophobia is not about religious intolerance but rather about racism (31) and thus requires anti-racist praxis rather than depoliticized interfaith dialogue. Norton’s book constitutes a robust addition to the genre of scholarship that contests the “clash of civilizations” thesis.

There is good reason for this continued response. There are still many in the academy and at think tanks and other sites of cultural production who affirm Huntington’s racist and jingoistic argument. This argument first seeks to attribute the causes of violence ahistorically to cultural identities, and second, argues—with all the empirical pretenses of social science—for the normative superiority of the “west.” The latter is a construct associated with modernity and secularity, which we should understand not as part of a binary of the religious and secular but rather as a politico-theological settlement. Elizabeth Shakman-Hurd exposes this settlement in Beyond Religious Freedom: The New Global Politics of Religion.

Norton’s book constitutes a robust addition to the genre of scholarship that contests the “clash” of civilizations” thesis.

Norton’s book captures how the “Muslim Question” is deployed, by whom it is deployed, and the purposes it serves specifically in Euro-American cases. Sexual politics, whether veiling, unveiling, or queering, is evident on all fronts where a civilizational logic of othering Muslims is deployed. Norton’s book illuminates the dynamics of sexual politics and how they operate to exclude, securitize, and otherize Muslims. As I demonstrate by drawing on my encounters with Huntington below, this thesis continues to hold a grip on conversations about Islam in the US academy, even as those who oppose it try to imagine new possibilities beyond it. Following this discussion, I turn to the relationship between “the Jewish question” and the “Muslim question” to help us imagine those possibilities.

Grasping for Andalusias

Norton’s book is a compelling demolition of the persistent orientalism that has defined modernity and, specifically, the project of liberal political citizenship, which was born with western Christian colonialism. Under this project, attaining freedom and capital depended upon slavery, depopulation, exploitation, and genocide in colonial spaces. This is Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus which Walter Benjamin described as propelled by a destructive wind that piled up debris and suffering as it moved into the future. But the “progress” narrative conceals the debris—how it was caused and who caused it. Benjamin writes powerfully: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Norton’s book documents this barbarism.

But Norton’s book is also compelling for illuminating moments of interruption to this progressive and violent narrative. Like Benjamin’s concept of messianic time and his rejection of victors’ history of progress, Norton, to quote Benjamin, “seize[s] hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger.” This is the memory of Andalus, a moment in Spanish history where one can find “a Europe shaped by more than Christianity” (156). Norton continues: “All three faiths still live in Andalusia. They still mix. They still exchange people and ideas. Catholic schoolchildren on field trips pose at the feet of the statue of Maimonides. Modern Spaniards, like the Spaniards of the past, still move between the Abrahamic faiths” (157). Al-Andalus, Norton underscores, is not “a singular paradise, incomparable and lost” (157). Rather, there are other Andalusias that offer “alternative pasts and open to alternative futures” (157). One such Andalusia, Norton finds in Juha, a “gay Hawaiian Palestinian” band “that challenges not only the clash of civilizations thesis but the politics of sexuality” (200). Juha, for example, weaves Hawaiian kitsch with the traditional call for prayers (201). Another historical irruption is the graphic novel Cairo by G. Wilson and M. K. Perker. The latter, Norton notes, captures an Andalusia by tracing how “the enemy [an Israeli soldier] becomes the ally and friend” (207). Norton reads Cairo as retrieving and reimagining an “ancient, non-Western cosmopolitanism” which unsettles the self-righteous certainty (the progress narrative) of “the liberal model of prescriptive cosmopolitanism fielded by John Rawls and Martha Nussbaum” (208). Accordingly, Norton tells us that “[t]he novel challenges the rule of law as a transcultural panacea; it refuses the divide between sacred and secular that buttresses the ‘clash of civilization’ thesis” (208). Her aim here is not a conservative and reactionary one that would seek to reclaim a “golden age” before the script of European barbarity began to be written on the bodies of marked humans. Neither is her aim to recover a lost tradition destroyed by the imposition of liberal accounts of the law. Rather, she hopes to find in contemporary Andalusias a robust source for an anti-racist re-scripting of the secular. Another Andualisan indicator she highlights is Paul Gilroy’s concept of “conviviality,” which denotes a life together (196) where ordinary and “everyday projects of hybridity and synthesis” interrupt the ugly world that Huntington saw (196). Norton’s Andalusias are sites for reimagining the secular rather than romantic longing for past utopias. Unfortunately, the Huntington thesis is still haunting us and before moving too quickly to these alternatives, we must spend more time countering it.

Her aim here is not a conservative and reactionary one that would seek to reclaim a ‘golden age’ before the script of European barbarity began. . . . Rather, she hopes to find in the contemporary Andalusias a robust source for an anti-racist re-scripting of the secular.

I now turn to my own experience with Huntington to show how his thesis reflects an anti-Andalusian and ideological account of history, politics, and religious traditions. Here, I will highlight Norton’s discussion of the intimate relations between the “Muslim Question” and the “Jewish Question” in Christian European modernity. I will show how it unsettles, like the recovery and reimagining of Andalusias, the Huntingtonian ahistoricity and ideological differentiation between Jews and Muslims as the former become assimilated into Whiteness and the latter remain constructed as Europe’s other.

Haunting the Syllabus

Over twenty years ago, I was a graduate teaching fellow in Harvard University’s Religion and Global Affairs course. The course was typically co-taught by my dissertation advisor David Little, and then alternately by Jessica Stern and Michael Ignatieff as well as Monica Toft as a second professor. For at least three iterations of the course, it was also taught by Samuel Huntington. The late political scientist provoked and upset many students while he confirmed the biases and ideological stances of others. I was a teaching fellow for this course multiple times. Huntington haunted the syllabi in person or through his false and harmful thesis when he was not physically present. At a particularly memorable moment, he exclaimed, “the problem with all religion is sexual repression.” During that moment, he was referring to the sex scandal in the Catholic Church. Still, his proclamation was intended for all who see themselves as religious. A robust contingent of female Muslim students, some wearing hijabs and some without covering, erupted and demanded an apology. He did not offer one. He proclaimed that this was just a fact.

As a professor, I teach versions of this course today, and Huntington is still haunting and lurking in the background and foreground, although I never assign him. Instead, I have students read Edward Said’s critique of the original 1993 Foreign Affairs piece. Huntington’s piece offered policymakers the paradigm they needed when the Cold War framework was supposedly eroding. The same Huntington of the “clash of civilizations” then wrote a book that is highly consistent with the ideological thrust of the “clash.” In the book, he looked globally at the international system and blocks of civilizations (which he used interchangeably with religions) and claimed that inter-civilizational conflict needed to be managed because of the essential incompatibility of civilizations. This value reductionism is harmful as it robs people of their complex histories, politics, and social lives. In a later book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (2005), Huntington turns to a discussion of what he interprets as the religio-cultural forces threatening what he deems the “true” Anglo-Saxon Protestant identity (the tripartite Protestant, Catholic, Jewish frame) of the US. What is unmistakable here is a tragic connection between the “Global War on Terrorism,” the securitizing of Muslims globally (including at mosques and community centers in places such as the UK, France, and the US), and the emergence of Trump. Indeed, the reactionary fear around the ontological security of the US, both in terms of its physical and ideological borders, is highly connected to the policies that Huntington’s thesis has informed, the xenophobic fear-mongering rhetoric it has fueled, and the simplistic ways in which it is so deeply ahistorical.

Stencil representing a scene from the torture of Iraqi prisoners that took place at Abu Ghraib Prison during the US war on Iraq. Via Flickr User Duncan Cumming. CC BY-NC 2.0.

Over twenty years ago, in the classroom, we were preoccupied with 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. Devastating events twenty years later, including a hurried and disorganized US withdrawal from this “graveyard of empires,” should have finally put this clash argument to rest and led to a reassessment of the horrific policies that informed the US in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, this has not been the case, and given the previous years’ events, it is not surprising. Norton brilliantly takes the reader through an analysis of the torture and sexualized images that emerged from Abu Ghraib and what they signify. Here the “iconic” image of “a hooded prisoner standing on a box, his outstretched arms attached to electric wires” (181) evokes “religious images” but also one of the Klan: “the campaign against the Arab and the Muslim tried to identify Arabs and Islam with bigotry against Jews and Christians, and made the bigotry the license for invasion, war, and war crimes” (182). Indeed, this historic moment during an unjustified war—which built on the conflation of secularity with Christian democracy during the Cold War, the promotion of religious freedoms as a rhetorical weapon, and the “cleansing” of Christian Europe’s long legacy of antisemitism through its acquiescence and active support of Zionism—set the stage to pivot to anti-Muslim policies, securitizing racialized and gendered postcolonial Muslim subjects and bodies, and developing a set of policies called “countering violent extremism.” These policies were too large (and invested in) to fail even when analysts repeatedly concluded that the evidence did not support the ideological claims (as Lydia Wilson has shown). Indeed, it is not surprising that the sequel to Huntington’s “clash” was “who are we” because the securitizing of Muslims as part of the supposedly global war on terrorism directly relates to the consolidation of right-wing exclusionary ethnoreligious populist movements. These movements deploy civilizational language often through the registers of incompatibility between supposedly “Judeo-Christian values” and Islam.

What about the Jewish Question?

The emergence of racist right-wing populism in recent decades in multiple contexts—from France, Italy, and the Netherlands to the US and India—share an anti-Muslim racism that is often conveyed through the idioms of values, heritage, and religion (including laïcité). As I have already telegraphed, one of Norton’s most critical theoretical moves is to reconnect Europe’s “Jewish Question” with its “Muslim Question.” She shares this significant move with thinkers such as Yolande Jansen and Anya Topolsky, as well as Santiago Slabodsky and Gil Anidjar. This is an important move because it is an Andalusian interruption of the logic of the “clash” that assimilated (White) Jews into a civilizational discourse, as Slabodsky notes. It is an assimilation of the Jews into a Judeo-Christian construct that erases Jews and imposes violent supersessionism in the relation between Christianity and Judaism. Anidjar powerfully examines the Musselman in the death camps of Nazi Germany to explain the inextricable link between the Muslims and the Jews as Europe’s others. For Anidjar, 1492 and the Inquisition are significant points in the chronology. They denote the end of Andalusia and the beginning of the racialization of religious communities and their exclusion and targeting as a mechanism of proto-nationalism, the political project of modernity. Muslims and Jews were both targets of the Inquisition, which disrupted the interwoven socioreligious fabric of Spain.

Norton’s foregrounding of the Jewish Question in her discussion of the Muslim Question is a critical interruption of the ‘clash’ and connects with the constructive yet neither romantic nor utopian aspiration for an alternative Andalusian logic of the secular.

It is beyond the scope of this reflection to go into the historical work and contextualization of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish praxis and theologies in the formation of modernity. I’ll here only underscore that Norton shows how a certain amnesia about the “Jewish Question,” which is otherwise definitional of European modernity and the formation of secular conceptions of citizenship, obscures reality on the ground. Any discussion of the “Muslim Question” in isolation from the “Jewish Question” reflects an ideological move that must be resisted. Instead, what is necessary is an Andalusian frame or what Gil Hochberg has recently described as an “archive of the future,” where it is possible to identify messianic interruptions of violent narratives of history. This move is critical for finally pushing the “clash” out of our syllabi.  Indeed, it is not so much an amnesic issue but rather a presumption that the “Jewish Question” was somehow solved with the establishment of Israel. Marc Ellis explains it in terms of an “ecumenical pact”  agreed to on the backs of Palestinian natives. This is the same Europe that created the skeleton Musslemann of the camps: the racialized bare life Jewish skeleton, nicknamed “Muslim,” who was clearly marked for imminent death by starvation. The problem with presuming that the Jewish Question has been solved is not only that it was “solved” on the back of Palestinians and through settler-colonial mechanisms, but also that it is nowhere to be found in anti-Muslim securitizing discourses. What is present is a vague appeal to Judeo-Christian civilizational roots, an appeal that itself telegraphs centuries of classical antisemitism. Here it is important to recall the Algerian French public intellectual Houria Bouteldja’s interpellation to the Jews to join the struggle and to leave behind their position as a “buffer people,” which leaves them operating under a persistently colonial logic. Hence, Norton’s foregrounding of the Jewish Question in her discussion of the Muslim Question is a critical interruption of the “clash” and connects with the constructive yet neither romantic nor utopian aspiration for an alternative Andalusian logic of the secular. I conclude by referring to Ebrahim Moosa’s profound point about being a critical traditionalist. What does it mean to be a critical traditionalist within the modern/secular world, but through an Andalusian frame?

Atalia Omer
 Atalia Omer is Professor of Religion, Conflict, and Peace Studies at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame in the United States. She earned her Ph.D. in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (2008) from the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Israel/Palestine; religion, violence, and peacebuilding; as well as theories and methods in the study of religion. Omer was awarded an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship in 2017, resulting in Decolonizing Religion and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2023). Among other publications, Omer is the author of When Peace is Not Enough: How the Israeli Peace Camp Thinks about Religion, Nationalism, and Justice (University of Chicago Press, 2015) and Days of Awe: Reimagining Jewishness in Solidarity with Palestinians (University of Chicago Press, 2019). She is also a co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

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