Identity and the Clash of Civilisations

An Article by Akeel Bilgrami published at

This essay begins with two quotations from Edward Said on two different subjects, which are not unrelated, indeed are interestingly (though obliquely) related. I will construct my argument by both adding to and subtracting from the ideas expressed in these two remarks by Said. However, these additions and subtractions are drawn from within an overall Saidian tendency of thought and he would, I believe, be sympathetic to my modifications and amplifications.

The two quotations are on the subject of the clash of civilizations:

    —“Too much attention paid to managing and clarifying the clash of cultures obliterates the fact of a great, often silent exchange and dialogue between them.” (2001, p. 583)
    —“A single overmasting identity […] is a confinement, a deprivation.” (2001, p. 403)

I want to begin by fastening on the word “clash” in the first quotation, where Said is obviously referring to the essay by Samuel Huntington (“The Clash of Civilizations?,” 1993), which first generated the frenzy of discussions around the clash of civilizations. Huntington was careful to speak of a variety of different civilizations but it is clear that he had in mind to stress, more than any of the others, the clash that obsesses everyone in our own time: the clash between Islam and “the West,” which historically was the clash between Islam and Christianity, and that is, in fact, how Huntington presents it. One should, therefore, proceed with historical caution on this question, more caution than Huntington exercises.

There is no denying that there was for a very extended period of time a clash between Christendom and Islam. For centuries the relations between Christian Europe and its growing Islamic neighbor were defined by hostility in matters of territory and doctrine, and were displayed in the violence of horrific wars and in the most vilifying propaganda against the other. What is interesting, though, is that throughout this period there was a robustness in the relationship between these civilizations and there was a perverse form of respect for each other that was shown by more or less equal foes. Above all, there was a genuine appreciation of and instruction in the achievement of the other in the wide span of culture, science, philosophy, and literature. In other words there was genuine hostility between these two foes and hostility in its way can be healthy since it is accompanied by mutual influence and dialog and exchange. So for much of the time throughout the period of the Crusades, there was indeed an exemplification of what Said’s first remark suggests: a dialog and exchange even as there is a clash.

All that changed with Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and the British conquest of India. Now, the health of hostility, which I just described, was eroded and a quite different tenor of relations developed with condescension and feelings of superiority bred on colonial attitudes on the one side and a feeling of defensiveness and resentment bred upon defeat and the loss of autonomy on the other. For this sort of relation the term “clash” is a complete misnomer for that would mean a conquest is being passed off as a clash. And since these attitudes characterize the relations between the West and Islam to this day, it is a self-serving misdiagnosis of the present situation for Huntington, and those influenced by him, to describe the current situation as “a clash.”

Though I don’t have a complete scholarly grip on the rhetorical idiom that was deployed over the centuries, I rather suspect that during colonial rule, which was generated for some centuries after these initial conquests, the relations between the two sides were not described as a “clash.” Huntington’s use of the term is meant by him to be applied only in the contemporary period of the last many decades after widespread decolonization. But even so he is quite wrong to do so and the term continues to be inappropriate even after decolonization. Why is that? The fact is that today (since de-colonization) these conquests do not always take the overt form of invasions (though clearly they have started doing so once again in the last decade or more) but rather in the form of economic arrangements that are materially exploitative and unequal in ways that are widely studied and acknowledged. In this guise the element of conquest is not visible on the surface, and that is what allows people to think that “clash” is a perfectly good word to describe the relations between the two peoples in our own time. But it takes only a moment’s reflection to unearth the subtler forms of conquest that current arrangements of political economy hide. And so it remains a conquest, passing itself off as a clash.

Now, Said’s first remark says that there is often dialog between two clashing cultures. And, as I said, that was certainly so in an earlier time, for centuries, when there was a genuine clash. But what shall we say when the right description to apply is no longer “clash” but “conquest”? In other words, even if dialog can and should occur when there is a clash, what are the possibilities of dialog in a scenario of conquest of one side by another? I think the answer has to be that unless one makes vital qualifications, there ought to be no place whatever for dialog when the right description of the relations is that of conquest. Whatever it is that one has, one does not have a dialog with a master.

Perhaps a dialog is possible within a framework of prior resistance to the master, but that would be a vital qualification to introduce. There is also, of course, another possibility and a highly interesting one: there can be a dialog between the colonized and the dissenting voices within the master’s colonial intellectual culture. This is a far more fruitful form of dialog than even the dialog that one has with one’s master as one resists him. Thus for instance, in my own work, I’ve been trying to construct an elaborate set of dialogical affinities that might be constructed between the ideas in Gandhi and Marx. To pursue such forms of constructed dialogs and build theoretically on them can be a highly fruitful exercise, but for that to happen, Said’s bald remark would have to be considerably supplemented, a supplement that he might find highly sympathetic. (There are complications, of course, with this particular example I have given since Said was highly critical of Marx. In my view that only shows that there is a lot of interpretative work regarding Marx and Said that needs to be sorted out here, but this is not the occasion for it.)

I have said that in the passage from clash to conquest in the history of Europe’s relations with Muslim lands, a new set of relations between the two sides came into being, which could not be merely described in terms of hostility between equal foes, but needed a differently described set of relations. One important new form of description that comes into view is the term “identity” which is the subject of Said’s second remark quoted at the outset.

Identities are often formed, that is to say adopted or embraced, under conditions of triumph and defeat and so once conquest became the apt description for a set of relations between two cultures and parts of the world, then the rhetoric of “identity,” too, begins to have a descriptive aptness. Identities are most obviously formed under conditions of demoralization and such feelings are often prompted by the helplessness of a defeated people and culture. A great deal of Islamic identity and its mobilization in politics has as its source a lingering sense of such longstanding feelings of helplessness in the face of conquest and defeat over the colonial period, continuing in the subtler forms that I mentioned above, after decolonization to the present day. Islam becomes a source of collective comfort, inspires a sense of autonomy and self-respect, and sometimes provides a source and site of mobilization with a declared “anti-imperialist” thrust (even when it also sometimes nests with the most brazenly slavish alliances with the imperialist powers—as between Saudi Arabia and the United States).

It is not just defeat but even triumph that can generate identities. The Scots, for example, who long resisted assimilation into British identity, decided that they were British after all just when Britain became an empire through successful conquest. Much more recently a great deal of the rise of Jewish identitarian feeling and politics in the United States was triggered by the massive and crushing victory that Israel scored over the Arab forces in 1967. So, both triumphalism and feelings of defeat generate identities, no doubt for very different reasons.

But what of Said’s specific point about the nature of identity politics in his second remark—the idea that a single identity confines us? What the remark implies is that we have multiple identities and it then goes on to claim that it is narrowing to single out any one of these. This is a point that since Said, Amartya Sen has made much of in his recent book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny (2006).

Given that we all have multiple identities, is it ever plausible and necessary to significantly emphasize one of them? I think that much of the politics of identity over the last forty years has argued that there are historical contexts in which it is necessary to do so in order to mobilize for certain worthy political causes and concerns. Thus, for instance, racial- and gender- and caste-identity politics that have surfaced so strongly in the last few decades argued that liberalism as a doctrine articulated a universalism that was complacent in not paying special attention to the specific forms of harm that were perpetrated on particular groups and addressing those harms in their specificity. Thus these groups would have to declare themselves as special identities requiring a focus of address and mobilization for greater gender-equality or civil rights or the correction of caste bias in our societies. And—speaking to Said’s remark—the argument would have to be that to the extent that this appeal to a more focused attention meant stressing one identity (gender or race or caste) among all the identities that one might have, that is a confinement which is actually required by a humane politics, at least while these harms remain historically uncorrected.

What is fascinating is that not just liberalism but also the Left was indicted by this form of identity politics for ignoring these specific harms, and that raises questions of a slightly different nature. Here the issue is not that a very general and vaguely formulated universalism fails to specifically address the wrongs done to particular groups, which therefore have to be mobilized under their group identities, but rather that one kind of identity (class identity) was being stressed by the Left, over others (such as race, caste, and gender) and this had the same effect of ignoring the redress of the specific harms suffered by those groups. In other words, the question here is not whether a single identity is cramping in the way that Said suggests. That question, as I said, was answered by saying yes it does cramp one but such cramping may sometimes be necessary in politics. Rather the claim is, given that confinement into specific identities might be required sometimes (at least temporarily) to achieve a humane politics, one should not adopt some identities at the expense of ignoring others that are equally in need of political attention. In a sense, though, this is certainly not what Said intended by that remark of his quoted earlier, it may be seen as an extended version of Said’s point, saying that Marxists and the Left of an earlier period ignored other identities such as race, gender, and caste, by confining themselves only to class.

The general point here is that inequalities may arise quite independent of inequalities of class because there are forms of disrespect that owe to considerations other than class, such as race, gender, caste, etc. I don’t doubt that the Left of an earlier period was insensitive in its theoretical formulations to these other forms of disrespect in its stress on the more fundamental nature of class over other identities. But I would like to close this essay by suggesting that though that was a shortcoming of the Left, it is also perfectly correct in another sense that class is more fundamental than these other categories of gender, race, and caste. Here is what I mean:

The more fundamental nature of class in our societies can be revealed by formulating a very plausible counterfactual hypothesis. Let us observe first that identity politics has made many corrections on behalf of subjugated groups defined upon race (as in civil rights in the United States), women (as in women’s rights gained in many parts of the world), and caste (as in India in the last few decades). These gains are by no means complete but they are measurable. Now, about these gains, it is reasonable to say this by way of a counterfactual: If such gains that have been made in the areas of race, gender, and caste politics had undermined capital and the corporate domination of the political economies in the societies in which the gains were made, then they would never have been allowed. That is to say, if counter to fact, the gains had undermined the class relations around capital, then such gains would have been prevented from happening. Or to put it differently, the gains were only allowed because they did not undermine class relations. This, if true, is as close as we are going to get to proof that the Left is quite right in stressing class as the more fundamental identity in our kind of modern society. And I believe that this way of formulating the position of Left politics brings out what is right in the Left’s position without cancelling the claims of identity politics in the realms of gender, race, and politics.

Before I close, I want to make one qualifying remark just so as to make sure that what I have said does not come off as too dogmatically in favor of the Left, even though I firmly believe that what I have just articulated is quite correct. I think it is a worthwhile speculation to at least ponder the following quite different counterfactual and see where it leads. What if feminists were to propose the following hypothesis in mimicry of the counterfactual I have just asserted: If it turns out that in our societies the inequalities of class that exist are substantially overcome and these gains on the class front had the effect of undermining patriarchy, then these gains would never be allowed. I have no clear idea of how one might go about trying to confirm or make plausible this conjecture, and that is why I have more confidence in the conjecture I made, which established the more fundamental nature of class. But that may be just because I have not thought long and hard enough about the issues raised by this second feminist conjecture.


Books and articles

Huntington, S. (1993) The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 72(3), 22–49.

Said, E. W. (2001) The Clash of Definitions. In: Reflections on Exile and Other Literary and Cultural Essays. Croydon: Granta Books, 569–90.

Said, E. W. (2001) Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler. In: Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays, Croydon: Granta Books, 386–404.

Sen, A. (2006) Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. London: Penguin.

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