During the last few years there has been an endless stream of windy rhetoric in U.S. journalism about the so-called “clash of civilizations.” And the tone became much more shrill after 911. The clash–we are told–is the inevitable fault-line that runs between we in the civilized West and the fanatical followers of Islam. This is usually the way it is portrayed.
The phrase “clash of civilizations” was coined by Samuel P. Huntington, a Harvard professor whose original paper by that name appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1993. The article has been described as a prescient description of our world. Those who have read it know that Huntington offered some valuable insights. The professor argued that the ideological Cold War that raged between the Communist East and the Capitalist West during the 20th century was not the norm when viewed in the sweep of history. On the contrary, it was anomalous and transient. Huntington’s paper, published after the collapse of the Soviet Union, predicted that the East-West rivalry would soon fade, and be replaced by a clash of cultures. Many babyboomers probably found his prediction surprising. Most of us, after all, grew up in a world dominated by anti-Communist and anti-Capitalist propaganda. But Huntington argued that the Cold War itself was but a temporary departure from the deep cultural and religious clash between the Christian West and Islam that–he argued–had dominated world affairs for more than a thousand years. According to Huntington the differences between Islam and Christianity did not disappear during the Cold War. They were merely overshadowed by the intense U.S.-U.S.S.R ideological rivalry. When the Cold War fizzled, however, the world reverted back. The clash of civilizations reemerged as the dominant factor. Huntington offered no solutions. His paper merely described the world as he saw it.
After 911, America became obsessed with security. Huntington’s descriptive analysis became a cause celebre. The new perceived enemy, Islamic fundamentalism, seemed to threaten everything we hold dear, including western democratic values. At any event, this has been the rationalization for the increasing use of U.S. military power abroad. The argument is dubious, however, because, as I will show, one need not look abroad to Islam to discover the basis for “the clash.” There is a crisis, yes. But, in my view, it is not primarily a clash of civilizations. That is secondary. The primary problem can be found right here at home. And it is the continuing impoverishment of our own Judeo-Christian tradition. We in the West have lost contact with our own spiritual origins. Which is why we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
To understand why this is so, we need only review some pertinent history. Take, for example, the case of Iran. Why Iran? Firstly, because Iran illustrates the failure of Christian values. Secondly, because Iran could well become the next target of U.S. aggression. Today, few Americans understand the pivotal role the U.S. government played in Iran in the 1950s sewing the seeds for the Islamic revolution of the 1970s. The basic facts are almost never told, here. For which reason I will briefly review them. In 1951 the nation of Iran was a budding democracy. In that year a moderate professor, Mohammed Mossadegh, became prime minister of the country in an overwhelming vote of the Iranian parliament. He was an aristocrat, and a wealthy landowner, but also a political progressive. Mossadegh was popular with his countrymen, known for his “…exceptional record of honesty and courage, and…disinterested public service.” The man was a genuine leader. He had stature. (Joseph Upton, The History of Modern Iran, 1960, Harvard Press)
The new prime minister was charged with a popular mandate: to renegotiate Iran’s oil concessions to the U.S. and British oil companies. At the time, this was viewed as the nation’s highest priority. A large majority of Iranians believed that the then-current oil royalty structure was unfair. The country needed a more just compensation for its primary export, oil, which was then coming into great demand in the world marketplace. Higher royalties were needed to develop the country. Mossadegh faced a stiff challenge, however, because one month before his election the Iranian parliament had nationalized the British oil company. The move infuriated the British government, which responded with a naval blockade that crippled the country. Mossadegh’s policy was to defuse the crisis by seeking a diplomatic compromise.
Did the U.S. government respond with reasoned dialogue? Absolutely not. Instead of negotiating a fair settlement of the differences, the Eisenhower administration collaborated with its British ally. The CIA and M16 (the British counterpart of the CIA) were ordered to stage a military coup. Mossadegh was overthrown by force of arms. The young Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, who during the previous two years had been eclipsed by Mossadegh’s immense popularity, was installed in power. Mossadegh was thrown into prison. What mattered in Washington was not democracy, nor the best interests of the Iranian people. What mattered was not fairness, or international law, or human dignity. None of the above. Only one thing mattered: preserving the obscene profits of the U.S. and British oil companies.
The U.S. refused to negotiate with Mossadegh, but not because he was a Communist. He was not. Even as the coup was in progress, John Foster Dulles, U.S. Secretary of State, told a Senate committee there was no Communist threat in Iran. Mossadegh was unacceptable because he was considered too independent. He insisted, for example, on maintaining Iran’s neutrality. During the Cold War Washington viewed this kind of attitude as tantamount to betrayal. Available historical records show that U.S. policymakers did not even consider whether meddling in Iran’s internal affairs might be immoral. The U.S. National Security Council never even discussed the question of ethics on the day it made the fateful decision to launch the coup. (William Blum, Killing Hope, 1995, chapter nine)
The Shah was more compliant to U.S. corporate interests. For which reason the U.S. lavished aid and arms upon the Shah’s increasingly brutal government. The coup signaled the end of democracy. The CIA and Israel trained the Shah’s notorious secret police, the SAVAK, which hunted down Iranian dissidents all over the globe. During the next twenty-five years the Shah was Washington’s most loyal ally–at the expense of the people of Iran. Amnesty International reported in 1976 that Iran “had the highest rate of death penalties in the world, no valid system of civilian courts, and a history of torture which is beyond belief. No country in the world has a worse record of human rights than Iran.” (William Blum, Killing Hope, 1995, chapter nine)
The rest is history. Today, it is instructive to ask whether Shi’ite fundamentalism would have come to prominence in Iran in 1979 had we the good sense in the 1950s to support political moderation, justice, and democracy, instead of profits for profits’ sake. Viewed in this perspective, the “clash of civilizations” appears considerably less inevitable than the talk show hosts, the FOX pundits, and the rabid newspaper columnists–the fear mongers–would have us believe. Indeed, the above history suggests that the actual clash is right here in America. The clash is the gaping chasm between one view of the world versus another: human decency versus rapacious greed.
If we were truly a Christian nation, we in America would have insisted that our government’s dealings with Iran adhere to the golden rule: do unto others. But nothing like this happened. We who preach freedom and democracy chose not to be informed about our government’s foreign intrigues. We who call ourselves Christians chose not to care about the criminal way our government was treating others. Most importantly, we so-called Christians totally abandoned the most fundamental teaching of Jesus: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A teaching so simple, yet, so profound. We failed in the case of Iran. And similar instances involving other countries are too numerous to count. Some will argue that foreign affairs is no place for Christian values. What nonsense! On this shrinking planet–a planet in deep peril–the most important decisions we make are how we treat other people(s). The unpleasant truth is that we Americans are spiritually bankrupt as a nation: Christian in name only. And there is no doubt that in the coming days we are going to reap the consequences of the whirlwind we have unleashed on this tiny planet.
MARK GAFFNEY is a researcher, writer, poet, environmentalist, anti-nuclear activist, and organic gardener. Mark was the principal student organizer of the first Earth Day at Colorado State University in April 1970. Mark’s first book was a pioneering 1989 study of the Israeli nuke program: DIMONA THE THIRD TEMPLE. From 1989-1993 Mark helped National Audubon Society inventory and map Oregon’s remaining old growth forests. Mark’s forthcoming book is a study of early Christianity: SECRETS OF THE NAASSENE SERMON. Mark can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org