Clash of civilizations or calculation of interest?
Only 39 years old, the Indonesian scholar Anies Baswedan's thoughts have been considered so influential that Foreign Policy magazine has rated this Rector of Paramadina University 60th on a list of the world's top 100 intellectuals.
Critical of the dominance of a cultural approach to Muslim-Western conflicts, he believes conflict is not triggered by cultural, religious, or civilisational identity, but by a calculation of interests. He expands on this concept in an interview with Jakarta-based journalist, Wahyuana.
Q: What exactly do you mean by "a calculation of interests" in Muslim-Western conflicts?
Baswedan: The choice to engage in violence or peace isn't the projection of any ideological, cultural or religious factors, but instead, a strategic calculation, or a calculation of interests. A group opts to use violent approaches or peaceful methods depending on each approach's incentives or disincentives. Who is considered the enemy and what confrontational method will be used is often determined more by a calculation of interests than of ideology, religion or culture.
For example, let's consider relations between what we commonly refer to as the Afghan mujahideen and the United States. These various Afghan opposition groups were allies of the United States while fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. At that time the United States considered them freedom fighters or heroes. Now, however, some of these same groups are fighting against the United States, the new occupying force, and are therefore indiscriminately called terrorists. It is the perspective of each party, how it sees its challenges, interests and positions, that influences whether it become allies or enemies with the other.
Q: Does this mean the clash of civilizations is nonsense?
Baswedan: I think it's a forced terminology. What really happens is a polarization, and it has occurred in many forms throughout the history of mankind. There are polarizations in culture, ideology, race and religion. Polarisation has become an innate part of life itself. Samuel P. Huntington's clash of civilizations is too forced – as if there is a specific religious/cultural conflict between the Muslim world and the West. There isn't. Throughout history, conflicts pitted as clashes between civilizations weren't solely about religion. For example, the Crusaders also had interests in land and politics.
Q: What about ideological or religious motives behind Muslim-Western conflicts? Do you deny such motives?
Baswedan: I don't deny them. Ideological or religious motives, of course, exist. However, they only occur at the micro, or individual level. Religion or ideology is just a tool that is hijacked to recruit and motivate people and to create solidarity with the perpetrators to whom it gives an air of legitimacy. These conflicts are presented as ideological or religious campaigns in order to inspire followers, legitimate the war as a "just war", and attract allies, etc.
That is why we need to use rational strategic analysis to enable us to acknowledge potentially violent conflict that is about to arise, so we can find a way to prevent it. But if we only employ a cultural framework (an approach that sees the psycho-religious-cultural variables influentially shaping the actions of a person or a group), we would walk in circles, without ever learning how to solve the conflict.
Q: Don't you think that hijacking ideology, culture, or religion for such strategic interests shows that they could be lethal weapons?
Baswedan: Exactly. Ideology, culture and religion are all excellent weapons for creating solidarity because of their transcendental and messianic values. But as weapons, they are used for external interests, not for themselves. When the external interests are achieved, they might be used for other strategic interests, which, in the case of geopolitical change, could turn allies into enemies.
Q: What do you think about the future of Muslim-Western relations?
Baswedan: Today the situation is fascinating. Islam grows and exists in prominent civilizational centers, such as in the capital cities of America and Europe. As a minority, Muslims there have to express their religious nature and negotiate Muslim values through the language and structures of the host country, becoming part of its civilizational treasure. The same thing is also experienced by Westerners that live in the Muslim world. It is in the hands of these ambassadors that the future of Muslim-Western relations lies, for they are in the privileged position of being fully a part of both Muslim and western societies.
* Wahyuana is a Jakarta-based journalist and founder of the Maluku Media Centre (MMC).. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews)