Razib pointed out this bloggingheads diavlog with Reza Aslan and Rod Dreher. As it went on, the former got more and more annoying (though I found him somewhat likable in previous diavlogs). Judging by his discussion of domestic terrorism, we must be living in different worlds. I had never heard that Eric Rudolph was a white supremacist, only that he wished to establish a Catholic theocracy (odd for a southerner). I had never heard that Timothy McVeigh belonged to a radical religious organization either. He was raised Catholic but in interviews I read before he was executed he claimed not to believe in God. His motivating beliefs seemed to be similar to my own: the federal government had done horrible things at Waco and Ruby Ridge and also wreaked havoc abroad (McVeigh served in the Gulf War but later came to regret it). If Reza had merely suggested religion was an underexamined motive, that would be one thing, but he was quite assertive in saying that McVeigh belonged to a radical Christian sect. From what I know he was not a member of any radical organizations (including any militias), and though some have speculated that he was connected to Elohim City or the Midwest Bank Robbers (who called themselves “The Aryan Republican Army”) Wikipedia says there is no evidence.

The bit Razib talks about is the Clash of Civilizations idea, which Reza mocked as completely idiotic. What he described sounded nothing like the book. One word Reza kept repeating was “monolithic”, which Huntington explicitly denies as a characterization of these civilizations. It is particularly annoying because Huntington portrays the Islamic civilization as the least monolithic of the bunch (it is the only one without a clear “core state” (Indonesia, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey are all the most likely contenders but have severe shortcomings), other than perhaps Latin America due to the Portuguese heritage of Brazil and the little discussed Buddhist civilization which may have occupied Tibet as its core). Reza points out how different Arab culture, Turkish culture, Persian culture and Indonesian culture are even as Huntington says on page 45 that as a result of its spread around the world “many distinct cultures or subcivilizations exist within Islam, including Arab, Turkic, Persian and Malay”.

It gets very ridiculous when Reza starts ridiculing the idea of “the West” and asserts that it was not without influences from other civilizations (which Huntington never denied) and that Christianity (clearly NOT the same thing as the West, since Orthodox/Slav, Latin and African Christians cultures are all considered outside of it) has its origins (or at least its religious principles) in the Middle East. Huntington was not talking about the actual doctrines of the Christian religion though, just that it serves to make people feel connected to those who share it and disconnected from others. After insisting that you can’t talk about an Islamic culture (which I don’t think is the same as a civilization) but you can talk of an Arab culture, he argues against Huntington’s next book, “Who Are We?” as also idiotic and denies that there is or has ever been an “American culture”. He says nothing about Huntington’s thesis that American culture is that of the settlers, a distinctly English and Protestant one that has assimilated large numbers of Catholic Europeans in part by “Protestantizing” the American Catholicism. He says that after massive Mexican immigration (he also uses the words “massive” to describe Muslim and Jewish immigration, though they are only something like 2% of the population) America will still be America but will have changed. Could one not also say that Plymouth was still Plymouth after the Pilgrims but had changed? The nature or extent of the change is an important issue to discuss and reasons have to be given for ones argument rather than relying on cocksure assertion as Reza does.

For those unfamiliar with Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” book, I will explain it because listening to the diavlog gives you pretty much no idea what it says. The thesis of the book is that just as nation-states replaced kingdoms during the “age of nationalism” peaking in the 19th century and ideology became more important on the world stage during World War 2 and the Cold War, civilizations are now replacing ideologies as the major source of world conflict. It was written partly in reaction to Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man”. Fukuyama was a neoconservative (yes, they can be Japanese and not just Jewish) at the time and his vision can be conflated with those of neoconservatives as a whole because I dislike them and don’t mind offending them. It viewed the struggle between the Free World led by the U.S and communism led by the Soviet Union to be the final Hegelian dialectic leading to the former (or something like it) as the universalist final synthesis that was the world’s destiny (Fukuyama later changed his mind both about history ending considering transhumanism and neoconservatism which may largely be due to the association of the latter and the invasion of Iraq). Many neoconservatives saw the war in Iraq as bringing that country liberal democracy from which it would spread throughout the Middle East and bring that most stubborn part of the world into this grand vision. The contrasting foreign policy view of “realism” sees self-interested states with no internal dynamics as the only actors of consideration (though this may partly just be what they wish to be the case rather than actually believe). Huntington sees a world more fractured than the neoconservative one but less fragmented from the realist one (and the “Sheer Chaos” one of Martin van Creveld and John Robb, though their ideas about “primary loyalties” sound Huntingtonian). The U.S and its inhabitants do not relate to Canada, England and Western European countries like just any other state. We share commonalities with them and are more intertwined. Famous realist scholar John Mearsheimer wrote a notorious paper called “Back to the Future” in 1990 that predicted with the end of the Cold War a multipolar Europe would be wracked by crises and military conflicts, which has plainly not happened and seems silly given how friendly the “Western” nations are with each other. That is because we are part of the same civilization.

Huntington defines a civilization as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species”. Reza is of course right that the whole reason he came up with civilizational categories was to create distinctions, because without distinctions they would be synonyms and not of any use, but to say that he was trying to create separation and deny commonality is wrong. He also says

Civilizations have no clear-cut boundaries and no precise beginnings and endings. People can and do redefine their identities and, as a result, the composition and shapes of civilizations change over time. The cultures of peoples interact and overlap. The extent to which the cultures of civilizations resemble or differ from each other also varies considerably. Civilizations are nonetheless meaningful entities, and while the lines between them are seldom sharp, they are real.

Religion often plays a major role in defining civilizations and they serve as a good analogy. To nonbelievers like me and many other folks who discuss this, all religions are a bunch of nonsense and their adherents don’t know much about what they are supposed to believe. This does not mean there are no differences between religions or that a person’s religion is irrelevant. In large part because believers think their religion is important they will act as if that is the case and people who don’t acknowledge any substance to religion must nevertheless take into account the impact they have on the world.

Even if there are no commonalities among the different cultures that consider themselves part of “Islam” the fact that many Muslims do feel they are part of one “Ummah” and there is an important (if only because of the reactions they provoke) transnationalist jihadist movement (from other diavlogs, it seems Reza has a good understanding of that aspect of it, though to him because the ultimate realization of the Caliphate is ridiculous he simply pronounces them nihilists and does not think of them in their terms) means that the idea of an “Islamic Civilization” is not nonsense. The decline of secular nationalist movements (associated with the regimes of Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, Syria, Iraq and the P.L.O) and the communist alternative to the West has left the door open to Islamist movements. The Islamic Civilization is distinctive for its violence (which I discussed in relation to the book here) but the framing of the book is not one of bipolar confrontation between the West and Islam. They are merely two of a larger number of civilizations, with the West having been previously dominant and Islam being the most vital of the “indigenist” backlash against long-term Western domination. Huntington does not urge for the U.S to confront and defeat other civilizations, but mostly to mind its own business and especially avoid interfering in the internal affairs of other civilizations where it is seen as least welcome.

All this makes me doubt that Reza read the book and, to a lesser extent, knows what he’s talking about and is worth listening to or having a discussion with.

UPDATE: In the comments Razib gives a fantastic explanation for the contingent nature of Arab/Muslim conquests after being asked to expand on simple “no” response. It’s the sort of thing that reminds me why I started visiting there in the first place.

UPDATE 2013: The old haloscan gnxp comments are gone, but the Internet Archive mirrored the previous link.