Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2003
Issue No. 644
Current issue
Previous issue
Site map
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
Text menu
Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Huntington and beyond

Are our attitudes towards sex and sexuality the ultimate fault-line in the "clash of civilisations"? Fatemah Farag considers the debate between Foreign Policy and the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research

Click to view caption
Where was sexual politics then? A Mediaeval depiction of the Crusades (source:
In 1993 Samuel Huntington presented his controversial thesis which argues that the basis for conflict in the post-Cold War world is the cultural division between Western Christianity on the one hand and Orthodox Christianity and Islam on the other, suggesting that, basically, the latter lack the political values that resulted in Western democracy. But it was only after 9/11 that the theory took flight, becoming almost an article of faith in political and academic circles; and recently Huntington has been outbid by research that takes his arguments a few steps further.

"The true clash of civilisations" published by Foreign Policy magazine in its March/April issue -- written by Ronald Inglehart, programme director at the Centre for Political Studies at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and director of the World Values Survey (WVS), and Pipp Norris, lecturer at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government -- argues that while today everyone may want political democracy, it is the attitudes of society towards issues such as divorce, abortion, gender equality and gay-rights that condition a people's ability to attain democracy. And hence the attitudes exhibited in the Muslim world with regard to these topics "may not bode well for democracy's future in the Middle East".

The argument is provocative. How many people who believe in the values of democracy could disagree that society's commitment to gender equality and sexual rights is an important indicator of how strongly a society supports the principle of tolerance and egalitarianism? And yet the framework of the study is deeply troubling. Enough to have prompted the Bahrain Centre for Studies and Research (BCSR) to respond. In a 14-page report, BCSR indicated that the study "is nothing but an attempt by some researchers and academicians to promote the views of the US extreme right. It also seeks to impose these views on other countries and interpret international relations exclusively within its framework. This approach is in sharp contrast with the fundamental principles of democracy, which by virtue of its definition, is a system based on a multiplicity of viewpoints."

The critique made by BCSR, which is headed by Mohamed Bin Gasem Al-Ghatam, highlights that a basic premise of the WVS is that the ultra-right US administration is not only democratic itself but committed to promoting freedom and democracy in the Muslim world. Within this framework President George W Bush becomes a champion of equality and democracy across the globe. A cursory glance at the president's record, though, raises questions about his democratic credentials: His presidency is strongly contested within the US by documentation that attests to rigged presidential elections, his administration has shot down a list of bills including ones for social security and environmental protection, his administration was responsible for the military invasion of Iraq and continues to support Israel's tyrannical rule over the Palestinian people.

And while the report does not mince words in pointing out that "Among the 47 countries with a Muslim majority, only one fourth are electoral democracies -- and none of the core Arabic-speaking societies falls into this category", it does not at any point indicate that many of these undemocratic governments -- including the recently ousted government of Saddam Hussein -- were at some point or continue to be strong allies of the United States and that many remain in power because of US support.

Ignoring many of the realities of American foreign policy, the study echoes questions and sentiments such as those posed by Guardian columnist Polly Toynebee -- "What binds together a globalised force of some extremists from many continents is a united hatred of Western values that seems to them to spring from Judeo-Christianity". Democratic Representative Christopher Shays of Connecticut, is cited as saying, "Why doesn't democracy just grab hold in the Middle East?" "What is there about the culture and people and so on where democracy just doesn't seem to be something they strive for and work for?"

BCSR correctly points out that for all of the scientific method claimed to have been used in its preparation, "The study lacks clarity with regards to how and when the polls were conducted or how the selection of the sample was made." BCSR also notes that the questions were formulated in such a way as to elicit certain responses that would feed into a predetermined conclusion.

It is true that if Inglehart and Norris were keen to really obtain answers to the questions they posed they might have talked to the many Muslim/Arab human rights, democracy and women- rights activists. By doing so, they may well have discovered that the challenges faced by these people who "strive and work for [democracy]" on a daily basis are not simply cultural. In many cases they are rooted in the very lack of political democracy; from legal constraints to outright harassment and repression by the establishment, most of which the US administration is more than willing to turn a blind eye towards. The latest example is provided by the anti-war demonstrations and accompanying sentiments that swept the Middle East only to be followed by waves of -- in many cases -- brutal repression.

The study is based on the "cumulative results of the two most recent waves of the WVS, conducted in 1995-96 and 2000- 2002, [which] provide an extensive body of relevant evidence. Based on questionnaires that explore values and beliefs in more than 70 countries, the WVS is an investigation of socio-cultural and political change that encompasses over 80 per cent of the world's population."

The results gathered have prompted the authors to argue that while Huntington was correct in asserting that culture does matter, he was mistaken in assuming that the pivotal issue in the clash between the West and Islam would be political values. "At this point in history, societies throughout the world [Muslim and Judeo-Christian alike] see democracy as the best form of government. Instead, the real fault-line between the West and Islam, which Huntington's theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberalisation."

The sample used to prove these assumptions includes people from 22 countries representing Western Christianity (defined as Western European culture including North American, New Zealand and Australia), 10 Central European countries (Western European but which experienced a period of Communist rule), 11 countries with a Muslim majorities (including Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan and Morocco), 12 traditionally orthodox societies (for example Russia and Greece), 11 predominately Catholic Latin American countries, four East Asian countries and five sub-Saharan Africa countries plus Japan and India. "[I]n the last decade, democracy became virtually the only political model with global appeal, no matter what the culture. With the exception of Pakistan, most of the Muslim countries surveyed think highly of democracy: In Albania, Egypt, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Morocco and Turkey, 92 to 99 per cent of the public endorsed democratic institutions -- a higher proportion than in the United States (89 per cent)," states the Inglehart and Norris study.

They go on to correctly point out that these results do not necessarily prove that "people genuinely support basic democratic norms -- or that their leaders will allow them to have democratic institutions." The real chasm between West and Muslim societies, they argue, is in the realm of the sexual. "On the matter of equal rights and opportunities for women -- measured by such questions as whether men make better political leaders than women or whether university education is more important for boys than for girls -- Western and Muslim countries score 82 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively. Muslim societies are also distinctively less permissive towards homosexuality, abortion and divorce."

BCSR, however, indicates the weakness -- and in fact the double standard -- of these arguments. "In the 20th century, 12 women have assumed the office of head of state in the world. Four of these women were heads of Islamic countries (prime ministers in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Turkey and president in Indonesia). However, the US has never had a woman president or vice-president. Nor have France, Germany, Italy or most other Christian countries... Many Arab countries have women as ministers, ambassadors, heads of universities, college deans, parliamentarians, businesswomen and in a host of other significant and high-powered positions."

As for the prevalent attitudes towards homosexuality, BCSR argues, "while the study does state that over half the world is intolerant of homosexuality, it focusses on Islamic countries [the study claims that 99 per cent of the populace in Egypt and Bangladesh and 94 per cent in Iran are against homosexuality and that on this count Muslim countries as a whole lag behind not only the West but the rest of the world] as if the majority view towards this issue in Muslim countries was an aberration of the global norm. However, a look at contemporary European and American history shows that as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, homosexuals came out of the closet with considerable risk. Those known to be homosexuals were discharged from the US armed forces and are still scorned" by a majority of Americans.

And as far as abortion is concerned, BCSR notes, "The official policy of the Vatican and even that of the current US administration takes exception to the practice and is not pro- abortion -- a position similar to that taken in Arab countries... [Also] the US walks the extra mile by exerting pressure on both the UN Children's Fund [UNICEF] and the UN Development Programme [UNDP] not to expand their programmes in countries which engage in rigorous birth control policies."

In fact, winning rights for women -- including sexual freedom, access to birth control and safe abortions -- and homosexuals has been an uphill fight in the West that continues to be waged on many levels. And just as the successes made have been an indicator of democratic freedoms, the challenges that remain are clear indicators of the limitations that still plague Western democracy. And yet the study fails to tell us why the West has the right to dictate the cultural norms in areas that it is still grappling with.

Further, while these battles have enhanced, and been an indicator of, Western democracy they have also been possible because of the availability of political space that allows for a measure of freedom of expression and movement. Yet again the study fails to tell us how in countries where the United States continues to support tyranny, such as in Palestine, can women and men, Muslim and Christian, create equal and liberal relationships and in the process foster democracy.

The BCSR report points out that the position any society takes with regards to its prevalent cultural/social norms and biases is related to its level of economic and social development. It is an inter-linked package: economic equity and development tied to political freedom tied to gender equality and respect for the other.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

Comment Recommend Printer-friendly

Issue 644 Front Page
Egypt | Region | Interview | International | Economy | Opinion | Press review | Letters | Culture | Living | Features | Heritage | Sports | Profile | People | Time Out | Chronicles | Cartoons | Crossword
Batch View | Current issue | Previous issue | Site map