Western bourgeois life has become so comfortable in its laziness and daily routine that one gets a glimpse at how other societies and civilizations are performing only in moments of "crisis," or, more accurately, when events suddenly emerge that make those other societies "out there" entertaining through the torrential lens of the media. But then all will be forgotten simply because it all came at once, like a watershed of confused and confusing events, notions, arguments, and lies and counter-lies. To be sure, the niceties of bourgeois life have become a universal phenomenon, which has extended far beyond its initial implementation in western civilization, so that even in a devastated city like Kabul one manages to find his or her own "corner" (son petit coin, as the French would like to say) between what remains of the luxurious hotels, restaurants, and neighborhoods that have survived decades of civil wars, and now the American armada. But such a universalization of manners notwithstanding, it remains beyond doubt that the bourgeois around the world do not unite --nor do the proletarians for that matter-- and that social, religious, and national differences still regulate by and large international affairs. That does not mean, however, that we are witnessing permanent "clashes of civilizations," as it has become customary to ascertain. On the contrary, those values hardly clash, if at all, simply because they remain indifferent to one another, and even in a modern context, they manage to live while ignoring and mocking their respective value systems. As Carl Schorske (who became obsessed with the bourgeois culture in fin-de-siècle Vienna) noted, the emergence of cultural modernism was followed with its break from the historical consciousness. Once such a break occurred with the modernism of the nineteenth century, history has lost its power as a source for meaning and action. (Marxism was the last desperate attempt to create meaning.) And with the ideology of postmodernism now rampant --in particular in a weary and worn-out American academia-- cultural products are perceived as a pastiche of things, indefinitely recycled to please world-audiences irrespective of their national histories and cultures.
It should therefore come as no surprise that "Islam" has been perceived --in the wake of the September massacre-- as the ideological umbrella that provides an explanation for all kinds of disparate events: the state-of-mind of the alleged culprits; the backwardness of Islamic societies; the failures of Somalia and Iraq back in the early 1990s; Islamic fundamentalism; the rigidity of the Palestinian national movement; and, last but not least, bin Laden's obscurantism, to name only a few of the topoi that had haphazardly emerged in the last month. However, the gesture to perceive "Islam" in essentialist terms only follows from a non-historical perception of western societies themselves, so that such a lumping together is even forgetful of how western civilization emerged as "victorious" in the High Middle Ages after several centuries of struggle. Hence with the lack of the prerequisite historical consciousness, "Islam" is identified with its scriptural texts --namely the Koran (which, we're now assured, Tony Blair reads every weekend) and the hadith (sayings and doings of the prophet)-- an approach, it should be emphasized, is no different in its postmodernist kitsch from the equally ahistorical readings of some of the alleged hijackers who in their haste to blow up the twin towers have forgotten some of their dogmatic handwritten manuscripts in suitcases at Logan airport while transiting through Boston. (A facsimile of all those documents in their original Arabic is available for contemplation at the FBI website.)
What difference does it then make if we are to remind our audiences --those who can still listen-- that "Islam" as such does not exist (in the same way that Jacques Lacan once famously noted in a controversial tone that "a sexual relationship does not exist"), and that what we ought to focus upon are the fragments of Islamic histories that have populated the Mediterranean and the rest of the world since the seventh century; or that the discourses often claimed to "Islam" are only valid within the hermeneutical networks through which they had emerged, and which could provide them with the historical contexts that give them meaning and coherence? To be sure, the unease about any valid historical enterprise, pace the likes of Carl Schorske and J.G.A. Pocock, is reflected in the most basic of all history "text-books," those that populate American campuses these days, and which manage to offer freshman students only the yellow pages of history in a nihilistic spirit that only helps relieving modern bourgeois like us from any responsibility. (It keeps, however, the so-called "core" courses busy.)
In effect, the fragmentation of scholarship and of academic culture makes it even harder to construct a comprehensive view of the rise of Islam as a religious and ideological system, and its subsequent successes and failures as a socio-economic and political matrix. Besides Marshall Hodgson's prematurely unfinished attempt to reconstruct the fifteen centuries of Islamic history as a coherent and manageable unit, one is left with Fernand Braudel's Mediterranean for a more comprehensive view that looks at the Mediterranean as a totality:
"The economic and cultural differences between the two zones [of the Mediterranean, the east and the west] became increasingly marked in the sixteenth century, while their respective positions were being reversed. Since the thirteenth century the East had gradually lost one by one her supremacy in various fields: the refinements of material civilization, technical advance, large industry, banking, and the supply of gold and silver. The sixteenth century saw her final defeat, in the course of an unprecedented economic upheaval when the opening up of the Atlantic destroyed the age-old privilege of the Levant, which for a time had been the sole repository of the riches of the 'Indies.'"
And Braudel then adds in what now looks in hindsight like a prophetic call:
"From that point on, every day saw a widening of the gap between the standard living of the West, which was going through a revolution in technical and industrial progress, and the eastern world of low-cost living, where money coming from the West would automatically rise in value and acquire higher purchasing power." (The Mediterranean, 1:137)
In the third chapter of The Mediterranean (1:187 ff), Braudel introduces "Islam" not as "a system of values," as is common these days in the impoverished worn-out politically-correct academic jargon, but as a "Mediterranean civilization" that imposed itself by the seventh-eighth century after the demise of the western part of the Roman Empire. Like the Roman Empire, that new civilization attempted to create a new "order" (as Machiavelli would say) all over the Mediterranean by bringing together geographic and geopolitical "elements" that the Romans were unable to sustain: the Muslim conquerors had brought the "desert" of the Arabian Peninsula and the North African Sahara in connection with the fertile zones of the Mediterranean. A new civilization was thus born where "Islam" as a religious and theological system was only the "ideological" matrix (in the same way that Max Weber looked upon Protestantism as the "ideological" matrix of the capitalism that began evolving in the sixteenth-seventeenth century), but whose "material civilization" consisted of the newly opened trade routes between the shores of the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea. One could add, in that respect, as Henri Pirenne did (another historian who no one reads anymore), that without Muhammad Charlemagne would not have existed.
The Islamicate Mediterranean civilization was the dominant one until the tenth-eleventh century. By that time, Europe had become "Europeanized," meaning that it had revamped itself out of the Holy Roman Empire as a geographic and cultural unit --or as an "idea." (Our glorious History 102 should begin with that period: the seventeenth century is an absurd beginning for "modern" Europe.) That was the time when central and western Europe (including the Iberian Peninsula) had been feudalized --meaning the crucial process of "enfeoffment," or the creation of "fiefs" through the new aristocratic and clerical élites. (That's why the term "feudalism" only fits for that part of Europe, and such things as "Ottoman" or "Japanese feudalism" are erroneous at best.) Despite all the attempts of the Germanic aristocracy of the High Middle Ages, the creation of "seigneuries" and "fiefs" in eastern Europe failed, and by the fifteenth century that part of Europe went back to the old system of the early Holy Roman Empire: large domains granted by monarchs to a subdued nobility with peasants working under corvée conditions, which was also the system adopted by the Byzantines and later the Ottomans.
By the sixteenth century, when the domination of Europe became obvious at all levels, the Ottomans had reestablished full control of the eastern Mediterranean, and managed to take control of the eastern parts of Europe that were for the most part under the Greek Orthodox faith, and that were under the old system of "big landlords" and corvées. Thus, the success of the Ottomans constitutes a second coming of "Islam," but this time that of horse nomadism, and of warrior groups from central Asia. More importantly, however, the "success" of the Ottomans --even at its highest, under Suleiman the Magnificent-- did not constitute a "civilizational breakthrough," as was the case with the early Bedouin Arabs and Muslims. Indeed, the Ottoman presence in the Mediterranean, until remarkably World War I, constituted only a "buffer zone" for all those societies that "lagged behind," and which lived under various intense political and economic fragmentation for several centuries.
It doesn't make much sense to speak of "Islam" as a "civilization" anymore. There are over a billion Muslims today, out of which only 200 million (20%) are Arabs. Islamicate societies like Indonesia and Malaysia are a world of their own, and should be looked upon as part of those "Asian tigers," which have aggressively attempted to become part of world-capitalism, and which all Arab states and societies have yet proved unsuccessful to adapt to. In other words, once we work out for every societal formation, as Braudel did, all its "material" components and contextualize them geographically, the patterns that emerge will become meaningful.
The so-called "clashes" between "civilizational patterns" are therefore always there, in particular once looked upon in a longue durée perspective, and, needless to say, they do not suddenly emerge because of a military action here and there. It is laughable to think that the terrorist attacks of September 11 were the work of "isolated" terrorists that do not convey "the spirit and precepts of Islam," which is precisely the kind of self-denial that the Arabs are now propagating. To begin, all nineteen suspected terrorists, whose names and photographs have been recently released by the FBI, were Arabs, and over half were Saudis. One need not have the genius of Braudel to figure out that there must be some kind of deep problem in the way the Arab societal formations have been structured and restructured since the Ottomans had left the Mediterranean. That event seems to have triggered a long hang-over which is still there, and, needless to say, the Arabs have become the sick people of the Mediterranean --and of the Atlantic too. (It is ironic that an impoverished society like Afghanistan should pay the price for such a debacle.)
It doesn't make much sense either to speak of "Islam" in general as if it's a centralized religious system like Catholicism. Thus, claims of the kind "it's not in the spirit of Islam to do so-and-so" are meaningless because anyone can become an "imam" and impose a line of interpretation, which in turn would be an outcome of complex material, geographic, and historical underpinnings. The point here is that all the Islamicate societies of the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Pacific, are now nation-states on their own (mostly the outcome of colonial and post-colonial policies), and hence are not supported anymore by the larger empire frameworks of the previous centuries. They obviously have for the most part --even though, I should add once more, that their differences are overwhelming-- failed to modernize and create societal units that could compete internationally. But whether such an effective modernization will ever take place is a question of many centuries, and many failures are still down the long road.