The University Record, October 1, 1997
By John Woodford
News and Information Services
Whatever is meant by the notion of "civilizations" by those who utter or hear the term, the social entities referred to need not clash and should not be encouraged to do so, says the Palestinian American scholar-activist Edward W. Said.
Targeting the notion of history represented by Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington in a highly publicized 1993 article and book titled The Clash of Civilizations, Said (pronounced Sah-eed) told an audience of almost 400 in Rackham Auditorium Sept. 22 that the idea of clashing civilizations rests upon the notion of a unique, superior, isolated and embattled "West."
Said, whose publications range from English and other world literatures, music (especially grand opera), and world politics (especially the subtleties of Western derogatory constructions of the East, the Occident and Islam), was at Michigan to deliver the lecture celebrating the D'Arms Awards for faculty who have mentored graduate students in the humanities. The awards were created to honor John D'Arms' contributions to the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. He was dean of the Graduate School 1985-95, and is now director of the Fellowship of Learned Societies in New York.
Huntington's rhetorical exercise designed to mobilize fear, Said argued, depicted the West as being engaged in bloody competition for world domination against a host of other culturesand chiefly, today, by so-called Confucian and Islamic civilizations.
Said condemned Huntington's geopolitical vision as "aggressive and chauvinistic" and contended that its purpose was to continue the Cold War atmosphere for the benefit "of the Pentagon and weapons people."
The policies that flow from prescriptions like Huntington's, argued Said, include the following:
He stated that Huntington's view of the behavior of nations and the relationships between them ignores both the variations within all cultures and the constant and complex interactions between the hybrid entities we call civilizations.
"Civilizations are not monolithic and homogeneous," he said. Instead, they are composed of countless individuals and groups contesting for the authority to define the civilization and determine what ideas, works, heroes, values and objectives represent it or threaten it.
"There are a billion Muslims on five continents," Said noted. He said that "wretched generalizations" are gaining currency, portraying Islam as "enraged at Western modernity" or as clashing with the West's Judeo-Christian heritage "despite the fact that Islam is part of the Judeo-Christian heritage."
Islamic culture differs in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and North America, Said noted, and any "rhetoric of identity" that ignores this reality is beset by both "deep insecurity" and an aggressiveness that "derives from the imperialist age."
Said suggested that scholars, the media and the general public reject the notion of clashing civilizations. "Common objective elements" exist within each culture, he maintained, impelled to no small degree in our era by a largely integrated worldwide economic structure.
"We need not hold others at bay," he concluded. "We must have a new global mentality that sees dangers from the standpoint of the whole human race." He cited violence, technological illiteracy and poverty as chief among these dangers affecting all civilizations, and said that "our most precious asset in facing these dangers is the emergence of a sense of community and hope."
The three faculty recipients of the 1997 D'Arms Awards were Profs. Ann Ruggles Gere, Department of English; Cedomil Goic, Department of Romance Languages and Literatures; and Patricia Simons, Department of History of Art and the Women's Studies Program.