Nowhere to be seen

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Islamic countries showed up nowhere in responding to the pandemic


One of the more interesting features of the world’s response to the covid-19 pandemic has been the extent to which it has confirmed Samuel Huntington’s 1992 thesis of a ‘clash of civilisations’. Huntington had posited three civilisations, which he predicted would clash: the Western, the Confucian and the Islamic. The response to the pandemic shows the first two competing, but the third being absent, following one or the other in its attempt to deal with the unexpected challenge of the pandemic.

It is something of a stretch, but not too much, to see the conflation of communism with Confucianism, mainly through the medium of the Communist Party of China. It is important to remember, at this point, that Huntington’s thesis was a response to Francis Fukuyama’s proposal of The End of History, according to which he proposed that history had come to an end, and the West had won. This thesis had come at the end of the Cold War, when communism had lost, what with the Berlin Wall coming down and the USSR collapsing.

Huntington saw history as still not being predictable, and that the West had not finally won. While he saw more civilisations in the world than the ones he saw as competitors, he saw non-Western civilisations as the Hindu or Sub-Saharan African, as subordinated to the Western. Fukuyama postulated that history had ended in the Hegelian sense of opposing ideas, not that there would no longer be a competition among nations, but there would be more ideological competition.

Huntington saw civilisations merely as providing identity markers, even where they agreed with Western capitalism. It is possible to see the modern American fascination with hyphenation (and race), with origin, in those terms. Huntington saw Western civilization in a clash with Confucian cultures, which is playing out in the current clash with China, with trade as well as the South China Sea representing different aspects of the clash. He also saw a clash with Islam. This has been fiercely denied by many Muslims, who insist that Islam is a peaceable religion, and the ‘clash of civilisations’ is merely being used to justify the War on Terror. It is worth noting that Huntington’s thesis was propounded before 9/11, but that event has been pressed into the service of Huntington’s thesis. It should be noted that Huntington, even before 9/11, had named Islamic extremism, symbolized by the Iranian Revolution, as the main manifestation of the potential of the Islamic civilization to pose a challenge.

The solution involved two components: stopping the spread of the disease and coming up with a vaccine. The Islamic civilization did not have a state which could do either; and credit is given to the Confucian for showing it could do both.

It is to be noted that Huntington did not see Communism as a competitor any longer, with Russia being classified as the core of Eastern Orthodox civilization. That would leave it was an outlier of Western civilization. China, on the other hand, he saw as the core of the Confucian civilization. If one looks at it more closely, one would see the rule of the Communist Party of China, directed since Deng Xiao-Ping in capitalist paths. Therefore China is not only the core of the Confucian civilization, but also the main representative of the one-party model. Another representative of both communism and Confucianism is North Korea. The other Confucian countries border China, and have historically looked to it for cultural influence. One of them, Japan, even invaded it in the last century. However, all of them are now in the Western camp, as firm allies of its core state, the USA.

At the same time, the difference between capitalism and communism is not that great, though it loomed large over the world during the Cold War. Communism is actually the result of a humanist critique of capitalism, and thus both originated in the 18th century Enlightenment. It thus has a certain logic to uphold China as representing Marxism as well.

That the East Asian (or Confucian) states handled the pandemic better than the USA or Europe, is supposed to have led to the impression that the Confucian model, based on cooperation and a state more ready to act coercively, has been more successful. However, the real inflection point is supposed to have come with the preparation of a vaccine, with China claiming to have beaten the USA to one. The USA has got more than one, and the superiority of Western medicine (and thus of its civilization?) will be shown by the way the world lines up to obtain Western vaccines. It should be noted that the UK rolled out its vaccine a tad earlier, but instead of standing out as the British vaccine, it is being categorized as one among several Western vaccines, and is thus lumped with those developed by US firms. Russia has developed a vaccine, and is thus holding up the flag of the Orthodox civilization, but the other civilizations are left out, except as recipients. And because they are all in the Third-World, they will probably only got the vaccines later, when the firms concerned fulfill their and European orders.

While the Confucian civilization (represented by China) has marked its presence, and Western civilization (in the shape of the USA) has as usual led the field, Islamic civilization is virtually unrepresented, except as a recipient, during this great global crisis. The worst affected was probably Iran, but it did not work towards a vaccine, and like other Muslim countries, was content to let the West or China to work towards a vaccine. It is not that any Muslim country is at the cutting edge of any technology, including pharmaceuticals, but most of its countries include a large number of expert health professionals who would have been more than capable of developing a vaccine if put together. The crisis also marked the uselessness of the OIC. The OIC does have certain potentially relevant subsidiary organisations, but they did not play any role. There is no OIC equivalent of the WHO, but there is an ISESCO, the equivalent of UNESCO, headquartered in Rabat, and an STIO, headquartered in Islamabad. Neither of these organisations seized this moment to make their presence felt.

It seems that an OIC-style organization must face the problem of all coalitions: joint action is not possible without everyone agreeing. A single state overcomes that by having a final single decision-maker. Coalition armies have depended on having a decisive commander who was all sensitive to all governments, not just his own. Successful coalition commanders in recent times have been American: Eisenhower during World War II, Macarthur during the Korean War, and Schwarzkopf during the first Iraq War. Though the OIC was created against Israeli aggression in East Jerusalem, the recent rash of peace accords with Israel have exposed its ability, and its irrelevance during the pandemic has surprised no one.

There was an attempt at relevance, in the claims for the preventive effects of ablutions, but those were soon rubbished when it was pointed out that ablutions were not as common as suggested.

It is also probably of significance that OIC members are looking at core states of other civilisations for el during the pandemic. While Saudi Arabia and the other states of Arabian Peninsula are looking to the USA for help, others, like Syria, are looking to Russia, while Pakistan is looking to China. It seems that the Western and Confucian civilisations have an advantage in hiving states at the centre which can mobilize the resources needed to solve this problem.

The solution involved two components: stopping the spread of the disease and coming up with a vaccine. The Islamic civilization did not have a state which could do either; and credit is given to the Confucian for showing it could do both.

M A Niazi
The writer is a member of staff.


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