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Islam's Clash with Modernization

Ten years ago, Samuel Huntington argued that the fault lines of world politics in the post-Cold War era are mainly cultural - a ``clash of civilizations'' defined by five or six major cultural zones that can sometimes co-exist but will never converge, because they lack shared values. One implication of this argument is that the September 11 th terrorist attacks, and the US-led response, should be viewed as part of a larger civilizational struggle between Islam and the West. Another is that what we in the West regard as universal human rights are simply an outgrowth of European culture, inapplicable to those who do not share this particular tradition.

I believe that Huntington is wrong on both counts. Sir V. S. Naipaul, recently awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, once wrote an article entitled ``Our Universal Civilization.'' How appropriate. Naipaul is, after all, an author of Indian descent who grew up in Trinidad. He argued not only that Western values are applicable across cultures, but that he owes his literary achievements to precisely that universality afforded by crossing Huntington's putative civilizational boundaries.

Universality is possible in broader terms as well, because the primary force in human history and world politics is not cultural plurality, but the general progress of modernization, whose institutional expressions are liberal democracy and market-oriented economics. The current conflict is not part of a clash of civilizations in the sense that we are dealing with cultural zones of equal standing; rather, it is symptomatic of a rearguard action by those who are threatened by modernization, and thus by its moral component, respect for human rights.

Virtually any right that is or has been asserted historically relies on one of three authorities: God, man, or nature. The original source of rights, God or religion, has been rejected in the West since the beginning of the Enlightenment. John Locke's ``Second Discourse on Government'' begins with a long polemic against Robert Filmer's argument for the divine right of kings. In other words, the secularism of the Western conception of rights lies at the root of the liberal tradition.