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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

"The Clash of Civilizations?" Asian Responses
Salim Rashid (ed.)

Bangladesh and Oxford: The University Press Limited, 1997
160pp. Hb.: ISBN 984-05-1390-7.

Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilisations" seems to invite a response from Asia, in particular from those quarters combining the hubris of the "East Asian miracle" with a general cynicism about the West. The editor confesses that "Asian Responses" in the title is slightly misleading since the contributions reflect discussions within the US academic community, albeit with the inclusion of "expatriate Third World scholars". The focus is on Islamic and Confucian "civilisations" which, according to Huntington's dire predictions, pose the greatest combined threat to Western civilisation.

Ali Mazrui and Paul Hammond attempt general, instead of specifically "Asian" critiques, though Mazrui's contribution includes a number of predictable post-colonial circumlocutions. Mazrui argues that race, not culture, is the real issue, but his critique is laboured, and his arguments are almost as tendentious as Huntington's. Abu Kalam and Amit Gupta provide a more coherent critique, the latter reminding us that contemporary communalism is modern and national, not ancient or civilisational.

Putting Huntington's argument into a broader perspective, Abu Kalam argues that dealing with cultural differences is the most necessary task for politics. His discussion shows how miserably Huntington has failed to perform a public intellectual's tasks of communicating across cultural divisions and overcoming ignorance.

Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian, is highly critical of Western dominance in the global order. He sees Huntington's portrayal of Muslims and Asians as part and parcel of an overarching conspiracy to "preserve, protect and perpetuate Western dominance" (p 104). However, this rhetorical position must be treated with caution. The Malaysian regime regularly uses such anti-western rhetoric and Asian particularism to deflect international criticism of domestic political abuses, severely eroding the moral high ground for such arguments.

Wee provides a critical look at Confucianism from a Singaporean perspective. In contrast, South Korean Chaibong Hahm discusses an idealised version of Confucianism as a set of institutions and ruling practices with the power to override identity politics. Like Mazrui, Hahm sees race as the major divisive issue, but suggests that Confucianism's "?alternative understanding of culture?free from racial implications" makes it a solution. The perspective from an ethnically homogenous state is obviously different from that of an ethnically-divided one. Wee shows that Singaporean Confucianism does not offer alternative values to those of Euro-American origin. In fact, its ideological role is highly complementary, fitting Singapore into the global capitalist narrative (p95).

Hammond's novel speculation that Huntington's real aim is to hoist Asian opponents of democracy on their own petard, forcing them to face the logical conclusion of their relativist position seems far-fetched. He suggests that Huntington's polemic might inspire a Kuhnian "paradigm shift", but Huntington's views are neither novel nor credible enough to deserve this. Parochial paranoia and cultural imperialism are traditional hallmarks of Cold War thinking. While he is certainly fair game for criticism on logical, factual or political grounds, it still remains to be seen whether "Asian" arguments can provide a coherent and credible alternative paradigm.

Su-ming Khoo
National University of Ireland, Galway

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