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Istanbul and the East and West puzzle

By Alice Aslan - posted Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Samuel Huntington’s theory The Clash of Civilisations has mesmerised all the warmongers from all backgrounds and all walks of life around the world since he published his book with the same title in 1996. And his theory has become even more popular after 9-11.

With his theory, Huntington, who became a controversial celebrity author in his 70s and enjoyed a considerable fame before he died in 2008, sets out to prophesy the future of the political affairs and the new political order in the world in post-Cold War period.

And he defines new sources of cleavages between different nations in a world where it became no longer possible to categorise the societies in terms of the free-capitalist-west versus the dictatorial-communist-bloc after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s.

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Huntington classifies all societies into several broad categories of civilisations that are based on common geography, ethnicity or religion including Western, Latin American, Islamic, Sinic (Chinese), Hindu, Orthodox, Japanese and the African ignoring the countless differences among the countries and groups in each civilisation. And in his vision, culture - with a specific emphasis on religion - forms the new source of conflict between these civilisations.

Huntington’s so-called apocalyptic book is full of bad omens and warnings: if the Western civilisation wants to survive, it has to safeguard itself especially against “Islamic intolerance and Chinese assertiveness”.

And since the emergence of Huntington’s theory, it has become very trendy to label any tensions and conflicts that occur between different ethnic or religious groups or societies as “clash of cultures” or “clash of civilisations”.

But when one carefully tries to understand the real nature of such tensions and conflicts, different historical, social and economic factors and power politics appear as the real motives behind them.

Turkey exemplifies the absurdity of classifying a unique society - all societies are unique - with its unique history, geography, socio-economic circumstances, and ethnic and cultural diversity within a broadly-defined civilisation and the impossibility of understanding the complexity of certain tensions within a unique society by describing them as “clash of cultures”.

And it would be oversimplifying to classify Turkey within an Islamic civilisation and to describe it as a “torn country”, as Huntington and many commentators in and outside of Turkey do, because of the never-ending tensions between the secularist elite and masses with a more religiously oriented worldview in this country.

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In fact, Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2006, explains the origins and nature of these tensions in his autobiographical work Istanbul: Memories and the City.

Istanbul, the city generally considered as a bridge between the East and West and between Asia and Europe, was once the glamorous capital of the powerful Ottoman Empire that ruled over many countries in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for centuries.

But it became a bleak and sad city when the empire began to decline in the 19th century. With the take-off of the industrial revolution and consequently momentous developments in every aspect of life, Europe became the new centre of power and glamour.

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About the Author

Alice Aslan is a Turkish-Australian anthropologist, writer and activist based in Sydney. She is passionate about the arts, ideas and justice. She is the author of "Islamophobia in Australia". She can be contacted at alice.aslan@gmail.com

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