Outside the old Soviet Union, but still within the old Communist sphere of influence, the now former state of Yugoslavia tore itself apart, and introduced a new and profoundly sinister euphemism into common journalistic parlance - ethnic cleansing. Whole populations of territory coveted by one side or the other were, if lucky, given a choice; leave or die. Those, less lucky, were simply killed. Bosnian Muslims found that their erstwhile neighbors had become their persecutors. Muslim women were systematically raped by nominally Christian Serbs. As the civil war continued, all parties, Serbs, Croats and Muslims, were accused of war crimes. The horrors of the Second World War, which many Europeans had complacently thought could never be repeated on European soil, were taking place once again in the heartland of Europe and, despite strenuous diplomatic efforts and stringent economic sanctions against the Serbs, the international community proved incapable of preventing the atrocities.
The ending of the Cold War had not brought peace in our time; it had not engendered a new world order. The implacable hostility between two great monolithic systems had been replaced by an increasingly fragmented world in which many of the old political certainties had no place.
Amidst all these upheavals, Muslims will have a particular interest in one aspect of the long-term significance of the demise of the Soviet Union, namely the future of the predominantly Muslim Central Asian Republics. There are now five independent countries in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The most populous of these newly independent states is Uzbekistan (with just under 20 million). Kazakhstan has between 16 and 17 million; Tajikistan has just over 5 million; Kyrgystan has around 4.5 million; and Turkmenistan 3.5 million. The vast majority of the peoples living in these lands are Muslim.
In the 19th Century, this region of the world, together with Afghanistan, was the site for what the British called "The Great Game", the political and military maneuvering for control of territory which was, or at least seemed at the time to be, of crucial strategic significance in the rivalry between the two great imperial powers of Britain and Russia.
Today, these five states, free at last from the control of foreign masters, are seeking to reassert their own identities. Central to these identities, despite decades of Communist discouragement, is Islam.
Western commentators have focused on the efforts of various Muslim states to exert influence over the direction which the resurgence of Islam in Central Asia will take. Iran and Turkey are seen as the main contenders, with Turkey as the Muslim representative of the pro-Western tendency and Iran as the champion of radical Muslim thinking. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the land of Islam's holiest places, has also taken an interest in encouraging the return to Islam; and King Fahd, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, has been unstinting in his efforts to provide the Central Asian Muslims with access to the Holy Qur’an.
But far more important than any rivalry of Muslim states for influence in the region is the fact that a vast swathe of land, with a fast growing population and considerable mineral wealth waiting to be efficiently exploited, will once again form part of the Muslim community of nations.
The combination of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resurgence of Islam, not only in the Central Asian Republics but elsewhere in the world, has led some analysts to predict that the next great ideological confrontation will be between the West and Islam. It is not uncommon to read the predictions of Western analysts who foresee increasing friction between the Islamic world and Western interests.
Precisely why we should expect a new global ideological confrontation of any sort is not entirely clear. Perhaps it is felt that present generations are so used to living in the shadow of such struggles that they have become unable to imagine life without them. Perhaps struggles in themselves have become a vital requirement for nations and peoples, because, as some see them, they facilitate the process of development, pushing the wheel of progress ever forward. Or perhaps it is simply that such struggles are considered a good excuse for the powerful to fulfill their objectives and ambitions? (If this is the case, then it is not surprising that the powerful enthusiastically support the continuation of such struggles, if they already exist, and the creation of them if they do not!)
Even if we accept that such struggles are endemic in the human condition in this period of our history, it is difficult to see why the protagonists in the next great struggle should be the West and Islam.
There are, after all, other contenders, some of them seemingly far more probable. It could be argued that water and natural resources will be at the center of future struggles; or that regional and ethnic strife are more likely to form the focus of future conflicts. Or, perhaps most likely of all, we might predict that economic competition and disputes over markets and areas of influence will be the cause of future struggles. (Any serious analysis of the causes of conflicts in recent or contemporary history would certainly lend weight to this last proposition.)
In these circumstances, it seems strange that some analysts should propound with such enthusiasm a global confrontation between Islam and the West. In common with all who espouse eccentric theories, these analysts exhibit considerable ingenuity in interpreting facts to suit their case. If China sells arms to Muslim countries, it is evidence of a conspiracy between anti-Western civilizations to destroy the West. If Muslim states seek to acquire nuclear weapons, it is evidence of their determination to challenge the West by producing an "Islamic" nuclear bomb. It matters not that the West sells weapons to Muslim states (is this evidence of a perverse desire in Western civilization to conspire with anti-Western civilizations in its own destruction?). It matters not that the desire to acquire nuclear weapons is rather more easily explained in terms of regional tensions (Pakistan seeking to pursue a nuclear weapons program in the context of its troubled relations with India; the Arab world seeking parity with an already nuclear-armed Israel). No. This is all construed as evidence of the impending conflict between Islam and the West.
Of course there is a sense in which some elements of Western culture and Islam are already in conflict. The excesses of materialism at the expense of the spiritual dimension of human existence, which is a feature of some aspects of Western culture, will find no place in Islam. But this inadequacy in Western culture is unlikely to result in conflict. It is far more likely, as in the case of the similar defect in the now defunct Soviet communist culture, to carry with it the seeds of its own destruction. And, in any case, the West is not a wholly materialistic, Godless culture. It shares the great monotheistic tradition which gave man, at different times, Judaism, Christianity and, finally, Islam.
If the prediction of a global struggle between the West and Islam is inherently improbable, it is reasonable to ask why it has attracted such a following in some circles of Western thought. The answer for at least one such thinker (Dr Samuel Huntington writing about his theory of the struggle between civilizations) is quite straightforward. According to Huntington, the Islamic and the Confucian civilizations are conspiring against the Western world and Western civilization, constituting a threat he has termed the "Great Menace".
"The desire of the West (in supporting its values and spreading them all over the world, to ensure its domination and to safeguard its interests) is met by rejection and challenge."
The rebellion by the sons of the Confucian and Islamic civilizations against Western "taming" leads Mr. Huntington to deduce that there is nothing from which the West should refrain in order to curb this insurrection. Thus, with perverse logic, the suppression by the West of other civilizations is justified simply by the assertion that they represent a threat to the West's political and economic expansionism.
While such a theory might seem to be unworthy of serious consideration, it does nevertheless represent an unwelcome trend in some strands of current Western thought. There are undoubtedly those who resent, and perhaps fear, the vigor and vitality of Islam in the contemporary world. Already some European countries are legislating to minimize the opportunities for Muslims living in their countries, whatever their period of residence, and to discourage those who may be thinking of emigrating to the West in the future.
In an increasingly interdependent world, in which free trade and freedom of movement are so highly valued, it is sad to see the erection of walls where none existed before or are needed now. There is much in common between Western traditions and the value system of Islam. Those who seek to replace the Cold War with a West-versus-Islam scenario will not succeed. But they may make much trouble and cause much hardship to others in the course of their failure.
Main reference point: Issues