Clash of civilizations?


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On 5 November 2001, Noam Chomsky gave a lecture on ‘Militarism, Democracy and People’s Right to Information’ at a public forum convened by the National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information. During the question-answer session that followed the lecture, Chomsky was asked whether he thought that ‘the present conflict between the Taliban and the US and its allies can be seen as a "clash of civilizations" of the kind expected by Samuel Huntington.’ His response:


REMEMBER the context of Huntington’s thesis, the context in which it was put forth. This was after the end of the Cold War. For fifty years, both the US and the Soviet Union had used the pretext of the Cold War as a justification for any atrocities that they wanted to carry out. So if the Russians wanted to send tanks to East Berlin, that was because of the Cold War. And if the US wanted to invade South Vietnam and wipe out Indo-China, that was because of the Cold War. If you look over the history of this period, the pretext had nothing to do with the reasons. The reasons for the atrocities were based in domestic power interests, but the Cold War gave an excuse. Whatever the atrocity carried out, you could say it’s defence against the other side.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pretext is gone. The policies remain the same, with slight changes in tactics, but you need a new pretext. And in fact there’s been a search for pretexts for quite a long time. Actually, it started twenty years ago. When the Reagan Administration came in, it was already pretty clear that appeal to the pretext of the Russian threat was not going to work for very long. So they came into office saying that the focus of their foreign policy would be to combat the plague of international terrorism.

That was twenty years ago. There’s nothing new about this. We have to defend ourselves from other terrorists. And they proceeded to react to that plague by creating the most extraordinary international terrorist network in the world, which carried out massive terror in Central America and Southern Africa and all over the place. In fact, it was so extreme that its actions were even condemned by the World Court and Security Council. With 1989 coming, you needed some new pretexts. This was very explicit. Remember, one of the tasks of intellectuals, the solemn task, is to prevent people from understanding what’s going on. And in order to fulfil that task, you have to ignore the government documentation, for example, which tells you exactly what’s going on. This is a case in point.



Just to give you one illustration. Every year the White House presents to Congress a statement of why we need a huge military budget. Every year it used to be the same: the Russians are coming. The Russians are coming, so we need this monstrous military budget. The question that anyone who is interested in international affairs should have been asking himself or herself is, what are they going to say in March 1990? That was the first presentation to Congress after the Russians clearly weren’t coming – they were not around any more. So that was a very important and extremely interesting document. And of course, it is not mentioned anywhere, because it’s much too interesting. That was March 1990, the first Bush Administration giving its presentation to Congress.

It was exactly the same as every year. We need a huge military budget. We need massive intervention forces, mostly poised at the Middle East. We have to protect what’s called the ‘defence industrial base’ – that’s a euphemism that means high-tech industry. We have to ensure that the public pays the costs of high-tech industry by funnelling it through the military system under the pretext of defence.



So it was exactly the same as before. The only difference was the reasons. It turned out that the reasons we needed all this was not because the Russians were coming, but – I’m quoting – because of the ‘technological sophistication of Third World powers.’ That’s why we need the huge military budget. The massive military forces aimed at the Middle East still have to be aimed there, and here comes an interesting phrase. It says, they have to be aimed at the Middle East where ‘the threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.’ In other words, sorry, I’ve been lying to you for fifty years, but now the Kremlin isn’t around any more so I’ve got to tell you the truth: ‘The threat to our interests could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door.’

Remember, it couldn’t be laid at Iraq’s door either, because at that time Saddam Hussein was a great friend and ally of the United States. He had already carried out his worst atrocities, like gassing Kurds and everything else, but he remained a fine guy, who hadn’t disobeyed orders yet – the one crime that matters. So nothing could be laid at Iraq’s door, or at the Kremlin’s door.

The real threat, as always, was that the region might take control of its own destiny, including its own resources. And that can’t be tolerated, obviously. So we have to support oppressive states, like Saudi Arabia and others, to make sure that they guarantee that the profits from oil (it’s not so much the oil as the profits from oil) flow to the people who deserve it: rich western energy corporations or the US Treasury Department or Bechtel Construction, and so on. So that’s why we need a huge military budget. Other than that, the story is the same.

What does this have to do with Huntington? Well, he’s a respected intellectual. He can’t say this. He can’t say, look, the method by which the rich run the world is exactly the same as before, and the major confrontation remains what it has always been: small concentrated sectors of wealth and power versus everybody else. You can’t say that. And in fact if you look at those passages on the clash of civilizations, he says that in the future the conflict will not be on economic grounds. So let’s put that out of our minds. You can’t think about rich powers and corporations exploiting people, that can’t be the conflict. It’s got to be something else. So it will be the ‘clash of civilizations’ – the western civilization and Islam and Confucianism.



Well, you can test that. It’s a strange idea, but you can test it. For example, you can test it by asking how the United States, the leader of the western civilization, has reacted to Islamic fundamentalists. Well, the answer is, it’s been their leading supporter. For instance, the most extreme Islamic fundamentalist state in the world at that time was Saudi Arabia. Maybe it has been succeeded by the Taliban, but that’s an offshoot of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism.

Saudi Arabia has been a client of the United States since its origins. And the reason is that it plays the right role. It ensures that the wealth of the region goes to the right people: not people in the slums of Cairo, but people in executive suites in New York. And as long as they do that, Saudi Arabian leaders can treat women as awfully as they want, they can be the most extreme fundamentalists in existence, and they’re just fine. That’s the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world.

What is the biggest Muslim state in the world? Indonesia. And what’s the relation between the United States and Indonesia? Well, actually the United States was hostile to Indonesia until 1965. That’s because Indonesia was part of the nonaligned movement. The United States hated Nehru, despised him in fact, for exactly the same reason. So they despised Indonesia. It was independent. Furthermore, it was a dangerous country because it had one mass-based political party, the PKI, which was a party of the poor, a party of peasants, basically. And it was gaining power through the open democratic system, therefore it had to be stopped.



The US tried to stop it in 1958 by supporting a rebellion. That failed. They then started supporting the Indonesian Army, and in 1965 the army carried out a coup, led by General Suharto. They carried out a huge massacre of hundreds of thousands, maybe a million people (mostly landless peasants), and wiped out the only mass-based party. This led to unrestrained euphoria in the West. The United States, Britain, Australia – it was such a glorious event that they couldn’t control themselves.

The headlines were, ‘A gleam of light in Asia’, ‘A hope where there once was none’, ‘The Indonesian moderates have carried out a boiling bloodbath’. I mean, they didn’t conceal what happened – ‘Staggering mass slaughter’, ‘The greatest event in history’. The CIA compared it to the massacres of Stalin and Hitler, and that was wonderful. And ever since that time, Indonesia became a favoured ally of the United States.

It continued to have one of the bloodiest records in the late twentieth century (mass murder in East Timor, hideous tortures of dissidents, and so on), but it was fine. It was the biggest Islamic state in the world, but it was just fine. Suharto was ‘our kind of guy’, the way Clinton described him when he visited in the mid-nineties. And he stayed a friend of the United States until he made a mistake. He made a mistake by dragging his feet over IMF orders.

After the Asian crash, the IMF imposed very harsh orders, and Suharto didn’t go along the way he was supposed to. And he also lost control of the society. That’s also a mistake. So at that point the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, gave him a telephone call, and said literally, ‘We think it’s time for a democratic transition.’ Merely by accident, four hours later he abdicated, but Indonesia remained a US favourite.



These are two of the main Islamic states. What about the extreme Islamic fundamentalist non-state actors, let’s say the Al Qaeda network. Who formed them? They’re the creation of the CIA, British intelligence, Saudi Arabian funding, Egypt and so on. They brought the most extreme radical fundamentalists they could find anywhere, in North Africa or the Middle East, and trained them, armed them, nurtured them to harass the Russians – not to help the Afghans. These guys were carrying out terrorism from the beginning. They assassinated President Saddat twenty years ago. But they were the main groups supported by the US. So, where is the clash of civilizations?

Let’s move a little further. During the 1980s, the United States carried out a major war in Central America. A couple of hundred thousand people were killed, four countries almost destroyed, I mean it was a vast war. Who was the target of that war? Well, one of the main targets was the Catholic Church. The decade of the 1980s began with the assassination of an archbishop. It ended with the assassination of six leading Jesuit intellectuals, including the rector of the main university. They were killed by basically the same people – terrorist forces, organized and armed and trained by the United States.



During that period, plenty of church people were killed. Hundreds of thousands of peasants and poor people also died, as usual, but one of the main targets was the Catholic Church. Why? Well, the Catholic Church had committed a grievous sin in Latin America. For hundreds of years, it had been the church of the rich. That was fine. But in the 1960s, the Latin American bishops adopted what they called a ‘preferential option for the poor.’ At that point they became like this mass-based political party in Indonesia, which was a party of the poor and the peasants and naturally it had to be wiped out. So the Catholic Church had to be smashed.

Coming back to the beginning, just where is the clash of civilizations? I mean, there is a clash alright. There is a clash with those who are adopting the preferential option for the poor no matter who they are. They can be Catholics, they can be Communists, they can be anything else. They can be white, black, green, anything. Western terror is totally ecumenical. It’s not really racist – they’ll kill anybody who takes the wrong stand on the major issues.

But if you’re an intellectual, you can’t say that. Because it’s too obviously true. And you can’t let people understand what is obviously true. You have to create deep theories, that can be understood only if you have a PhD from Harvard or something. So we have a clash of civilizations, and we’re supposed to worship that. But it makes absolutely no sense.


* Based on the transcript of a lecture delivered at the Delhi School of Economics on 5 November 2001, to be published by Oxford University Press. Thanks are due to Ingrid Evjen-Elias and Emma Schwartz for help with the transcription.