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Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Between Fallacy and Fulfillment: Dismantling the Re-emergence of the Clash of Civilizations Narrative

Mwahaki King
B.A. Diplomacy and World Affairs | Occidental College
M.A. Law and Diplomacy | The Fletcher School, Tufts University
December 2015

Between Fallacy and Fulfillment: Dismantling the Re-emergence of the Clash of Civilizations Narrative
Recently, terrorist attacks in New York, London and Paris have resurrected the “clash of civilizations” narrative that pits Islam and the West as monolithic entities locked in an eternal battle with one another for supremacy and domination. Mainstream media and political candidates in the United States have taken this up with fervor, preying on the American populace’s fear and inciting rampant Islamophobia. The “clash of civilizations” is not only an antiquated and lazy term that minimalizes an entire religion [1] and casually ignores centuries of communication, trade and peaceful cross-cultural co-existence [2]; but it is also highly dangerous to the safety of Muslims everywhere as they are forced to live in a climate of fear at the mercy of the bigoted, ignorant or simply misinformed. Furthermore, Muslims like any other group of people are individuals and as such react to and process information differently from one another. There is no singular reaction when accused of being inherently dangerous and naturally predisposed to violence. Some moderate Muslims react by distancing themselves from such benighted and incendiary claims, while others fueled by anger, resentment or socioeconomic inequalities can become radicalized by such remarks. As such, the “clash of civilizations” can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy when manipulated by the media, politicians and those with no understanding of historical nuance. Quite frankly, it serves as a divide and conquer tactic that is counter-productive for anyone truly interested in proactively confronting and eradicating Islamic terrorism [3] and violent extremism. 
This paper seeks to disarm the potency of the “clash of civilizations” narrative in modern discourse, demonstrating that it can be both a fallacy and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Its promotion as a viable argument in the Western world is irresponsible and reckless as it endangers both Muslims and non-Muslims by accentuating differences and fostering a climate of fear that ultimately benefits radical extremists. When dismantling the clash of civilizations narrative one cannot avoid addressing Samuel Huntington’s 1993 historic article on the subject. His piece captured the imagination of academics, politicians and the mainstream media alike, as a neat and convenient phrase which blamed any conflict between predominantly Muslim countries and predominantly Christian, “Western” countries on a primordial antagonism and intrinsic cultural differences that could not be overcome. It was believed that in the post-Cold War era this ancient clash of civilizations would come to dominate global interactions and politics. This argument was coupled with the security dilemma and the need for Western civilization to bolster its military capacity in defense against the increasing power of non-Western civilizations in this new world order. 
It is evident that cultural differences exist between predominantly Muslim countries and those that were developed in the more Greco-Roman and Christian traditions. It is also undeniable that Western civilization has historically wronged the Middle East and North Africa. [4] The majority of the problems seen in the region today can be traced to European actions during and after the First World War of imperial mismanagement, deception and manipulation. Huntington’s concept of an inevitable clash of civilizations, however is overly simplistic. He posits that,
The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another….The world is becoming a smaller place. The interactions between peoples of different civilizations are increasing; these increasing interactions intensify civilization consciousness and awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations. North African immigration to France generates hostility among Frenchmen and at the same time increased receptivity to immigration by "good'' European Catholic Poles…The interactions among peoples of different civilizations enhance the civilization-consciousness of people that, in turn, invigorates differences and animosities stretching or thought to stretch back deep into history.[5]
A closer look at this argument demonstrates the way in which the “clash of civilizations” is used to blame antagonism and conflict on longstanding cultural differences, and exonerate Westerners for the practical and tangible role they have played in in the modern era in creating resentment in foreigners. The French/North African situation is a prime example of this as it ignores the legacy of colonialism, imperialism and abuse of power by French authorities in North African territories. Moreover, it disregards the relegation of Muslims to ghettos and the contemporary French policy of assimilation that strips immigrants of color of any cultural symbols that do not adhere to a French notion of secularism; which is remarkably white and Catholic. This undoubtedly leaves the French Muslim population feeling alienated, isolated and frustrated. It is this alienation and othering promoted by French officials which is often exacerbated by socioeconomic disparities that leads to conflict; not an ancient intrinsic cultural enmity between the French and North Africa.
Nevertheless, partially due to certain cultural differences and how amenable the phrase is to the modern sound bite; the “clash of civilizations” argument remains a prominent one in the conversation on modern terrorism. It is often evoked by European and American media and political pundits in the wake of terrorist attacks as a means of explaining such atrocities, and as such the dangers of promoting this narrative must be explored. 
Perils of Promoting the Clash of Civilizations Argument
The problem with promulgating an “us versus them”, “Clash of Civilizations” dichotomy is that it otherizes Muslims. That is, it highlights both imagined and authentic differences between the Muslim minority and the predominantly white majority. This in turn breeds fear and contempt which increases Islamophobia and leads to social exclusion and even acts of intimidation and violence against Muslims. Additionally, the “clash of civilizations” narrative ignores the economic inequalities between the Muslim minority and “Western” majority that fuel resentment. Ultimately social alienation and socioeconomic disparity can in certain instances lead to increased radicalization among Muslims. 
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, politicians in both Europe and America promoted this “us versus them”, “Clash of Civilizations” dynamic with disastrous consequences for their Muslim populations.[6] Islamophobia spread rapidly and there was a dramatic increase in mosque vandalization and attacks on hijabi Muslim women and those who were easily identifiable as Muslim:
The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia reported that Islamophobia dramatically increased in the EU member states in the aftermath of 9/11. It noted that “Muslims, especially Muslim women, asylum seekers and others, including those who ‘look’ Muslim or of Arab descent were at times targeted for aggression. Mosques and Islamic cultural centers were also widely targeted for damage and retaliatory acts.” Since then, Islamophobia has strengthened in Europe…The monitoring center found that Islam is seen in many European countries as a monolithic bloc, engaged in a clash of civilizations, aggressive and supportive of terrorism.[7]
Anti-Muslim aggression has only intensified in light of the recent attacks in November in Paris. Naturally, this is in part due to Western shock and fear; but it has been inflamed by the Islamophobic manner in which the media and politicians have responded to the attacks.
In the days since the Paris terrorist attacks, Muslims in New York and elsewhere have guarded against a violent backlash, changing their routines and trying to manage their fear. Still, the violence has come. In the past week and a half, several Muslims in New York, mostly women wearing head scarves, have reported being victims of verbal abuse and physical assault…In an episode the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported this week, two Muslim women in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn said that a man claiming to be a postal worker assaulted them, elbowing one and spitting in her face, and telling them he was going to burn down their “temple.”…“We’ve never seen so much backlash against the Muslim community” said Sadyia Khalique, director of operations for the New York office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “I’m frightened.”… While Muslims in the United States say they have come to expect an anti-Islamic reaction to any major terrorist attack on Western soil carried out in the name of Islam, the vitriolic response to the Paris attacks has found an accelerant in Congress and the American presidential campaign. Islamophobia spurred by the Paris attacks has been bolstered by Republican candidates’ provocative statements about Muslim refugees from Syria, and by the vote in the House of Representatives to halt the resettlement of those refugees in the United States…These developments, Muslim leaders say, have in effect sanctioned and encouraged anti-Islamic sentiment in the broader population.[8]
As noted before, the “Clash of Civilizations” model not only allows Islamophobia to thrive unchallenged, but the argument also disregards the modern dilemma of economic inequality for immigrant, predominantly Muslim communities caused by negligence on the part of Western governments. It is irrefutable that Muslim communities in Europe face much higher levels of housing discrimination [9] and unemployment than the wider society:
The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, for example, noted in 2006 that “differences in wages, type of employment or unemployment rates of migrants, of which a significant proportion belong to Muslim faith groups, indicate persistent exclusion, disadvantage and discrimination.” In Great Britain, Muslims had the highest male and female unemployment rate (13 and 18 percent respectively) in 2004. A report published by the Open Society Institute’s EU Monitoring and Advocacy Program confirmed that Muslims were three times more likely to be unemployed than the Christian majority and had the highest level of economic inactivity (52 percent)…In Germany in 2006, the largest Muslim group (Turks) had an unemployment rate of 21 percent, contrasted with only 8 percent for the general population. In the Netherlands, unemployment among Moroccan and Turkish communities was higher than the national average in 2006: a 9 percent unemployment rate for native Dutch, compared with 27 percent for Moroccans and 21 percent for Turks. In Ireland 11 percent of Muslims were unemployed, compared with a national average of 4 percent. In Belgium the unemployment rate for Moroccan and Turkish nationals (38 percent) was five times higher than the unemployment rate for native Belgians (7 percent). It would be misleading to attribute this socioeconomic exclusion only to religious factors. Other interrelated factors (such as educational and professional qualifications, as well as language skills) also have an impact on the situation of Muslims. Nevertheless, there is evidence, based on experiments in employers’ recruitment practices, that discrimination based on religion does play a prominent role. In 2004 the French Monitoring Center on Discrimination, for example, found that a person from the Maghreb had a 20 percent chance of that of a native of getting a positive reply from a prospective employer. [10]
One cannot say that every Muslim who lives in impoverished circumstances will become radicalized. In fact, radical Muslims comprise a very small percentage of the overall population. [11] However, these situations of deprivation in addition to exclusion from the wider society can play a pivotal role in the radicalization process. Much more so than historic cultural differences, and as such should be given far more primacy in the anti-terrorism discussion than the clash of civilizations narrative. As D’Appollonia asserts in a chapter of her poignant work, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe entitled “Radicalization in the West”:
“What really matters is the sense of frustration and resentment expressed by young Muslims. Alienation may be either real or perceived; but in both cases it may lead to radicalization when dashed expectations regarding social status generate a sense of humiliation...the securitization of immigration and integration policies is today producing similar results on both sides of the Atlantic: discrimination against Muslims limits their opportunities to integrate, and thus aggravates their sense of alienation.” [12]
The impact of social exclusion and economic deprivation on potential radicalization is patent. What is not discussed nearly as often, is the political disenfranchisement of the Muslim population. This is another issue that is particularly glaring in Europe:
Political disaffection is often increased by a sense of political impotence, such as that which emerged in the wake of demonstrations in Europe that failed to stop the war in Iraq. The feeling of being unable to exert meaningful political influence is exacerbated by a lack of civic and political integration. Enfranchisement is indeed a persistent problem. In France about 50 percent of the Muslim population, mostly of Maghrebian origin, is French. The large majority, however, is under eighteen years of age and for this reason cannot vote. In Germany, where there are about three million Muslims, 80 percent of them do not have German citizenship and are therefore excluded from the right to vote. In the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, 50 percent of the Muslim population cannot vote either. More to the point, 70 percent of British Muslims believe that Muslims are politically underrepresented. There are, characteristically, thirty Muslims elected to Western European parliaments, out of an estimated population of ten to fifteen million. [13]
Political and Media Manipulation of the “Clash of Civilizations” Narrative
While it is apparent that social alienation, financial inequities and political insignificance combine to demonstrate a more holistic and authentic correlation to radicalization; politicians and by extension the media continue to pursue the clash of civilization discourse as causation for the increase in Islamic terrorism. It is arguable that blaming culture provides politicians with a convenient scapegoat for their failures in addressing economic disparity and failing infrastructure. Thus, in the short term it can be politically cunning to do so and enact stringent measures that specifically target Muslims:
Horrific terrorist attacks, like those of Sept. 11, 2001, have a way of sweeping away careful political reflection in favor of emotion. Hand in hand with a propensity to respond overwhelmingly with armed force comes a temptation for governments to grab more powers and exempt themselves from longstanding rules in ways that undermine the foundations of democracy. These governments then devise legal and military tools never used before, arguing that their precursors have proved too weak against terrorism. The impulse to stop and think about checks and balances is derided as cowardice, if not treason, by the most obtuse partisans of security measures. …Under pressure from the conservative right in the former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s new Republican Party and the xenophobic right in Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Mr. Hollande may be hoping to curb criticism from adversaries who accuse him of “incompetence” in the fight against terrorism. But it is unlikely that Mr. Hollande can win the competition, over who will be the most suspicious and repressive toward France’s Muslims. As he should know, there’s always a bigger demagogue around. Take Mr. Sarkozy. He’s suggested that 11,000 people now flagged as potential “radicals” be put under house arrest, and an even more draconian suggestion from the right is internment.” [14]
However in the long-term, promoting this clash of civilizations argument along with the security dilemma that accompanies it, is highly detrimental as it creates greater division and a cyclical dimension to Muslim exclusion in Western society. Too often, politicians take the easy road of fearmongering and Muslim alienation. As one observer notes in light of Francois Hollande’s response to the November 2015 Paris attacks by ISIL; it would be much more beneficial in the fight against terrorism if more liberal politicians would take responsibility and rebuff the clash of civilizations narrative so often espoused by their more conservative colleagues:
While defending ourselves is a must, it might have been nice had a French Socialist president stepped up as an educator, preferring pedagogy to demagogy. He should be reminding his fellow French citizens that defeating the Islamic State will come about in this “homeland of the rights of man” only through respect for democracy and our historic openness to foreigners, immigrants, people fleeing persecution — the people France has admitted only parsimoniously during Europe’s migrant crisis. For if France turns from its traditions, the Islamic State attacks will have fulfilled their purpose: to show Muslims living in France who are overwhelmingly hostile to Islamic fundamentalism that they will never be accepted as citizens on an equal footing — that, in short, France is their enemy. If that day ever comes, there will be many more young French Muslims turning toward radical Islam.” 
For the wider society, the media uses the “clash of civilizations” to present Western, Christian culture as superior to Islam and exonerate the average man from his prejudice and biases towards Muslims. As Edward Said outlines in in his aptly titled response to Huntington and his supporters, The Clash of Ignorance:
Uncountable are the editorials in every American and European newspaper and magazine of note adding to this vocabulary of gigantism and apocalypse, each use of which is plainly designed not to edify but to inflame the reader's indignant passion as a member of the "West," and what we need to do. Churchillian rhetoric is used inappropriately by self-appointed combatants in the West's, and especially America's, war against its haters, despoilers, destroyers, with scant attention to complex histories that defy such reductiveness and have seeped from one territory into another, in the process overriding the boundaries that are supposed to separate us all into divided armed camps. [15]
The financial and social isolation of European Muslims is aggravated by actively negative depictions of Muslims in the media across the continent.  European media is responsible for advancing a negative image of Islam as a monolithic bloc of repression that is backwards in its practices and is incongruous with Western interpretations of progress and enlightenment. As D’Appolonnia affirms,
This same [clash of civilizations] narrative is also supported by some European intellectuals. In the Netherlands the prominent philosophy professor Herman Philipse has made numerous appearances claiming that Islam is a violent tribal culture incompatible with modernity and democracy. In the same vein, media coverage about Islam in Germany is dominated by controversies about mosque constructions, forced marriage, honor killings, and the ban of the veil. These controversies have been recently reignited by the large popular impact of a book on the ‘threats posed by Muslims to Germany’ written by Thilo Sarrazin, a Social Democratic politician and a former member of the executive board of the Bundesbank. [16]
Repeatedly subjecting Muslims to these negative media portrayals can in fact be counterintuitive in Western societies, as it increases resentment and feelings of oppression and exclusion. This in turn, can make certain sectors of the Muslim population more amenable extremism.
Manipulation of the “Clash of Civilizations” Narrative by Extremists and the Self-fulfilling Prophecy of Radicalization: 
It must be said that Westerns are not the only ones who manipulate the “clash of civilizations” discourse. Islamic extremists often used the villianization of Islam as fodder for recruitment and radicalization, and as such the narrative becomes self-actualized:
The so-called clash of civilizations, in fact, works both ways: a large portion of Westerners share a negative image of both Islam and Muslims; this trend provides ammunition to certain militant groups in promoting their message that there is a fundamental conflict between the West and Islam. This symmetrical construction of a West-Islam antagonism normalizes restrictive and punitive counterterrorist measures while simultaneously creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which imprisoned, tortured and harassed activists decide that the use of violence is their only recourse. [17]
Furthermore, the villianization of Islam as an intrinsically violent religion coupled with Western acts of aggression in the modern era against Muslims creates a stark divide between the West and Islam and makes victims of the Muslim population. This division and victimhood is then easily exploited by extremists:
Self-proclaimed crusaders therefore depict terrorism as a necessary means, justifying their criminal activities by listing state and war crimes committed by Western democracies. Radical preachers and jihadist activists make capital out of institutional discrimination (as illustrated by racial profiling, arbitrary detention, and deportation), as well as a range of international and domestic issues including the Guantanamo prison camp, the Abu Ghraib abuses and other examples of the use of torture, the practice of extraordinary rendition (also associated with torture), and the designation of “unlawful enemy combatant.” These perceived injustices galvanize the notion of a “just cause,” calls for revenge, and a culture of martyrdom. [18]
Edward Said ends The Clash of Ignorance by stating that “These are tense times, but it is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis. ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is a gimmick like ‘The War of the Worlds’, better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.” This argument is just as valid today as it was when it was written fourteen years ago, if not more so. At its best the “Clash of Civilizations” narrative is a hollow hyper-exaggeration of differences between Muslims and non-Muslims, with no real potency. At its worst, it is a dangerous diversionary tactic used to remove attention from politicians’ social and economic integration failures; that feeds on Western hysteria, fuels Islamophobia and can act as an unfortunate catalyst for radicalization. 

1. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2010 and published in 2011, 1.6 billion or approximately 23.4 % of the world’s population identifies as Muslim; making it the second largest religion worldwide. 

2.  As Edward Said argues, “Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make "civilizations" and "identities" into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing” The Clash of Ignorance, The Nation. October 4, 2001 | p.2 

3. I say Islamic not because terrorism is Islamic by nature but rather the opposite. Terrorism takes many different forms in modern society, from mass school shootings and the murder of black churchgoers in South Carolina to the intimidation of professionals and students of color at American universities by white supremacists. In this case, the word “Islamic” is used to describe terrorism because the proponents of this brand of terrorism believe their actions are justified through their specific interpretation of Islam. An interpretation, it is important to note that is not held by the majority of the global Muslim population.
4. And arguably the African continent, Latin America, the Caribbean and indigenous populations in North America through centuries of slavery and colonialism.

5. Samuel P. Huntington. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993 | p.3 

6. “Europe-wide statistics on the extent of anti- Muslim attacks are unavailable because figures are hard to collect in many countries or, as in France, the authorities remain vague about the ethnic origin and religion of complainants. When data are reliable, they reveal an alarming level of intolerance toward Muslims. Germany recorded a 40 percent increase in racist crimes in 2004, while the London-based Islamic Human Rights Commission reported a thirteen-fold increase in backlash complaints about such activities in Britain since the 9/11 attacks. FAIR, the UK’s leading NGO on Islamophobia, recorded over fifty cases of violence against Muslims property, including places of worship, and over one hundred cases of verbal threats and abusive behavior in 2004–5. As in Europe, racial profiling and anti-Islamic sentiments have increased in the United States since 9/11. The government’s actions against Arabs and Muslims have fueled the belief that discrimination against them is legitimate, if necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks. Racial profiling can take place while Muslims are driving, walking, shopping, traveling through airports, and even while at home, since U.S. legislation allows speculative raids of public housing.” Ariane Chebel D’Appollonia. “Radicalization in the West”. Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe p.171

7. Ibid p.169

8.  Kirk Semple. “‘I’m Frightened’: After Attacks in Paris, New York Muslims Cope with a Backlash”. The New York Times. November 25, 2015 

9. “The EUMC report showed that housing is overall much poorer for immigrants, who often face discrimination and sometimes are violently excluded. The report stated that, in Germany, minorities clearly live in spatially segregated areas with poorer quality housing. In the United Kingdom, over two-thirds of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live in low-income households. Nearly a quarter live in overcrowded houses, while only 2 percent of the white population does the same” D’Appollonia pp. 174-5

10. Ibid p.174

11.  “Radicalization involves only a tiny minority of Muslims. In Europe, where the total Muslim population is estimated to be fifteen million, fewer than ten thousand militants are considered even to be a threat by the security services. This equates to less than 0.07 percent of the Muslim community.” D’Appollonia p.173

12.  Ibid p.179

13. Ibid p.184

14. Sylvain Cypel. “Hollande’s War on Liberties” The Opinion Pages, The New York Times. November 24, 2015

15. Edward W. Said. The Clash of Ignorance, The Nation. October 4, 2001 | p.2 

16.“Radicalization in the West”. Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe pp. 184-5

17. Ibid p.182

18. Ibid p.183
Cypel, Sylvain. "Hollande’s War on Liberties." The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2015. << >>

D’Appollonia, Ariane Chebel.  “Radicalization in the West”. Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe. 1st ed. Cornell University Press, 2012. 165–198. "Executive Summary". The Future of the Global Muslim Population. Pew Research Center. 27 January 2011

Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?”. Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993. 

Said, Edward W. "The Clash of Ignorance." The Nation. The Nation, 04 Oct. 2001. << >>

Semple, Kirk. "‘I’m Frightened’: After Attacks in Paris, New York Muslims Cope With a Backlash." The New York Times. The New York Times, 25 Nov. 2015.