The clash of civilisations: fuelling Islamophobia?

Initially, the concept of “clash of civilisations” was coined by Bernard Lewis in 1957 when he argued that Islam and the West have antithetical values that could only be resolved through a conflict. His idea did not gather much attention from scholars because at that time the West had a more important issue to deal with, and that was the Soviet expansion. But after the Cold War, the West needed a new ideology to fight against, and it was then that Samuel Huntington took up Lewis’ idea and generated his “clash of civilisations” thesis.

Huntington’s thesis came out in 1993 as a rebuttal to Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History” book. Fukuyama, in his scholarship, argued that the world had been bipolar during the Cold War, and that the war was between two ideologies; Communism and Capitalism. According to End of History, there will be no conflicts at global level in the post-Cold War world and all countries will adopt the model of liberal democracy brought forward by the West. Huntington negated this idea and maintained that the post-Cold War world will not be conflict-free; rather the conflicts among countries will be based on cultural differences. He divided the world into “major civilisations”; Islamic, Hindu, Sinic, Japanese, Orthodox, African, Latin American, and Western civilisations. 

For West, targeting Islam and its followers was a new strategy to define its ideology. One unifying factor for the Western world was to disseminate Islamophobic content through media and literature, and Huntington took part in it by producing his “clash of civilisations”. “The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness”, argues Huntington in his thesis. The West needed a new target in the post-Cold War world and they found it in the form of Sino-Islamic civilisations. 

Edward Said, Palestinian American academic, criticised Huntington’s notion in his “The Clash of Ignorance”. He argues that Huntington’s thesis was greatly hailed by the West and especially by Americans because it “was intended to supply Americans with an original thesis about a new phase in world politics after the end of the cold war”.

The “clash of civilisations” thesis is a reductionist, over-simplistic, and narrow approach adopted by Huntington which neglects economic, geopolitical and sociopolitical aspects that divide nations and focuses only on the civilisational and cultural aspects of conflict. It also ignores the sectarian schism among Muslims, mainly between Shia and Sunni sects, and talks about Muslims as a whole. Keeping this argument in view, seeds of Islamophobia were sown specifically against Shiite Muslims after the Iranian Revolution in the last decades of the 20th century, and West supported Muslims and Sunni Jihadist groups in Afghanistan against the Soviet expansion.

Huntington also targets Islam for the rise of authoritarianism in the Muslim world. He maintains “Islamic culture explains in large part the failure of democracy to emerge in much of the Muslim world”. This argument seems to be amalgamating the historical aspects of Islam with its doctrinal dimension. This narrative can be countered by flicking through a thought provoking project, “Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison”, written by Ahmet T. Kuru, a professor of Political Science at the University of San Diego. Professor Kuru, through comparative and historical analysis, criticises the essentialist approach which targets Islam, as a religion, for causing political and economic stagnation in the Muslim world. Kuru traces the present-day authoritarian practices in the Muslim countries to the “ulema-state alliance” that originated in the eleventh century. 

Overall, Huntington’s approach is too general and ignores certain aspects of conflicts in the world. It also targets the religion, Islam, for propagating extremism and orthodox culture.

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