The Clash of Civilizations Theory: A Critique
The Clash of Civilization Ideology
The Islamic fundamentalists are also to be assessed as victims of the clash of civilization ideology which is pervading the global relations nowadays. In the aftermath of 9/11, the Bush administration truly believed that the Muslim world could be ameliorated if the principles of liberal markets and individual freedoms were to be actually established in these regions. To understand the cultural, political and socio-economics of the West, however, we have to trace a line of continuity between then and the emergence of the unipolar world system, dominated by the United States. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its alternative politico-economic model, the world entered from the 1990s onwards into what has been called by the political scientist Francis Fukuyama “end of history”. According to him, in the post-Cold War time period, Europe’s liberal democracy and the market economy would finally be acknowledged as the best form of government and socio-economic human organization. In 1993, Samuel Huntington published an article in which he formulated the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, for which he claimed that in the post-Cold War era conflicts between the world’s populations would not occur along ideological fractures anymore, but would be structured around cultural and religious lines. Accordingly, the West was to establish its uncontested cultural, political and economic superiority over the rest of the world’s civilizations, especially the Muslim one.
This ideological framework profoundly impacted the global geopolitical scenario. The wars launched by George W. Bush and Tony Blair, apparently initiated to democratise the Muslim world and establish peace and security, brought about devastating consequences due to the imposition of neo-liberalism and economic exploitation. Thereafter, their successors and the other Western political leaders, such as Barack Obama and Angela Merkel, progressively distanced and retreated themselves from the Middle East to promote a peaceful existence with the Muslim countries. Finally, with the Muslim ban issued on the 27th of January 2017, the Trump administration showed the absence of any hope that the Islamic world could still be improved. As the tycoon stated in referring to the failed American campaign in Afghanistan, “state-building is not our priority anymore”. This distrustful ad suspicious attitude towards the Arab and Muslim world is well-reflected in xenophobia and Islamophobia, the strongholds upon which the populists base their political campaigns on. As defined by the PVV leader Geert Wilders, the 3rd most powerful party in the Netherlands and first in the Limburg region, Islam is assessed to be a “totalitarian ideology aimed to establish despotic rue”. The interconnected problems of immigration and the threatening presence of Islam minorities are so deeply correlated, accordingly, that they essentially represent the same problem. Due to the fact that populists want to simplify the complexity of reality for the common people, distinctions of internal variants that compose the Islamic world are not tolerated, since they do not fit into the narrative told by Erdogan, Putin and Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, Orban and all the others. Trump, for instance, exemplifies the strong Western leader, the defensor of Christianity, perfectly fittig into the ideology of the clash of civilizations. The attempt to establish economic neo-liberalism was not necessary anymore to justify the military invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan because this theoretical framework already served its purpose. This ideology has led to the loss of hope in the possibility to ameliorate the Islamic people, considered an aggressive and violent subgroup of humanity. The Islamic fundamentalists and Trump have therefore complementary ideas about history, exacerbating the divisions between them. The clash of civilization hinders a fruitful relationship between the Islamic religion and the values of modernity such as gender equality, technological progress and representative democracy.
The progressive and modern Muslim societies prior to WWI
Let’s analyse the historical steps of this relationship. In the so-called “long 19th century”, which ended in 1914 with the outburst of World War One, the main cultural and political centres of the Islamic world came in contact with modernity and experimented social and technological transformations far more radical than the European countries. Dynamic and changing societies with new political parties, feminist and national movements were evolving in Egypt, Iran and Turkey and other countries. The wealthy women in Al Cairo, Istanbul and Tehran could educate themselves, get married and travel by themselves. Moreover, in Iran and Turkey parliamentary democracies were established and far more consolidated than in the European countries. As innovative concepts about power and autonomy were spread and democratic feelings arose, the conservatives, endorsed by the poorer and less educated social classes, wanted to halt this wave of progress and democratisation.
The post-World World War One Era: Western neo-colonialism in the Muslim countries
In the aftermath of the First World War the European countries, specifically England and France, profited from the geopolitical global chaos created by the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Whereas the peace-makers in Versailles advocated the principle of self-determination for the European people, the Middle East countries were denied this right previously promised by the Allied. Great Britain extended its control over the Suez Canal and the former Ottoman Empire’s territories were placed under the authority of the newly formed League of Nations. Moreover, while France gained Syria and Lebanon, the UK acquired Iraq, Palestine and Transjordan. The Middle East’s people were defined as “unable to stand up by themselves in this particularly difficult historical period of the modern world”. Remember Napoleon, the pig-leader in “Animal’s farm”? Wasn’t he deciding on behalf of the all animals not caring a bit about what everyone desired for himself? Same story here. “No, you are equal to me but you’re unable to decide so I do it for you” Napoleon would say. Same story here with France and England. They had all the interest to keep these populations unable to implement a democratic process toward political freedom. In respect to Turkey, after being invaded during WWI by the Allied, it was capable of liberating itself due to the rise of the resistance national movement led by Mustafa Kemal, later to be known as “Ataturk”, the Father of Turkey.
Next to Turkey, in Iran, things were not great either in the post-WWI period. The British attempted to establish a protectorate but the nationalists were opposed. In 1925 Resa Shah Pahlavi seized the power by promising the UK to protect the interests of the British oil companies, concentrated in the petroleum-rich southeast part of the country. In the 1920s and 1930s of the 20th century, due to the fear of a second Western colonization, history took a path that foreshadowed the conflictual relation between these ‘civilizations’. Whereas at the beginning of the 20th century, in Iran, Turkey and Egypt, the democratic-parliamentary institutions were empowered, in the inter-war period the only goal Middle East countries’ leaders was to get rid of the Western interference. Naturally, the foreign European powers countered this reaction. In 1953, violating the national sovereignty of Iran, the CIA and the British Secret Services managed to topple the popular President Mohammad Mossadegh to punish him for having nationalized the oil industry. The consequences of the Western economic colonialism and political interference in the Middle East were, are and will be absolutely devastating. The Western rulers such as Ataturk and Reza Shah countered the threat of being colonized by embracing the same authoritarian and despotic means of the European countries such as Mussolini’s Italy. But the whole other Muslims who opposed laic and strong leaders reacted in a different way. They saw in the godless modern society the proof that Islam gave up its moral integrity and values by giving up to the Western world. This overarching and powerful ideology called “Islamism” began to employ religion for political purposes, firmly believing in the necessity of the clash between the Islamic and Judaic-Christian civilizations. It represented a fierce reaction to the aggressive geopolitical aims of the European colonial powers after WWI. Whereas between the mid-19th century and beginning of the 20th century the Islamic world witnessed a historical phase of political liberalization and socio-economic progress, the post-WWI period had been characterized by an opposing trend as a result of the rise and spread of Islamism. As the “Sublime Door”, the Ottoman Empire, impeded in the course of the 19th century, with the collapse of this pivotal political entity, the Western nation-states could finally expand their tentacles in the Near and Middle East oil rich countries.
Anti-Western feelings and reactions: The rise of Islamism and Religious Extremism
Out of the boiling pot of feelings such as social resentment and discontent, modern Islamism emerged. Weren’t those the same feelings exploited by authoritarian leaders and populist politicians to come to power? Weren’t those the same feelings of the oppressed, the discontent, the unheard, the excluded, the marginalized and the desperate? As populism is complementary to Islamism, which in turn represents an alternative project of modernity which differs and opposes the whole Western world, its values and cultural structure. Since Islamism is an ideology, it can’t coexist with other ones. Many of us believe that the jihad, the war that the Islamic State is pursuing against Western civilization is the war between religions, but it is actually the war between the Islamic religion and another religion: capitalism. Islam didn’t call a war against to the West. The West declared war against the Islamic religion with the economic capitalist system, a religion which threatens to destroy all of the other religions of transcendence. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Communism proved that as an ideology it could not coexist with any other ideology, such religion and capitalism. After the end of the communist model, his rival ideology, economic capitalism and liberalization was to be established globally by the West but couldn’t deal with powerful ideologies such as religions. The Islamic and Christian religions are fruitful resources of resistance and collective identities against the holiness of the markets and their perfect mechanisms. Islamists and Christians, persuaded by the clash of civilization ideology sold by Isis and the populists respectively, believe to fight a war against one another, but they are actually fighting the same one: the disruptive effect of markets’ widening and economic liberalism on the world social fabric. The opposite of transcendence religions such as Islam and Christianism is represented by the profit-based capitalism system, which worsens social relations and atomizes individuals into their purely economic interests. Capitalism is by its very definition is atheist, nihilist and, as Marx teaches us, builds a cultural and political construction based on a power relationship by which the privileged social classes strengthen and maintain their dominant position over the poor and uneducated masses. These masses are the angry populists’ voters, the impoverished immigrants and the dissatisfied Muslims, whose rise respectively brought about political authoritarianism, the humanitarian crisis of the immigrants and religious terrorism, shaking the politico-historical foundation of the Western world: democracy. At the end of the 1920s, the Islamic Brothers were established in Egypt to restore the Muslim values of piety, parsimony and solidarity that had been eroded by the materialist and money based West. Moreover, during WWII the UK overthrow a government unfriendly to them and kept under tight control the troublesome Al Banna, the founder of this resistance movement who opposed the imposition of Western ‘democracy’. By the end of the war, the Islamic Brothers began to attack the British military bases or killed the politicians who were not sufficiently against the newly created Israeli state. After the Gamel Abdel Nasser seized the power at the expense of the king Faruq, arrested and tortured the Islamic Brothers’ sympathizers and eliminated every opponent of his laicism project. He nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 and achieved a closer political union with Syria, which just gained independence from France. His political prestige was stained by his defeat to Israel in the Six Days’ War in 1967. The counter-Enlightenment movement of the Islamic Brothers began to rapidly spread in the Middle East by the end of the 1970s. Recently, in 2013 a military coup headed by the general al-Sisi established a brutal police-state which led the killings of thousands of political opponents, including the young Italian activist Giulio Regeni. In respect to Iran in 1979, the politico-religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini carried out a state coup against the last Shah of Iran Pahlavi and from then onwards the religious fundamentalists were not inclined to trust Western ‘democracy’ anymore, advocating the return to the traditional values of the past.
In Turkey, similar events occurred. The laic reforms pursued by Ataturk were countered by the post-WWII Islamization, culminated in 2002 with the victory of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, with the upcoming constitutional reform that could further enhance his powers, aims to ‘legally’ establish a dictatorship. Militarism in Egypt, authoritarianism in Turkey, theocracy in Iran and absolute chaos in the rest of the Middle East: this is the political outcome of Western colonialism imposed after WWI, which deeply destabilized these regions. And how to forget the artificial creation of the Israeli state in 1947, which has always been backed by the West and thus have had a huge military advantage with respect to the Palestinians? With the good excuse of giving a land to the Jews after the Holocaust, the Western powers have been able to acquire a strategic foothold in the Middle East. Although a UN resolution has recently been approved to halt the colonization of Palestine, for decades the local populations of this region were forced to leave their homelands and practically deported. The Western countries led to a clear divergence between the artificially drawn borders and the real ethnocultural territorial divisions. As the emergence of Islamism was fuelled by the West’s aggressive policies and by the rise laic authoritarian leaders, supporters of the Western countries, with the same mechanism as a result of the 2004 Iraqi invasion Islamism evolved into Jihadism. According to the latter’s ideology, Western economic thinking, based on material progress and intertwined with the exploitation of other populations is to be fiercely resisted.
Final Reflections Western colonization of the Africa and Asia began from 1860 onwards and the Middle East in the aftermath of WWI, brought about great socio-economic discrepancies between Europe and the rest of the world. Not only that. It also determined the emergence of thorny world phenomenon such as immigration and terrorism that are extremely difficult to deal with and threatening to undermine the most precious legacy of the Western world: democracy. Populism is indeed a socio-political reaction against increasing immigration and terrorism which advocates the coming to power of authoritarian leaders. Moreover, it counters the process of economic global capitalism carried out by the West since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s that has impoverished the majority of the world’s population.
Therefore, these three world phenomena, generally assessed as three exogenous processes have internal structural causes directly relatable to the West’s course of actions throughout its history. Capitalism seems to represent the only possible world’s economic system, but it has mainly widened social inequalities and brought about the concentration of wealth in the hands of few politico-economic elites, who have made decisions to enrich themselves at the expense of others. In the next future, the individual and profit based capitalist system can seriously undermine the survival of democracy, as the citizens do not trust their governments to distribute equitably wealth among them and thus either do not go to vote or support anti-system populists. I believe that we should all attempt to further understand the deeper motives that led the people to take the decisions they took and behave the way they behaved. After all, under all that volcano of irrational feelings, an answer on why people feel hopeless, desperate or disadvantaged can be found. The path of humanity toward equality, prosperity and freedom could not be a regular one: to quote the 19th-century French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville “to live in freedom, it is necessary to get used to a life full of anxiety, changes and dangers”.