On 4 November 2005, during an intermission of the initial research for this question I relaxed to watch the early evening news broadcast from the BBC. Admittedly this is in no way unusual, however I was profoundly struck by the content of the thirty-minute programme, which from beginning to end was dominated by issues pertaining to racial tension both domestically and internationally. It began with a report on the vandalising of Muslim gravestones in a Birmingham cemetery, the imprisonment of five white supremacists for producing and distributing race hate material and the arrest of two Asian men on charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism. An appeal to politicians from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair followed, emphasising the need to drastically increase police powers with regards the detention of terrorist suspects. Finally, the broadcast concluded with a report on widespread and escalating civil unrest in France, led by Muslim immigrants of North African descent.
In the wake of the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005, my thoughts turned to the earlier attacks in Madrid on 11 March 2004 and of course to the outrages that occurred in the United States on 11 September 2001. This coupled with the instability and tension caused by the ongoing confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians, and anger in the Middle East towards the substantial foreign military forces in Iraq made for unpleasant pondering. Even given the dramatised and fear fostering fashion in which the media can portray current events it appeared clear that the threat Islam and the West posed to one another was at the very least a considerable one. Given this, and the manner in which the general domestic and international climate has developed over recent years, it at first appears that the thesis of Professor Samuel P Huntington in his celebrated work The Clash of Civilisations has been fully vindicated. This thesis being that future world conflicts would be centred not on the actions and auspices of nation states, but around mass culture driven international blocs or civilisations and the fault lines that divide such civilisations. For Huntington the clashes of civilisations are the greatest threat to world peace and of the nine civilisations that he argues exist in the post Cold War world, it is the Islamic and Western ones that represent one of the most potent threats.
Huntingtons work has not only been greeted with advocation by policy makers in Washington but has also received tacit endorsement from none other than Osama bin Laden. The extent of this convergence was made clear during an interview with the Arab television network al-Jazeera in October 2001, in which Bin Laden confidently declared that the confrontation in the post September 11th world was not a battle between Al-Qaida and the U.S. This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders.
The level to which this view of contemporary international relations is perpetuated by leading figures on both sides indicates the strength and attractiveness of the argument. After all it seems a perfectly logical explanation for recent international trends and developments. However, I consider this interpretation to not only be incorrect, but also with specific regard to Professor Huntingtons thesis, provocative and wholly irresponsible. To suggest that the Western and Muslim worlds exist as mass, coherent confrontational blocs, fully united in their geometric opposition to one another is in my opinion as inflammatory and dangerous as anything we have seen emerge from the realms of Muslim fanaticism. In fact, it is clear that the two extremes are in complete agreement as to the nature and characteristics of their opposition.
What is paramount in unravelling this perception is close examination and explanation of the key actors and issues that underpin the complex relationship that exists not only between the Muslim world and the West, but also on a regional level in the Muslim and Western worlds themselves. What is also pivotal is to highlight the fragmented nature of the two areas in question. Huntingtons thesis is undoubtedly a well-researched and sincere portrayal of his views. However, although it may be presumptuous on my part to disrepute such a celebrated work, I strongly feel that the current situation is far too complex to be labelled a clash of civilisations. Therefore, for reasons that are examined in greater depth below I argue that in terms of how the above question is posed and how the extremes on both sides choose to conceptualise the issue, the threat that Islam and the West represent to one another is minimal and grossly exaggerated. There are of course many difficulties to be faced in the world of the 21st century, but these are the result of regional political and economic grievances. This is how the apparent international conflict must be understood. When this is achieved and such grievances are effectively addressed, the roots of extremism on both sides of the globe will no longer hold sway and the arguments about a geopolitical threat between Islam and the West will unravel and reveal their inadequacy.
It will appear to the reader that the larger portion of this work is dedicated to assessing the perceived threat from Islam to the West, as opposed to vice versa. This is deliberate and I make no apologies for it. The reason I have decided to set about this question with a slight imbalance is that I consider the threat from Islam to be the one that is most distorted and dangerous. Thus I consider it to warrant greater examination.
The major preliminary problem that confronts us is that of definition. I have not the time, nor indeed the capability to provide an in-depth analysis of Islam as a religion and actually feel that for the purposes of this question such a detailed examination is unnecessary. However, what it is necessary is to highlight how the perception of Islam and the Islamic world as one coherent and unified ideological juggernaut is completely misleading and inaccurate. Islam, although in some cases more binding on the believer than the other great religions, is no different from Christianity, Judaism or Hinduism, in that it does not provide a clear and unambiguous set of guidelines on how to conduct social, political and economic affairs. To suggest that is does is nonsense. As one commentator has rightly noted, the climate in which the (mis) use of religion takes place is purely political.
Nonetheless, this does not prevent people from manipulating the mass historical resources of religious holly texts in order to interpret and construct a set of doctrines and policies that are applicable for their own political ends in the present. Although he may vehemently believe what he says, Osama bin Laden is neither different nor unique in this respect. Islam is therefore very often used in both the Muslim and Western worlds for modern political purposes. This of course flys in the face of many, including Huntington, who wish to trace the current international malaise to a historical progression that has been characterised by ongoing conflict. It is argued that the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union represents a mere glitch in a process stretching back fourteen hundred years, which has been characterised by continuing and deeply conflictual relations between Islam and Christianity. There have of course been previous conflicts, but to suggest that modern political designs and developments can be equated with those of centuries past is ludicrous. One cannot attempt to interpret contemporary Muslim thought by reference to the Crusades any more than modern liberal democracy can be understood through ancient Rome and Greece. Ancient religious texts are being used to rouse the soul of the many, in order to achieve the modern political aims of the few.
Therefore, although Islam may present self-imposed constraints for the believer, its ambiguity dictates that with the exception of the five pillars it cannot be realistically viewed as a consistent unified guide by which to live. Of course this is a characteristic Islam shares with all the other major world religions.
In a comprehensive study of the causes and consequences of the September 11th terrorist attacks Professor Fred Halliday has presented a classic example that reinforces this argument in eloquent style. The example is that of the political construction of nation states in the Muslim world. He points out that there exist a multitude of states around the globe that consider themselves to be Muslim, yet the diversity that exists in their basic political construction is stark. The systems of Libya and Pakistan are based on military dictatorships, Saudi Arabia on a tribal monarchy, whilst Jordan and Morocco are monarchical regimes that claim to be directly descended from the prophets. Irans political organisation is dominated by the senior clerical elite and in Turkey a system based on pluralist democratic principles prevails. Yet each of these states claim to be Muslim in some broad sense and can all interpret and cite examples from the religious scriptures to legitimise their respective systems of political construction. In fact as Halliday explained in an updated edition of his Islam and the Myth of Confrontation, there exist over fifty Muslim states in the world accompanied by a variety of legal and political systems. These issues, as with many others such as economic policy, foreign relations and even Sharia law are decided not by the Koran or any of the other ancient Islamic texts. It is the reader that finds within them what it is he or she needs to validate the direction they wish to take and the argument they wish to make.
The definitional difficulties are therefore clear. It is simply impossible to speak of an Islamic or Muslim World that is unified in outlook, direction and intent, an assertion that is equally applicable with regard to the West. In analytical terms this presents a distinct problem. Nonetheless, for the purposes of consistency and clarity I will continue to refer to the two specific areas of the globe being discussed here as the Muslim and Western worlds. It is vitally important however to remember that these labels are extremely generalised and cannot be used or considered to represent two mass geometrically opposing blocs. To suggest they do is a flagrant exaggeration. Given therefore the fragmented political and social natures of the two global areas in question, it is incorrect to envisage that they represent an amalgamated threat to one another.
The perception of a unified threat from Islam to the West is nonetheless an extremely potent one. Often it has led to the belief in some quarters, that being Islamic in an obscure general sense can immediately be correlated with a wish to impose a political system based on a fundamentalist Islamic doctrine, something that transcends national boundaries. A majority of Muslims do not feel this way, however the perception of an Islamic universalism is one that is perpetuated both in the Muslim and Western worlds, and therefore requires examination. In this venture, one needs look no further than the brand of Islamic universalism which is proffered by the leaders, both past and present, in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Iranian revolution of 1979 sent shock waves throughout the world that are still reverberating to this day. In little over a year the pro western, secular regime of the Shah was overthrown by a revolution spearheaded by the Iranian religious elite, led by the charismatic Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. They then proceeded to establish a political system based on fundamental Islamic principles, and Iran became the worlds first Islamic state. What I am about to embark on here is a course of argument that plays down the overarching magnitude and impact of the Iranian revolution in terms of the role it had in fostering Islamic universalism in the Middle East and beyond. Of course those who argue the opposite, cite this issue as fundamental in what they perceive as the monolithic nature of the threat the Muslim world and the West pose to one another. Nonetheless, it is impossible to disregard certain facets that make the Iranian revolution distinctive and unique in history.
Firstly, it is the most the most popular revolution ever, with at its height around two million people on the streets. Secondly, in appearance at least it was wholly reactionary. The clerical revolutionary leaders called for a return to austerity driven religious piety, and rejected many of the basic principles fundamental in previous revolutions. Reverence towards national history, along with calls for material improvement and sovereign democratic accountability were nowhere to be found in the pronouncements of the revolutionary leaders. These had of course formed the integral components of many revolutions since 1789. Finally, although the call to overthrow the infidels may have had resonance with France in 1789 and Russia in 1917, what the infidels were replaced with did not. A revolutionary constitution that placed ultimate power in the hands of the religious elite or Faqih, and made them superior in authority to any elected body.
It is important to note that the Islamic clergy had enjoyed very little harassment from the Shahs regime, in stark contrast to the secular opposition, which was routinely subject to systematic repression. It could be feasibly argued therefore that this propelled the religious elite into a unique position in terms of its ability to mobilise and galvanise anti Shah sentiment. . Given this, it is unsurprising that the revolutionary process took on a distinctly Islamic fervour. It is undeniable that Khomeini consolidated and institutionalised the revolution using the abundance of charismatic qualities at his disposal, furthermore his anti western message undoubtedly struck a cord with many in Iran, disgruntled at the pervasion of Westernised culture in Iranian society. Nonetheless, this cannot conceal the fact that as with many instances of unrest and protest in the Middle East, religious leaders and indeed religion itself became a conduit for economic, social and political frustration. When conceptualised in these terms it is clear that the driving motive behind mass Muslim anger in the Middle East is not religion. It is other more palatable and understandable frustrations, which have been utilised by a few religious fanatics to present Islam as a serious threat to the West, and to Western interests and security.
At first glance the Iranian revolution also appears to have done more that anything to foster and bolster Islamic universalism. Khomeini did much to propagate this view himself by proffering a boundless united Ummah with unified traditions and principles distinct from, and antagonistic to those of the West. I argue, that far from uniting the Muslim world, the Iranian revolution only served to fragment it to a greater level than that which existed in 1979. Although attempts were made to export the revolution and foster an Islamic universalism, the actions of the Iranian leadership in the years following 1979 indicate that this attempt was wholly unsuccessful. Firstly, the main international consequence of the revolution was the war between Iran and Iraq from 1980 to 1988. Close examination of what motivated Saddam Hussein to invade Iran are unnecessary here, but the war nonetheless shows in clear and certain terms the non existence of an Islamic universalism in the Middle East. A war fought between two Muslim countries, using antiquated military techniques and at the cost over around one million lives could do little else. Thus, the Iranian revolution only served to expose the already inherent national fragmentation between Persians and Arabs, and religious divisions between Muslim Shiites and Sunnis. Huntington attempts to cite organisations such as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference as examples of Islamic cohesion of a religious kind unrivalled elsewhere . However, such sentiment does nothing to conceal the very real differences; religious, political and social that exists in the Muslim world. Ultimately, Khomeinis wish for a unified Islam faltered for the same reasons as Nassers vision of a united Arab state had done 21 years earlier. Such fragmentation makes any notion of a unified threat from Islam to the West redundant.
For those who wish to argue that Islam represents an increasingly serious threat to the West, the overriding issue used to provide proof is that of terrorism. September 11, and subsequent terrorist actions against Western states have been argued to have done more than anything else in bringing Huntingtons thesis of bipolar confrontation to fruition. However, I consider any attempt to analyse terrorism in conjunction with Islam as a religion, or the Muslim world as a whole as abhorrent and detestable. Just as political construction is not coherently and systematically documented in the Islamic texts, neither is the use of violence. With considerable ease, it is possible for both the pacifist and the warmonger to find quotations within the Islamic holly scriptures to sustain and support their argument and preferred course of action. Of course extremists have carried out barbaric acts of terror in the name of Islam, something that is contrary to the beliefs and wishes of the vast majority of Muslims in the world. However, there nonetheless exists a distinct hypocrisy when academics and leading government figures attempt to understand acts of terrorism perpetrated by Muslims.
Whenever evil acts are carried out in the name of Islam, Muslim leaders around the globe are called upon to publicly denounce these actions as contrary to the Muslim faith. Yet, when the IRA systematically inflicted terror upon British cities, similar calls were not made to Americans of Irish decent, even though there exists considerable empathy in the United States towards the Irish Republican cause. Similarly, senior Christian figures are not brought forward or called upon to closely examine their religion when Christian extremists plant bombs at abortion clinics. Ultimately, not all Muslims are terrorists, and not all terrorists are Muslim.
Furthermore, Islam in no way unique in having atrocities carried out in its name, as the other great religions of the world have frequently suffered the same trauma. Firstly, the two differing interpretations of Christianity Protestantism and Catholicism have for centurys invoked violent religious sentiment in Ireland. In recent decades India has seen a vast increase in Hindu chauvinist extremism, which in turn has resulted in a rise in persecution and terrorist attacks on the countries Muslim and Christian populations. In addition, extremist Jewish groups have at regular intervals called for both state sanctioned, and private terrorism against the Palestinian people. In fact, in 1994 after killing 29 Palestinians in Hebron, Baruch Goldstein declared that he was carrying out the will of God. Yet, there is no rush to religious leaders or scholars in order to find a basis for such action in the Christian Bible, Hindu Vedas or Jewish Talmud. It is therefore derogatory and ridiculous to suggest that answers to outrages like that which occurred on September 11 can be found in the Koran. Nonetheless, it appears that when violence perpetrated by Muslims takes place, the consensus view is that it can.
For example, during the first few weeks of the new war on terrorism Tony Blair was reported to be studying the Koran. This provides proof to accompany the verdict of Asad AbuKhalil, who points out that Islam, is studied following Muslim atrocities as if it offers the skeleton key to understanding the actions of the perpetrators. This is not the case and the result of this rush to study religious sources only when Muslims are accused of terrorist acts, creates wittingly of unwittingly, an irrevocable association between Islam and terrorism. The connection is fallacious, and it is time these misjudged conceptions of the Korans ability to explain the actions of a few extremists were laid to rest.
Similar attempts at just such an explanation are offered when migrant Islamic communities in Western states rebel against what they perceive as injustice. Once again it is ludicrous to suggest that this can be understood and conceptualised in religious terms. When Islamic communities protest, they are neither responding to a time long Islamic culture passed down through the ages or to the basic tenets of the Koran. Such occurrences are almost totally a response to political, social and economic circumstances. Some Muslims in the West may well express their views in terms of their religious identity, but this is in response to issues like racism, unemployment, inequality and a whole host of other political and social issues. The rioting mentioned earlier that took place in France was not a small aspect in an overall clash of civilisations. Muslim protest in the West must be understood in terms of its political, social and economic facets.
Within the wider context one has to evaluate why such resentment exists among Muslims towards the West. Of course the ultimate area of discussion must be the Middle East, as it is here that Muslim hostility is at its most potent and pronounced. However, before this begins three fundamental facts have to be laid down. Firstly, there is no doubt that widespread and at times volatile resentment exists towards the West among Muslims in the Middle East, in particular the United States. Secondly, that this plays an irrevocable role in providing the ideal atmosphere for terrorism and fundamentalism to flourish. Thirdly and most importantly, this resentment is often espoused in religious terms and thus offers to those who wish to highlight apparent civilisation style confrontation, the ideal point of reference.
Now I firmly believe that although anti Western feelings in the Middle East are often channelled through a religious medium, the roots of such feelings lie much deeper and are unrelated to religion. Once again extremists on both sides are utilising Islam in order to portray an image of conflict that obscures the very real issues that lie at the heart of the matter. In assessing these issues it is impossible to ignore the negative role the United States has played and is still playing in the regional affairs of the Middle East. It is therefore also unsurprising that many around the world consider Muslim resentment to be justified. Any analysis must begin with the overt and uncompromising support that the United States offers to Israel, as this is undoubtedly a major source of resentment among the Muslim populations of the Middle East.
Since its establishment in 1948 the United States relations with Israel have been characterised by unrelenting support. This could possibly be due to guilt with regards inaction over the holocaust, or the immigration restrictions both it and Britain placed on Jews fleeing Nazi occupied Europe. It may well be a combination of the two, but what is certain is that the Anglo American alliance did not restrict Jewish immigration to one area, the Holy land. The United States and Britain thus played a pivotal role in the establishment of the Israeli state.
Furthermore, apart from brief interludes where United States Presidents have reigned in aggressive Israeli government policies, such as during the Suez crises in 1956, White House occupants stretching back to Harry Truman have given Israel a free hand in dealing with the Palestinian question. No overt pressure has been placed on Israel to withdraw from the areas it occupied following the 1967 war, although tentative progress has recently been seen. Also the fate of millions of Palestinian refugees, along with their continued persecution by the Israeli military has gone largely unchallenged by leaders in Washington. Symbolic sound bites cannot obscure the fact that the United States has allowed Israel to act with relative impunity against the Palestinian people. A further indication as to this apparent imbalance is in the fact that although Israel has a per capita income equal to many developed western states, it nonetheless receives more western aid than all of sub Saharan Africa combined.
I do not wish to over glorify the Palestinian cause, as is often attempted by various liberal intellectuals and politicians. I also consider the phrase one mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter to be a contemptible way of conceptualising modern terrorism. Utmost denunciation must be made against all those who wish to further their political aims through the slaughter of innocent people, including those that are willing to massacre innocent civilians in New York and Jerusalem. But if we are to do this, then a similarly appropriate response must be taken towards those who are equally vehement in the degradation, humiliation and persecution they inflict on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Until the Western community of nations and the United States in particular begin to deal with aggression against innocent people with an even hand, resentment among Muslims of the Middle East towards the West will continue to grow unabated.
Further resentment has been caused through the self-motivated actions of the United States with regards the Middle Easts most lucrative natural resource, oil. Ongoing political sentiment at home has made successive administrations in Washington determined to secure favourable arrangements for the purchase of Middle Eastern oil. Particular coercion is placed on the regions key American ally Saudi Arabia, which is often translated into pressure on other leading members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in the Middle East. As with environmental issues, the maintenance of cheep prices is the overriding factor that determines American outlook, all other considerations are secondary. Many Muslim Arabs consider this to represent clear evidence not only of Western domination of the Middle East in general, but also as an infiltration of national sovereignty.
However, the issue that has raised more antagonism than any other is that of Iraq. The Western media rarely covered the calamitous consequences of UN sanctions; however Arab news organisations were continuously inundated by reports of escalating human suffering among the Iraqi population. As regards the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, it is clear now that pre war intelligence claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction were wrong, something conceded by George W Bush.
I am not going to embark on an examination of the complex issue of the Iraqi invasion and occupation. Nonetheless, it is important to highlight the extent to which it has fostered increased resentment among Muslims in the Middle East. It is an issue that once again illustrates the manner in which the United States is willing to actively participate in determining the destiny of millions of Muslim Arabs.
What is also important is to qualify and quantify the reasons behind the resentment that has been caused. There existed no real love for Saddam Hussein among Muslims, but American actions have personified the hypocrisy in which they deal with the Middle East. It was argued that Saddam not only had to be removed because of weapons of mass destruction, but also because he harboured and sponsored terrorism. This may well be true, but the Iraqi campaign at least in the short term has done nothing to alleviate terrorist action and recruitment, in fact it has probably exacerbated it. Furthermore, George W Bush recently in response to critism over the misleading nature of intelligence reports asserted that, Saddams removal was justified in order to free the Iraqi people from the servitude and oppression of his tyrannical regime. Similar airtime is given by leading figures in Washington and the Western media to human rights violations in other radical states such as Iran and Syria. Curiously these states are among those that are unsympathetic to American strategic and economic interests. Israeli infractions have already been discussed, however, Americas chief Arab ally Saudi Arabia arguably indulges in greater human rights and religious violations than anyone in the region, something that receives virtually no attention from leaders in Washington and the Western media as a whole. Similar accommodation is offered to Turkey in its treatment of the countries Kurdish minority. Of course these are issues well known to Muslim Arabs, along with the hypocritical nature of American policy.
The foundations of resentment and protest in the Middle East towards the west are therefore clear. However, they are neither the result of, nor a characteristic within a monolithic religiously motivated clash. If anger exists, it is due to modern political and economic factors that some translate into religious terms in order to achieve attention and redress. This is unsurprising, and the case is as Ted Gurr explains, Discontented men are much more susceptible to conversion to evil beliefs than contented men. Does self-motivated American activity in the Middle East and the negative Muslim response to it illustrate a growing tension between them? It is possible that it does, but this antagonism must not be construed to represent the clash of two mass cultural and religious blocs. It could be argued that American led Western actions are a threat to stability and progress in the Middle East, but they cannot be perceived as a threat to Islam. The positive role the United States and other Western countries could play in addressing the Middle Easts numerous problems is being squandered, and the infiltration of Western culture into Muslim countries is a source of continuous resentment and concern. In response to this, a tiny minority of Muslims choose to vent their own frustrations and capitalise on the anger of others by carrying out acts of barbarity in the name of Islam. However, the cause is not Islam, therefore neither is the threat.
I fully appreciate that what is offered above only scratches the surface of an enormously complex issue. Nonetheless, I am convinced that the perception of a united threat between Islam and the West is one that suits the extremist cause in both areas of the world; it has therefore been greatly exaggerated and bears no resemblance to the reality of the issues at hand. Fragmentation exists to such an extent that notions of a monolithic clash are totally without foundation. Furthermore, differences and disagreements that do exist must be placed in their correct perspective, as regional political and economic grievances. Such issues thus have political and economic answers. I conclude by asserting my determined conviction, that if progress is to be made in understanding the current international situation, and if we are to safeguard a brighter future, free of extremism both Muslim and Western, it is the centre that has to prevail. We all have a role to play.
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- Cooper, Barry. New Political Religions, or An Analysis of Modern Terrorism. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2005.
- Esposito, John L. The Islamic Threat. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Fuller, Graham and Lesser, Ian. A Sense of Siege: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West. Oxford: Westview Press, 1995.
- Gurr, Ted Robert. Why Men Rebel. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1970.
- Hafez, Mohammed M. Why Muslims Rebel: Repression and Resistance in the Islamic World. London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2003.
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- Halliday, Fred. Two Hours that Shook the World, September 11, 2001: Causes and Consequences. London: Saqi Books, 2002.
- Hippler Jochen and Lueg Andrea. The Next Threat: Western Perceptions of Islam. London: Pluto Press, 1995.
- Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of the World Order. London: Simon and Schuster, 2002.
- Kepel, Gilles. Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in America and Europe. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997.