Today, the “Clash of Civilizations” would more accurately be written as the clash of “fundamentalisms.” Religion plays a vital role for both the West and Arab states, predominantly as an infinitely opaque veil which disguises the true political root cause of the perceived “clash” between the West and Islam.
Conflict between the West and what, for the purposes of this paper, is going to be called “the Middle East,” can be traced back to numerous stages of history, but for the sake this argument, modern conflict will begin with European imperialism throughout the Middle East since after the dissolution of the Ottoman empire.
The revival of Islam as a political force today, is a direct reaction of two things: Arab nationalism that was born out of European imperialism, and numerous failures on behalf of Communist and secular regimes throughout the Arab world, leading up to the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime at the hands of Western powers.
As is stated in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, “civilization-consciousness is enhanced by the dual role of the West. On the one hand the West is at the peak of its power,” and was also after WWI, but “at the same time, however, perhaps as a result, a return to the roots phenomenon is occurring among non-Western civilizations,” as it was shortly after the west pulled its imperial strings back a bit after WWII (26).
The era of European colonization of much of the Arab world took a drastic and long term effect on the region; an effect thats ripples are still shaking the dust today. Perhaps most notably, it gave the divided Arab world one of its first uniting factors since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire: a common enemy. This enemy was the West.
As the West, and specifically Britain, employed its own interests in the region, at the expense of the population, a deep rift began to emerge between Western empires and the Arab population throughout the Middle East.
According to Huntington, “after WWII, the West began to retreat; colonial empires disappeared; first Arab nationalism and then Islamic fundamentalism manifested themselves” (31). An entire Arab identity was born out of resistance to colonial powers.
Arab nationalism was brought out as a direct reaction to decades of European domination, influence and colonialism. When Western powers pulled out of their ties with Arab states, this left the Arab world void of an overall identity to cling to; they weren’t Western, they weren’t Ottoman, there was no single language or even religion for the entirety of Middle East states to cling to; and thus the only answer was to cling to a slightly artificial Arabic ethnicity, and strive for “pan-Arabism,” a unification.
One of the earliest, and perhaps most prominent forces of Arab nationalism was Gamal Abdel Nasr, who used both political and military power to help spread the ideology of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism. Nasr’s ideology is the first notable step in the revival of Islam as a political force, despite Nasr himself using Islam more as an Arab unification tool, rather than actually promoting religious practice.
Although the ideas of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism can be still seen today, they lost their edge following the defeat of Arab nations, specifically Egypt, in the Six Day War with Israel, a Western-created state. After this defeat, the Arab world took a number of blows and shortly found itself divided again.
As noted in the Clash of Civilizations, several more wars occurred between the Arabs and Israel in the following years. France also sustained a war in Algeria for most the 1950s, while British and French forces invaded Egypt in 1956; American forces went into Lebanon in 1958; and then, returned to Lebanon, attacked Libya, and engaged in various military standoffs with Iran; Arab and Islamic terrorists supported by at least three Middle East governments bombed Western planes and installations and seized western hostages (31).
At the same time that the Arab world was increasingly at military odds with the West, Arab leaders were also coming to power in various countries embracing secularism, such as with the Ba’ath party in Syria, Iraq and Egypt, all the while, the Soviet Union was both pushing communist and Marxist ideologies in sympathetic states, as well as engaging in military procedures in others. The result of all these things combined: instability, loss of identity, and a decades-long arms race.
“This warfare between the Arabs and the West culminated in 1990,” according to Huntington, when the US invaded Iraq. This coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union and the combination of the two events set the stage for the state of affairs today.
The Gulf War had a mixed impact on the Arab world, some were proud that Saddam Hussein “stepped up to the West” and attacked Israel, others were embarrassed by the idea of the West once returning to dominate the Persian Gulf region. “The West’s overwhelming military dominance, and their apparent inability to shape their own destiny” fueled what became the second round of Arab Nationalism. Again, the Arab world was left without a clear identity at the hands of the West.
According to Huntington, the first Gulf War was seen in the Arab world as a war against Arabs and the West, not just the US and Iraq. “After defeating the largest Arab army, the West did not hesitate to throw its weight around in the Arab world. The West in effect is using international institutions, military power and economic resources to run the world in ways that will maintain western predominance, protect western interests, and promote western political and economic values” (40).
Although still as a whole divided, small portions of the Arab world became united under Islam; and as a consequence of continuing imperialism, for some, such as the Taliban and al-Queda, this meant a surge in radical Islam.
The West truly witnessed this consequence with the events of 9/11. Although the Arab world did have a bit of an overall distaste for the Western world, most of it was on ideological bounds, rather than purely religious bounds. However, after 9/11, and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and the West’s “War on Terror,” Westerners only knew one Islam: the kind that hates democracy and Christians; so much in fact, that it is willing to kill thousands of people in the name of jihad.
In short, to cut down the root cause of discontent between the two civilizations as a purely religious battle, would be to undermine the powerful political forces that have fueled the conflict since the beginning of the twentieth century; arguably even sooner.
At least within the last hundred years, the West’s interests in the Middle East have always revolved around oil, land, regional control, systematic destabilization of other surrounding countries, economic gain, strategic military placement, or to undermine governments for strategic political gain. It has never been about the spread of religion; at least not truly.
There is a reason religion is often repackaged and sold as a cause for conflict. According to Huntington, “as people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to see an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ relationship existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion” (29). This is often, as historically for most civilizations, the most powerful force at hand to justify any form of conflict, including war.
At the turn of the twenty-first century though, some civilizations are not so easily swayed by religious calls to arms, such as the United States. The Bush Administration knew this immediately after 9/11. They knew that claiming that a war in Afghanistan, and eventually in Iraq, would not be so easily justifiable if they clung to only religious ideology; however arguably a hundred years ago it would have. Because of this, Bush’s answer to “why they hate us” was anchored in a political ideology rather than a religious one. They framed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as necessary for the means of spreading American “democracy, freedom and prosperity,” ideologies that still heavily tug on the heart strings of the Western world.
Although a few Arabs stood aligned with radical Islam following the US’s invasion of two separate Arab countries, immediately after 9/11, according to ABE, no one in the West wanted to “talk about the attacks and the nature of terrorism with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” despite Osama Bin Laden’s admission of the “defense of the children of al-Nakba,” among other factors, as a key development in their decision to carry out attacks on 9/11. Additionally, radical Islamists in the decade since 9/11 have repeatedly cited US support for Israel as a major cause for their continuing alignment against the West. Thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a painful metaphor to Western imperialism in the Middle East.
Other than two wars, the US had another reaction to Arab society as a whole, both in Western civilization and abroad. According to ABE, “rather than investigate further or even suspend judgement, the media responded to Islam to frame the Sept. 11 crisis and the presumed motives of the hijackers, and to answer the oft-posed questions: ‘why do they hate us?’”.
This meant that “editorials, op-eds, news items and supposedly analytical articles made vague but abundant references to Islam to explain a wide variety of social, economic and political ills found anywhere from Morocco to Indonesia. ‘Islam’ framed the problem whether discussing autocracy, educational shortcomings, population explosions, youth unemployment and even failure of science to develop in the middle ages” (1). The result of this is one that would have made Huntington happy: the two cultures became pitted against each other, framed as mortal enemies that would never be able to reach a consensus.
However, time heals all wounds, and at the expense of two wars that nearly caused the end of US economic power, the Western world is beginning to shift its opinions of the Arab world.
As a result of basically everything in the last hundred years, specifically the apparent end of US invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as a shift in generational ideals in the Middle East, the Arab Spring shows that the Arab world, specifically the younger generation is seeking to create a world in which they can mix Islam and democracy, in order to fit into a progressive world, while still keeping the backbone of a cultural identity that loosely unites people from Morocco to Indonesia.
This movement is still underway, and it’s hard to tell if it will mean a new face for the Arab world. This new “democratic Islamism” is being challenged by the remnants of defeated dictators, religious fundamentalists and outside forces; however as a generation that remembers Nasr and the rise of the Ba’ath party begins to fall away, the unifying will of a new generation is beginning to take center stage.