The Clash of Civilizations: A Fictional Narrative Told in the Pursuit of Strategic Interests

clash-of-civilizationsMohammed Ayoob, in an article that admittedly alters his stance on the work Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, claims that, given the current (as of 2012) states of affairs in the Middle East, there are few ways to account for what has occurred there except as some kind of conflict between the West and Islam. While he admits that the term “civilization” is slippery to define, he proceeds to show how a number of factors including selective historical memory, racial similarity, language and religion can contribute to the “making” of a civilization among states (Ayoob 2). There are numerous problems with his essay, including historical generalizations that are decontextualized, buying too heavily into Huntington’s oversimplified theory, and upholding the static definitions of religion that he previously criticized. After briefly exploring these, I will incorporate the work of other scholars who have revisited Huntington’s work, coming to conclusions that refute Ayoob’s resurrection of the “clash” theory. While these theories are not without their own faults, they help contribute to the overall point of this paper which is to show that “The Clash of Civilizations” is a fictional narrative that is actively inculcated on both extreme sides of the alleged West/East divide to give legitimacy to regimes in power. For the purposes of this paper, I will focus on the rhetoric of the US Administration and ISIS.

Ayoob’s article is rife with generalizations and contradictions that compromise his overall thesis. On page 3, he simplifies hundreds of years of history by claiming that race and religion have always gone together with Christendom morphing into “Europe” and then “the West.” These types of teleological, unidirectional histories do not lend themselves well to academic discourse. Multiple times throughout the article, this simplification results in bombastic claims of certain issues “only” being explainable through the Clash lens: Romney’s endorsement of Israel (4), the bullying of Obama by Netanyahu (5), the acceptance of the Israeli narrative in the US (Ibid), the inability of Saudi Arabia to affect the Israeli-Palestinian issue (6), the double standards applied to Israeli threats on Iran (8) and the cursory treatment of US-Turkey relations (9). The use of the word “only” in terms of how many perspectives can be offered for understanding such complex situations is highly suspect, especially, when in his conclusion, Ayoob concedes that the Clash “may not be able to provide explanations for all American actions in the Middle East” (11). Despite the poor writing, there are more theoretical and historical issues with the paper than what has been shown above. Grandiose claims that Israel has always been a strategic liability for the US (4) and asserting the primacy of the Balfour Declaration in the Zionist movement (with apparently no debate at all internal to England and its Jewish population at the time) paints a distorted historical picture (6) to fit Huntington’s theory (as only two examples). Unfortunately, what remains unsaid is that if a theory such as the Clash is in need of such grossly undercontextualized generalizations to be true, then it must be false.

This is a sentiment echoed by Mojtaba Mahdavi and Andy Knight in “Towards “the Dignity of Difference?’: Neither ‘End of History’ nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’”, which (as the title would have you believe), refutes Huntington’s thesis along with the equally superficial work of Francis Fukuyama. In an exceedingly thorough dissection of both theorists, Mahdavi and Knight argue for a necessarily more pluralistic understanding of the complex Middle Eastern reality from economic, political, cultural, ideological and religious standpoints. Citing a number of different arguments, they conclude with the possibility of a Third Way beyond the dualist constructions of the End and the Clash – one that goes beyond domination, conflict and even mere toleration towards a much more accommodating and accepting paradigm built on dialogue, mutual understanding and working towards similar goals. While I cannot say I necessarily share in the optimism of these two authours (perhaps realist tendencies have seeped too deeply into me), there are two important points that are brought up in this chapter that need to be unpacked more. Firstly, Mahdavi and Knight note that numerous scholars have seen “Huntington’s work as more of a policy recommendation to the US government… than any accurate empirical portrayal of conditions between civilizations today” (10). Secondly, they go even further to assert that the clash of civilizations is “an attempt at a discursive mobilization of civilizational identities which, if not seen for what it is, can become a self-fulfilling prophecy” (12). In other words, the idea of the clash is being used a tool for various areas of interest, which, with enough inculcation, can become the reality it originally fabricated from nothing. This is a common event that is often seen in the field of Social Memory studies, where a concept or narrative is imposed on a population which yields to it, perpetuating the consequences of the narrative despite its counterfactual origins.

In fact, it is my impression that both sides of the so-called civilizational divide are actively perpetuating the clash as a method of legitimizing their control to their own populations. This is a subject that cannot be explored in-depth here but I want to touch on a couple of points of relevance. Mahdavi and Knight briefly point to the use of clash rhetoric in the NeoConservative US Administration under George W. Bush which explicitly made use of Huntington-esque terminology to set up a dualist framework of understanding the relationships between America and the Middle East, or the West and Islam. In Julide Karakoç’s article “The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State”, the author makes it clear that the presence of ISIS and its complicated relationship with Turkey has destabilized the typical alliances of the US in the region. (602-3) What is not elaborated on, however, is a point that Ayoob actually makes: that the US stands to gain from orientalizing or Othering Turkey and aligning them with the bloody terrorist organization of ISIS which is threatening to take over the entire region. In a case-by-case analysis, Ayoob shows that relations with Turkey have been eroding significantly because of their condemnation of the actions of US ally Israel, their UN countervote against additional sanctions on Iran, and their relations with Iran over Syria. (Ayoob 9-10) While Ayoob sees this as definitive evidence that Ankara has “sold out” to the Muslim world and points to the continued delay in their EU membership as further evidence that they are not considered part of the West, it is actually more of a rhetorical construct than reality. By actively portraying US alliances in the Middle East as untrustworthy or autonomous powers that freely choose which issues they act on, the US “proves” that any action made in the direction of the “East” is a betrayal, buttressing the argument of East/West mistrust and incompatibility. Right or wrong for Turkey, the fact that they either have to unilaterally align themselves with US interests or they are the enemy is preposterous and only feeds the divide.

While this type of state-level propaganda used for the endorsement of political-economic and cultural imperialism by regimes based on war profits is perhaps not surprising, it is even more interesting that the same tactic has allegedly been appropriated by the “enemies” of America – arguably to their own detriment. In this most recent manifestation, I am referring to ISIS. In Alastair Crooke’s article “You can’t understand ISIS if you don’t know the history of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia”, he points out that the terrorist group is a modern (re)manifestation of early the Saud-Wahhab project, built on the dichotomous and murderous polarity of “submit to our doctrine or be killed.” Implicit in this is not only an absolute hatred of the West as a “civilizational” whole, but anyone deemed to be cohorts with the West or a heretic of Islam creating a double clashing front: one that upholds Islam and the West as enemies and another that separates “True” Muslims from disbelievers with takfiri doctrine, including Westernized Saudis who are believed to have sold out the Wahhabist movement by pandering to the desires of the British and Americans. In part two of his article, entitled “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS…” Crooke goes on to say how the intentional adoption of Wahhabist language is a method employed by ISIS to “knowingly light the fuse to a bigger regional explosion” as part of its greater agenda to get the Hijaz (Mecca and Medina) before likely turning their sights Westward. Crooke’s claim, however, that ISIS does not serve a direct threat to the West might be a moot point as ideologically, they do – particularly when much of their sectarian religious violence is perceived to have been instigated by American patronage of Shia groups in Iraq (Chulov, 2014). While an interview with ISIS man, Abu Ahmed, reveals discontent with all of the violence in the ranks, there is a sense of helplessness that is felt by those fighting the so-called “jihad.” Not only are they unable to leave the organization if they disagree with its particular worldview at any given moment, there is a general sense that ISIS is now being “swept along by events that are now bigger than” it: a red flag that harkens back to Mahdavi and Knight’s warning that what becomes institutional in its rhetoric may end up as a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in the end. Given the limited space of this paper, this cannot be fully explored and will largely need to be left to future research to offer more concrete examples from both ranks.


Ayoob, Mohammed. “Was Huntington Right? Revisiting the Clash of Civilizations,” Insight Turkey. Vol 14: 4, 2012, pp 1-11.

Chuklov, Martin. “ISIS: The Inside Story” The Guardian. December 11, 2014.

Crooke, Alastair. “You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia” Huffington Post, August 27, 2014.

Crooke, Alastair. “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia” Huffington Post, September 2, 2014.

Karakoç, Julide, “The Failure of Indirect Orientalism: Islamic State,” in Critique, Vol 24:4, 2014, pp 597 -606.

Mahdavi, Mojtaba and Andy Knight, “Introduction: Towards ‘The Dignity of Difference? Neither ‘End of History’ Nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’” in Towards the Dignity of Difference? Neither ‘End of History’ Nor ‘Clash of Civilizations’, Mahdavi and Knight, eds. Ashgate, 2012, pp 1-26.

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