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25 years on, Huntington's 'clash of civilisations' theory has been refuted

His claim that the main source of conflict in the 21st century would be cultural has been proven to be academically worthless - and an intellectual catastrophe

Almost exactly 25 years ago, Foreign Affairs magazine published by far the most influential academic treatise of the modern era: Samuel Huntington’s "The Clash of Civilisations". This article helped to shape the world and launch wars.

But how does it read 25 years later? Ultimately, it has been academically worthless - a moral abomination and an intellectual catastrophe.

Here's a reminder of Huntington's confidently expressed thesis:

"It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations. The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future."

Islam and the West

The most influential part of Huntington's theory concerned Islam. Huntington argued that with the end of the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the West, it would be replaced by a new struggle between two irreconcilable enemies: Islam and the West.

Huntington asserted that identity, rather than ideology, lay at the heart of contemporary politics. "What are you?" he asked. "And as we know, from Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer to that question can mean a bullet in the head." He added that "Islam has bloody borders". 

The Huntington thesis has inspired a flourishing publishing industry; countless books are calls to arms in the supposed war against Islamism

Huntington drew on the work of the famous Orientalist historian Bernard Lewis, who coined the phrase "clash of civilisations" when he wrote in 1990: 

"We are facing a mode and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilisations - the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both."

Like Huntington, Lewis was a partisan. Writing in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the displays of rage on the streets of Tehran (by no means unwarranted given longstanding US support to the shah's bloody repression), Lewis' reductionism was shameless. He wrote as though 1.5 billion Muslims all thought the same way and had nothing to think about except animosity towards the West.

The role of 9/11

So, have Huntington's and Lewis' predictions been realised? Are Muslims collectively at war with the West in the way that these two American sages predicted? Is there indeed a clash of civilisations, as not just Huntington but so many others believe?

Certainly, the events of 9/11, when al-Qaeda launched a ferocious attack on the US, gave massive credibility to Huntington's bleak analysis. The wave of Western attacks on Muslim countries in the years that followed appeared to reinforce it, along with the devastating terrorist attacks on London, Paris and other Western cities.

The twin towers of the World Trade Center burn on 11 September 2001 (AFP)
Prominent politicians now speak the language of the clash of civilisations, from US President Donald Trump, to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to British Prime Minister Theresa May. The Huntington thesis has inspired a flourishing publishing industry; countless books and calls to arms in the supposed war against Islamism.

In Celsius 7/7, cabinet minister Michael Gove writes: "The war in which [extremists] enlisted is the conflict of our times, a struggle between liberal values and resurgent totalitarianism." Douglas Murray's The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which portrayed Christian Europe sinking under waves of Muslim immigrants, is a bestseller. 

But while the events of 9/11 seemed to have fulfilled Huntington's prophecy, in reality, they did not. The real clash is between the US and al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (IS), not between the US and Islam.

IS and al-Qaeda on the fringes

We have not witnessed a single one of the world's 50 Muslim-majority countries declare war on the US, nor have we seen an Islamic coalition forming. When one did emerge in 2017, it was Saudi-led and sponsored by the US.

Regardless of how violent and expansive the terror phenomenon is today, with IS and al-Qaeda active in many countries, these groups remain on the fringes of Islam. Major Islamic powers follow realism in conducting their international relations, while the only pan-Islamic grouping, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, is little more than a forum for empty rhetoric.

The Saudi regime remains America's most loyal ally in the region, even though it adopts the worst fundamentalist interpretation of Islam

Turkey oscillates between Russia and the US, and its armed forces are the second-largest force in Nato. Despite Islamic overtones, Iran's policy is nationalistic. Although its clash with the US is escalating, Iran's biggest struggles today are geopolitical (ie against Saudi Arabia), while Europe (ie the other half of the "West") has scrambled to improve relations with Tehran.

The Saudi regime remains America's most loyal ally in the region, even though it adopts a literalist interpretation of Islam - Wahhabism - and its main adversaries are other Islamic powers, such as Turkey, Iran and Qatar.

The politics of religion

Many credible analysts in the Arab world hold the US responsible for creating the conditions that allowed terror groups such as IS to exist in the first place, when they invaded and occupied Iraq and did away with all state institutions.

Above all, Huntington was wrong to claim that religion is the determinant factor in warfare. The politics of religion are certainly used as a tool, but they are not an end in themselves. But Huntington mattered. His thesis that the civilised world was fighting "radical Islam" provided the Western military-industrial complex with a global, systemic, multinational enemy that replaced communism.

An image made available on 11 June 2014 shows IS fighters posing with their flag in Iraq (HO/Welayat Salahuddin/AFP)
In Syria, Huntington's thesis collapsed. The web of alliances that has emerged during more than seven years of conflict defies his civilisational model and emphasises the primacy of geopolitical and economic, rather than cultural, interests. 

The West (the US and Europe) formed a coalition with Islamist forces against the Syrian government, a secular regime. The US, Britain and France have supplied arms directly to groups that could be considered Islamist, and have turned a blind eye to their allies arming overtly radical groups, including IS and al-Qaeda.

Former US vice president Joe Biden described this situation in a speech at Harvard University in 2014: "Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria ... What were they doing? They were so determined to take down [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad, and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war, what did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens of tonnes of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad - except that the people who were being supplied, [they] were al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda, and the extremist elements of jihadis who were coming from other parts of the world."

Propaganda efforts

Meanwhile, in southern Syria, it is no secret that Israel supports Syrian rebels across the disengagement line in the Golan Heights, and that a significant portion of those rebels are Islamists - including the group formerly known as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria.

Also in Syria, the US has been cooperating fervently with another largely Muslim, albeit secular, group: the Kurds. The US coordinates its Syria policies closely with Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, and before the flare-up over the Kurds, with Turkey.

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Therefore, the conflict in Syria is not a clash of civilisations, for all the religious missionary zeal of groups such as IS. In fact, Sunni Muslims are the main target of IS, which labels most of them apostates because they have not joined the ranks of the reborn Caliphate.

Despite all its propaganda efforts, IS is still, and will always remain, a fringe group - despite attracting thousands of disenfranchised youth. We must not forget that there are more than 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, the vast majority of whom lead normal lives. 

Huntington supporters might argue that the Syria war is an intra-civilisational war within the Islamic civilisation. This analysis is inaccurate at best. Yes, the world of Islam has been struggling to redefine itself since the official end of the Caliphate in 1924, but the struggle in Syria is largely a clash of interests, even though it might appear otherwise.

A struggle for dominance

Iran supports Shia militias in Syria and Yemen - but it also supports Sunni Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Even though Iran is a Shia power, we see top Shia leaders in Iraq, such as Muqtada al-Sadr, working closely with the Saudis to counterbalance Iranian influence.

Wahhabi Saudi Arabia had no issue in receiving those Iraqi Shia leaders and in supporting the right-wing Christian party - the Lebanese Forces, which massacred thousands of Muslims in the 1970s and 80s during Lebanon's civil war years - just because it aligned itself with Saudi policy in Lebanon.

The Saudi-Iranian clash is not an intra-civilisational war, but a geopolitical struggle for dominance in the region. The same could be said about Turkish policies, despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's fiery rhetoric. Turkey is at odds with the major Sunni powers of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and it is working ever more closely with Iran. 

Iraqi Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr delivers a speech at the grand mosque of Kufa on 21 September (AFP)
Turkey is an integral part of Nato and has not abandoned its quest to join the West. The aforementioned alliances and conflicts seem paradoxical from a Huntingtonian civilisational model but completely rational when viewed from a realpolitik balance-of-power point of view.

Twenty-five years after the "clash of civilisations," the explanatory power of Huntington's thesis is still doubtful. His "prophecy," even though it was vindicated to an extent by the events of 9/11, can be easily refuted by every keen observer of international relations.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Syrian rebel fighter takes part in combat training in the northern countryside of Idlib province on 11 September (AFP)

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