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Clash of civilizations? Central Asia is where east meets west, where Islam meets Christianity, where modernism meets traditional societies, and where a whole lot of trouble could brew up if those who make important decisions are not very careful.

Historian Samuel P. Huntington wrote an essay in 1993 about the coming "clash of civilizations." He wrote that the dividing lines that will create conflict in the 21st century are likely to be between civilizations. He listed eight "major civilizations"--Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African--that might clash with one another.

However, the places where Islam brushes up against the Western world have received the most attention. A great deal has been made of Professor Huntington's idea since 9/11, most of it of the kind that says he was right; it's Islam versus the West.

And this, according to the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, is how terrorist leader Osama bin Laden sees things:

"'This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the U.S.,' the al-Qaeda leader said in October 2001. 'This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders.' From bin Laden's perspective, it is a clash that has been under way for centuries, with the Americans as the latest incarnation of the Christian Crusaders--arrogant Western interlopers out to oppress Muslims. In an October 2001 interview on al-Jazeera, the Arabic satellite news channel, bin Laden talked about the 'clash of civilizations' thesis.

"Muslims, bin Laden argues, must reverse a series of humiliations that they've endured since the Ottoman Empire, the last Muslim great power, was dismantled after World War I. Al-Qaeda's 1998 declaration of a jihad, or holy war, against 'Jews and Crusaders' urges Muslims to attack 'the Americans and their allies, civilian and military,' supposedly as a response to U.S. policies that al-Qaeda feels oppress Muslims: the stationing of troops in Saudi-Arabia; the backing of UN sanctions against Iraq: support for repressive Arab regimes; support for Israel; alleged complicity in Russian attacks on Muslims in Chechnya; and interventions in Bosnia, Somalia, and other Muslim regions that bin Laden sees as attempts to spread America's empire. These Western policies, according to al-Qaeda, add up to a 'clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.'"

Some people in the West have used the Clash of Civilizations theory as a justification for i going toe-to-toe with Islam in retaliation for the World Trade Centre attacks. Richard Lowry wrote in The National Review that the West should fight back in defence of its values; so did Michad Ryan in The Boston Globe. Mare other commentators have been braying for Muslim blood.

Because the terrorists who attacked the United States in 2001 were all Muslims their violent actions have become linked with Islam. But, the vast majority of the world's more than one billion Muslims are peaceful people. It is a tiny number of extremists who cause the trouble. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda fanatics have twisted Islam's teachings to serve their own ends. Bin Laden is no more representative of Islam than Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh is of Christianity.

However, the volume of media coverage that uses the words "terrorists" and "Islam" in the same sentence can make it look as though our Western society is in conflict with another worldview.

Of course, the current struggles are not as simple as two civilizations clashing; other factors such as globalization, good versus evil, extremism versus moderation, rich versus poor, the religious versus the non-religious, etc., play a role.

Let's listen in on Narcis Serra, former Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, who spoke at a conference at Harvard University in November 2002:

"I do not think that the religious factor in Islamic terrorism is being exaggerated; however, I do feel that we run the risk of excessive concentration on this element to the detriment of other factors which facilitate emergence and development of terrorist organizations. By excessive concentration on the religious factor we are simplifying the problem. Religion cannot be isolated as a constituent factor in present-day terrorism from the enormous inequalities existing between the West and the world of Islam. Rather than decreasing, this inequality has in fact risen notably in recent years. Religion is practically the only channel available to youth in Egypt, Pakistan, and Algeria to ... protest against what they see as the injustice and exploitation of Western countries.

"However, viewing the problem as a clash of religions or civilizations, as a struggle between the West and Islam, would also be to fall into the terrorists' trap, and would lead to a dead end."

At the Cato Institute, Ivan Leland explains that trap: "A standard tactic for terrorist and guerrilla groups is to attack a stronger party and hope for an overreaction to act as a recruiting poster for their cause. An attack on (Muslim) Iraq (coming after an attack on the Islamic nation of Afghanistan) will merely throw kerosene on the flames of hatred toward the United States in the Islamic world. More fundamentalist Muslims will flock to bin Laden's cause and take up terrorism against the United States. In particular, as a result of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, the fundamentalist party in Pakistan, running an anti-American campaign, recently won two out of four provinces in the last election."

So, by overreacting to the terrorists' provocation the whole mess actually does descend into what might look like a Clash of Civilizations.

But, this is complicated by other issues. Ivan Eland explains why the United States is the target of the majority of international terrorist attacks. "Despite much evidence to the contrary, the American foreign policy community--and to a lesser extent, the American public avoids (like the plague) accepting any notion that U.S. actions overseas could result in blow-back (retaliation)."

What he means is that America too often behaves like a bully and this makes people resentful and angry. Examples?

* Dominican Republic--U.S. troops occupy the country (1965-66) to prop up a pro-American dictator;

* The Philippines--Ferdinand Marcos, one of the most corrupt dictators in the history of the world, remained in power from 1966 to 1986 with the support of the United States;

* Nigeria--Several brutal military dictators held power while U.S. companies exploited the country's rich oil reserves;

* Saudi Arabia--The al-Saud family are absolute rulers of the oil-rich kingdom, enjoying the political, military, and economic support of the U.S.;

* Egypt--Hosni Mubarak's government tortures and imprisons its opponents yet President Mubarak is an American friend.

There are many other examples from the past and the present.

In addition to helping many brutal rulers, the U.S. plays rough on the economic field also. Canada has experienced this with heavy-handed U.S. attacks on its steel, softwood lumber, wheat, and other exports. Canada has a highly developed and diversified economy that might take a few bruises but generally can roll with punches such as these. For a developing country with a weak economy an American tariff or import restriction could be a knockout blow.

There is no shortage of stories about American companies operating sweatshops in Third World countries where people work for miserable wages to make clothes or sneakers. American pharmaceutical giants sell drugs in developing nations that have been banned at home because of safety concerns; there are similar concerns over pesticides and herbicides.

As hundreds of millions of people scratch for a meager living in the developing world they see images of the unbelievably luxurious lifestyle portrayed in the American media. But, the message they get at the same time is: "You can look, but you can't have."

The United States does tend to flaunt its belief in the superiority of its way of life. But, elsewhere in the world there are other people who are equally convinced that their civilization is the best. Professor Huntington puts it this way: "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power."

Conservative Muslim societies view America as a decadent society; one that seems obsessed with materialism and media glorification of violence. Scandals such as those at Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen, and many others give the impression that capitalism is rotten to its core. The government appears geared to the needs only of the rich with the votes of politicians up for sale to the highest bidder. Among conservative Islamic societies the Western world is seen as far too permissive about sex, alcohol, and drugs.

However, the polling company Zogby International points to another reason why the United States is disliked, in particular in the Middle East. Polls taken by Zogby in 2002 in Arab and Islamic countries show that people in those nations like American technology, its political system, and its culture. What they don't like is U.S. policy in the Middle East. In Egypt, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia less than 10% of the people polled had a favourable view of U.S. policy toward Arabs. According to Zogby, the results did not reflect an anti-Western tilt because France, Canada, Japan, and Germany all received favourable ratings.

A Zogby International poll of Islamic countries found that majorities also like American products and culture--especially movies and television (for example, 75% of Iranians like U.S. films and TV)--but more than 70% in every country polled disapprove of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Polling a few months after the September 11 atrocities also revealed an interesting disconnect in the United States. The Washington Post reported that in a survey of opinion leaders around the world (media, political, and business elites in two dozen nations on five continents), a majority agreed with the statement that "U.S. policies and actions in the world" were responsible for the terrorist attacks. In contrast, only a few of the American opinion leaders polled saw such a relationship. Ivan Leland of the Cato Institute says, "Such divergent results between foreign and American elites indicate how out-of-touch Americans are with the perceptions people of other nations have of U.S. foreign policy."


The New York Times gave it as its opinion that the rest of the world "should" adopt Western values such as liberal democracy and free-market economics. A similar view has been expressed by the former Deputy Prime Minister of Spain, Narcis Serra. In a speech in November 2002 he said that: "Global terrorism can only be ended, or at least reduced, in a context of pacts and agreements with moderate Islamists and through efforts to spread democracy through the Muslim world. This belief must be a pillar of our anti-terrorist policy in the mid term."

Samuel Huntington wonders if this is the right approach. In his book-length version of The Clash of Civilizations (1996), he writes that the view that Western culture is the pinnacle of achievement "suffers three problems. It is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous." Professor Huntington sees no reason to believe the rest of the world ought to become like us. He says ancient societies such as China and Islam will find their own ways to modernize and will reject Western ideas about individuality and freedom. They will likely develop civilizations where the community is more important than the individual. The Japanese have shown the way. They have developed a wealthy and modern society while holding on to the core values of their ancient culture.

Samuel Huntington suggests Western civilization might not dominate the world. In fact, he thinks it will be all the West can do to survive.


America is famous for its generosity. Twice in the 20th century, it sent its sons to Europe to help Britain, France, and others defeat their enemies. Half a million didn't come home.

More recently, U.S. soldiers have gone to Lebanon, Somalia, and Haiti to try and fix failed states. In 2002, more than 40 of Africa's 53 countries received American food aid. Anytime there is a natural disaster in almost any part of the world, the U.S. is one of the first on the scene with relief.

So, Americans can be excused for wondering why so many people seem to hate them.


Ronald Reagan became President of the United States in 1981. At the time, Muammar Qadaffi, the leader of Libya, was sponsoring terrorist attacks against Western European nations. Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute tracked what happened next.

"Reagan, believing Qadaffi did the bidding of the Soviet Union, looked for ways to get rid of him or, failing that, to isolate him. In August of 1981, during war games in the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S. attempted to provoke Qadaffi by sending U.S. forces into claimed Libyan territorial waters and airspace. U.S. jets entered the Gulf of Sidra and shot down two Libyan aircraft that intercepted them. In late March 1986, a large U.S. naval armada sailed into the Gulf of Sidra and was predictably attacked with missiles by Qadaffi. U.S. forces destroyed the missile site and three naval craft. The latter action caused Qaddaffi to retaliate on 5 April 1986 by bombing the La Belie nightclub in Berlin, which was frequented by Americans. The bombing, in turn, led to American air strikes on 15 April 1986 on Tripoli and Benghazi that were apparently designed to kill Qadaffi. Contrary to conventional wisdom, this 1986 U.S. air raid did not deter Qadaffi from terrorist attacks. Beginning in April 1986, State Department analysts linked Libyan agents to an average of one attack per month against U.S. targets. The author has documented at least eight such attacks, including the disastrous Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland that killed 200 Americans in December 1988.

"In fact, U.S. military action had a counterproductive effect: before U.S. military provocations against Qadaffi, he was sponsoring attacks against Western European nations, but afterwards he went underground and began secretly attacking U.S. targets. As President, George H.W. Bush (the current President's father) adopted a less confrontational policy toward Libya than Reagan, Qadaffi's sponsored attacks against U.S. targets diminished as the 1980's ended.


Population experts say that Islam will become the second most popular religion in the United States after Christianity by 2010.


According to the U.S. Department of State's Patterns of Global Terrorism 2001, the United States was the target of 63% of the world's international terrorist attacks in that year.


Civilizations, according to Samuel P. Huntington's definition, are broad groupings organized around language, history, religion, and self-identification.


1. Turkey is a country in which the supposedly clashing civilizations meet. In November 2002, Recep Erdogan became the new leader of Turkey; he heads an Islamic-based political party yet he says his goal is to build bridges to the West. Is this moderate, accommodating approach a successful way of diminishing the clash of civilizations? Assign a team of students to research politics in Turkey as an introduction to a discussion of the above question.

2. Jonathan Power of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research writes that, "Democratic societies that practice human rights do not go to war with each other. But to be effective the West itself has to be credible on the human rights front, which means among other things in the news right now, honouring the Geneva Conventions, abolishing capital punishment, supporting financial reform of electioneering and, not least, supporting the International Criminal Court." Discuss.

3. Invite a leader from the Muslim community in your area to class to discuss the core beliefs of Islam.


Christian Science Monitor

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Title Annotation:Islam
Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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