Do you agree with Huntington’s thesis ‘Islam is a threat to the West’?

Published: 2019/12/10 Number of words: 3721

Samuel Huntington is well-known for his predictions of a post-Cold War era during which there will be ‘clash of civilizations’. According to this theory, new conflicts would be between civilizations and that Islam is a threat to the West. This essay seeks to explore this thesis and come to a conclusion as to whether this argument is well-founded. It will explore several dynamics including the historical context, the effects of globalization, the actual threat of violent extremists, statistical analysis on civilizational confrontation and the perceptions of the Western media. The breadth of the central argument of this thesis is problematic as the subject cannot be adequately investigated in a brief essay. While there are elements attesting to Islam being a threat, I disagree with the thesis and believe that Islam is not a threat to the West. It is my contention that there are discrepancies in Huntington’s views.

The historical context of Islam and Christendom has long held significance in the debate as to whether Islam has always engaged in a civilizational confrontation, especially when the latter is viewed as a precursor to the West. Indeed, Huntington himself is a prescribed historical essentialist who has justified his thesis partially upon past Islamic-Christian engagements. His examples range from the Iberian expansion to Tours in 732, the Crusades during the 11th –13th centuries, the Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia, the Spanish Reconquista, and the 1683 Ottoman halt at Vienna. David Campbell states that the origins of the concept of a ‘cold war’ are found in 14th century Islamic Spain and Christian Europe relations.[1] His historical deduction does hold some weight, especially when we explore the theoretical reasons for these confrontations. A commonly held belief is the perception that Christendom rejected Islam’s legitimacy from the 8th century, garnering mutual hostility. Also, both claim to be direct descendants of Abraham.

Today we can argue that fundamentalist attacks are not religiously motivated, but are political; however, this argument also holds for the historical narrative. For instance, Ibrahim Kalin argues that key differential traits such as the announcement of the final Abrahamic faith, unwillingness to form a central clergy and, later, its intellectual awakening, especially in Abbasid Baghdad, alarmed European Christendom.[2] Fears amounted about the attractiveness of Islamic convergence and its greater intellectual advancement. Overall, these were socio-political and not strictly religious. However when we analyse this according to Huntington’s thesis, it is clear that a threat was posed to the West, but not because they did directly embroiled Islam per se. In addition, Islamic al-Andalus embraced many Christian and Jewish philosophers, literalists and thinkers like Judah Halevi and Solomon ben-Gabirol.

If one studies scripture and core Islamic beliefs, evidence disproves a direct Islamic threat towards Christendom. Those seeking to prove Islam is a threat have used the verse: ‘Do not take the Christians and Jews as Awilya (friends)’[3] but have often neglected alternative meanings of Awilya like ‘guardian’ or ‘protector’.[4] It is often associated with long-standing historical failure to recognise Islam’s respect of the People of the Book; that they are all bound together in fellowship of worshipping God. Both Bryan Turner[5] and Edward Said[6] are convinced that Islam should be viewed as a sister-civilization, given its Western roots in Spain and Sicily. They are disproving of Huntington’s thesis and, indeed, his very designation of civilizations. Further, it is clear that a focus on the outward jihad (by the sword) has almost completely overshadowed the more highly-valued inward spiritual self. This focus on the outward jihad is the point at which many, including Huntington to a degree, have argued its instrumentality in past conflicts with Christendom. As such, Islam has always been viewed as being violent/confrontational when in fact mitigating circumstances, like conflict with the ruling Meccan Quraysh, warranted armed action. Qur’anic verses specifically pertaining to such situations have been taken by some to reflect an ahistorical rendering of Islam. Dakake argues: ‘the early… community was characterised not by militancy, but primarily by moderation and restraint’[7]. Thus, historically, Islam’s religion which is essentially what it implies, has not posed a threat.

The modern process of globalization offers major and significant insights into this debate, especially when studying the impetus of radical Islamists. These radicals have struck out violently against the West, when reconciling this threat with Islam as a whole. According to David Held and Anthony McGrew, ‘it involves a rescaling of social relations, from the economic sphere to the security sphere, beyond national to the transnational, transcontinental and transworld’[8]. On the other hand, Huntington has regularly stated that such economic expansion, inherently under Western hegemony, will provoke a clash of civilizations. Pro-globalists, like Francis Fukayama[9], have espoused that such expansion will unleash greater egalitarianism, economic equality, reduced poverty, greater political/liberal freedom. However, when realistically viewing the situation in the Middle East, this has largely not materialised. This is partially due to the authoritarian and aristocratic nature of many Muslim regional states; major economic assets from, for example the Saudi royal family or Egypt’s military aristocracy have been made accessible to the public. Critically, however, given that the US has generally led globalization, its ideas and rhetoric over greater political globalization like democracy and liberalism have often been duplicitous where security has become more highly valued in the Middle Eastern context. Even Huntington agrees that such duplicity has occurred.

As a result, the perception of these ideas has garnered increased Muslim apprehension, not just of modernity but also of the West. We need to reverse Huntington’s thesis and posit: ‘Is the West a threat to Islam?’ Reverting to the historical context, it is generally accepted that modernism resulted from European imperialism as early as the early-19th century. Westerners moved into Muslim lands, sometimes under the guise of ‘civilising’ them, but in actuality taking over their political-economic governance.[10] This, combined with the academic development of Orientalism that greatly shunned/degraded Muslims, has fostered in modern times the widely-held view that globalisation is but a new wave of imperialism. As ‘…a good part of anti-Western discourse… has its roots in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries encounter with Europe and the modern world meant carrying the brunt of imperialism’.[11] Whilst one can deduct from these that many Muslims oppose the West because of such modernism, this hardly means that Muslims pose a tangible threat to the West; indeed Huntington’s thesis doesn’t even define what ‘threat’ means. Hypothetically, if an Islamic government embraced the sentiment that jeopardized previous Western trade agreements, then it would be a threat to the latter’s economic interests, but hardly crucial to that civilization’s survival.

Regarding Huntington’s thesis specifically, it has provided a major impetus in proving that Islam, because of extreme fundamentalists who use terror, is a threat to the West. As ‘poverty, ignorance, and despotism are the breeding grounds of Islamic… terrorism, understood as reactions to multiple crises of legitimacy due to stagnant economies, unrepresentative governments … exposed to its secular materialism and hedonism’.[12] Later possible motives will be discussed, but grievances to do with globalisation have provided a vital recruitment mechanism for terror organisations. A great quote is, ‘Organizations like bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda terrorist network feed on the common perception that Western modes of modernisation have not only failed to put an end to widespread poverty in the region, but that they have also enhanced political instability’.[13]

Huntington’s theorising of civilization clashes being partially provoked by processes like globalization has proven his thesis but only insofar as Islamic terrorism is concerned and terrorists comprise a small minority of Muslims. He also postulates that, ‘Islamic societies attempt to expand their own economic and military power to resist …’[14] the West, including beliefs that they seek to form a transnational economic bloc. This, over the years, has failed to happen. In fact, the largest military shipments (like those to Saudi Arabia) have come from the West with support to counter Iran, another Islamic country. The Middle East, in particular, has also been too divisive to form an economic bloc.

Linked to globalization, perhaps the major part of this question has to do directly with reconciling the issue of violent fundamentalists responsible for attacks against the West with that of Islam as a whole. This concerns whether the apparent violence constitutes Huntington’s clash of civilizations and, more importantly, whether they are truly representative of Islam. He does argue that anti-West attitudes will lead to increased hostility towards the West. Firstly, as mentioned, Western-led globalization and its failures in the Muslim world have contributed to increased grievances and resumption of historical suspicions and have provided a vital terrorist recruitment mechanism. However, these are not strictly religious factors. Langman and Morris eloquently argue, ‘if fundamentalism is a faith of the weak, terrorism is its weapon’.[15] Also, it can be considered to be natural to revert to one’s indigenous culture, which explains the partial increase in religion-orientated political opposition. Haroun Er-Rashid argues that Muslim radicals blame Western modernization for trying to destroy family-centred life, keep them economically impoverished and impose political division.[16]

The latter two points are not about religion, but greater understanding is needed about whether groups like al-Qaeda are motivated by anti-globalization or, in fact, whether they are primarily religious, thus proving it is a threat. Indeed, Sayyid indicated that the 9/11 attacks symbolically attacked US-led globalization by striking at the heart of its military and financial power.[17] But the methods used showed their willingness to utilise modernity for their own ends. Nilufer Gole rightly argues that although the attacks were believed to be political and against modernity, the terrorists themselves were modernists.[18] Therefore one needs to go beyond the veil of rhetoric and see if there truly is a religious underpinning to this anti-West violence. Whilst such socio-political grievances provide recruitment, it is generally viewed that figures like Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri genuinely sought a jihadist civilization conflict. They drew heavily from the teachings of key theologians like Ibn Taymiyya and Abd-al Wahab who held beliefs like the dar al-Islam and dar al-kufr; ultimately a re-establishment of the global ummah. This can be prescribed to Huntington’s views that Muslims are in favour of such, given that the tribe and ‘the ummah, have been the traditional foci of loyalty and commitment’.[19]

Superficially, this proves from a certain viewpoint that Islam does pose a threat. In addition this is compounded by theorised state involvement with non-state acts of terrorism. A controversial example is that of Saudi Arabia. In a hearing in the US senate, Simon Henderson expressed concern over the Saudis’ funding and support of international Islamic institutions such as the construction of mosques and aid.[20] For instance, it was found that whilst funding had gone to officials and NGOs, some/most had been linked to Islamist militants, including al-Qaeda. He also gives an account of the House of Saud’s violent history of raging conflicts with the Hashemistes and Ibn Rashids in the region. The Wahhabi ulema had a pivotal position and still hold great political sway in the country today. However, whilst speculative, one can argue that it is rather reflective of a balanced policy that the House of Saud has always pursued. This has to do with regime survival, not a genuine ideological/civilization confrontation; after all, during the 1960s and again in the 1980s, pan-Islamism was used as a front to counter regional threats; first Nasserism, then Communism and Iran.

Therefore one can assume that because these groups are very small, and state support is likely to be politically-motivated, Islam as a whole does not constitute a threat. In addition, regarding the cost of violence, Eric Hobsbawm argues that although attacks like 9/11, London 2005 and Madrid were abhorrent, they barely had any affect on operational structures and institutions like the economy; the countries continued operating normally.[21] On another note, Dakake argues theologically there has been no justification for such violence; they ‘followed their own imaginings about “religion” without any serious understanding of the traditional sources of the Islamic faith’.[22] Overall, such violence has arguably shown Islam to be a threat, but only from marginalised extremists and by no means entailing Huntington’s envisaged civilization clash.

Statistical analysis regarding recent conflict escalation involving Muslim communities sheds light on their ability to threaten the West. Jonathan Fox is one of few to statistically test Huntington’s thesis. He found that in the post-Cold War era, Islamic groups were involved in 109 conflicts, of which 62.4% were deemed to be civilizational.[23] Whilst acknowledging that such figures prove the thesis as does Huntington’s belief of Islam’s ‘bloody borders’, like conflicts in Yugoslavia, Sudan and Kashmir, overall they accounted for only 17.4%[24] of all ethnic-related conflicts. But he identified that 80.8%[25] involved Islamic groups, Western groups, or both. Most profoundly, though, is statistical evidence dispelling Huntington’s perspective of a potential clash of civilizations. Since 1992, civilization conflicts have only increased by 2.8%.[26]

One should treat these statistics cautiously especially given that they predated 9/11. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars undoubtedly fuelled perceptions of civilization clashes, but statistics have proved that very little has changed since the Cold War, and that Huntington’s perception of Islam being a threat to the West is largely unfounded. Indeed a significant issue confounding Islam’s portrayal as a danger is influenced immensely by perception, especially that of the Western media. Firstly, Kalin posits that Orientalism has found itself into American popular culture where 9/11 has revitalised historical views of it being violently expansionist and that internally it operates irrationally and is biased and repressive.[27] Thompson agrees that Islamist extremists have impacted the great Western historical consciousness.[28] Journalistic portrayal has been extreme in demonizing Islam through the use of vocabulary such as ‘militants’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘fundamentalists’. It has also affected perceptions of Islam by US employment of neo-conservative speakers like Rosh Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, and the choice of content regarding Muslims. Overall, the Western media has been largely responsible for creating an image of Islam as a profound threat or, at least, delivering what people like Huntington believe to wider audiences, when in reality it essentially is not.

In conclusion, I disagree with Huntington’s thesis; Islam is essentially not a threat to the West. However, this topic has been extremely hard to explore given that this is such a broad question to try to answer. The approach adopted has been to explore whether it is credible to consider the whole of Islam as being a threat. It is clear that it is not. The historical context/narrative, used by essentialists like Huntington, indeed highlights a number apparently civilizational conflicts with Islam, but these are negated by political reasoning for confrontation, focussing instead on religion and culture. In addition, perceptions of Islam that have encouraged Western hostility to Islam have been greatly exaggerated and misleading, further dismissing these conflicts as religiously-fuelled.

The two most important issues when addressing this thesis have to do with globalization that has failed to bring prosperity and violent extremists. The former has been largely responsible for Muslim grievances, renewed hostile positions of the West through perceived neo-imperialism and, to a degree, fuelled violence through recruitment. Such extremists have proven at times to have a religion-orientated agenda, and thus can be considered to prove a threat. But they are a very small minority and Huntington’s prophesy of greater economic/military pan-Islamism has failed to materialise. Also increased Islamist-orientated political parties in the region (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nahda, Libyan TNC) are in tandem with globalization grievances, where it is perceived that other ideologies have failed. This does not prove a threat as indigenous opposition to modernisation can be witnessed across the world, like the Zapatista and FARC movements in Latin America. Indeed, statistically, his forecast of a clash of civilizations has not manifested either. Overall, generally speaking of a too broad thesis, Islam religiously and as a whole is not a threat to the West.

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[1] In M. Salla, ‘Political Islam and the West: A New Cold War or Convergence?’ Third World Quarterly 18(4)(1997), p. 729.

[2] I. Kalin, ‘5. Roots of Misconception: Euro-American Perceptions of Islam Before and After September 11’, in J. E. B. Lumbard, ed, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition. (Bloomington, 2004), p. 145-7.

[3] In D. Dakake, ‘1. The Myth of Militant Islam’, in J. E. B. Lumbard, ed, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition. (Bloomington, 2004), p. 5.

[4] Ibid, p. 6.

[5] In S. Sayyid, A Fundamental Fear: Eurocentrism and the Emergence of Islamism (London and New York, 2003), p.

[6] In Kalin, ‘5. Roots of Misconception’, p. 177.

[7] Dakake, ‘1. The Myth of Militant Islam’, p. 29.

[8] D. Held and A. McGrew, Globalization/Anti-Globalization: Beyond the Great Divide (Cambridge, 2007), p. 2

[9] In E. Akram, ‘7. The Muslim World and Globalization: Modernity and the Roots of Conflict’, in in J. E. B. Lumbard, ed, Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition. (Bloomington, 2004), p. 238-9.

[10] Y. Y., Haddad, ‘The Globalization of Islam’, in J. L. Esposito, ed, The Oxford History of Islam (Oxford and New York, 1999), p. 603.

[11] Kalin, ‘5. The Roots of Misconception’, p. 177.

[12] L. Langman and D. Morris, ‘4. The Roots of Terror’, in M. J. Thompson, ed, Islam and the West: Critical Perspectives on Modernity (United States of America, 2003), p. 63.

[13] M. B. Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford and New York, 2009), p. 122.

[14] S. P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Great Britain, 2002), p. 29.

[15] Langman and Morris, ‘4. The Roots of Terror’, p. 66.

[16] H. Er-Rashid, ‘1. Muslims and the West: A Paradigm for Polarization’, in M. J. Thompson, ed, Islam and the West: Critical Perspectives on Modernity (United States of America, 2003), p. 12.

[17] Sayyid, The Fundamental Fear, p.xxi.

[18] N. Gole. ‘Close Encounters: Islam, Modernity and Violence’, in C. Calhoun Understanding September 11 (New York, 2002), p. 343

[19] Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p. 175.

[20] S. Henderson, Institutionalized Islam: Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Policies and the Threat They Pose. Testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Terrorism, United States Senate, (2003

[21] E. Hobsbawm, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism (London, 2007), p. 135-7.

[22] Dakake,‘1. The Myth of Militant Islam’, p. 28.

[23] J. Fox. ‘Two Civilizations and Ethnic Conflict: Islam and the West’ Journal of Peace Research 38(4) (2001), p. 463

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 464.

[26] Ibid, p. 265.

[27] Kalin, ‘5. Roots of Misconception’, p. 165.

[28] M.J.Thompson, ‘Introduction’, in M. J. Thompson, ed, Islam and West: Critical Perspectives on Modernity (United States of America, 2003), p. 2.

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