Afghanistan: debunking the clash of civilisations

“Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy”

By Khaled Diab

The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and the collapse of the American-backed Afghan government has revived fears that we are in the midst of a monumental clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. In this extract from his book Islam for the Politically Incorrect, Khaled Diab shows how this presumed civilisational conflict bears little resemblance to historical or present reality.

Many people are convinced that we are in the throes of a monumental war between the West, or Christendom, if you prefer, and Islam – and advocates of this idea on both sides believe they are not only in the right but also on the defensive in this confrontation between “good” and “evil”, or more accurately, us and them.

For many in the West, the rise of ISIS, al-Qaeda, homegrown Islamic extremism and, above all, the 9/11 attacks, in their monstrous audacity and nihilistic novelty, are the smoking gun that Muslims are out to destroy the West because they hate our freedoms. “This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East,” opined Republican presidential hopeful Senator Marco Rubio, in November 2015, following the multiple terrorist attacks which struck Paris, claiming the lives of 130 people. “They hate us because of our values. They hate us because young girls here go to school. They hate us because women drive.”

Many Muslims disagree and see the clash as very much “grievance-based”, as well as civilisational. They regard the West’s cultural, political and economic hegemony, its support of some of the most repressive and tyrannical leaders in the Muslim world and its invasion and occupation of Muslim-majority countries, such as the “shock and awe” wholesale destruction of Iraq at the hands of the United States and Britain, founded on “sexed up” claims of weapons of mass destruction and imaginary links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, as crystal clear evidence that the West wishes to wipe Islam off the face of the Earth. For instance, Osama bin Laden, while not taking direct responsibility for 9/11, claimed that the atrocities committed, were in “self-defence”. “This is something we have agitated for before, as a matter of self-defence, in defence of our brothers and sons in Palestine, and to liberate our sacred religious sites,” the al-Qaeda founder told Al Jazeera in October 2001. “If inciting people to do that is terrorism, and if killing those who kill our sons is terrorism, then let history be witness that we are terrorists.”

This apparent clash was given intellectual and academic expression by the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington, who published an incredibly influential essay on the “clash of civilisations” in 1993 – which he later expanded into a book. Although he did not single out Islam and the West as being the only protagonists in this cultural collision, Huntington argued that “the fundamental source of conflict” in the post-Cold War era would be not ideological or economic but “cultural” wars between civilisations – as if culture were somehow distinct from ideology and not interrelated and intertwined, or that civilisations could somehow be separated from their economic underpinnings and interests. “The clash of civilisations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future,” the Harvard professor argued. Huntington divided the world into some half a dozen major civilisational groups which, he posited, would clash at two levels: local “fault line conflicts” where civilisations overlap and “core state conflicts” between the major states of different civilisations.

Huntington gave the “fault line” between Islam and the West special historical prominence. “Conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilisations has been going on for 1,300 years. This centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent,” he wrote. “On both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilisations.” Referring to the Muslim world’s fault lines, or frontiers, with other cultures, Huntington concludes that: “Islam has bloody borders,” as though there were a civilisation or nation in the world whose boundaries – both internal and external – are not blood-soaked.

Although the clash of civilisations theory has become associated with Samuel Huntington, he was not the first to posit it, nor did he coin the term. A few years before him, the prominent British-American historian and scholar of Islam Bernard Lewis wrote an essay in which he foresaw a far more specific clash of civilisations, namely between the West and Islam. “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” Lewis, the historian of choice for the neo-conservative movement, wrote in 1990, in what has proved to be one of the most influential essays of recent decades. “This is no less than a clash of civilisations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Unlike Christian fundamentalists, the far right and the alt-right, Bernard Lewis was an accomplished and knowledgeable scholar of Islamic culture. One may disagree with the conclusions he draws from the historical and political evidence, with his clear political bias, especially in later years, and with the omissions he makes, but one cannot doubt his profound understanding of the subject upon which he pens his polemics, especially in his earlier scholarship. This is evident in his urging of caution and sensitivity in his 1990 essay. “We must take great care on all sides to avoid the danger of a new era of religious wars,” he counselled. “To this end we must strive to achieve a better appreciation of other religious and political cultures, through the study of their history, their literature, and their achievements. At the same time, we may hope that they will try to achieve a better understanding of ours.”

Clash of values or clash of value?

Although Lewis and Huntington gave us the modern term’s current ideological contours, the notion of a “clash of civilisations” between those two age-old rivals, Islam and Christendom, has ancient pedigree, stretching back centuries, as far back as the very birth of Islam, when the nascent religion established itself as a direct rival to Christendom in both the celestial and secular, i.e. temporal or worldly, spheres. Examples include the historical notions of jihads and crusades, not to mention the idea of “civilisation” versus “barbarity” espoused by dominant powers and influential voices on both sides throughout the centuries.

This would seem to be corroborated by the early history of Islam, when it swept like wildfire through the Christianised Greco-Roman and the Zoroastrian Persian worlds, both of which had been severely depleted due to the endless internecine Byzantine-Sasanian wars, the last of which, in 602-628, left the two empires weak and impoverished, paving the way to the “human tsunami” of the Arab conquests.

When the Muslim armies landed on the shores of Europe, their legendary commander Tariq ibn Ziyad, who gave his name to Gibraltar (a bastardisation of Jabal Tariq), the rock separating Iberia from North Africa, reportedly after warning his troops that “Behind you is the sea, before you, the enemy,” urged them on with this pledge: “The one fruit which [the Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik] desires to obtain from your bravery is that the word of God shall be exalted in this country, and that the true religion shall be established here.”

Each crusade launched against Islam and the Reconquista of the Iberian peninsula was also framed in such overtly religious terms. “Freshly quickened by the divine correction, you must apply the strength of your righteousness to another matter which concerns you as well as God. For your brethren who live in the east are in urgent need of your help, and you must hasten to give them the aid which has often been promised them,” urged Pope Urban II in 1095, paving the way for what would become known as the First Crusade. “On this account I, or rather the Lord, beseech you as Christ’s heralds to publish this everywhere and to persuade all people of whatever rank, foot-soldiers and knights, poor and rich, to carry aid promptly to those Christians and to destroy that vile race from the lands of our friends.”

With this long history to draw on, it is, therefore, unsurprising that when former US president George W Bush likened his “war on terrorism” to a “crusade” and claimed that he was on a “mission from God” when he invaded Iraq, many took it to mean that a centuries-old religious war had resumed. Bush’s arch-enemy Osama bin Laden – who had earlier been an ally of the Reagan-Bush Snr administration against their common enemy, the Soviet Union in Afghanistan – concurred about the religious dimensions of the emerging conflict. “This battle is not between al-Qaeda and the US. This is a battle of Muslims against the global crusaders,” the Al Qaeda chief said in an October 2001 interview, in a desperate bid to internationalise his disparate movement and fringe ideology.

But are Bush, bin Laden, Huntington, Lewis and others right? Is there really a clash of civilisations in motion or are we simply witnessing a more mundane clash of geopolitical and economic interests – not so much a clash of values but a clash of value – be it manifest in the form of resources, export markets or control over territories of geostrategic importance?

Although culture and ideology can, on some occasions, lead to conflict, for the most part, societies enter into conflicts for other reasons, foremost among them are avarice and the pursuit of perceived strategic interests. For instance, to motivate his own troops, the vast majority of whom were, like him, not Arabs but Berbers, and were recent converts to Islam, Tariq ibn Ziyad informed his men that if they conquered Iberia: “The Commander of True Believers, Alwalid, son of Abdalmelik… promises that you shall become his comrades and shall hold the rank of kings in this country.” This hints at how, even at times when ideology and faith are supposedly at the forefront, material interests and greed are not far from the surface – in this case, the promise of loot and positions of authority as a reward for conquest. In most cases, it would seem that booty trumps belief.

Critics of Huntington’s clash of civilisations, like the dissident American scholar Noam Chomsky, see the theory as simply the symptom of the avarice of an empire, i.e. Pax Americana, in search of another justification for its imperial and economic aspirations after the Cold War paradigm fell apart with the collapse of the Soviet bloc. That would explain, for instance, why the United States decided to invade Saddam Hussein’s secular Iraq, even though it was a sworn enemy of al-Qaeda and Jihadist Islam, yet is bosom buddies with Saudi Arabia, the hotbed of reactionary Wahhabism, which it exports, with dire consequences, around the region and the world, and is the home of most of the hijackers who took part in the 11 September 2001 attacks – not to mention the long-standing allegations that members of the Saudi government and royal family supported the 9/11 plot.

Even the most fanatical and ideologically driven groups and nations can be motivated by realpolitik. For example, following the November 2015 Paris attacks, ISIS released a statement sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”. However, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” was a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was not coincidental and was largely motivated by France’s military involvement against ISIS in Syria. “The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign… and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” the statement asserted.
Civilisational lines in the sand.

The fact that clashes of interest trump clashes of culture more often than not is reflected in the counter-intuitive alliances that cut across civilisational lines and which have been commonplace since the very dawn of Islam – as they have been in many other contexts. For instance, Tariq ibn Ziyad, capable military commander that he was, did not conquer Andalusia by himself. He had the help of the very Christian Julian of Septem (Ceuta) and some Visigothic opponents of Roderick, who was the unpopular ruler of most of Spain. It even appears that the overstretched Arabs were not interested at that point in crossing the Straits of Gibraltor and it was Roderick’s Christian opponents who persuaded them that it would be a cakewalk and provided them with vital intelligence and logistical support. And this was to be no exception. The subsequent history of medieval Spain was replete with shifting alliances, across highly permeable ideological lines, between its various Muslim and Christian rulers, often guided by little more than the expediency of the moment.

Perhaps the most remarkable medieval alliance of all was what modern-day historians call the Abbasid–Carolingian alliance, which was a spectacular example of the tired adage that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. The common Muslim enemy was the Umayyads, the remnants of whom had fled their capital Damascus after the Abbasid revolt and set up a rival, if weaker, caliphate in Iberia, which was a political threat to the Abbasids and a territorial threat to the Carolingians. The common Christian enemy was the Byzantine empire, which was a political rival to the Carolingians for leadership of the Christian world and a territorial rival to the Abbasids. As part of this multi-generational alliance, two legendary leaders of Islam and Christendom, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who is credited with having halted Islam’s northward advance in Europe, and Caliph Harun al-Rashid, the Abbasid dynasty’s most famous monarch, sent each other several embassies in the mid-eighth century. In a bid to demonstrate the importance they attached to this relationship, as well as their own prestige and might, the two rulers exchanged lavish gifts, with the caliph once dispatching a huge shipment of luxury perfumes, spices, rich fabrics, a chessboard, a clock and an elephant called Abu al-Abbas. This diplomatic relationship was underpinned by a massive, two-way flow of trade, which saw the reverse of today’s roles, with Charlemagne’s Europe importing luxury goods from Harun al-Rashid’s Middle East and exporting various raw materials and primary goods in return. In addition, there was a military component. Charlemagne allied himself with pro-Abbasid rulers in Iberia and ventured on an unsuccessful expedition to take Zaragoza, which failed partly because of the forces sent by the caliph did not reach and aid the Holy Roman Emperor’s troops.

More modern examples include the Arabs allying themselves with the British and the French against the Turks, the Muslim Leagues alliance with the British Raj in India, Pakistan’s later alliance with America against the USSR, Nasser’s Egypt in the non-aligned camp of Nehru’s India against pro-Western Pakistan, or the Ottomans fighting alongside the Germans against the British, French and Russians during World War I, sitting out World War II and joining US-led NATO thereafter. In fact, throughout its centuries as a major power, the Ottoman empire built alliances with various Christian European states, including France, Poland, Elizabethan England and modern Germany. The Ottoman empire even sought to exploit the schism brought about by the Reformation in Europe by allying itself with the Protestant movement. For their part, though they had a dim view of Islam, Dutch Protestants were willing to collaborate with the Turks in their battle against the church and the Habsburgs, employing the derogatory slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”). Europeans also sought to exploit the fault lines and schisms in the Ottoman empire. The first to try this was Napoleon Bonaparte, when he assured Egyptians upon his arrival in their land: “They have told you that I come to destroy your religion, but do not believe it… I come to restore your rights, punish the usurpers and that I respect God, his prophet and the Quran more than the Mamluks.” During his disastrous sojourn in Egypt, the eccentric French general tried to convince a sceptical Egyptian population that he was a Muslim (of sorts) and that the French republic and its revolutionary ethos reflected the true spirit of Islam (of sorts). He even did his utmost to recruit the ulema, or clerical, class to his cause, setting up a special diwan (council), for the purpose. But his project failed and Napoleon, the de facto sultan of Egypt, returned to France to become its emperor, while the Ottomans and Egypt’s Mamluks, with British help, survived for a while longer.

The fact that Turkey’s relationship with the European Union is now perhaps at its worst since the European integration project began in the 1950s, not to mention the escalating dispute between Turkey and its long-standing ally, Germany, with Berlin accusing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime of “intolerable” levels of spying on Turks in Germany and human rights abuses. But it would be a mistake to view this through a civilisational prism, since Angela Merkel’s government, to its credit, has been critical about the rise of ultra-nationalism and fascism in Europe and the United States. Some will point, as proof of a civilisational clash, the numerous rebuffs Turkey has received over the decades to Ankara’s ambition to become a full member of the EU, which have often been framed in civilisational terms, such as the regular references to the “Gates of Vienna” and the controversy unleashed over whether the EU was a “Christian club” during the drafting of the so-called Lisbon Treaty, which was led by former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who believed Turkey’s entry would spell the “end of Europe”. Although numerous people believe this rhetoric, it is also an emotive mask for calculated political manoeuvring. Beyond the appeals to identity lies a home truth troubling the Union’s big hitters: if Turkey were to become a full member, with its current population only second to Germany’s, it would rapidly become the largest country in the EU, in light of its higher population growth.

A century ago, Germany became the first modern country to declare a global jihad against her enemies, and I am not speaking figuratively or actually mean crusade. During World War I, Germany entered into a military alliance with the Ottomans, despite Turkey’s chronic and perhaps terminal weakness, in order to get the Sultan, who was officially also caliph, to declare a pan-Islamic jihad which, the Germans calculated, would hurt its enemies, Britain, France and Russia, all of whom possessed vast Muslim territories and had hundreds of thousand of Muslim soldiers fighting on their side of the trenches. “In a great European war, especially if Turkey participates in it against England, one may certainly expect an overall revolt of the Muslims in the British colonies,” predicted the pioneering Arabist, historian, diplomat, archaeologist and German spy, Max von Oppenheim, in 1908. Oppenheim went on to lead the German pan-Islamic propaganda effort during the war which had almost no effect in inciting a mass Islamic uprising, something which, given Oppenheim’s profound and wide-ranging knowledge of Islamic history, he should have anticipated. If Muslims rulers have never successfully managed to launch a pan-Islamic jihad, how did the Germans expect to succeed?

But it was not just the Germans who wished to tether their imperial flag to the ship of jihad. However, the British were ultimately more successful. The use of jihad by the German-Ottoman alliance had its desired effect and set of alarm bells of panic in Britain and France, who did all they could to counter this, through such efforts as backing and provoking the revolt in Arabia, and promoting the Sharif of Mecca as a more legitimate heir to the title of caliphate than the Sultan in Istanbul. The British were more successful in their counter-jihad but they, too, overestimated its utility. “Perhaps there is a caution in this narrative,” Eugene Rogan, the prominent historian of the Middle East whose probing books include The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, warned western leaders in the 21st century. “When they overreact to the threat of religious war, they concede power to the very enemies they seek to overcome, with consequences impossible to predict.” The “impossible to predict” consequences of the Middle East theatre in World War I, during which religious, nationalistic and religio-nationalistic passions were unleashed, were the sudden and disruptive collapse of the Ottoman empire, and its final death as a multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-confessional entity, the ramifications of which continue to this day. I once tried to imagine what would have happened if the Ottomans had not entered World War I and the empire had been given the time and space to crumble in peace, could we have ended up with a democratic superstate or confederation of autonomous peoples combining the benefits of a borderless empire with those of freedom and equality for all? We will never know.

Despite the repeated warnings from numerous intellectuals and dissidents over the decades, the major western powers have generally ignored the cautionary tale offered by World War I and have continued to exploit Islamic religious forces for the sake of short-term political expediency, without paying heed to the dangerous, formidable and cumulative blowback of such policies. This was especially the case during the secular post-colonial and Cold War era when Islamic fanatics were willing to play the role of western power brokers’ useful idiots – or whom had decided that their greater enemy were the “godless” in their midst rather than the “godless” in the West. The most unlikely current alliance is the long-standing Anglo-American relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has stood rock-solid since the 1915 Anglo-Saudi Treaty (Darin Treaty). In terms of values, culture, political philosophy and religious ideology, such an improbable union should not exist, and if it did, it should be a shortlived marriage of convenience, not an enduring alliance that has lasted for more than a century. The special relationship between Riyadh, London and later Washington has withstood two world wars, a cold war, the global exporting of Wahhabism, Western hegemony over the Middle East, 9/11, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen, the current mayhem in the region and even the rise of Donald Trump. After meeting with the famously Islamophobic US president, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who later became crown prince in a palace coup orchestrated by his father, made the unimaginable claim that Trump was a “true friend of Muslims who will serve the Muslim world in an unimaginable manner”. Verily, oil is thicker than blood, ideology and even deep-seated bigotry.

Khaled Diab

Khaled Diab is a veteran journalist and the author of two books: Intimate Enemies (2014) and Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017). His website is and his Twitter profile @DiabolicalIdea

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