Incompatible civilizational values as catalysts for conflict in the West

Why do trivial matters such as cartoons lead to disproportionately horrific violence? Why did the perpetrators of violence choose to do what they do in the primitive and medieval ways they prefer to do? In the light of the recent terror attacks in France and Austria, I try to find answers in a concept that originated in the 1990s United States.

‘The clash of civilizations’ is a controversial, yet relevant, concept developed by U.S. political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. In 1993, Foreign Affairs magazine published an article written by him of the same name, which later evolved into a full-fledged book in 1996, titled “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order”.

The term implies that cultural and religious identities of peoples and nations of the world could potentially turn out to be primary sources of conflict, and future wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures, or rather civilizations.

Huntington wrote, “The absence of an Islamic core state is a major contributor to the pervasive internal and external conflicts which characterize Islam. Consciousness without cohesion is a source of weakness to Islam and a source of threat to other civilizations. Is this condition likely to be sustained?”

Well, it seems right, taking recent incidents of terror in Europe into account. Many thought the idea would be too far-stretched. But, 9/11 proved Huntington’s critics wrong when the West had the first encounter with a radical form of a distant ideology hailing from the Middle-East on its own soil – Islamism, the political and sometimes military face of Islam, which was brewing up for a decade since the American involvement in the Gulf War of 1990-91.

Irrespective of geographies, most of the defenders of political Islam are vulnerable to radicalism. But, pure spiritual Islam devoid of political considerations can be less vulnerable, as they focus only on their religious lives, without any gratuitous aspiration to spread their faith or to build a caliphate around the world under Islamic law, for that matter.

Multiplicity of identities and civilizational values

The motivating factor behind all the terror crimes was some ‘identity’ of being exceptional as compared to other fellow beings. The religious identities of the perpetrators of terrorism always superseded their collective national consciousness and sanity of mind in favour of some extremely idealistic world where their ideology alone rules.

It is also true that all Islamic believers aren’t radicals. A majority of them want a peaceful life. But, they will have to pay a heavy price if they are unwilling to adapt to the basic tenets of their respective dominant national cultures with tolerant mind-set, and with periodic checks on radical elements from dominating prevailing religious discourse.

The fact that there is no single core Islamic core state to oversee the faith in its entirety, as noted by Huntington, makes the religion open to interpretations, or rather misinterpretations, suiting different purposes for different groups of people.

The way Kemalist-influenced Turkey (presently going through a rewriting phase by Recep Tayyip Erdogan) does it varies from Wahhabi-influenced Saudi Arabia, the same goes with Shia-influenced Iran. Depending on the vulnerabilities in the mental state of different groups of believers, radicalism makes way for itself in a gradual pace.

In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron’s crackdown on radical Islam is noteworthy, as it needs regulation from a responsible secular state like France, and for ensuring the continued existence of that state in its original form. The same goes with Germany or Nordic states that experience an increasing inflow of potential radicals from Islamic societies, in the past one decade in particular.

George Bush-era ‘War on Terror’ and presently Macron’s moves can be seen as the first responses in lines with the idea of a civilizational clash in this century, a conflict between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

It also meant a conflict between singular-minded, non-questionable devotion and absolute liberty, a conflict between absolute secularism and theocracy, and a conflict between ultra-liberalism and puritanical religiosity.

Exceptionalism and being ‘the other’

Islam, inherently, talks about every aspect of life of a believer – what one should eat and not, how one should dress and not, how genders by birth define one’s position in family and community, and even how one should perceive non-believers. This translates into an extreme form of exceptionalism in real life for practitioners of that faith.

Another key factor to note is that they maintain this exceptionalism with unwillingness for a closer socio-cultural integration to the larger society with a different civilizational heritage they find themselves in, unlike Judaism or Hinduism or Buddhism which also have their own exceptionalist traits.

In some cases, their actions post-radicalization have even resulted in misjudged retaliatory terror strikes in completely unrelated and new locations such as the shootings at a mosque that happened in New Zealand last year.

This cycle continues without a foreseeable end, exacerbated in a digital age where caliphates can even exist merely on the internet with the potential for public safety hazards in any location around the world. And, if that happens in a totally unexpected place like Vienna earlier this month, media attention will be high, and peaceful Islamic believers faces the brunt of ‘othering’ from the societies alien to the Islamic civilization they live in.

When the Islamic and Western civilizations met

The Islamic civilization made contacts with the European or Western civilization for the first time in 8th century CE during the Moorish conquests of Andalusia and the southern parts of Spain. These cultural influences can be seen even today. But, in the 15th century Christian monarchs took back Moorish territories in an eight-century-long period of Reconquista.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, the West becomes involved in nationalist struggles in the Middle-East, home to the Islamic and Jewish civilizations. Thus, the Arab states, 22 in number today, and subsequently the world’s only Jewish state of Israel came into being.

Since the formation of the Jewish state was predominantly a project led by European Jews, it retained a certain amount of similarity with the Western civilization. But, the Arabs retained their exceptionalism with Islam as its core.

For fairly a long period of time now, Europe is predominately divided between Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Christianity as in Greece and Russia, and atheists. The latter half of the 20th century, however, began witnessing changes in demographic dynamics of the continent with the spread of globalization. But, radicalism still hadn’t made its way.

In this century, the sources of radicalization in Europe varies between factors such as increasing inflow of refugees from conflict zones from across the Mediterranean in the Middle-East, particularly Syria, and North Africa from the early 2010s, and some of these new immigrants who would later go on turning radical.

The countries such as France had historical ties with the Arab Maghreb countries, particularly Algeria and Tunisia, rooted in its colonial past, which would turn out to be an Achilles’ heel in the national security and integrity of the French Republic in this century.

Meanwhile, there were other non-Arab countries, part of the 57-nation Islamic civilization with their own exceptionalist doctrines like Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Rigidity in maintaining an exceptionalist outlook on daily religious practice, including a puritanical form of theism, also acted as a catalyst for a civilizational clash with the West.

An historical example of ‘syncretism’ from India

However, there are good examples of evolution of ‘syncretic’ belief systems as with Sufism elsewhere in India, where I write this essay from, that co-existed with Hinduism for centuries until the British operationalized their ‘divide and rule’ policy for economic exploitation of the Subcontinent.

Sufi-influenced traditions such as Hindustani classical music are global examples for co-existence and peace in the northern parts of India, even with dissimilarities. But, the rise of Hindu nationalism and revivalism from the early 1990s worsened the divide between the Muslims and the Hindus in India, which unfortunately leads to radicalisation on both sides.

Reconciliation of differences in identity is the need of the hour

Increasing polarisations on religio-cultural lines, exasperated by the rise of right-wing populist governments exploiting the fears of native populations across the world makes already-existing fault-lines wide.

Eventually, the Islamic civilization has to come to terms with other civilizations and their respective tenets, particularly with the West, if they wish to co-exist within the geographies of the West characterized by liberal and secular thinking of its native people. The same goes with other civilizations existing in places different from its origin.

A mutual understanding, confidence-building dialogues, and co-existence, with respect for each other’s civilizational values are a must to ensure peace in diverse geographies marked by a multiplicity of identities, cultures, and native nationalities.

And, the steps taken to uproot radicalism have to be covert rather than in an openly proclaimed manner to avoid adding up to the insecurities of the vulnerable, a lesson the French President can derive from the myriad of emotionally strong reactions of the concerned populace from around the world.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.