What is the ‘Clash of Civilizations’?

I have been working on my thesis dissertation that studies the relationship between lone-offender terrorism and social media. Part of my preliminary research involved understanding a political scientist who delivered a profound speech in the 1990s. I believe to truly understand the various roots and triggers of the modern conception of terrorism, we first need to acknowledge the belief some individuals have (including academics, politicians, and society)about a real and tangible clash of civilizations.

The Iron Curtain of ideology that divided Europe for half of the twentieth century lifted as the Berlin Wall was torn down in the autumn of 1989. Within two years, the USSR would lose control of their satellite states initiating their public demise as one of the world’s two hegemonic empires. The twentieth century’s classification system of first world, second world, and third world designated to classify the world’s countries ceased to exist. The understanding of the social world had changed. Around the world, both internal and external policies adapted to the end of a decades-long Cold War that affected diplomacy, international relations, and the global economy.
It was at this point that a scholar delivered a speech proclaiming the coming of a new barrier. In his speech presented to the American Enterprise Institute in 1992, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington theorized that culture, rather than ideology or nationalism, will serve as the main barrier between friend and foe.[1] Unity will be found in similar and shared culture while the ‘Other’ will be defined as different due to their cultural practices. Huntington believed that civilians are social entities that identify as having a shared culture; meaning shared religion, language, ethnicity, and a common history. By sharing these elements, states will cultivate a sense of cultural kinship that is opposed, and potentially hostile, to those who adhere to a different cultural identity. He predicted the ‘Velvet Curtain of Ideology’ would divide the world latterly, creating polarized cultures that would precipitate antagonism and ‘Otherness’.
Huntington paralleled Western societies to Islamic societies, believing the shared culture throughout the Arab world would overcome the gross heterogeneity of the Middle East North Africa (MENA) region and pin it against Western societies. Conflict would inevitably occur at the borders where different civilizations are in contact, which he called Kin Country Rallying. His advice was the following:
‘Western societies should strive to strengthen and unify their own civilizations against possible internal or external challenges to core values and interests. At the same time, the west should shed its universalistic pretensions by forswearing efforts to transform other societies into a Western mold or meddling in conflicts that do not directly threaten vital Western interests. Peace, should it prove possible, will rest open the maintenance of a stable balance of power among the core states of official civilizations.’
Huntington’s speech cultivated a group of followers and critics. Many thought his theory rested on the inaccurate classification of a culturally monolithic Islamic world. Scholars found this inapplicable because of the variance of language, ethnicity, religious history, and colonial heritage between Arab states. [2] A review of Huntington’s theory by David Skidmore claims ‘culture needs to be understood at the micro level rather than using broad stereotypes.’ He disagreed with Huntington’s argument that cultural ideals like modernization, global interdependence (the globalization of economy), and democracy will unify the West against the six or seven other cultures Huntington identified, one being the Islamic world.
Instead of breeding anti-Western sentiment, Skidmore argued that modernization and global interdependence would positively affect non-Western civilizations and lead to development that would disperse wealth and reduce a centralized upper elite. He also rejected Huntington’s argument that Western democracy would never succeed in other cultures as, ‘electoral systems are easily hijacked by anti-Western cultural traditionalists.’ Skidmore thought that a state’s adoption of democracy would improve the relationship with the West as ‘Third World democracies are much less likely to adopt anti-Western rhetoric and foreign policies than non-democracies.’[3]
But as the twentieth century came to a close, international relations were dominated by a powerfully militarist USA flexing their hegemonic power over world affairs in general, and Middle Eastern affairs in particular. Capitalism, globalization, and economic modernization united the Western world against political regimes throughout the MENA region perceived as totalitarian, unjust, and threatening.
In the Arab world, American interference fueled the narrative of Western antagonism, hostility, and hatred.[4] Since the 1990s, long military campaigns in the Middle East, most notably Iraq and Afghanistan, cultivated bitterness and contempt between the West and the MENA region. In the western world, politicians and media entities promoted a narrative of an Islamic backwardness, lawlessness, and political insecurity that is not only erroneous to democracy and universal rights and freedoms, but actually poses a risk to national security and world peace.[5] Al Qaeda emerged and branded their network as fighting for Muslims against oppressive and aggressive Western influence. Democratic governments and Al Qaeda promoted their respective narrative that spread throughout the world. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations had been used effectively by both sides to brand the conflict.
Islamic terrorism is a complex, heterogeneous and rapidly changing phenomenon. The conception of terrorism in the 1990s is different than what it was in the 2000s, which is different than it is today. Since the late 2000s, there has been a technological revolution that academics predicted would change society permanently and irrevocably. It also impacted the conception of terrorism as Islamic terrorist networks joined the rest of society in using social media sites to engage in correspondence.
In addition to correspondence, jihadi militants and Islamic terrorist networks began using social media to frame narratives, disseminate propaganda, and cultivate an international following that has led to an increase of low-tech, less ambitious, chaotic, seemingly random and spontaneous terror attacks around the world.[6]

Regardless of where you stand on the debate, and how much validity you give Huntington’s argument, a clash of civilizations is now being used to exacerbate sectarian conflicts, provide an historical enemy that Allah himself deemed kafir, and provide terrorist networks with a plethora of religious propaganda in which to dynamically attract disillusioned, disheartened, and dissatisfied individuals around the world.


[1] Samuel P Huntington. Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.

[2] David Skidmore. “Huntington’s Clash Revisited.” Pacifica Review: Peace, Security, and Global Change, 11, 1(1999): 64. (63–73)

[3] Ibed, 66.

[4] David L. Altheide. Terror Post 9/11 and the Media. (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2009), 30.

[5] D. Freedman and D.K. Thussu. Media and Terrorism: Global Perspectives. (New York: Sage Publications, 2012), 67.

[6]Jason Burke. The New Threat: The Past, Present, and Future of Islamic Militancy. (New York: The New Press, 2015), 185.