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Is There A Clash Of Civilization Between The West And Islam? – Analysis



Joseph Ney argues that the contemporary struggle against Islamic terrorism does not depict any signs of ‘clash of civilizations’1. Following the same argument Ahmed S. Hashim mentions that “it is not …in the interest of the West to view this as a clash of Western and Muslim civilizations”2. However there are people who interpret War on Terrorism as a clash of civilization between the West and the Islamic world. Even leaders of the states and other governmental officials in West emphasis War on Terrorism as a clash of civilization to justify the violence imposed in certain Arabic states. On the other hand in 2001 the Al-Jazeera journalist Tayseer Allouni asked from Osama Bin laden whether he agrees to the fact that there is a clash of civilization between West and the Islamic world3. Osama Bin Laden replied saying that the Holy Book of Quran states clearly that it exists. He further claims that the prophet has said to fight against the Jews and execute them. In the “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the land of the Two Holy Places” Osama Bin Laden portrays that Islamic people are the key aim of Zionists or Crusaders4. Consequently this statement of Bin Laden creates tension between the two civilizations as Islamic people have been depicted as the ‘oppressed’ and the West as the ‘oppressor/victim’.

However, Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper argue that the target of Western critical infrastructure by the terrorists does not highlight the fact that there is clash of civilization between the West and the Islamic world5. Nevertheless these critical infrastructures are considered to be high strategic value targets which will enable the terrorists to again the attention from the rest of the world by destroying them. On the other hand, the 9/11 incident is a repercussion of Islamic extremism rather than the collective public opinion of Muslim people around the world6. Therefore the 9/11 attack does not provide underpinnings for clash of civilization between the Islamic and the Western world. 

Therefore, this essay argues that there is no ‘clash of civilization’ between the West and the Islamic world. Nevertheless it is a clash between two entities to achieve political goals while portraying the ‘means to the end’ as ‘clash of civilization’ between West and Islam. Consequently, by doing so, both the entities are able to justify the use of violence imposed on each other. 

Samuel P. Huntington and Clash of Civilization

Huntington defines civilizations as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have”7. He also mentioned that people who belong to diverse civilizations are “differentiated from each other by history, Language, culture, traditions and most importantly, religion”8. According to Huntington violent conflicts would be more common between clusters of people from “different civilizations” than clashes between groups from the “same civilization”9. However, one can challenge Huntington’s argument by highlighting the sectarian war or the conflict between the Sunni and Shia Muslims in the Islamic world who belong to the same civilization according to Huntington’s definition of human evolution. However, Huntington explains that differences between civilizations have been shaped throughout the past centuries. As a result it is deeply rooted in the human behaviour and more substantial than political or economic ideologies.  Hence, it is hard to change the fundamental ideologies related to civilizations and are not easily negotiable or compromised by people. Therefore, he argues that “fault lines created between the civilizations” will produce frequent battles in the future10.

In the contemporary world religion plays a major role in mobilizing masses. This has been the case in many religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam etc. Also religion has been misused to gain political goals by many religions, not only by Islam. Use of violence or terrorist activities have been justified mainly under religious ideologies or teachings throughout the human history11. Therefore, it is not a phenomena which occurred recently and only limited to Islam. Terrorism has always been considered as the ‘weapon of the weak’ and it can be denoted as one form of conflict especially in the clash of “Rest against the West” in the current context12. Also it is considered as one of the weapons of the “non-western weak” to gain attention for their grievances13. However, what is significant here is that even though many religions have performed violence or terrorist activities to gain certain goals, Muslims have heavily engaged in terrorist activities since 1980’s than other religions14. Consequently, terrorism has been used as a weapon by the Muslims especially in asymmetric warfare with the West.

The Islamic world and the Western world have been on conflict for nearly fourteen centuries. The first proclamation of war by the Pope Urban II in 1095 against the Islamic world depicts that the confrontation between Islam and the Western World is not a result of 9/11 attacks 15. However, the reason for the confrontations between the Islamic state and the rest is due to no clear borders of the Islamic World. Also another reason for such clashes is because of there is no predominant main state which dominates the Islamic world which provides the necessary guidance to maintain relations with the rest of the world16. Additionally, the youth demography of the Islamic world provides room for clashes with the rest of the world. According to Huntington the male youth population between 15 to 30 becomes a cause of violence especially when they are unemployed17.

Islamic fundamentalism is not the main problem of the Western World. Instead, the Islamic civilization itself is the problem. People who belong to this civilization carry the mentality of being part of a superior culture but with less power in world affairs18. Hence the clashes between the Islamic World and the Western world (which dominates international relations) is obvious due to the power/superiority struggle in international relations. Therefore one can claim that it is less of clash of Islamic and the Western World, but more of a clash between struggle for power by two political entities in international affairs.

On the other hand, ‘culture’ plays a significant role in explaining civilizations which are well established. The cultural differences are predominant source for the clash between the Islamic and the Western world. Dissimilarities of culture between the two civilizations is not limited to food, clothing, language etc. but it also stretches towards political tenets of the two civilizations. Western world values democracy in governing a country whereas Islamic world is prone towards authoritative structure of governments. Western World disapproves the authoritative governments and upholds the value of liberal democracy where individuals are provided with freedom of election and expression in domestic political affairs. Also women are provided with equal rights compared to men and this is a significant clash with the Islamic World. However, the differences in “electoral democracy” nor the clash between the rights of woman does not clearly justify that the two civilizations are in a confrontation19.

Nevertheless the justification of ‘War on Terror’ by the George W. Bush clashes with this argument since he clearly mentioned that one of the reasons for invading Iraq is to establish democracy. Therefore one can assert the question whether we actually experience a clash of civilization between Islamic World and the Western World?

Clash of Civilization and War on Terror

The ‘War on Terror’ is often depicted and discussed as ‘clash of civilization’. Many authors such as Bernard Lewis and many policy makers such as Paul Bremmer related ‘War on Terror’ as a confrontation of two predominant civilizations; Islamic World and the West. Lewis states that the Muslim World possesses hatred towards the Western World and because of this hatred there is a sense of rejection based on “what it is” rather than “what it does”20. Additionally, the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi mentioned about the superiority of the Western Culture over Islam soon after the 9/11 attack21. Moreover, Paul Bremmer who was an officer from the Homeland Security task force mentioned that the “root cause” of Osama Bin Laden’s terrorism is due to his hatred towards the American society22. Also he emphasised that this hatred is planted in Bin Laden’s mind due to his dislike of the ‘value’ on which USA was created. Furthermore former CIA Bin Laden analyst Michael Scheure states that the confrontation of the USA led coalition and the terrorists of Al-Qaeda are soon turning in to a clash of civilization23. On the contrary one can challenge the statements related to the comparison of ‘War on Terror’ to clash of civilization theory constructed by Samuel P. Huntington.

Firstly, the ‘War on Terror’ is a confrontation towards terrorism rather than attacking a particular civilization or a group of people who belong to a long standing civilization. The use of the word “terror” in the title highlights the fact that the target of ‘War on Terror’ is ‘terrorism’ but not the innocent Islamic civilians who belongs to the Islamic Civilization. Secondly, one goal of “War on Terror” is to dismantle Al-Qaeda and execute Osama Bin Laden who is the main culprit of the 9/11 attacks and it does not provide motives to disassemble the Islamic civilization or the masses of Islamic civilization. Thirdly, ‘War on Terror’ has been related to clash of civilization based on one person’s perception (Osama Bin laden) against the West. It does not depict that the Osama Bin Laden’s hatred towards the Western world is a collective representation of the Islamic population around the world. Therefore, one can assert the question whether it is appropriate to relate “War on Terror” with ‘clash of civilization’.

Furthermore, clearly Huntington’s theory of clash of civilization provides justification for both the USA and Al-Qaeda to engage in confrontation with each other. Therefore both the parties enjoy justifying violence under the banner of clash of civilization. Ayman al-Zawahiri states that the USA has identified Islamic fundamentalism as their enemy24. Also there are certain mechanisms that USA is implementing to dismantle its enemy. According to Zawahiri USA utilizes the United Nations, puppet rulers in Muslim counties and media for confronting their enemy. Nevertheless, he justifies the expansion of Jihadist coalitions in response to the Western mechanisms implemented to weaken the expansion of Jihadist extremism. Therefore, it emphasizes on the fact that the clash of civilization theory has been utilized by both the entities to fulfil their political goals.

On the other hand, al-Qaeda network does not function only on sentiments such as hatred, anger or fear. It has its own political goals such as “getting Crusaders and Zionists out of Saudi Arabia, getting Crusaders and Zionists out of Islamic areas and uniting and expanding the community of believers.”25 The organization has a clear picture of tactics and operational methods used to achieve these goals. The attack on World Trade Centre and target of other USA critical infrastructure is a strategic choice made by Al-Qaeda for its advantage to fulfil the organizational goals. British journalist Jason Burk states that the goals and the ideology of Osama Bin Laden are political even though it is wrapped in religious connotations26. Since Al-Qaeda functions according to a political strategy, War on Terror should not be consider as a clash of civilizations. Nevertheless, it should be considered as a “confrontation between the leaderships of two powerful structures”27.

Osama Bin Laden on Clash of Civilizations

In the contemporary world Osama Bin Laden is known for the 9/11 attack in United States of America. Nevertheless he was the mastermind behind the bombings took place in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in 1998 targeting the USA embassies. Also he was behind the attacks on USS Cole (DDG67) in 2000. With the tragedy of 9/11 Osama Bin Laden who was the late leader of Al-Qaeda became the predominant enemy of the USA, replacing Saddham Hussain. The attempted terror attacks in USA such as the conspiracy of bombing the World Trade Centre in 1993 and the bombings in Oklahoma City in 1995 withered away due to the calamity crated by 9/11 attacks in 2001. The collapse of the critical infrastructure (WTC) in USA signifies the downfall of the American capitalism and the imperialism as the only Superpower in a unipolar system after the Cold War.

Several people such as Raymond Tenter, Youssef Bodnsky , Mary Anne Weaver etc. has tried to examine the biography and the goals of Bin Laden. According to Raymond Tenter Bin Laden was a “freelancer” who acts independently inside a state and has links to scoundrel organizations around the world29. Nevertheless, Tenter offers little information about the philosophy of Osama Bin Laden. Not only that but also he does not emphasize the ideas which were carried out by Bin Laden. Furthermore, Marry Anne Weaver has only looked at the biographical details related to Osama Bin Laden, but lacks in analysing his philosophy, same as Tenter30. In contrast to the above mentioned authors, Rosalind Gwynne has conducted a complex investigation to identify the ideas of Bin Laden which has roots to his religious background31. However, in order to understand the philosophy or the world view of Osama Bin Laden, it is important to recognise the socio economic and cultural context related to him.

In 1918 Ottoman Empire collapsed as a result of World War I. The people who belong to the Turkish Empire determined to create an independent state which was mentioned as “dream place” by T.E Lawrence (he borrowed the term from Fouad Ajami who was an Arab American scholar)32. They wanted to create this so called ‘dream place’ on the pillars of secular ideas. Through extracts of secular nationalism Middle Eastern nations thought of entering into the modern world after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Nevertheless, certain Arab thinkers who went to European countries opposed the secular nationalism promoted by the Colonial powers such as Britain and France. These Arab thinkers thought that colonialism stimulate underdevelopment in the Arabian Peninsula, even if the “white man’s burden” was to civilize the uncivilized. Additionally, the colonial powers established “puppet regimes” which lacked in legitimacy and authority33. Hence due to the influence of the secular ideas promoted by Colonial powers, Arab world neglected the obligation of following God’s words. As a matter of fact, certain Arab thinkers believed that in order to avoid underdevelopment Arab world has to follow and respect Islam.

During 1950s and 1960s Arab world gained independence from Colonialism. As a result, the elites who were ruling the Arab nations under the influence of Colonial powers were overthrown. The rulers who emerged in the Arab world after the Colonial era believed that the modernization of the Arab world should progress through nationalistic and socialistic initiations. Therefore, they wanted to construct powerful militaries and vibrant economies which would lead the Arab world towards modernization and compete with the rest of the developed nation-states. Nevertheless, the defeat of the Arab world by Israel in 1967 emphasizes the fact that neither they had strong armies or scaling economies. The Defeat of the Arab world by Israel was considered as a catastrophe (al nakba) which depicted the weakness of the governing structures and defending mechanism of the Islamic countries in Arabian Peninsula33. Consequently, they understood that the nationalistic and socialistic initiatives have failed to accomplish the mission of modernity.

Furthermore, the year 1979 was significant in many ways to the Arab World. In January 1979 Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini tumbled the shah of Iran Muhammad Reza Pahlavi who maintained close ties with USA. For USA, the exile of Shah was a strategic penalization since they lost not only their influence in Iran but also in the Gulf region. Additionally, Egypt and Israel entered into peace process and this was condemned by the Arabs and the Muslims all over the world. In December, the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan is significant in many ways as it depicted the fading strength of the Soviets as a superpower.

Among all these significant events in the past, surely the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets is directly linked to Osama Bin Laden. He once emphasized that, he didn’t forget the Western influence while fighting against the Soviets34. At that time Soviet invasion was the immediate problem or the threat to the Arab world. The invasion was considered as external rival occupation of Islamic territory. Hence, Osama Bin Laden was active in fighting against the ‘infidels’ from Soviet Union which was considered as the immediate threat. Nevertheless, he mentioned that after the defeat of the communists, next in line was USA. Hence, one can point out that even if Bin Laden and USA were fighting a common rival, Bin Laden considered USA also to be an infidel or an external enemy which pollutes the Islamic territory.

Soviet invasion in Afghanistan became a stage for Bin Landen to perform his organizational and operational skills. As a Jihadist in Afghanistan he was efficient in fundraising, construction of infrastructure, recruitment etc which are considered as cardinal vehicles in any babble field. Also he was responsible in supplying the logistical support such as weapons to the troops fighting against the Soviets. His commitment in confronting the Soviets was once again depicted in 1984 when he built a guesthouse in Peshawar for the Muslims who came from other countries to join the battle35. He and Abdullah Azzam then established the Maktab al Khidamat which is known as the Jihadist Service Bureau to raise funds and recruit foreign fighters for the battle against the Soviets36. With all his commitment towards the Jihad performed against the Soviets, depicts that Osama Bin Laden believed in confronting against the infidels and external rivals who becomes a threat to the Islamic world. Nevertheless, it was not limited to the Western world or the Americans in the early stages.

Osama Bin Laden not only disliked the infidels but also he condemned the aggression of Saddham Hussain in Iraq. Bin laden considered Saddham Husian as an anti-Islamic leader who is a threat for Mecca and Medina (which are considered as holy places in Islam). The invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqis in 1990 created tensions in Saudi Arabia. In order to safeguard the security of Saudi Arabia, the government invited USA to set up its security bases in the holy land. This led to the disappointment of Bin Laden and in 1995 his major review of the Saudi Government was expressed in an “Open Letter to King Fahd”37. Among many other faults there he emphasized that Saudi government has failed to initiate a proper defence policy without the help of the infidels. Also he blamed the Saudi government on acting as an air-craft carrier for neo-imperialism (significantly pointing out at USA). These criticisms let the Saudi government almost lose its political legitimacy. As a result, Bin Laden was exile to Sudan and then to Afghanistan due his anti-governmental expressions and hatred for ‘Crusaders’. 

In 1998 the declaration of “World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders” by Osama Bin laden included a fatwa which emphasized the goals of Al-Qaeda38. Following are the goals which are mentioned in the declaration. 

  • Remove USA forces from Arabian Peninsula and totally eliminate American presence in the Middle East. 
  • Free the Asaq Mosque in Jerusalem and Haram Mosque in Mecca. Then eradicate Israel from the Arabian Peninsula. 
  • Save the Arab world from the sectarianism which is promoted by Zionists-Crusaders alliance. 
  • Extend support to Muslim groups worldwide who are fighting oppressively in non-Muslim nations (Bosnia, Chechnya, Thailand, Uzbekistan etc.) 

The above mentioned goals clearly depict the dislike of Osama Bin laden towards the Western world. Nevertheless, is it correct to say that there is a clash of civilization between the west and the Islamic World because of the hatred of Bin laden towards the west? The Goals of Osama Bin Laden derive from religious or cultural confrontation with the west. Yet the goals of Bin Laden are more political but carved in to religious ideologies to justify them easily. One can argue that Osama Bin Laden tries to portray that there is a clash of civilization between West and the Islamic world. However, ultimately it is nothing but a fight for fulfilling political goals of a terrorist organization which is not a representation of the Islamic World. 


In a nutshell, this essay has established the argument that there is no clash of civilization between the West and the Islamic world. However, this statement does not undermine the fact that the world is not encountering any form of confrontation in the contemporary context. Instead, the confrontation is limited to two micro level entities which emerge from two different civilizations in the world (West and the Islamic world). That does not provide the idea that the entire macro level of these two civilizations are under confrontation. Therefore, there is no evidence of clash of civilization even if it is vehemently utilized by the policy makers and terrorists who want to justify use of violence as a ‘mean to the end’. This essay therefore concludes that even if there is no confrontation between the Western and the Islamic civilization, there are conflicts between micro level entities which belong to these Civilizations (USA and Al Qaeda). Hence it is better considered as a confrontation of two politically motivated entities to obtain power and authority over each other. 

Policy Recommendations

  • Policy makers and responsible governmental officers should limit the usage of the term ‘clash of civilization’ which provides room for terrorist organizations to justify their goals and use of violence over citizens.
  • Any form of media should be utilized to spread the message of peaceful co-existence of different entities together. 
  • Emphasis should be made on tackling terrorism issues rather than finding differences between West and Islam. As a result, the policies should be articulated to enhance the confrontation of terrorism rather than a particular civilization. 
  • Government should implement community engagement programme to make the citizens understand the divergence of communities and to respect those differences especially in a multi-ethnic or multi-religious society. 

*Sinduja Umandi Wickramasinghe Jayaratne is an Intelligence Analyst in a leading security related organization and a Visiting Lecturer in Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute in Sri Lanka.

End Notes

  1. Joseph S. Nye Jr, ‘The Decline of America’s Soft Power’, Foreign Affairs, 83 (2004): 17
  2. Ahmed S. Hashim, ‘The World According to Usama Bin Laden’, Naval War College Review, 54 (2001):  29
  3. Gilles Kepel, “The War For Muslim Minds: Islam And The West”, (London: Belknap Press, 2004),123
  4. Osama Bin Laden, “Declaration Of War Against The Americans Occupying The Land Of The Two Holy Places (Expel The Infidels From The Arab Peninsula)” , accessed May 6, 2015
  5. Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper, “International Terrorism and Clash of Civilization”, B.J.Pol.S., 39 (2009): 711
  6. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, “Islam and the West: Testing the Clash of Civilizations Thesis”: 239
  7. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Samuel P. Huntington “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72 (1993): 25
  8. ibid
  9. ibid, 48
  10. ibid, 22
  11. David C. Rapoport, “Fear and Trembling: Terrorism in Three Religious Traditions”, American Political Science Review, 78 (1984), 655–77
  12. Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper, “International Terrorism and Clash of Civilization”, B.J.Pol.S., 39 (2009): 714
  13. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Samuel P. Huntington “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72 (1993): 188
  14. Samuel Huntington, “Religion, Culture and International Conflict after September 11”, June 2002, accessed May 6, 2015,
  15. , Georg Strack, “The Sermon of Urban II in Clermont and the Tradition of Papal Oratory”, Medieval Sermon Studies, 56 (2012): 30
  16. Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plumper, “International Terrorism and Clash of Civilization”, B.J.Pol.S., 39 (2009): 715
  17. ibid
  18. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996); Samuel P. Huntington “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, 72 (1993): 217
  19. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, “Islam and the West: Testing the Clash of Civilizations Thesis”: 238
  20. Bernard Lewis, “The Crisis Of Islam: Holy War And Unholy Terror”, (London: Phoenix, 2003), xv.
  21. BBC News, “EU Deplores ‘Dangerous’ Islam Jibe,” accessed May 6, 2015, , 
  22. Malise Ruthven, “A Fury For God: The Islamist Attack On America” (London: Granta, 2002), 29-30.
  23. Michael Scheuer (‘Anonymous’), “Through Our Enemies’ Eyes: Osama Bin Laden, Radical Islam, And The Future Of America” (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2002), 261.
  24. Ayman al-Zawahiri, “Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner, c.2001”, accessed May 6, 2015,
  25. Dan Plesch, “The Beauty Queen’s Guide To World Peace: Money, Power And Mayhem In The Twenty-First Century” (London: Politico’s Publishing, 2004), 103
  26. Jason Burke, “Al-Qaeda: The True Story Of Radical Islam” (London: Penguin, 2004), 23
  27. Michael Dunn, “The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and the ‘War on Terror’”, 49th Parallel, 20 (Winter 2006-2007): 6
  28. Bruce Lawrence, ed., “Messages To The World: The Statements Of Osama Bin Laden” (London: Verso, 2005), 124. Al-Jazeera interview with Osama bin Laden in October 2001is cited in this book.
  29. Raymond Tanter, “Rogue Regimes: Terrorism and Proliferation” (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1999), 263–8. 
  30. Mary Anne Weaver, “A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey through the World of Militant Islam” (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), esp., 191–209.
  31. Ahmed S. Hashim, “The World According to Usama Bin Laden”, Naval War College Review, 54 (2001),:13
  32. Fouad Ajami, “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey” (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), xi.
  33. Ahmed S. Hashim, “The World According to Usama Bin Laden”, Naval War College Review, 54 (2001): 15
  34. Osama Bin Laden, “Declaration of War (I)”, accessed May 6, 2015,
  35. Ahmed S. Hashim, “The World According to Usama Bin Laden”, Naval War College Review”, 54 (2001): p. 21
  36. Farhan Zahid, “Origins of Al-Qaeda”, Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, accessed May 6, 2015, 
  38. Osama Bin Laden, “An Open Letter to King Fahd on the Occasion of the Recent Cabinet Reshuffle in1995”, accessed May 6, 2015,
  39. Osama Bin Laden, “World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders in 1998”, accessed May 6, 2015, 


al-Zawahiri, Ayman. “Knights Under The Prophet’s Banner, c.2001”. Accessed May 6, 2015,

Ajami, Fouad. “The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey”. New York: Vintage Books, 1999.

BBC News, “EU Deplores ‘Dangerous’ Islam Jibe”. Accessed May 6, 2015.

Burke, Jason. “Al-Qaeda: The True Story Of Radical Islam”. London: Penguin, 2004

Dunn, Michael. “The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and the ‘War on Terror’”, 49th Parallel, 20 (Winter 2006-2007): 6

Hashim, Ahmed S. ‘The World According to Usama Bin Laden’, Naval War College Review, 54 (2001):  13-29

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