The rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations” and a “war on Islam” has found its way easily into Arab intellectual discourse, where it has taken solid root, along with other similar “concepts” (or what I’d rather call “non-concepts” — like the term “terrorism” — since they are extremely vague and yet ideologically loaded) that were manufactured in imperialist centers. So it becomes of extreme importance to ask: Is the “clash of civilizations” an independent topic or is it a camouflage term for a struggle that actually embodies something else?
Ongoing Clashes or the End of History?
Following the collapse of the socialist bloc and the end of the Cold War, two theorists arose to prominence with pronouncements on the “tendency” of the moment. The first of these is Francis Fukuyama, who spoke about the “end of history”: the final and total victory of capitalism, accomplishing final stability, and the maintenance of capitalism as the ultimate socioeconomic system for humanity. Fukuyama’s capitalism was the resolution of all conflicts, the ultimate dissolution of dialectical materialism and its infamous law of unity and contradiction of opposites.
The second theorist, contrary to Fukuyama, did not perceive the end of history as the fruit of capitalism’s supposed victory. Samuel Huntington formulated the concept of the “clash of civilizations” as he saw a crystallization of another conflict, the conflict of Judeo-Christian civilization with Eastern civilizations as an emergent node (Islam, Buddhism, etc.). In this sense, history is still open, and capitalism still turbulent, still far from reaching stability.
It is clear that the two concepts are contradictory.
Fukuyama: The Failure of Idealism
Fukuyama expressed an idealist metaphysical liberal ideology inspired by the capitalist state’s “values, institutions, democracy, individual rights, the rule of law and prosperity based on economic freedom”1 — more of a capitalist welfare state model where state-sponsored social security, health care, education, and reasonable labor rights are present as a social buffer. This model was presumed to continue and provide contentment for humanity.
Fukuyama’s idealism did not help him pinpoint the fact that capitalism’s main aim is increasing profit, regardless of any other consideration. The welfare state as constructed by the capitalist system was only a price it was obliged to pay for the prevention of the “communist threat,” a model that promised more social justice, more equality, and more distribution of wealth amongst people. Therefore, capitalism had to “invest” part of its profits to halt the contagion of a model promising more social justice. The welfare state was “cheaper” than confronting labor turmoil and possible revolutions inside capitalist states.
According to the simple law of cause and effect, once the cause is terminated (here the socialist bloc), capitalism will stop financing the welfare state, it will also abandon the state based on the rule of law, and an accelerated transformation from the liberal model to the neoliberal model will take place. This is the objective transformation that Fukuyama failed to see: the capitalist state discarding its contributions to health care, education (example: proposing constitutional amendments in Greece to allow private-sector universities, thus provoking student demonstrations in early 2007), and labor rights (example: amending labor laws in France provoking demonstrations in early 2006, amending the pension system in France provoking wide strikes at the moment), in addition to fleecing labor in capitalist states with the labor of the South — a dual benefit for capitalism: (a) decreasing labor wages and (b) reformulating the struggle as a labor-labor struggle, Northern labor against Southern labor instead of all labor against capitalism!
Finally, the single power left on the scene had to invade the world for three main reasons:
- To gain direct control over global resources and strategic geopolitical locations to prevent other rising rivals (China, Europe) from threatening its status.
- To fill in the gaps left by the previous (now eliminated) other superpower.
- To eliminate any active or anticipated resistance to this project of global hegemony.
This was the final blow to Fukuyama’s illusions of eternal stability. Some, astonished, ask: “how on earth did the ‘civilized’ world reach this stage?” But the “civilized world” did not reach this stage; it was already embedded in the organic structure of capitalism, waiting for the right moment in history to surface.
Fukuyama misread the writing on the wall: history did not end, neither did conflicts, and stability under capitalism with its neoliberal ideology was not achieved. Therefore, Fukuyama was finally compelled to admit the failure of his thesis and declare his opposition to the project of the neoconservatives.
Huntington: Metaphysical Materialism
Huntington had a more materialist basis of discussion, he understood that conflicts within history are still open, but like Fukuyama, he is metaphysical, and puts forwards a dual speech of delusion and justification by defining the reason of conflicts as that of inherent characteristics of civilizations.
Huntington’s dual ideology forms the most perfect platform for internal and external capitalist propaganda. Internally, by conceptualizing that imperialist aggression against others is essential and necessary for the existential preservation of the Judeo-Christian civilization that is threatened by the savages. And externally, by deforming the struggle over resources and geopolitics (a materialist struggle) into another, based on religions and civilizations (a metaphysical struggle).
How can we better understand Huntington’s dual delusion?
The Internal Delusion
The clash of civilizations thesis portrays an imminent danger threatening the people of the North. This danger must be confronted and crushed at the source, in its place, before it expands and reaches “us.” This danger is not about marginal details; on the contrary, it is total, encompassing all aspects of life-as-we-know-it. It is a danger against civilization itself, in its essence. Therefore, the battle against it is about life and death, it is a battle of life and death. In this way, the “Empire of Evil” (Reagan’s classic Cold War coinage) is reproduced in a more abstract manner. It is the ideal enemy of neoliberal capitalism: ghostly, never to be caught, destroyed, or precisely-defined and hence highly malleable.
In addition, the racist content of Huntington’s theory (which stirs a deep subconscious chord resonating in the “white” populations of the North) must not be underestimated as it puts the “civilized whites” (Americans and Europeans) against the “colored savages” — Arabs, Africans, Chinese, and peoples of Southeast Asia. The racist discourse springs from the recent colonialist past of capitalism and from the much more distant Hellenic racist democracies, where many roots of the current “democracies” in the North lie buried. This racist string is still “active” and expresses itself in silent forms: The previously mentioned 2006 demonstrations against labor laws in France attracted huge support from the progressive scene in Europe, whereas the protests of the suburbs that swept France months earlier (autumn 2005) did not attract such a support. Why? The labor law demonstrations were “white” while the suburb protests were “colored.”
The External Delusion
Misleading the people under attack is the other important aspect of Huntington’s “clash of civilizations,” redefining the nature of the clash from an attack for the control of markets, resources, cheap labor and resources, to a “crusade,” a religious war, a war on Islam, a war of “civilizations” — from a materialist act to metaphysical expression.
By the end of 2001, after the September 11 attacks, in an article published in Newsweek, Huntington formulated a stunning title for the new millennium: “The Age of Muslim Wars,”2 while Fukuyama writing in the same issue and in the same direction, penned a piece entitled “Today’s New Fascists,”3 a phrase that found its way to George W. Bush in 2006.
It is worth noting the actual impossibility of distinguishing between what is related to “civilization” and what is related to “religion” in both the Arab mainstream intellect and Huntington’s speech alike! As oppressed people, many succumbed to this game and adopted the same propaganda speech marketed by the neoliberals. Many in the Arab and Muslim worlds (both intellectuals and commons) say that “there is a war on Islam,” exactly like Huntington says. Political Islam currents have become very fond of this thesis because it attracts more people to sympathize with them as being under attack. The words of George W. Bush about his crusades in Iraq and his frequent encounters with God became more attached to memory than the actual deeds of stealing Iraqi oil, taking over infrastructure projects by corporate behemoths (like Bechtel), and the iron defense the US gave to the Iraqi Oil Ministry while leaving the entire country (with all its administrations, universities, and museums) open for looting. All of the latter becomes “senseless” in the context of Bush’s war on Islam.
It is much too simple to prove the US neoliberals never came as Christian missionaries, nor did they come as the prophets of modernity (Both Huntington and Fukuyama portray Islam as being contradictory to modernity). The massive armies that landed in Iraq were not followed by missionaries for Christianity or modernity. They were followed by corporate business people. The US actions prove the lies of their propaganda: killings, destruction, torture, and rape prove the lie of freedom, democracy, and human rights; while support for sectarianism and ethnicism proves the lie of modernity.
Falsifying the struggle, and deluding the oppressed by making them adopt the neoliberal propaganda as a true strategy, will result in generating resistance mechanisms that are incapable of accomplishing victory against the aggression, because, on the one hand, they will be fighting an illusion — a propaganda ghost diverting attention away from the objective basis of the struggle — and, on the other hand, they will be contributing to the empowerment of imperialism and its propaganda by their reverse adoption of it: the two contradictions are present together in objective unity and illusory struggle.
Is Islam a Target of Imperialism?
Islam is not a target on its own. The true targets are resources, markets, wealth, and sensitive locations from a geopolitical perspective. Whatever obstacles there were on the way to acquiring these targets, they are to be crushed. The Communist Party of the Philippines, FARC in Colombia, the current governments of Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia, all of those are non-Muslim, but they are attacked fiercely by US imperialism because they are an obstacle on the way to dominating resources, markets, and wealth.
Imperialist handling of each obstacle is governed by many conditions related to the size of the wealth/market/resources in question, the geopolitical context, and the magnitude of the existing or expected resistance. The presence of huge oil and gas reserves, its “unequalled strategic position,” and the presence of potential centers that could brake free from US global domination and comprise relatively independent centers (Nasser’s Egypt, Saddam’s Iraq, post-revolution Iran) — all these factors made the territory from the Arab East to Central Asia the favorite “arc of crisis” (or “crescent of crisis” if you want to give it a religious dimension!) and the main field of operations. The fact that most of this region’s inhabitants are Muslims does not mean that there is a true religious origin to the intervention!
Another point: Africa, an entire continent, is still being exploited for its wealth in oil, diamonds, and other resources; its people are being slain by the hundreds of thousands on a daily basis by “civil” war, famine, AIDS, malaria, and direct military intervention, atrocities that are much larger in quantity than what goes on against Arabs and Muslims. But since they have the privilege of being completely absent from the media outlets, they don’t exist! Is the African example a war on Islam? Africa is one clear example that the religious wars are only fairytales.
A third point: imperialism has no problem with Islam. Even Huntington says: “The age of Muslim wars has its roots in more general causes. These do not include the inherent nature of Islamic doctrine and beliefs, which, like those of Christianity, adherents can use to justify peace or war as they wish.”4 Fukuyama goes even further: “There is some hope that a more liberal strand of Islam will emerge. . . . Muslims interested in a more liberal form of Islam must stop blaming the West for painting Islam with too broad a brush, and move themselves to isolate and delegitimate the extremists among them.”5 It is clear that the problem is not Islam, but a resistant Islam, and, to be more specific, the problem is solely the “resistant” part, since any other formula of Islam is acceptable.
The Other Side of the Coin: Interfaith Dialogue
The division based on religion is a delusional division. A Muslim Arab is like a Christian Arab, they are either part of strata that are connected to imperialism and its interests, or part of the exploited and oppressed population. Religion has no relation here or causal relevance. Therefore, the notion of an interfaith dialogue is just as delusional as that of a clash of civilizations. Two points prove this:
First, an interfaith dialogue postulates dispute as the normal starting point — otherwise there would’ve been no dialogue in the first place! This way, it positions people from the start as antagonists.
Second, it diagnoses the current struggles as religion-based and therefore conflicts that can be solved or diluted by a dialogue of religions, totally disregarding the objective basis (hegemony, exploitation, occupation, etc.).
The main issue is not that of a Muslim, Christian, Jew, or non-believer. The issue is that there is an oppression and exploitation that must be confronted. In this context, a Jew who calls for the elimination of the Zionist entity “Israel” is an ally, whereas a Muslim who establishes relations with it is an enemy.
Interfaith dialogue is another attempt to divert attention away from the main contradictions with imperialism and its real aims.
Conclusion: Always a Clear Vision
The aim of imperialism is to depredate, dominate, and exploit. On the way to accomplishing these aims, it wants to crush any resistance, regardless of its form and ideological content.
The rhetoric about a “clash of civilizations” arose after the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc because the US needed to move to fill the gaps created by the absence of a second global power. This movement took three forms: internal (restrictive and repressive laws that targeted freedoms and social benefits), towards the East (expansion into Central and Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet republics), and towards the South (Arab region and Central Asia). It was the latter that showed a more fierce resistance due to the historical roots of the struggle.
The struggle against imperialism is a multidimensional class struggle. Religious subterfuges are either tools to buy time (interfaith dialogue) or tools that strengthen the imperialist project and weaken its opponents (clash of civilizations).
1 Francis Fukuyama, “Their Target: The Modern World,” Newsweek, December 2001-February 2002 (Special Davos Edition), p. 60.
2 Samuel Huntington, “The Age of Muslim Wars,” Newsweek, December 2001-February 2002 (Special Davos Edition), pp. 6-13.
3 See the cover title of Fukuyama’s article in Newsweek, mentioned above.
4 Ibid, page 9.
5 Ibid, page 63.
Hisham Bustani is a Marxist writer and activist based in Amman, Jordan. He is the Secretary of the Socialist Thought Forum and a founding member of the Resistant Arab People’s Alliance. The author thanks Bill Templer for kindly editing this article.