The notion of the “west”, like any such construct, has various associations depending on who is using it, where and in what circumstances. Many people (especially in other parts of the world) tend to associate the “west” with military campaigns and foreign interventions by Nato and its leading states, the United States and Britain. More broadly, the notion suggests to them that a “clash of civilisations” is, overtly or covertly, being promoted.
This is the idea first outlined by Samuel Huntington and later popularised by prominent writers such as the orientalist Bernard Lewis. It gained traction in the early years of the “war of terror” after 9/11, particularly as a narrative of supposedly rooted conflict between the “west” and “Islam”; and this variant has come to occupy a central, if also contested place in the curriculum of many political-science and international-relations departments in north America and Europe.
The importance of the “clash” narrative is that it is, or has become, far more than a mere theoretical or scholarly construct. For it has entered the ideology and practice of political groups, including rightwing parties that have entered the parliaments of many European Union countries; for example, the influential Dutch politician Geert Wilders has brought the “clash” thesis to life by making lurid attacks on Islam the foundation of his career.
Even at the centre of power, the idea of an inevitable clash between “the west and the rest” can function as a political device to rally support for military intervention against the latter; for example, Britain’s former prime minister Tony Blair deployed the notion in evidence to the Chilcot inquiry into the war in Iraq to, in effect, call for military action against Iran.
“At some point the west has to get out of what I think is a wretched policy or posture of apology, believing that we are causing what the Iranians are doing, or what these extremists are doing”, he said. Blair elided the “west’s” adversaries in characteristically sweeping fashion: “They disagree fundamentally with our way of life, and will carry on unless met with determination and, if necessary, force.”
The power of the idea of an inevitable “clash of civilisations” between “the west and the rest” is thus evident. This makes it all the more important to question the underlying bipolar assumption on which it is based. For in reality, there are no such boundaries or “bloody borders” separating a western entity from an Islamic bloc. To think in such dichotomous terms is a residue of a cold-war mentality that seems ever less fitting to the complexities of the postmodern disorder of the early 21st century.
After all, the contemporary world more and more challenges the supposedly mutually exclusive categories of the “clash” thesis. For example, the everyday experience of major cities in the western hemisphere pervaded by hybridity and a cosmopolitan spirit, where many other cultural formations (including a sort of Islamo-European-American amalgam) are present.
In light of this, policy attempts to “fix” the division between entities — which have been a feature of British government reactions to the attacks of July 2005 in London, and of subsequent anti-extremist initiatives such as the “Prevent” strategy — are misconceived and anachronistic, for they assume the existence of a “west” that is ideologically unified, provincial, and devoid of cosmopolitan spirit and intercultural heritage. In today’s globalised world order this assumption no longer has purchase, for the “west” and its correlates (east, south, north) are inside each other, part of an emerging postmodern constellation.
The consequences of this development are profound. First, the fact that the “west” has no clear boundary anymore (inner or outer) creates security interdependencies. The global terror campaign of al-Qaida has made abundantly clear that no foreign war can be waged without some serious “blowback”. Second, the globalised world order fuels a particular kind of “transnational solidarity” exemplified by the opposition across the world to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This in turn is connected to the evolution since the 1990s of a sort of global public sphere in which local forms of political activism are woven into a borderless structure of resistance. The world-wide-web makes it easier to connect, organise and fuel diverse political struggles, and gives them a multipolar and decentralised character; an influence that can be seen from the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia and Syria through campaigns in Britain against steep increases in university tuition-fees to protest in Stuttgart, Germany, against the destruction of a valued railway station.
This interconnected and unified field of politics is a challenge to those who cling to language and mindsets that belong to an era that has passed. Many will ignore it, because (like Geert Wilders or extreme Islamists), an us-versus-them logic that demonises the “other” is fundamental to their strategy of exclusion. But many more could be persuaded that the “west” does not exist as a separate, monolithic entity, and that both domestic politics and international relations need to be reconstituted accordingly.
The 21st-century reality is that security cannot be safeguarded on a national or “civilisational” basis, and that the viable and rational option is to make diplomacy and multilateral engagement a priority. The security threats emanating from the global system require a strategy that moves beyond notions of territoriality and ideological cohesion, and embraces as far as possible a non-militaristic approach to international affairs.
To these ends, emphasising and then moving beyond the linkages between “us” and “them” rather than any supposed opposition is vital. Both a new generation with a global mindset, and members of minorities expressing ideas from outside the mainstream, are well placed to contribute to this process. In many ways they are proof that for a long time, and without realising it, we have been living in the end times of the “west”. It’s time to cast the “west” aside, all the better to live at peace with ourselves and our global neighbours.
Arshin Adib-Moghaddam is lecturer in the comparative and international politics of the middle east at SOAS, London. His latest book is A Metahistory of the Clash of Civilisations: Us and Them beyond Orientalism (C Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2010). His previous books include Iran in World Politics: The Question of the Islamic Republic (C Hurst/Columbia University Press, 2008). This article was first published in openDemocracy on 23 June 2011 under a Creative Commons licence.