When East meets West
Debunking the ʹclash of civilisationsʹ myth

Cultural discourse is littered with narratives that build on a number of false dichotomies, the most enduring being the exclusivity of East and West. The clash of civilisations, the superiority of one over the other, is an entrenched myth that not even globalisation and communications technology have managed to shatter. By Muhammed Nafih Wafy

In his seminal work "Islam between East and West", Alija Ali Izetbegovic did a brilliant job of exploring the bipolarity of Islam, defining Islam as a synthesis of civilisation and culture, of manʹs animalistic and ethical urges, of body and soul, of the real and the sublime – and of the intellectual and scientific West and the artistic and religious East.

However, written in the early 1980s when the world was ideologically and militarily bisected into the capitalist and socialist camps, his analyses were not prescient enough to foresee the political plate tectonics that would happen in just ten yearsʹ time, marking the "triumph" of capitalism and liberal democracy over its detractors.

We saw the divisions Izetbegovic spoke of at great length dissipate when capitalism and liberal democracy prevailed over its "ideological inferiors", pushing back the Cold War frontiers of East and West. Francis Fukuyama, who argued that the global spread of liberal democracies, not to mention Western free market capitalism and lifestyle, might signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government, was lauded as the philosopher who captured the spirit of the time.

Then there were the ideologues who harped on about Islam replacing communism as the arch-rival of liberalism, capitalism, democracy and whatever the West stands for. Indeed, instead of the polarity between the West and the East that Izetbegovic dealt with extensively in his book, it was to be the age-old polarity between Islam and the West that would rear its head in the first decade of the 21st century.

Symbolic image of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (source: picture alliance/Godong)
Ignoring the common ground: "differences built on false pretexts have contributed to the myth that Islam belongs to the East while Judeo-Christian traditions belong to the West. This, despite the fact that both Christianity and Judaism, like Islam, originated in the Middle East," writes Wafy

Samuel P. Huntington, touted as the messiah of this new kind of conflict centred on cultural identity, had predicted that deep-seated ideological and cultural differences would dominate the politics and international relations of the 21st century. While seeking to find in Islam the ʹotherʹ of whatever the West stands for, including its freedom, democracy, liberalism, religious tolerance, scientific spirit etc., the Huntington-inspired neo-liberal thinkers reinvented the old myths and fallacies, dating back to the Crusades. George Bush spelt it out explicitly in one of his speeches in the build-up to the war on terror.  

The clash of civilisations myth

In a broader historical perspective, the relationship between the East and the West or, more precisely, the so-called Islamic world and the Euro-American civilisation, is often overshadowed by the narrative of cultural wars and an endless clash of ideologies. But is this polarised existence or mutual antagonism something irredeemably intrinsic to the nature of the two civilisations, meaning they are destined to remain on an irrevocable collision path? Or is it born out of some historical blunders that had nothing to do with religion or culture per se, but everything to do with the political, economic, territorial ambitions of those wielding the reins of power at certain historical junctures? Have the fissures created merely become irreconcilably deepened, allowing the wounds to fester for several centuries?

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Comments for this article: Debunking the ʹclash of civilisationsʹ myth

There is a mention of the economic, political and geopoitical interests, but only in passing without elaboration. The expansion of capitalism, colonialism, and later imperialism (a word missing in the article) determined the new relationship between "the West" and "Islam". It is the missionary objective of making "Islam" liberal that shaped the form of antagonism. One does not have to go back to the Crusades, but to analyse how capitalism and imperialism have been encroaching on most of the world. Liberals dismiss such an argument as leftist, because they have a tendency to ignore relationships of interests such as those with Muslim dictators, Wahhabists, Mujahidins, etc and ally with Muslim liberals who help expand "liberal values", i.e. capitalist values in the "Islamic world." Thus state terrorism is justified, but the terrorism of the terrorized is not. Assad should remain in power because he is a "secular Muslim." "Secularism" is also defined and imposed by an imperialist West as a truth that should go hand in hand with the expansion of capital: homogenizing the world, recreating the world in the "Western image." Muslims who reject such a mission are described as suffering from an illness that should be treated or bombed if necessary. As long as class and capitalist and race analysis is relegated to the background, this so-called "building a bridge between civilisations" will not achieve anything substantial.

Nadeem12.06.2018 | 14:02 Uhr

A brilliant analysis. Islam, Christianity and Judaism share the same gospel truth, a truth reiterated in several verses of Koran. The clash of civilisations was born out of political needs, such as military expansion and colonial or imperial invasion, rather than religious necessity. Look at the way Germans used jihad during the Second World War to encourage the Ottoman soldiers to fight against British and French forces. Islamic empires who used jihad for their imperial objectives did the same thing with Islam.

Benedict 24.06.2018 | 08:03 Uhr

Islam and Christianity could co-exist in peace and harmony, as the common denominators that link them outweigh their differences. There should be concerted efforts by scholars, experts, religious researchers and the media for a historic reconciliation between Islam and Christianity - to reconcile their differences, dispel their misunderstandings and look to the future with a new spirit.

That will undoubtedly mark a new era in the history of humankind and human civilization. The world has successfully done it between Judaism and Christianity. But unfortunately, today some political commentators and self-styled “experts” promote Islamophobia.

Aisha Badawi27.06.2018 | 04:56 Uhr