The Clash of Civilizations
From Myth to Reality?
Recently, an Egyptian friend of mine posted on Facebook that an Egyptian friend of his tried to apply for an internship in France. The reply he got was shockingly disappointing and not expected at all. Without mentioning the company’s name, it said: “Thanks for your interest in an internship… I have checked with our internship and security department, but unfortunately we cannot offer an internship to students with Egyptian nationality.” My reaction was pure disbelief. I kept asking myself, why do they feel the need to check with the security department? Is it just because he has an Egyptian passport? Do terrorists apply for internships nowadays? How is this still happening in a Western country in the 21st Century?
After this short moment of incredulity, I continued to wonder, why this was the case? What is the image that comes to our minds when we think of a terrorist? Do images of brown-skinned Middle Easterners come to mind just because they were raised in an Islamic culture? Is anyone with Middle Eastern (even if Christian) origin automatically considered in the West as a potential terrorist just because of his/her background? Unfortunately, these are the images that come to my mind. Terrorists in the imagination of not only Westerners but also Middle Easterners like me are this depthless and visible. However, this is not solely our mistake. That’s what we have been led through the years to imagine by the media that have shaped our thoughts and trained us to believe that a terrorist cannot look other than Middle Eastern.
This has led me to wonder if the mythical “clash of civilizations” between the West on the one hand and Islam on the other, developed by Samuel Huntington in 1996, is impending. He argued that:
the most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between people belonging to different cultural entities […]. And the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the fault lines between civilizations […]. For forty-five years the Iron Curtain was the central dividing line in Europe. That line has moved several hundred miles east. It is now the line separating peoples of Western Christianity, on the one hand, from Muslim and Orthodox peoples on the other. (Huntington, 1996: 28).
I grew up in Egypt, a country that is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. As a Coptic Christian Egyptian, my family ingrained in me gratitude toward this heterogeneity. All my life, Muslims were not only my colleagues, but they were also my neighbors, my classmates, my teachers, my friends, and most importantly they were even part of my upbringing and family.
But when the unfortunate and deeply heart-breaking incidents of 9/11 occurred, the narrative that the clash between civilizations is real and unavoidable was being increasingly used by the media as well as by politicians. Since September 11th the narratives developed in the West about the Middle East rarely do not include images of extremism, terrorism, and potential threats to the security of the West. Sometimes these narratives are even enforced by people who do not know anything about the region.
I particularly felt the strength of this narrative when I moved to Europe. I quickly came to realize that I am subject to ethnic profiling all the time. When I cross border control at the airport, I always get questioned just because I have a Middle Eastern passport. In the beginning, I always used to get angry and offended. I couldn’t stop asking myself, why do entities who claim to understand the notion of equality think it is adequate or acceptable to profile people according to a document with an expiry date? Does my nationality define how people view me and thereby also my worth as a human being? However, after getting offended numerous times, I came to the conclusion that the once-myth of the clash between Islam (and even more general the Middle East) and the West has been transformed through our actions into a certainty that nobody can avoid anymore.
Because of my personal experiences, I chose to present exactly this topic in my “Political Theory in the 21st Century” class with Chiara Bottici. While I was preparing my presentation, I came across several articles that made me even more convinced that the media play a crucial role in spreading the notion that the clash is unavoidable. In 2015, the New York Times columnist Roger Cohen published a piece under the title “Islam and the West at War” in which one can clearly see how the myth of the clash of civilizations is gradually transforming into a mainstream social construction. However, this Cohen piece is not the only one “realizing” the clash of the two civilizations. Bottici and Challand (2010) examine in Chapter 4 of their book The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations how several pieces published in US papers such the New York Times and the Washington Post as well as in French newspapers such as Le Figaro and Le Monde contribute to reinforcing the myth of a clash between Islam and the West (Challand and Bottici, 2010).
As a result, I am not surprised that some people profile individuals coming from the Middle East as potential terrorists. However, it would be unfair of me to blame them, because the “actualizing” of the myth of the clash between Islam/Middle East and the West is not only evident in the West but also in the Arab media. In newspapers such as Al-Quds al-Arabi and Al-Hayaat, the phrase “clash of civilizations” has occurred since 9/11 numerous times, suggesting that Arab politicians and media attempt consciously to reinforce the existence of the conflict (Challand and Bottici, 2010: Chapter 4).
Hence, in both cultures, we were raised to believe that the “other” is our enemy. Both cultures have the problem of constructing their identity through highlighting that the “other” cannot be part of “us,” thereby reinforcing a sense of disjuncture between Middle Easterners and the West and contributing to the belief that the clash is inevitable and inescapable. So, while the “clash of civilizations” may be basically nothing more than a myth, it is in the process of becoming reality through the influence of the media as well as through practices on the political level such as Trump’s recent Muslim ban, in which national security concerns pass through ethnicity, religion, and nationality.
Nevertheless, no matter how naïve this may sound, I truly believe that together we are capable of stopping this. By writing this thinking piece, I hope to shed light that we are handling a significant breakdown in the 21st century. Unless we start changing, through helping people on both sides of the clash understand the “other” culture(s) and through bringing them together, misunderstandings will grow worse until we reach the point of no return.
Bottici, C and Challand, B., 2010. The Myth of the Clash of Civilisations, London, Routledge.
Cohen, R., 2015. Islam and the West at War. [accessed on 10 July 2017].
Huntington, S. P., 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.