Paris Attacks: Why The 'Clash Of Civilizations' Theory Doesn't Hold Up

21/12/2015 3:12 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

In the aftermath of the Paris tragedy, there is a growing debate on whether the attacks by ISIS are a manifestation of an ideological war against liberal western values, which are an antithesis of the puritan values of Wahhabi Islam. The argument gains credence when it is considered that ISIS chose soft targets like a concert hall, a sports stadium and restaurants in Paris, a city which they described as a "den of prostitution and vice", in order to instil fear in the people and direct their anger towards the government for its inability to prevent such attacks.

Samuel Hamilton, a well known political scientist, wrote in his classic, The Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order, that:

"...the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future... the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic, but will be cultural. The centuries-old military interaction between the West and Islam is unlikely to decline. It could become more virulent."

M J Akbar, a well known author and editor, believes that the West's next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world. It is in the sweep of the Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will begin."

"ISIS has killed more Muslims than people of other faiths. Moreover, there is a growing realization amongst Muslim countries that ISIS has brought disrepute to the very concept of Islam."

ISIS probably draws its inspiration from the Ottoman Empire, and is now trying to re-establish the glory of the former Islamic kingdom which controlled large swathes of West Asia, Southeast Europe and North Africa. Yet, the caliphate that ISIS imagines is based on a distorted view of Islam that is not conducive to the modern era, or the beliefs and practices of the majority of modern-day Muslims. It looks nothing like the Ottoman Empire, which was known for its religious tolerance, where the Muslims, Christians and people of other religions could peacefully co-exist.

When Wahhabism became the state religion in Saudi Arabia, radical Islam overshadowed many tolerant versions of Islam, including the Sufi philosophy, which flourished in Persia and other parts of Asia. Sufism, unlike Wahhabism, promoted spirituality, liberty and brotherhood. In fact, Sufism has left its footprints in India and Pakistan, and the testimony to this is that very few Indian and Pakistani Muslims are attracted to the ISIS ideology.

Militant organisations have brought great disrepute to Islam by giving the impression that their acts of violence have religious sanction. Nonetheless, there is some cause for concern in the fact that Wahhabism is spreading even in Bangladesh, Malaysia and Turkey, which were considered as models of moderate Muslim societies. It is a known fact that the ISIS, in the present form, could not have existed without the money funnelled by Saudi Arabia through charitable and religious groups to spread Wahhabism, which is one of the most intolerant forms of Islam.

In an essay in the New York Review of Books, Scot Atran and Nafees Ahmad write:

"What many in the international community regard as acts of senseless, horrific violence are to ISIS's follower's part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation? This is the purposeful violence that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State's self-anointed Caliph, has called "the volcanoes of Jihad"--creating an international jihadi archipelago that will eventually unite to destroy the present world to create a new-old world of universal justice and peace under the Prophet's banner."

Mario Rubio, the Florida Governor aired a similar view, "This is not a geopolitical issue where they want to conquer territory and its two countries fighting against each other; they literally want to overthrow our society and replace it with their radical, Sunni Islamic view of the future. This is not a grievance-based conflict. This is a clash of civilizations."

But can ISIS and those who subscribe to its world view be described as a "civilization?"

In the Merriam Webster dictionary, "civilization" is defined as "the condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organizing a society and care about art, science, etc.; A particularly well-organized and developed society." By this definition, by no stretch of the imagination could ISIS be said to represent a civilization. In fact, ISIS has killed more Muslims than people of other faiths. Moreover, there is a growing realization amongst Muslim countries that ISIS has brought disrepute to the very concept of Islam. It is for this reason more and more Muslim countries are enraged with ISIS for its brutality, especially against the women. It would be incorrect to infer that a bunch of terrorists represent Islam, and it is for this reason that the argument of a clash between civilizations falters in the present context.

This is not to say that there isn't a dangerous conflict playing out.

The recent attack in Paris is likely to increase prejudice against Muslims and the main casualties will be the Syrian refugees, against whom there is a growing backlash, including in the US. It must also not be forgotten that the roots of terrorism in the Middle East can be traced to US interventions in the region. We, including Muslims in the Middle East, are paying a heavy price for the failed policies of the US and other countries.

Today, the US and other countries in the Western block should realise that, unless they take Iran, Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, on board, it will be a losing battle against ISIS. This will also reduce the possibility of alienating the Muslims on ideological issues. The US "no boots" policy has failed to contain ISIS and, therefore, it becomes important to take the support of Russia to launch a well coordinated attack, both through the air and land, under a central unified command, which can be both effective and decisive.

The Saudis must also be clearly reminded that any attempt to promote the radical brand of Islam by funding organisations like ISIS will one day return to haunt them.

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