Beliefs Culture

ISIS versus the West: A clash of civilizations? (COMMENTARY)

Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants on November 24, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stringer *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ISIS-WEST, originally transmitted on February 23, 2015.
Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants on November 24, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stringer  *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ISIS-WEST, originally transmitted on February 23, 2015.

Smoke raises behind an Islamic State flag after Iraqi security forces and Shiite fighters took control of Saadiya in Diyala province from Islamist State militants on November 24, 2014. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Stringer
*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-ISIS-WEST, originally transmitted on February 23, 2015.

(RNS) Is the Islamic State — ISIS or ISIL — different from other Islamist terror groups? If so, is the difference one of substance or simply degree? Or is there any real difference at all?

The question preoccupies the best intelligence professionals and academic students of the Arab Muslim world, but so far has produced more confusion than certainty about what we’re witnessing.

Maybe we’re too close. Maybe we’d gain perspective by going back in time — to 1993, say, and an article by a Harvard history professor, Samuel Huntington, in the magazine “Foreign Affairs” and later in a book titled “The Clash of Civilizations.”

Huntington saw a grim future and a different kind of war. While nation-states remain principal players in world affairs, he wrote, the great conflicts of the future will be between “different civilizations.”

“The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics,” he wrote. “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Is that what we’re watching — a clash of civilizations between the Muslim Arab world and the mostly Christian West? Not being an intelligence expert or holding down a professorship in the subject, I can’t make that call as an absolute truth.

But to a layman it sure as hell looks like a collision of civilizations — specifically between the advocates of a malignant interpretation of Islam and a Christian West which, a millennium ago, produced the Crusades.

Listen, for example, to what Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, a spokesman for ISIS, promises Christians in the future:

“We will conquer your Rome,” he threatened, “break your crosses and enslave your women. If we don’t reach that time, then our children will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves.” The guy’s a real phrase-maker, isn’t he?

What al-Adnani is predicting is an apocalyptic, end-times kind of battle rooted more in messianic religious belief than in history. He’s even named the place for the great battle – Dabig, in Syria. But is his threat credible? Or just chest-thumping to heat up the home folks? It’s chest-thumping, alright, and it has heated up lots of Muslim home boys. But it’s a losing hand for the Arab world for two reasons.

First, there’s no comparison between the military might of a technologically advanced, thermonuclear-armed West and a Muslim Arab world just now groping toward modernity.

Second, much of the Muslim Arab world is belatedly awakening to the internal threat ISIS extremism poises.

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) kneel in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media on February 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV *Editors: This photo is not available for republication.

Men in orange jumpsuits purported to be Egyptian Christians held captive by the Islamic State (IS) kneel in front of armed men along a beach said to be near Tripoli, in this still image from an undated video made available on social media on February 15, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Social media via Reuters TV
*Editors: This photo is not available for republication.

The latter reason underlies Obama’s reluctance — even as he criticizes “extremism” — to use the term “Islamic extremism.” To put “boots on the ground,” Obama knows he’ll need military support from Arab nations and is reluctant to seem critical of Islam.

Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, even Saudi Arabia have entered the fight against ISIS and Obama would prefer not to alienate them rhetorically.

The president’s position is understandable, maybe even necessary, by geopolitical reasoning. But it’s maddening, too — well-received perhaps by Arab listeners he hopes to influence, but resented by much of his American audience.

Much of liberal academia agrees with Obama’s kid-glove approach to Arab extremism as a long-term strategy. But not all of it.

For example, Graeme Wood, a Canadian scholar and Arabic speaker writing in the Atlantic, brands ISIS as “Islamic. Very Islamic.” The religion of Islam, he writes, is fundamental to ISIS as is its call for a new caliphate and a return to Sharia law and the lifestyle and culture of the 7th century.

“Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers,” he writes. “But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”

How do we deal with ISIS? No one seems to know for sure.

A common belief is that Islamist extremism stems from poverty and lack of fulfillment in the region. But its leaders have come primarily from the upper classes. Osama bin Laden was the son of a billionaire. His buddy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a physician. And Mohamed Atta, leader of the 9/11 attackers, was college-educated.

Without elite leadership, there’d likely be no ISIS.

But back to Huntington. His “Class of Civilizations” was highly controversial when published. Some saw it as justification for a new kind of post-war Western imperialism. But then came 9/11, and fresh interest in Huntington’s ideas.

It’s premature to tell if he’s right. But it’s worth noting one other Huntington forecast, one that has hit the mark. Ukraine, he predicted, would be split between its Roman Christian West and Orthodox Christian East.

(John Farmer is a columnist for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

KRE END FARMER

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John Farmer

5 Comments

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  • This is not a clash of civilizations.
    This is an assault on civilization.

    All religions are an assault on freedom. They assert that the hopes of human beings are secondary to the desires of some imaginary god.

    When we put people first, we create civilization and decency.
    When we put a god first – we destroy everything.

  • What a hysteric article!

    Much of the “Muslim World” is actively fighting ISIS as we speak. Nations like Jordan, Egypt, and what is left of the Syrian government. The Kurdish autonomous areas have been locked in a military struggle with ISIS from the outset. The Libyan provisional government is demanding help to fight them.

    ISIS is easier to deal with than Al Queda was!

    They hold territory, use conventional military forces and act like governments. We are not talking about small scale terrorist cells but people waging war as we know it.

    The author really hasn’t a clue what he is talking about. ISIS is not a terrorist group, they are a military force. Closer in feel to pirates, bandits or warlords than insurgents and terrorists. These are not people blending into populations to cause mayhem. They are a roving force which identifies themselves as an army, with flags and uniforms.

    The only problem being, that they are far more selective about where to operate. Preferring working in failed states so organized responses become troublesome. The political reasons for not putting feet on the ground in Syria are a mile long. We may see a western response to Libya in the near future.

  • ISIS is not a civilization. Not even close. It is a small group of tens of thousands that arose out of al-Qaeda, another group of tens of thousands, but with different theology, goals and practice. Islam is not a civilization. It is a religion practiced in many different countries, many different cultures, most of which are not adversaries of the United States or the West.
    I note that Farmer speaks of the Muslim Arab world. Only about 20% of Muslims are Arab, and many Arabs are not Muslim. So are we talking about an Arab civilization or a Muslim one? 9/11, the work of a small but potent radical militant group, did nothing to confirm Huntington’s thesis.
    We are adversaries of, as Farmer says, a malignant interpretation of Islam, an interpretation as representative of Islam as the Westboro Baptist Church is of Christianity. One could reasonably claim that the Westboro Baptist Church practices a coherent and learned understanding of Christianity. It is Bible-based and has theological grounding. I nevertheless find it despicable. Just like ISIS.

  • Fact is, thre woud be no ISIS without the US was in Iraq, turning a brutal (but contained) dictatorship into to a failed state. Nice work, W! Hope you are proud of yourself.

  • Fiction. ISIS came out of the civil war in Syria and Saudi support of militias there. The mess in Iraq provided safe havens for them and easier pickings. You are confusing a symptom for the cause of the ailment, Most of the problems in dealing with ISIS come out of the fact that the US is hostile to the Syrian government.

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