Arab Uprisings: The Clash of Civilization Myth Falls

By Shafiq Morton – Cape Town

The grand myth of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’, the clarion call of neo-cons and fundamentalists everywhere, has fallen.

It fell during the Arab uprisings earlier this year when tyrants such as Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled, and the bloodthirsty rule of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi overturned.

The neo-con mantra that the Arab strongmen had to stay in power because Arabs weren’t mature enough to think about things such as freedom of speech, civic liberty and democracy has been blown away.

The real reason why the strongmen had to keep their jobs – oil interests and Israel – has been rudely exposed like bare buttocks at a black tie function. The overthrow of despotic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya was clearly never in the imperial script.

Even Israel’s intelligence service MOSSAD, everybody’s go-to agency in North Africa and the Middle East, could not predict that the Arab world was going to explode. 

Bernard Lewis, the octogenarian academic and author – who coined the unfortunate cliché “The Clash of Civilizations” in a 1990 essay entitled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” – must also be scratching his head in amazement.

Lewis’ simplistic view, obfuscated by academic suaveness, was that every Arab state was a Lebanon waiting to happen.  Samuel Huntington, who plagiarized from Lewis three years later, wrote that if “central power” weakened, the Arab states would collapse. 

For too long, I feel that Lewis’ deceptively genteel grammar has hidden the face of his Orientalism. For example, am I the only one to extrapolate from his writings the contention that “terrorism” is in our Muslim DNA because of the 13th century Hashishin (or Assassins)?

Lewis’ view – again never directly stated in such clear terms – is that Christendom and Islam are destined to be in a perpetual wrestling match for world power, the two opposite corners – east and west – stamping, clashing and flattening the grass like rival bull elephants.

But with Ibn Taimiyyah’s famous 12th century Mardin Declaration (or fatwa) being re-interpreted by modern scholars, it has become clear that Islam can’t be seen in terms of two different existents: Dar ul Islam (the abode of Islam) and Dar ul-Harb (the Abode of War).

Not even Ibn Taimiyyah, the watering hole of Salafi-Wahhabism and Islamic extremism, separated the world into territories of belief and hostility. Indeed, it was Ibn Taimiyyah who ruled that Muslims could live peacefully as minorities during the time of the Mongol invasions.

This is a critical point – one that often sticks in the throat of the Muslim extremist, Christian fundamentalist, Revisionist Zionist or political neo-con – a person who prefers his world to be in reflected as black-and-white, rather than sweeping Technicolor.

Indeed, it was Cairo’s Tahrir Square that eloquently put the lie to Lewis’ idea of civilization discord, a space where I’m sure he believed east would refuse to meet west. This was when Al-Jazeera showed Coptic Christians protecting Muslims at their Friday prayer, and on the following Sunday, Muslims doing the same for the Copts.

With no central power – the manufactured bogey of the neo-con political conservatives – it was evident for all to see that Egypt was moving to the centre, and not dissolving into sectarian chaos like Lebanon in the 1980’s.

I was told by Anas al-Tikriti of Britain’s Cordoba Foundation (who visited Cairo in February) that during the uprising churches had been guarded by Muslims, and mosques by Christians. There was not one incident, he said.

These simple gestures in places such as Tahrir Square go way beyond their spontaneity or symbolism; they signify active tolerance and human togetherness. They provide a living example, a common Abrahamic principle as it were, of noble public conduct where east and west do not clash, but join hands – a juncture where Isaac embraces Ishmael.

Further evidence, if one is not yet convinced, can be found in the United States – ironically the wellspring of the “clash” theory – where Pastor Terry Jones, the celebrated Qur’anic pyromaniac, finally succeeded in torching a Qur’an earlier this month.

The be-whiskered Jones stole the international limelight last year when he threatened to have a mass bonfire of the Holy Book outside his parish. Whilst Muslim indignation boiled, it was the Christian community that openly condemned him, and strongly advised him, to desist from his southern-fried madness.

For Jones, at least, fate worked in reverse. Instead of people lighting bonfires around the country, several churches sponsored a “read a Qur’an day” and interest in the Holy Book itself spiralled, translations selling out at many US bookstores.

The Kairos Palestine document, penned by the Palestinian Christian community in late 2009, is yet another example of the “clash” myth being destroyed. With Hamas a central player, the dynamics of the Palestinian struggle have been frequently pigeonholed as “Islamic terror”. The falsehood of it aspiring for world domination, via the subjugation of Israel, has been an easy lie.

The Palestinian Kairos document, a Christian “word of faith, hope and love”, puts the Middle Eastern conflict into the universal light where it rightfully belongs. Originally written in Arabic, the lingua franca of the east, it is currently being introduced to the western church where the mother tongue is predominantly English.

Perhaps the problem with Bernard Lewis and his ilk is that whilst not intentionally ignoble, they have become entrapped by sub-conscious prejudice within their own culturally determined and colonial frames of reference.

Their single biggest failing has been their inability to understand that “isms” of any nature arise out of historical and political circumstances, inside and outside of their respective belief systems. I think the point is that good men of faith, east and west, have always seen “the other” unconditionally, and not through themselves.

– Shafiq Morton is a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He was South African Vodacom Community Journalist of the Year in 2008 and was recently voted amongst the world’s 500 most influential Muslims by the Jordanian Royal Islamic Strategies Study Centre headed by Prof John Esposito of Georgetown University. He contributed this article to

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