Paris attacks are more than just 'blowback: They are a manifestation of the Clash of Civilisations

Multiple causal explanations have been trotted out to explain the abominable attack on Paris that led to the death of 129 people and left scores injured. While some have asserted that the Paris attack is what Chalmers Johnson called ‘blowback’— roughly the reaction to militarisation of foreign policy in the service of imperium and hegemony; others assert a more pedestrian motivation: The attack as a reaction to the so called ‘Global War on Terror’ which has global security implications.

Both these explanations may or may not be correct and there may be partial merit to these.

The ‘catch-all’, broad explanatory rubric that perhaps best captures the motivation and premise of the Paris attacks and the rise of the Islamic state may be the thesis propounded by the intellectual of intellectuals and the scholar of scholars — the late Professor Samuel Huntington. The shy Harvard professor adumbrated a thesis titled, 'The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order'.  In a nutshell, the great professor asserted that in a post-Cold war world, the primary axes of conflict, instead of the pedestrian conflict between nation states, would be along the lines of culture and religion. The main axis or fault line of the conflict, would in Huntington’s schema, would be between Islam and the post Renaissance West. Other civilisations, like India and Russia, would be swing civilisations — that is, civilisations which could support any side in the conflict.

 Paris attacks are more than just blowback: They are a manifestation of the Clash of Civilisations

File imagoe of the Paris terror attacks. Reuters

On the face of it, world politics do indeed appear to conform and correspond to the type elaborated by Huntington — albeit in a tweaked and modified form. The Islamic world has not really aggregated itself into a bloc or a coherent civilisational entity; there is conflict —within and without — across the length and breadth of the Muslim world. However, the conflict between Islam and the West cannot be denied (denial would amount to burying heads in the sand). The manifestation of this conflict does not then correspond to what Huntington had laid out.

From the Muslim world's perspective, the conflict takes the form and shape of an inchoate and diffuse anti-Western feeling — a latent conflict that manifests itself in the form of non-state actors like Al-Qaeda , Al Shabaab  and now the IS. While these non state outfits are neither homogenous nor have developed a coherent critique of the West , what they share is a deep distaste and even hatred towards the West. The ‘Muslim Street’, that is, the mass of opinion across the length and breadth of the Muslim world, hangs in the grey zone of anti-Westernism and concern about the true representation of Islam. Most feel that the West is hypocritical towards the Muslim world, but at the same time feel that animus towards the West should not be articulated in the idiom of war and militancy. There is also the view that asserts and roots for militancy, but this is a minuscule opinion and view.

In terms of the perspective of the West, while there is Islamophobia in regions that constitute the West, but Muslim immigration into the West has not been barred or banned; despite the controversy over Syrian refugees, the West has and does accept refugees from across the Muslim world. There are issues with Muslim immigrants in Europe but in most Anglo-Saxon countries, especially in the United States, there is a vigorous and vibrant Muslim diaspora. Furthermore, there are functional — trade, business and aid — ties between many parts of the Muslim world and the West.

Geopolitically, Huntington’s thesis appears to be more prescient: if Syria, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan are treated as representative samples of the Muslim world, then all are, in different permutations and combinations, in conflict with the West. And the alliance system or network of these countries corresponds to the Clash of Civilizations thesis. Pakistan, while it has a transactional relationship with the United States, holds China to be its ‘all-weather’ friend. Iran has been in the crosshairs of the West since the 1979 revolution and its alliance system follows a similar dynamic. Russia has come to the overt support of Syria, and Russia and China vote rather similarly on a host of issues in the UN Security Council. Iraq has been decimated after the second Gulf War and it along with Syria is a veritable battleground.

The clash of civilisations then is real — albeit in a form and shape that is diffuse and inchoate.

Now returning to the IS, it may be posited that while the IS may not be representative of the world of Islam, there are undercurrents of hostility between the Muslim world and the West. This, it needs to be said, is mutual. There is a possibility of this latent conflict morphing into overt conflict with military and economic connotations. The question is what accounts for this latent conflict?

I would posit that the conflict is not merely the legacy of crusades — the wars between Christendom and Islamdom — nor is it merely the effect of ‘blowback’ the conflict is, at the risk of being called an essentialist, is about values. That is, different and differing values between Islam and the West. Islam and the West do not share a common premise and outlook. The former is premised on the primacy of God and the latter on the primacy of the human. This is the starting point of the conflict. Islam and the West are doomed to conflict and are indeed on a collision course. The crusades, imperialist and colonial legacies, and the post-colonial foreign policy impacts and consequences are, mere corollaries to a deeper, wider values based conflict.  In this sense, the conflict is zero sum.

In lieu of this, the question that should exercise the minds of policy-makers and concerned and sensitive people across the Islam West divide and fault line is how to minimise the negative consequences of this conflict-lest it become apocalyptic. Admittedly a bleak view, the best that can be hoped for is a modus vivendi between Islam and the West that can lead to peace or relative peace — within and without. The premise of this modus vivendi can be co-existence, tolerance, toleration and mutual respect. The moment the dynamic between Islam and the West turns to chauvinism or assertion and supremacy of values, the conflict takes a violent and insidious form.

Mutual respect and tolerance by both the West and Islam for each other can be the antidote to violent conflict. In the final analysis, it is actually humanism — shorn of cultural or ethnic connotations and accretions — that can potentially be the solvent of the conflict but the problem with this is people are people — a compendium of fears, emotions and other complexes which are determined by culture and other formative influences. And culture, to paraphrase Huntington, is a process whose sediments are formed over centuries. The conflict between Islam and the West is then inevitable. The best, to repeat, that can be hoped  is minimising this conflict and its violent manifestation. This, however, must not detract from the aspiration and desire for the transformation of the world into one civilisation, where civilisation and not civilisations becomes the norm.

Updated Date: Nov 21, 2015 12:40:43 IST