The Middle East and the West in the 21st century: the ‘clash of civilizations’ in U.S. foreign policy from Bush to Obama

By Neil Russell, Political Science“At the dawn of the twenty-first century it is important that the vacuum created by the end of the Cold War not be filled by exaggerated fears of Islam as a resurgent “evil empire” at war with the New World Order and a challenge to global stability.”1

Since the end of the Cold War, the “Western world” has seen a host of geopolitical confrontations dominate the foreign policy agendas of their governments. From the invasion of Iraq in 1991 to conflicts in Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya and others, a new perceived threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” became prevalent in the public consciousness in countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States.2 This fear appeared to be exemplified in the most brutal of manners with the 11 September 2001 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, when more than 3000 civilians were killed. This act seemingly brought forward a “new age” in which it was said that “the civilized world faces unprecedented dangers”,3 culminating in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Scholars such as Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington had forewarned that there were diametrically opposed cultures in the world (Islam and the West), whose values were incompatible which would inevitably lead to conflict, which they deemed a “Clash of Civilizations”.4 For many, 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts were proof of the prophecy ringing true.5

Or rather does this argument instead fall prey to the warning posed by the quote which opens this paper? Others stand in opposition to the neatly-fitting reasoning given by Lewis and Huntington for the conflicts of today. In Orientalism (1978) Edward Said argued that western European powers had a long history of framing the world in polarized opposites of East and West, often invoking the language of superiority. For Esposito the implications of this mindset can be seen today. “The realities of colonization and imperialism,” he writes,” forgotten or conveniently overlooked by many in the West, are part of the living legacy, firmly implanted in the memory (however exaggerated at times) of many in the Muslim world” (1999 p.217). Therefore rather than acknowledging grievances or political motivations, scholars such as Said and Esposito argue that the debate is often cloaked in cultural, value-laden terms dividing the world, providing reassurances about the conduct of the West, rather than critical self-reflection following blowback.6
Taking these two conflicting camps, my aim is to show how these debates can be identified in the rhetoric and policies of the American governments since 9/11. I have looked at two of the key foreign policy speeches given by the last two United States presidents: George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, and Barack Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech titled, “A New Beginning.” I have chosen these two speeches because they have come to embody the foreign policies of each administration. Although Bush’s speech does not directly refer to a policy on “Islam” or “Muslims,” it has widely been received as such. Some of the questions we can ask are: where does each speech fall within the aforementioned intellectual debate regarding Islam and the West? How are they different and are there any similarities? Is the rhetoric different but implications similar? One aspect I have also kept in mind is that of the relationship between ideas and action: “distinguishing the level of rhetoric (discourse) and from the level of policy (action)” (Gerges 1999 p.2). What is the extent of the links between the speeches and their policies?

These questions are important because  the attitude and relationship of the United States and that of the Obama administration towards “Islam” may have devastating reverberations for the stability of the Middle East, America and the wider world –as has been made all too apparent in recent years.

The War on Terror: George W. Bush’s State of the Union address, 2002
In “The Clash of Civilizations?” (1993), Huntington tells us that: “the principle 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 of the future.” We are told that these future wars will be cultural and “defined both by objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people.” Huntington emphasizes the prevalence of this clash between the “Western” and “Islamic” spheres. The thesis was heavily influenced by a previous essay called “The Roots of Muslim Rage” by the Middle East historian Bernard Lewis (1990). Published in The Atlantic, Lewis’ essay informs us that the civilization of Islam has previously known periods when “it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence”. Now, we are told, “that hatred is directed against us” (emphasis mine). To explain the roots of this hatred, Lewis refutes the notion of past political actions or policies of countries or empires, but rather “a rejection of Western civilization as such, not only what it does but what it is, and the principles and values that it practices and professes” (1990). In a response to Huntington’s thesis (and to an extent Lewis’), Edward Said contends, “the personification of enormous entities called ‘the West’ and ‘Islam’ is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoon like world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly” (2001). These dichotomies are typified by George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union.

The civilization that Bush implies is one of values and morals where the “civilized” reside. The terms are explained very clearly; the “civilized world faces unprecedented dangers” from enemies such as Iraq, which “has something to hide from the civilized world.” America and its allies are embarking on a “cause” which is “just,” a statement made repeatedly. Bush tells us in no uncertain terms that “rarely has the world faced a choice more clear and consequential.” Here we see the “fault lines” Huntington professes clearly drawn, either you are on the side of the “civilized” world, or you are on the side of “evil”.
As Esposito argues the divisions between the West and Islam are reinforced “to obscure a complex reality: Islam against the West, fundamentalism against modernity, static tradition versus dynamic change, the desire to simply return to or preserve the past versus adaptation to modern life” (1999 p.226). Bush paints the conflict as a cultural and value driven clash in which the enemy is somehow anti-modern and therefore against “our way of life“, rather than being against particular polices or actions. Soberly describing such rhetoric, Said writes: “it speaks to how much simpler it is to make bellicose statements for the purpose of mobilizing collective passions than to reflect, examine, sort out what it is we are dealing with in reality, the interconnectedness of innumerable lives, “ours” as well as “theirs” (2001). Indeed, Bush states, “we did not choose this war,” rather “history has called America.” What does this mean when a sharp dichotomy is built in which the polarized opposites can easily be interpreted as “Islam” and the “West”? Perhaps historic battles between the two civilizations, the Judao-Christian secular West and the traditional religious East?7
“Yet after America was attacked,” continues Bush, “it was as if our entire country looked into a mirror and saw our better selves.” This statement reflects comments made 11 years earlier by Lewis as he explained the “Muslim rage” towards the West. “There is a Libya, an Iran, and a Lebanon, and a surge of hatred that distresses, alarms, and above all baffles Americans.” We in the “West” are somehow more moral than those in the “Islamic” world, therefore self-reflection is not necessary. Indeed some in Muslim countries do reject all things “Western,” but, contrary to Lewis’ contention, specific interests, actions and policies have very much been the driving forces. In Occidentosis, Jalal Al-i Ahmad writes that the concepts of “East” and “West” are strictly economic, clouded by pretensions projected by colonialism of some sort of cultural superiority. Thus, “wealth and poverty, power and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, prosperity and ruin, civilization and savagery have been polarized in the world” (1983 p.28). For Al-I Ahmad the façade of a cultural clash has merely coveted what has really been at play; the imperial exploitation by Western countries over those in the East.

After constructing grand notions of the civilized world facing an almost apocalyptic threat, Bush states towards the end of his address: “We have a great opportunity during this time of war to lead the world toward the values that will bring lasting peace.” Here we see “the basic paradigm of West versus the rest,” which edifies “indignant passion as a member of the ‘West,’ and what we need to do” (Said 2001). What needs to be done, explains Bush, was to do something about Iraq and “states like these, and their terrorist allies” which “constitute an axis of evil.” We then have a clear paradigm drawn between the forces of good (the “just,” “civilized”) America and its allies, and the “evil” states and terrorists which seek to disrupt civilization itself, who happen to be almost exclusively Muslim. This policy stance reflects what Gerges calls“confrontationalist” as opposed to “accomodationalist,” describing the two camps of thought in US policy-making circles (1999 p.20) towards the Muslim world. For confrontationalists, “Islamic fundamentalists” are “intrinsically antidemocratic and deeply anti-Western” and “target the West” because they resent what the West stands for (Gerges 1999 p.21). Therefore the confrontationalist, like Bush, thinks that the struggle between Islam and the West “is not just about material and political interests; it is a clash of cultures and civilizations” (Gerges 1999 p.21).  So what were the implications of these policies?

The most striking example is Iraq, which would be most controversially invaded and occupied little more than a year after this State of the Union address. Prior to the invasion the Bush administration assured Americans that Iraq was providing weapons and training to Al-Qaeda and may have been directly involved in 9/11 as well as possessing weapons of mass destruction.8 Yet after the invasion the intelligence and legitimacy of these claims have been called into question and widely held to be falsified, although the real reasons for war remain the subject of intense debate.9/a> However for the purposes of this paper we can focus on how different countries and groups, just because they are Muslim and from the Middle East, can be lumped together as “one big Islamofascist ball of wax”10 to serve political goals. As Juan Cole puts it: “How Iraqis went from being coded as potentially dangerous, left-leaning Arab nationalists to being grouped with Al-Qaeda as a radical Islamic menace to the United States demonstrates the opportunistic Islamic discourse” (2009 p.129). The subsequent quagmire in Iraq provides a worrying example of the implications of this distorted Islamic discourse. Quite far from the truth the ideological and political nature of Iraq and other groups emanating from Muslim countries were simplified, distorted and barrelled together in order to, as Cole argues, further the subjective policies of the Bush administration.

According to Richard Bonney, it was the influence of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” which enabled policy-makers to pursue these policies despite their falsehood. While Huntington’s thesis was rejected by most scholars who dismissed his misleading and simplistic notions, Bonney argues that this is exactly the reason it became so popular in the policy-making world. “It was precisely because he states the opposite that Huntington was so useful to the Bush regime and its supporters in the ‘war on terrorism’. The rival clash of nationalities – Israeli and Palestinian – could be lost in the ambiguity of civilizational identity and the alleged fault lines between them” (2008 p.38).

A new beginning? Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, 2009
Just a few months after assuming the presidential office, Barack Obama delivered a much-hyped speech aimed at providing a “new beginning” in relations with the Muslim world. In the speech Obama was said to have “reached out”11 and “opened new doors”12 in the dialogue between “Islam” and the “West”.  But what was the extent of this gesture and how adequately does it address the problems I have identified in American political rhetoric towards the Middle East and Muslims?

The fact that Obama uses the polarizing terms of the “West” and “Islam” is problematic. Whilst he acknowledges that they “overlap, and share common principles,” directly referring to a relationship between “Islam and the West” fails to break down the misleading barriers presented by such terminology. The Palestinian-American writer Ali Abunimah points out how Obama spoke of “tension between ‘America and Islam’ – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar.”13 Or as Mark Tevine in Tikkun argues: “such rhetoric (overlapping principles) was overshadowed by the use of language and themes that hew closely to the long-held notion of ‘Islam’ and the ‘West’ as being two essentially different civilizations travelling on separate historical trajectories.”14 For instance while Obama paid tribute to the innovation of Muslim communities in learning, such as algebra, he describes “civilization’s debt to Islam.” This gives the impression of one overriding “civilization,” the West, as something superior and modern, that “Islam” contributed to long ago, but is somehow not a part of. Tevine continues: “Islam “carried the light of learning” and “paved the way” for modernity and globalization, but it did not participate directly in their birth or development. Instead, modernity and the “sweeping change” it brought “led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam.” But, as Juan Cole points out in reference to Bernard Lewis’ “What Went Wrong?”,15 ifantagonism toward the Middle East is a question dealing mainly with issues of economics, politics and science, then “why pose the question with regard to a religious category?”16 By presenting the conflict in these terms, the issue is reduced to the distorted stereotypes previously highlighted that is propagated by projecting these dichotomized entities.

Esposito describes how encapsulated in this line of thought is the claim that Islam as a culture “is not conducive to democratization and modernity” (1999 p.215). Said also refutes this notion and use of labels. Referring to the 9/11 terrorists, he writes: “they had mastered all the technical details required to inflict their homicidal evil on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the aircraft they had commandeered. Where does one draw the line between “Western” technology and, as Berlusconi declared, “Islam’s inability to be a part of ’modernity’?”17 Therefore the reduction of complex, varied peoples, countries and groups under one banner of “Islam,” with a diametrically opposed civilization called the “West,” remains a problematic aspect of American discourse towards the Middle East and Muslims by reducing the whole umbrella of “Islam” to a series of inaccurate assumptions and distortions amongst the Western audience.

It must also be noted that Obama’s speech includes phrases clearly intended at refuting the basis of Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis and its would-be backers. The president tells us that “the fault lines must be closed,” surely a reference to Huntington’s declaration that, “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”18 Towards the end of his speech Obama then directly challenges this notion: “Some suggest that it isn’t worth the effort – that we are fated to disagree, and civilizations are doomed to clash…But if we choose to be bound by the past, we will never move forward.” Although he failed to move beyond the well-known polarised terms and all the connotations that accompany them, Obama makes clear that they will not inevitably clash, or that cultural difference will be the basis of any such conflict.

While we previously identified Bush as confrontationalist,we can also identify the position of Obama in the accomodationalist camp (1999 p.20).19 Gerges explains that accomodationists “distinguish between the actions of legitimate Islamist political opposite groups and the tiny extremist minority” (1999 p.28-29), while Obama tells us that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam” but will “relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.” Furthermore Gerges explains, “What Islamists oppose, contend accommodations, are specific Western policies, which are seen to perpetuate the West’s dominance and Muslim societies’ dependence and subservience” (1999 p.31). This is reflected in Obama’s speech when he says that “tension has been fed by colonialism” and that human history has a record of people “subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests” as well as a direct acknowledgement of US involvement in the overthrow of the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddeq in 1953. This shows a readiness to admit to past mistakes and recognise grievances that have been felt, starkly contrasting the moralistic position seen earlier in the confrontationalist camp. However Abunimah argues that again the monolithic terminology calls into question this sentiment. “Labelling America’s “other” as a nebulous and all-encompassing “Islam” (even while professing rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions in many of those countries.”

Additionally, we must also ask what is the “Islam” of which Obama refers to? Does it sufficiently and accurately depict the collections of peoples which constitute the Middle East and beyond? The simplified notion of “Islam” seems to invoke generalized notions of religiosity within a huge geographic and social sphere, while at the same time reducing its political nature on its own terms. What I refer to here is the habit in the West to assume that we can interchange the western European experience of the Enlightenment and the rise of “rationalism” and “secularism” to the modern Middle East. Mahmood Mamdani tackles this point in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim (2004), describing the tendency in Western discourse to resort to ‘Culture Talk’ when discussing Islamist politics. While in the West the “rationality” of politics is assumed due to the supposed absence of religious influence, in Islamist politics culture is politicized whereby the shortcomings of political parties and states are ascribed to cultural faults, regardless of whether the content of their message is primarily politically or religiously based. The end result of these assumptions take two forms; one, that the very failure of states in the Middle East to advance in an economic as well as political sense is falsely depicted as being borne from cultural defects; secondly and consequently, by identifying the Islamist as an irrational bad Muslim, the challenge made by Presidents Bush and Obama is that the good Muslim must prove himself by displaying his “moderate” nature.

We can, however, view Obama’s speech as a stark departure from the rhetoric of his predecessor, for instance the complete absence of the words “terror” or “terrorism.” Yet, despite stressing that Islam and the West “are not at war” and are in fact joined by shared “principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings,” to say that his speech was “a new beginning” oversteps the mark. For example, Gerges notes that the administrations of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, “far from depicting Islam as a threat to the West”, actually “lavishly praised Islamic religion and culture, recognising the legitimacy if the renewed emphasis on traditional values in the Islamic world” (1999 p.3). This is readily seen throughout Obama’s speech, with various references to the Koran and the recognition of “common ground” and “shared values”. From this we can see that rather than a drastic new shift, Obama’s speech can actually be viewed as a return to the traditional post-Cold War policy, which was radically shifted off-course by the government of George W. Bush. Taking into account the involvement of Bush senior and Clinton in the Middle East20, one could look upon Obama’s new rhetoric with scepticism. There is a certain degree of irony to be found when Obama declares that “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam”, while at the same time escalating the war in Afghanistan.

It is worth considering here Faisal Devji’s argument in The Terrorist in Search for Humanity (2008) that for Islamists fighting the war in Afghanistan, the resistance represents a global defense against oppression toward all Muslims. As a result, Washington has been forced to consider the conflict beyond traditional military considerations which exists outside of territorial borders, born out of the idea of global human rights. Invoking the theories of Carl Schmitt, Devji points out that the tactics employed by the US forces – including extrajudicial unmanned drone bombings in Pakistan – come closer to those used by their militant enemies which seems to contradict the principles of law and order which the US claims to stand for. However this theory is flawed in its analysis for two reasons. Firstly, it is wrong to portray the war in Afghanistan as a struggle against Al Qaeda and its strand of militant Islamism viewing conflict with the US as its chief aim. The main resistance facing the American and NATO forces is a brand of nationalism from groups of ethnic Pashtuns, whose chief aim is liberating their country from occupying forces rather than more abstract ideological concerns regarding American power.21
Devji’s second claim is that the Islamist ideology followed by Al Qaeda and its followers is largely influenced by the rise of the concept of global human rights. While he may identify this in some of its leaders’ discourse, the historical grounding for this claim is somewhat sketchier. Mamdani (2004) explains how the spread of a global Islamist cause can be traced to the Afghan jihad against the Soviets from 1979 to 1988. Out of a desire to deliver to the Russians “their own Vietnam”, the US along with the ISI in Pakistan promoted and provoked a religious war in the region. To do so they sounded out the most radical elements from Muslim countries around the region as well as instigating indoctrination in education in Pakistani Pashtun areas. Furthermore the privatization of funding for these groups called the mujahideen was set in place, implementations which still provide hard cash for similar operations to the present.  The reverberations, Mamdani explains, have been seen ever since in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, and of course, the US. So while Devji attempts to show the falsehood in portraying Islamism as necessarily religious but borne out of modern concepts of human rights, the origins of the particular branch he refers to requires the extra explanation just given. For the US and Obama, until the nature of the problem as well as its origins is accurately identified and acknowledged, it would seem as though the same mistakes are doomed to be repeated.

In democratic society the executive ultimately has to be accountable to the people it represents for the decisions it makes at home and abroad. The matters of international relations often present an area of ignorance for much of the populace, therefore the language and framing of issues in the geopolitical sphere can often go a long way in informing the views of the people. One of the central premises of Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Covering Islam (1997) is that Western “experts” on foreign lands provided a distorted perception which enables its leaders to carry out oppressive policies to an indifferent and often supportive public. Samuel P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis serves to absolve contemporary leaders of any self-reflection as they pursue similar policies which further erode our standing in places such as the Middle East.

As we have seen with the 2002 State of the Union address, President Bush used language and rhetoric that reduced the world into that of the “civilized” and “moral” and that of the “evil”, pointing to a variety of distinct Muslim countries and groups. The “Clash” provided the supposedly intellectual justification for embarking on an aggressive war with Iraq under the rubric of a ‘war on terror’, despite the falseness of its claims that it was in any way linked to the Islamist groups alleged to have been responsible for 9/11. The “fault lines” were clearly drawn which intensified stereotypes and distorted perceptions of a “backward” and “irrational” Islam at odds with the “reasoned” and “moral” West.

Although Obama’s rhetoric was a radical shift from that of his predecessor, it is a mark of just how polarizing the Bush administration was that the “new beginning” speech, while still retaining problematic notions as well as merely returning to the status quo of the pre-Bush governments, is viewed as such a beacon of hope in international relations today. As highlighted, Obama’s language is rather a return to the status quo of American foreign policy towards the Middle East, a time which has also seen a rise of hostile feelings towards the Western world. Today Iraq remains one of the most dangerous places on the planet, while Obama has already escalated the war in Afghanistan (including the continuation of extrajudicial drone attacks in Pakistan that were initiated by the Bush administration) and is currently debating with his advisors whether to make yet another serious increase in troop numbers. This is without even mentioning Iran or Israel-Palestine. We can see that the relationship between rhetoric and praxis by Obama is still open to question. Therefore while Obama may have spoken to Muslims in the Middle East and beyond in a far more respectful manner, can they really distinguish between the policies of he and his predecessor? In these early stages it would appear not.

So while strides have been made in the language of the US towards the Middle East, issues still remain in that area as well as that of policy. Although written in 1999, these words from Esposito still remain pertinent at present. “The challenge today is to appreciate the diversity of Islamic actors and movements, to ascertain the causes and reasons behind confrontations and conflicts, and thus to respond to specific events and situations with informed, reasoned responses rather than predetermined presumptions and reactions” (1999 p.215).

I shall leave the final words to Edward Said, writing of the long interconnected history of the so-called relationship between “Islam” and the “West”. In reference to Eqbal Ahmad’s notion of the “deep waters of tradition and modernity,” he writes:

But we are swimming in those waters, Westerners and Muslims alike. And since the waters are part of the ocean of history, trying to plow or divide them with barriers is futile.22

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John Esposito, The Islamic Threat, p.2.

John Esposito, The Islamic Threat, p.213. Edward Said, Covering Islam, p.xi.

George W. Bush, State of the Union address, 2002.

Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” The Atlantic, 1990. Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?, Foreign Affairs, 1993.

Richard Bonney, False Prophets, 2008, p.38.

‘Blowback’ is the official CIA term for the unintended consequences of covert operations, of which 9/11 is argued to have been a result. See Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: the costs and consequences of American empire, 2000, and The Sorrows of Empire: militarism, secrecy, and the end of the Republic, 2004.

John L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat, pp.226-227.

George Bush speech, in The Guardian, 7 October 2002.

Many commentators cite Iraqi oil as the fundamental factor, yet others such as political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have argued that the influence of the Israeli lobby in neocon policy circles may have provided the main impetus. See “The Israeli Lobby”, The London Review of Books, 23 March, 2006.

Robert Dreyfuss, “Obama’s Cairo Speech”, The Nation, 1 June 2009.

BBC news online, Obama reaches out to the Muslim world, 4 June 2009.

Trudy Rubin, Obama’s Cairo speech opened new doors, San Jose Mercury News, June 16 2009.

Ali Abunimah, “A Bush in sheep’s clothing, The Guardian, 4 June 2009.

Mark Tevine, “Obama in Cairo”, Tikkun, July-August 2009.

Bernard Lewis, “What Went Wrong?”, The Atlantic, January 2002.

Juan Cole, “Review of Bernard Lewis’ “What Went Wrong: West Impact and Middle Eastern Response”, Global Dialogue, 27 January 2003.

Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”, The Nation, 4 October 2001.

Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?”, Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993.

This different views could also be understood as ‘realist’ and ‘hawkish’.

For George H.W. Bush the 1991 invasion of Iraq and also Bill Clinton’s backing of the brutal UN sanctions on Iraq which had a devastating affect on the population rather than on leader Saddam Hussein.

William R. Polk, “An Open Letter to President Obama”, The Nation, 30 September 2009.

Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance”, The Nation, 4 October 2001.