Debunking the clash of civilisations


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Omid Nouripour
Omid Nouripour

Paradoxically, in the Western world, the fear of Islam and of terrorism carried out in its name are often strongest in places where there are hardly any Muslims.

A 2014 Bertelsmann Foundation study showed that the Germans most afraid of Islam live in places with the smallest Muslim populations. Those least afraid are found in regions with the biggest Muslim communities. Fear of Islam, it seems, is a virtual phenomenon, created neither by any risk of terrorist attack nor by personal experiences of being swamped by a supposedly growing Muslim population.

Westerners are of course not alone in this fear of the “other”. The deadly riots sparked by the publication of cartoons and other images supposedly depicting the Prophet Muhammad  are a clear sign of the inferiority complex in those who fear that Western culture aims to destroy the values of Muslim civilisation.

Although the perceived threat level is far from reflecting reality, there is some truth behind the fear on both sides. Terrorism in the name of Islam is a danger in Western countries, and the West often displays an arrogant superiority in its dealing with the Muslim world.  In places where very real and bloody wars are being waged, such fears are exploited by radicals who present conflicts in terms of a clash of civilisations between “unbelievers” and “pure Islam”. Underlying power struggles are being vested in this rhetoric, and the radical discourse becomes brutal reality.

This makes it very urgent that we debunk the overcharged rhetoric of what the Germans call “Kulturkampf”. There are two ways forward: we have to analyse what is really happening where Islam and the Western world meet, and we have to clearly identify the political dimension of current armed conflicts and search for pragmatic solutions.

The real clash of civilisations

We are living in a world that is ever-more closely connected, a world where economic interests are intertwined, where images from news events flash instantly around the globe and where migration has created diversified communities.

This confrontation unavoidably leads to tension, because the traditions, beliefs and economic and political outlook of someone who grew up in 1980s Frankfurt and, let’s say, Baghdad will differ considerably. Yet this cultural clash does not necessarily have to translate into violence.The cultural interchange between them has to be carried out on an intellectual, political and economic level. We need to develop an exchange of ideas, a space for debate and a serious respect for each other’s ideas and beliefs.

One often neglected aspect is the importance of us all knowing our own traditions and culture. We can only enter into dialogue if we have something to say about ourselves. This is a big challenge in a globalised world, and many radical movements on both sides are symptoms of this difficulty. Radical movements on all sides can prey on those searching for a communal identity, be it Christian, Hindu, Muslim or whatever. Often they offer easy answers that place blame on others, be it the “dominant West” or “violent Islam”. These rival radicalisations feed off each other: anti-Islamic sentiment adds to a sense of exclusion among Muslims, pushing them towards a radicalism that provokes a still more hostile reaction.

Like it or not, we in Europe have to recognise that we live in a multicultural society. This does not mean abandoning European traditions or giving up our identity, but it does involve sharing space with the traditions and identities of people from different backgrounds who are living alongside us. Immigrants should be better represented in the media, in public services and in academic and cultural institutions. It is vital that we form a genuinely European tradition of Islamic scholarship, that helps Muslims create an identity based both on their belonging to liberal, democratic Western societies and their traditions and beliefs as Muslims.

Identifying power struggles

But, of course, violence in the name of Islam is a bloody reality in many parts of the world, and we have to understand what is behind it. Much of what we see as Islamic terrorism is based on very worldly motives that feed off social injustice. The self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) has deep-seated ideological roots, but its success is based on causes that have little to do with Islam. In Iraq, their military success was founded on the frustration of old Baathist cadres unseated after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Their recruitment base includes frustrated young men from all over the world – many with criminal backgrounds – who are looking for an escape from their depressing personal situation. No amount of frustration can excuse IS barbarity, but we need to understand the motivations behind this recruitment.

The situation is similar with Boko Haram in Nigeria, which has built on longstanding power networks in the underprivileged north of the country. Support for its radical interpretation of Islamic values is dwindling, but it was able to resonate with a significant part the population because the political leadership was – justly – perceived as corrupt and unfair, spending the country’s resources on the predominantly Christian south.

Western support for such corrupt and authoritarian regimes makes “Muslim” arguments against the immoral West all the more convincing. Responsible leaders in the West have to carefully dissect the various layers of international conflict and address them in a pragmatic way that seeks dialogue even with groups whose beliefs we oppose.

We have to understand how these two levels of conflict – cultural and political – feed off each other if we are to tackle rising extremism in both “the West” and the “Islamic World”. We have to identify the real cultural differences and find ways to live with them, knowing they will evolve over time. And it is vital that we move away from the notion of a clash of civilisations, and recognise instead that there is a very worldly struggle for power that has to be resolved politically – and in some rare cases like IS militarily. We need patience, patience that will be rewarded by opening up new horizons for living together in a world that is growing smaller.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo