Are Conflicts In The Middle East And Afghanistan The Result Of A “Clash Of Civilizations?”


The intensifying military confrontation between the West and the Arab world has spread instability and fear throughout the international community. There has been a controversial debate on whether the conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan are the result of a natural collision between cultures and values or the consequences of Western imperialist interference in the region. This essay sits on the latter end of the spectrum and argues that the ‘clash of civilization’ dispute is an attempt to justify Western dominance in the Middle East, which serves as a self-affirming prophecy that manifests further turbulence in the area.  

The essay will scrutinize the above argument in three stages. Firstly, understand Huntington’s hypothesis and identify aspects of Israel-Palestine conflict and war in Afghanistan that resemble features of ‘clash of civilizations.’ Secondly, illustrate how the conflicts have been falsely depicted as the result of nonalignment between Western and Middle Eastern values, which rationalizes Western dominance as a natural confrontation of the two worlds. Thirdly, explain why this misrepresentation of clashing civilizations is a powerful political apparatus used by the West and a dangerous self-fulfilling prediction that may have real consequences that change the trajectory of contemporary politics.

Turmoil and bloodshed has engulfed the Arab world. A noticeable trend was emerged across the series of cross-continent conflicts. States rallied support from other states within close proximity. These states stimulated public support by appealing to common culture and identity. As a result, fundamentalism developed in the region. These features resemble Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilization” hypothesis. Huntington explains that conflicts are inevitable in a world with two civilizations of similar economic and military strength. The predominate civilization will be pressured to maintain its power and protect its values and interests that are irredeemably different.

However, what appears to be pure rivalry between the West and the Middle East based on differences in values is instead deeply embedded in the historical account of Western intervention in the Middle Eastern region. For instance, the purported religious war between Israel and Palestine was triggered by Britain committing to three promises regarding the division of Ottoman Palestine after WWII. The British issued the 1917 Balfour Declaration to the Zionists, the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and the League mandates to the French and also to the ruler of Mecca, Sharif Hussein. Thus, the conflict that claims to be a clash of civilizations is in fact a battle over territory that was sparked by the “imaginative geographies” of  the British imperialists.

Similarly, the American invasion of Afghanistan was justified in the name of a ‘war on terror.’ This is an extension of the ‘clash of civilizations’ argument. On the surface, the conflict resembles aspects of Huntington’s prediction as both actors mobilize alliance from states that share ‘similar’ political attitudes. Saddam Hussein invoked Islamic appeal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and King Hussein of Jordan called for unification of the Arab world to fight a holy war against the West. The U.S. pleaded “every nation in every region” to decide if they were on their side, or with the terrorists. The U.S. also claimed  that the ‘war on terror’ was triggered because their enemies do not value freedom. This presents America as the defender of freedom and liberty and the Middle East as the patron of violence and terrorism. As a result, the U.S. is given global legitimacy to carry out its main goals in the Middle Eastern region.

Since obtaining access to oil and promoting pro-Western states in the Arab world are much more achievable with the support of local autocrats, the U.S. has supported authoritarian regimes with the expansion of the ‘war on terror.’ The U.S. was able to fight the threats imposed on autocrats in the Middle Eastern region in the name of its anti-terrorism campaign, which disguised interventions as humanitarian rescues.

In essence, the clash of civilization argument is a self-affirming prophecy that serves as a powerful political apparatus. It justifies Western imperialism in the Arab world. Huntington’s belief that people of different ethnicity and religion will eventually collide violently due to irredeemable difference has been made into a reality by policy makers for their own interests. Thus, the clash of civilizations argument serves not only as a manipulation tool of the West, but also as a self-fulfilling prophecy that fuels the vicious cycle of misrepresentation and resentment.

Huntington’s hypothesis underestimated the presence of Western dominance that exists throughout contemporary politics. It simultaneously underestimated the difficulty in enabling non-Western societies to move and shape history alongside powerful actors of the West. Conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan may reflect certain images of Huntington’s hypothesis, but these conflicts are actually more complex. This shows the importance of legitimizing the historical narratives of these countries.

Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Lee is an International Relations student at Australian National University. She is a global citizen who has lived in Seoul, Shanghai and Auckland, and aims to emphasis the importance of peaceful attitudes in order to reach compromising solutions to issues around the global village.
Lina Na Gyoung Lee

About Lina Na Gyoung Lee

Lina Lee is an International Relations student at Australian National University. She is a global citizen who has lived in Seoul, Shanghai and Auckland, and aims to emphasis the importance of peaceful attitudes in order to reach compromising solutions to issues around the global village.