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Islam and the West

By Nayeefa Chowdhury - posted Tuesday, 19 July 2005

The onset of the post-Cold War world has witnessed a proliferation of theses by analysts on the trajectory of international conflict in the 21st century, of which Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s have received widespread attention.

The chairman of the Harvard Academy of International and Area Studies, Professor Samuel P. Huntington’s pessimistic prognosis predicts Islamic militancy:

As one significant dimension of the final evolutionary stage of international conflict, the clash between “the West and the rest” … [where] the West is defined in terms of a commitment to “individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, the separation of church and state”, and arrayed against it are … opposing identities and movements [voicing] an expression of particularism and differences over universality and equality.


On the contrary, a political economist and professor at the Johns Hopkins University, Francis Fukuyama’s optimistic schema (pdf file 143KB) predicts Western models of liberal democracy to be “the final form of human government” and the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution, as “[there will be] total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism”.

This article addresses the usefulness (or the lack thereof) of their attempts to construct ways of understanding the aspirations of Muslim societies towards globalisation. “Globalisation” is defined here in political, technological, cultural and economic terms.

Huntington’s confusing civilisation paradigm

Islam, an Abrahamic faith, shares the monotheistic root and ethical vision of Huntington’s and Fukuyama’s “Judeo-Christian heritage” and “Christian universalism” that are equated with the root of Western civilisation and liberalism. Paradoxically, the actual track record of tolerance, concept of human rights, religious pluralism and freedom of religion exemplified by the early Muslim empires in treating non-Muslim citizens far exceeds its Judeo-Christian counterparts.

Islamic and Western civilisations boast a long history of mutual co-operation and integration. Examples include the amalgamation of mediaeval Islamic philosophy and Greek philosophy, the foundation of the Renaissance and the willful appropriation of modern science and technology by Muslim societies. Hence, in an increasingly interdependent world of today where the cultural “fault lines” have dramatically become more permeable, Huntington’s “the West and the rest” civilisation paradigm lacks much relevance.

Demographically, Islam today has spread across the Middle East, South Caucasus (Azerbaijan), Europe (Albania, Turkey), Asia, and Africa, encompassing 48 Muslim-majority nation states with diverse cultural heritages and traditions. Muslims make up a significant minority in the West including Bosnia, France, Germany, UK and US. Therefore, the spectre of a monolithic Islamic threat that both Huntington and Fukuyama perceive makes little sense.

Causes of anti-Western sentiments

Fukuyama’s misleading conjecture that Muslims’ anti-American sentiments are born out of a resentment of “western success and Muslim failure” obscures the fact the West in general, and the US in particular, is seen as having a double standard with regard to international policy-making. Examples include the US’s discriminatory stance on:

  • the violation of UN resolutions (Israel, Iraq);
  • the prevention of support for so-called terrorist organisations (IRA, HAMAS); and
  • tolerance of the mixing of religion and politics in nation-states (Eastern Europe, Algeria).

Most important, despite its self-proclaimed espousal of the principles of intellectual and political liberalisation and pluralism, democracy, and right to self-determination, the West is seen to be supportive of the repression of authentic populist Islamic movements in countries including Algeria, Egypt and Lebanon.

Contrary to Huntington’s hypothesis, the clash of competing national, regional political and strategic interests, and socio-economic issues, rather than civilisational hostility, play the dominant role in the conflicts between the West and the Muslim world. This fact is further evident in the US’s differing relationships with countries identified with Islam, such as Bahrain, Iran, Libya and Saudi Arabia, or its policy towards Japan or Saudi Arabia - countries belonging to cultural “fault lines” as articulated by Huntington.

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About the Author

Nayeefa Chowdhury is the founding director of an Internet-based Islamic information service ( She writes in English & Bengali, and has contributed chapters to two books, also published in periodicals, including magazines, scholarly journals, and newspapers.

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