The use and abuse of the ‘clash of civilizations’ rhetoric

For well over two decades, and particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, public perception of terrorism has largely been dominated by its seemingly inherent link with the Islamic faith. From al-Qaeda to the more recently-born Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), – perhaps better known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – today’s terrorist narrative revolves to great extents around the contraposition of Islamic against Western ideals and values. It is safe to claim that today, should a Western citizen be asked what he or she associates “terrorism” with, the reply would quite surely make reference to the Islamic State, and probably to the State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

Indeed, this is of little surprise: this particular terrorist group has entered the international agenda and taken over political debates since 2014, earning the podium in the past years as one of the most concerning global threats and almost overshadowing all other internationally-recognized terrorist organizations. The reason for this is that, never in history had a terrorist organization hit at the heart of Western societies as repeatedly as ISIS has done in the past years. But, perhaps more relevantly, it has been the first terrorist group taking over major cities and trying to establish what could be considered as a de facto ‘state’, if we think strictly in Weberian terms of territory control and monopoly of the use of force.(1)


In other words, the association between terrorism and ISIS, but more broadly between terrorism and the Islamic faith, along with its contraposition to Western ideals, has long been mainstreamed. Western media, in this context, have played a significant role in fuelling the perception of a ‘civilizational clash’ between cultures. Whereas it is certainly true that the religious component has been manipulated to shape the narrative of terrorism in recent years, it would be a dangerous mistake and utterly simplistic to frame this phenomenon solely in religious or ethnic terms, particularly given the devastating impact that this phenomenon has had, first and foremost, on the Muslim world.

Impact of terrorism on the Muslim world
Contrarily to the wider public’s perception and to what Western media too often portray, ‘global terrorism’ is still a highly concentrated phenomenon, with some of the gravest attacks committed primarily in a small number of countries and by a small number of groups.
As measured in the 2017 Global Terrorism Index (GTI) Report, the five countries suffering the highest impact from terrorism steadily remain Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Pakistan, which accounted for as much as three quarters of all deaths from terrorism in 2016 – last year for which data is available.(2) Similarly, only four groups, namely ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban and al-Qaeda, were responsible for 59 per cent of all these deaths.(3)

The geographical spread of terrorist activities had a peak in 2015, mostly due to ISIS expanding its operations, especially through the process of online recruitment. As reported in the 2016 GTI, this group was responsible for attacks in 28 countries in 2015 alone.(4) Consequently, to the various and still ongoing military operations carried out against ISIS in Syria and Iraq in the following years, the situation in early 2018 may at a first glance look slightly brighter as the group lost considerable field and terrorist-related deaths have decreased as a consequence.(5) Nevertheless, ISIS is still very active on a rather large geographical scale: it already allegedly carried out attacks in 13 countries, 9 of which are predominantly-Muslim.(6)

When it comes to Boko Haram, their attacks are still quite concentrated in Nigeria, despite earlier efforts to expand into neighbouring countries. The group, which aims at establishing an Islamic state in Nigeria(7) targets private citizens as well as religious institutions. In 2015, around 20 attacks against mosques and four attacks on churches were reported.(8) However, while the group killed about 12,000 people in years between 2013 and 2015, as a result of the Multinational Joint Task Force military operations, deaths decreased by roughly 80 per cent in 2016.(9)

The Taliban on their hand have continued to be centralised along the Afghanistan and Pakistan border as well as in the northern provinces of Afghanistan, targeting mainly law enforcement agencies and the civilian population. Deaths at the hands of this terrorist group amounted to 4,502 people in 1,094 terrorist attacks in 2015, making it the group’s deadliest year.(10) In 2016, bombings and explosions were reported to have increased from 27 per cent of attacks in 2015 to 32 per cent in 2016, killing an average 8 people in each attack.(11) As of April 2018, the Taliban have been allegedly responsible of 75 attacks, predominately in Afghanistan.(12)

Al-Qaeda and its affiliates – Al-Shabab, the Al-Nusrah Front, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and others – have been mostly committing deadly attacks in, among others, Syria, Algeria, Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, Somalia and Kenya. Again, the main targets are usually civilians. The latest GTI reports that in 2016 as much as 155 attacks against civilians were carried out by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the above-listed countries, amounting to 29 per cent of all incidents.(13)

In spite of the fact that such data only relates to four of the deadliest internationally-recognized terrorist groups and is not inclusive of many other factions and smaller groups, which operate in many other contexts, the statistics offered are still emblematic for understanding the extents to which the Muslim world is affected by terrorism. As stated by former United Nations Secretary-General “the threat of violent extremism is not limited to any one religion, nationality or ethnic group. Let us also recognize that today, the vast majority of victims worldwide are Muslims.”(14) While acting in the name of Islam, these terrorist groups are in fact hitting at the very heart of the faith they blatantly pretend to represent. In this regard, one very striking event that shows the ‘a-religiosity’ of terrorism is the attack that hit the Saudi Holy city of Medina on 4th July 2016. The bombings, allegedly carried out by ISIS, occurred right outside of the Prophet’s mosque, second in importance only to the Grand Mosque in Mecca, a day before the Eid al-Fitr festival which marks the end of the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan.(15) The appalling attack on this religious site, holy to both Sunni and Shia Muslims, was considered a defiant act against the Islamic faith. Nevertheless, it had little international resonance among Western media. Likewise, attacks during Ramadan are far from occasional. Under the horrified eyes of the Muslim community, the ‘Holy month’, which represents a time for reflection, prayer, purification, and charity, has been bloodstained more than once, in particular by ISIS, which has openly encouraged its followers to perpetrate barbaric killings against the ‘infidels’ during that time. In light of these facts, and on the general indiscriminative nature of their attacks, it remains somewhat unclear who such ‘infidels’ exactly are to them.
A clash of civilizations, within civilizations or an anti-establishment phenomenon?
As previously mentioned, today a more or less deliberate attempt to associate terrorism with radical Islamic terrorism can be noted, at both political and societal levels, with the international focus being mainly on ISIS. In this context, seemingly there has been an attempt to frame the discourse on Islamic terrorism in terms of a “civilizational war” against the West. Indeed, many of these groups, and particularly ISIS, overtly put forward the same rhetoric. But is this really a war between civilizations or is it rather a war within civilizations?

The concept of ‘clash of civilizations’ was first famously advanced by Samuel Huntington in a renowned article published in 1993 and later theorized into a best-selling book,(16) where, in brief, he argued that future conflicts would be fought along the fault lines of civilizations, and, in particular between the West and Islam.(17) According to Huntington, the latter, incompatible with Western democratic values, is itself responsible for large amounts of violence. In this regard, one of his most famous and perhaps controversial statements is that “the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc […] has bloody borders.”(18) Though he acknowledged that conflicts and violence may also occur within civilizations, he argued that those would more likely be less intense.(19) This provocative view was unsurprisingly challenged by many scholars of international relations and political sciences who regarded it as too simplistic to explain modern global politics. Henderson and Tucker for instance found that “civilization difference is not significantly associated with an increased likelihood of interstate war”,(20)  while Norris and Inglehart argued that Islam and democracy (typically associated with Western values) are not necessarily mutually exclusive.(21) Specifically talking about radical Islamic terrorism against Western countries, Neumayer and Plümper explain that this shall not be understood as a war between civilizations, but instead as a result of “Western interference in countries of the Islamic civilization, whose support is often crucial in preventing Islamic terrorist groups’ bid for political influence.”(22) In other words, they theorise that terrorist leaders choose their targets on a strategical basis rather than on culture per se.(23) Despite its controversial implications, Huntington’s arguments have nevertheless been used by several right-wing extremist parties and populist movements, in an attempt to frame Islam as the real ideological enemy of the West, this way legitimising racism through anti-terrorism policies of profiling and border control.(24) In these regards, as former US President Obama pointed out in a speech in 2016, “If we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush […] we are doing the terrorists’ work for them.”(25) In other words, the Islam vs West rhetoric can be inherently counterproductive and in fact contribute to fostering said civilizational war, perfectly in line with some terrorist groups’ goals. As a matter of facts, in view of the impact that terrorist activities have on Muslim communities analysed in the previous section, the current situation seems to be more likely a clash within civilizations rather than between them. In this sense, religion and ideology shall be seen tools of legitimization for jihadists’ violence as opposed to being themselves the trigger.

However, a third way to analyse contemporary radical Islamic terrorism can also be advanced. And this is to regard it as an anti-establishment phenomenon which shall not be confined simply within ethnic or cultural terms. Professor Olivier Roy explains what he calls ‘contemporary jihadism’, particularly in the West, in terms of youth revolt, counter-culture response and a search for identity among young Muslims. According to Roy, this phenomenon is to be rooted in the ‘deterritorialisation’ of Islam as a consequence of globalisation and Westernisation processes, which has led frustrated young generations to alienate themselves and reject western values and conventional Islamic values altogether.(26) In this context, Roy contends that the attitude towards religion can be understood as a stress on the individual dimension as well as a quest for personal realisation, where faith supersedes the dogma in itself.(27) According to his theory, such new interpretations of religion, or “religiosity”, are often characterised by a certain degree of anti-intellectualism in favour of easily accessible norms, where emotions override knowledge.(28) However, one must be cautious, he warns, and not fall into the trap of viewing this phenomenon as a “fundamentalisation of Islam” but rather as an “Islamisation of fundamentalism”, in which religion becomes only a paradigm for youth revolt rather than of cultural affiliation.(29) “The genius of ISIS” he says, “is the way it offers young volunteers a narrative framework within which they can achieve their aspirations.”  .(30)

A dangerous rhetoric: the rise of islamophobia
Going back to the ‘civilizational war’ way of analysing Islamic terrorism, one must note how the rhetoric contraposition of West vs Islam might, and indeed already has, led to rather undesirable consequences. When it comes to people’s attitude towards Muslims, regrettably, it can be observed that Muslims are no longer regarded and treated as themselves victims of terrorism to the same – if not greater – extent as western societies (as described above). Instead, the actions of a few stigmatize Islam as a whole.
The rise of Islamophobia and the general anti-Muslim sentiment has become a scary reality in the West, and particularly in Europe, especially as a consequence of the uptick in ISIS terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 combined with the latest waves of migration to the Mediterranean shores.

During the 35th Session of the Human Rights Council, former Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, Mr. Mutuma Ruteere, expressed concerns on the proliferation of anti-Muslim rhetoric and the rise of right-wing extremist parties. According to the Special Rapporteur, “these two trends are intensifying globally following recent terrorist attacks and have led to an atmosphere of fear of Muslims in countries where Muslims are racialized or viewed as foreign, which in turn has increased experiences of racism and xenophobia.”(31) He noted that “there were reports of a government and the media building a campaign focusing on the differences between Christians and Muslims, perpetuating negative stereotypes against Muslims and describing them as dangerous people.”(32)

Former Special Rapporteur also indicated that some anti-terrorist measures adopted in several countries, including in Western Europe, in response to rising fear for terrorist attacks in combination with the waves of migration, were undoubtedly discriminatory and not in accordance with international law. In particular, he referred to the deportation of individuals on the basis of national security to countries in which they are likely to experience ‘serious persecution’ as being in striking violation of the jus cogens principle of ‘non-refoulement.’(33) According to Mr. Ruteere, “political scapegoating, administrative exclusion, selective and restrictive immigration policies, targeted gang violence, police harassment, profiling and stereotyping in the media are also dangerous consequences of xenophobia.”(34) In early 2017, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres expressed his concerns regarding the spread of islamophobic ideologies at a joint press conference with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, explaining that one of the things that fuels terrorism is in fact “the expression in some parts of the world of islamophobic feelings and islamophobic policies and islamophobic hate speeches.”(35)

Muslim communities’ response to terrorism
On several occasions the Islamic world was criticized for not clearly and strongly condemning the atrocities committed by some terrorist groups acting in the name of their religion, and in so doing seemingly fostering the ‘us’ against ‘them’ narrative. Bus is this really the case? The answer is certainly no. Condemnation by Islamic communities, and in particular by religious leaders and imams is loud, yet most times it goes unheard. The idea that the horrific actions committed by some terrorist groups can have any religious fundament repels the large majority of Muslims. In this regard, a public opinion poll among Arab Muslims conducted by the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy and reported by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism surveying public opinion in seven countries, found that, indeed, “chances that more Muslims rally behind ISIS are small as the extreme violence (crucifixions, stonings, beheadings, amputations, rapes, mass killings of prisoners) disgust large majorities of Muslims and non-Muslims alike.”(36)

Thus, in total rejection of Huntington’s theory that violence is culturally enshrined within Islam, the Muslim community firmly responds that in fact the Quran itself recites that killing one innocent person is equivalent to killing all humanity. Mr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen, Secretary-General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization comprising 57 nations with Islamic majorities, warned at the Human Rights Council in Geneva on 1 March 2017 that “far-right politics is on the rise, strengthening the narrative of ‘us’ against ‘them’. This is a scary scenario for an intolerant world that none of us would like our children to live in. […] We all need to play our role.”(37)

As reported by a British newspaper, the Muslim Council of Britain was also very loud in expressing condemnation for ISIS barbaric actions. In the aftermath of the Westminster attack carried out by ISIS on 22 March 2017, the General Secretary Harun Khan, besides offering prayers for the victims and the law enforcement agencies, reportedly issued a further statement saying that “This attack was cowardly and depraved. There is no justification for this act whatsoever. The best response to this outrage is to make sure we come together in solidarity and not allow the terrorists to divide us.”(38) In addition to public condemnation, other significant attempts to detach from the ‘islamisation’ of terrorism narrative have been made by Muslim communities. One of them is, for instance, the Muslim Reform Movement, born in rejection of interpretations of Islam that call for any violence, social injustice or politicized Islam while promoting a culture of human rights, equality and tolerance.(39) But for many, condemnation and detachment by the Muslim majority seems to not be enough to excuse them for the behaviour of a few ‘black sheep’. In this sense, it may be argued that in fact Muslims should not feel forced to ‘apologize’ on behalf of individuals who they do not feel are representing neither their culture nor their religion.
Conclusion: intercultural dialogue as the way forward
Having established that contemporary Islamic terrorism does not easily fit into the “clash of civilizations” rhetoric, particularly as terrorist attacks are, still, significantly concentrated in predominantly Muslim countries, but could instead be viewed as an anti-establishment phenomenon of generational fracture in which religion (or ‘religiosity’ as Roy calls it) is only a narrative framework to legitimize violence, it is important to understand how the ‘us’ against ‘them’ discourse, with its dangerous consequences, can be countered. One way forward could be intercultural dialogue. Though this article excludes that Islamic terrorism is the product of a civilizational clash between different populations whose cultures necessarily collide against one another, it indeed acknowledges that the wrongful use of such rhetoric may in fact lead towards the undesired path of cultural clash, as demonstrated by the rise of islamophobia in Europe and beyond. In this sense, as explained by United Nations University Research Fellow Valeria Bello, intercultural dialogue, which happens between ‘civilizations’ and ‘cultures’, is an emerging practice that could effectively represent a way of deconstructing the discourse on both violent and non-violent extremism, if those are to be understood as socially-constructed phenomena. As she advances, the role of non-state actors in this sense could be pivotal as, according to some, they “hold the capacity to influence international relations.”(40) In other words, not only states, but also international organizations, NGOs and other civil society groups should come together and create platforms to promote dialogue that aims at addressing cross-community issues and build peace, respect and tolerance, so to facilitate the adoption of effective counter-terrorism and counter-extremism policies.(41)
With this in mind, the invitation is, therefore, to use intercultural dialogue to unravel the logic behind the ‘islamisation’ of terrorism and deconstruct the discourse behind the clash of civilizations. These misleading and deceptive narratives can only lead to further division and intolerance among populations and, ultimately, will only contribute to fueling terrorism as well as ideologically empowering terrorist groups further, without offering hope of finally breaking the cycle of violence.

The author

Alessia Vedano graduated in Politics and International Relations at the University of London International Programmes and is currently a student of the European Master’s in Human Rights and Democratisation at Utrecht University, where she is writing her thesis on areas of international human rights law and transitional justice. She has previously worked as a human rights officer at Geneva International Centre for Justice (NGO).



  1. For Max Weber’s definition of ‘state’ see Politics as a Vocation published as Politik als Beruf (1921 Gesammelte Politische Schriften)­. Originally a speech at Munich University in 1918, published in 1919 by Duncker & Humblodt, Munich.
  2. Institute for Economics & Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2017. Measuring and understanding the impact of terrorism’ (Institute for Economics and Peace 2017) 14. Available at: <>
  3. Ibid. 5.
  4. Institute for Economics & Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2016. Measuring and understanding the impact of terrorism’ (Institute for Economics and Peace 2016) 4. Available at: <>
  5. GTI 2017 [Reportedly, deaths related to terrorism have decreased by 13 per cent from 2015 to 2016] 4.
  6. Data collected from: <>, accessed 1 March 2018.
  7. The country is divided between the Christian south and the Muslim north.
  8.  GTI 2016 54.
  9. GTI 2017 74.
  10. GTI 2016 55.
  11. GTI 2017 75.
  12. Data available at: <>, accessed 1 March 2018.
  13. GTI 2017 75.
  14. ‘UN Secretary-General’s Remarks at General Assembly Presentation of the Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism [As Delivered]’ (15 January 2016) <> accessed 2 April 2018.
  15. For more information on the attack see: ‘Saudi Arabia: Bombings target Medina and Qatif mosques. Four security guards killed at Prophet’s Mosque in Medina in third attack to hit kingdom in one day.’ (AlJazeera 5 Jul 2016) <> accessed 2 March 2018.
  16. Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ (1993) 72 Foreign Affairs 22; Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster 1996).
  17. Huntington (1993) 25.
  18. Ibid. 34.
  19. Ibid. 38.
  20. Errol A. Henderson and Richard Tucker, ‘Clear and Present Strangers: The Clash of Civilizations and International Conflict’ (2001) 45 International Studies Quarterly 317, 334.
  21. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart ‘Islamic Culture and Democracy: Testing the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ Thesis’ (2002) 1 Comparative Sociology 235.
  22. Eric Neumayer and Thomas Plümper, ‘International terrorism and the clash of civilizations’ (2009) 39 British journal of political science 711, 720.
  23. Ibid. 719ff.
  24. See Sedef Arat-Koҫ, ‘Whose Transnationalism? Canada, “Clash of Civilizations” Discourse and Arab and Muslim Canadians’ in Roland Sintos Coloma (ed) Asian Canadian Studies Reader (University of Toronto Press 2017).
  25. ‘Obama: Painting All Muslims With Same Brush Helps Terrorists’ (14 June 2016) [online video] available at: <>.
  26. Olivier Roy, Globalized Islam. The Search for a New Ummah (Hurst 2004).
  27. Ibid. 148-197.
  28. Ibid. 31.
  29. Olivier Roy, ‘Who are the new jihadis? Biographies of ‘homegrown’ European terrorists show they are violent nihilists who adopt Islam, rather than religious fundamentalists who turn to violence’ (The Guardian 13 April 2017) <> accessed 2 March 2018.
  30. Ibid..
  31. HRC ‘Report of the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ (9 May 2017) UN Doc A/HRC/35/41 para 49.
  32. Ibid. para 51.
  33. Ibid. para 64.
  34. Ibid. para 11.
  35. ‘‘Islamophobia’ throughout the world is fuelling terrorism, UN chief António Guterres says’ South China Morning Post (13 February 2017) <> accessed 9 April 2018.
  36. Alex P. Schmid, ‘Challenging the Narrative of the “Islamic State”’ (2005) ICCT Research Paper <> accessed 9 April 2018.
  37. Mr. Yousef Al-Othaimeen’s full speech at the 7th Meeting of High-Level Segment during 34th Regular Session Human Rights Council (1 March 2017) available at <>.
  38. Harriet Sherwood and Helen Pidd, ‘UK Muslim leaders condemn ‘cowardly’ London attack’ The Guardian (23 March 2017) <> accessed 9 April 2018.
  39. More information on the Muslim Reform Movement available at <>.
  40. Valeria Bello, International Migration and International Security: Why Prejudice is a Global Security Threat (Taylor and Francis, 2017) 117.
  41. Ibid