A ‘clash of civilizations’ and a climate of fear

In 1993, Samuel Huntington, a prominent American political science professor, published his highly controversial article “The Clash of Civilizations?” in Foreign Affairs. His theory, in very simple words, was that in the post-Cold War era most of the conflicts would be defined through civilizations or cultures rather than through ideology.

This paradigm shift was supported by the fact that, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the fall of the communist model in Russia, there was no ideological threat to capitalism. However, Huntington saw the threats coming from other competing civilizations to the western one, such as the Islamic and Chinese civilizations.

Huntington’s theory was dismissed by many intellectuals as being simplistic, and no more than a mere justification for armed intervention. They thought the clash of civilizations theory would eventually die.

But the events of Sept. 11, 2001, created the perfect opportunity for many supporters of the clash of civilizations theory, and it has flourished again. The attacks on the twin towers in the heart of Manhattan, the symbol of capitalism, were the perfect evidence Huntington’s followers needed: Islam was at war with the West inside its own te rritory; Huntington was proved right!

Everyone was out to declare that it was indeed the beginning of the clash of civilizations. Pundits, pseudo-experts on terrorism, security agents turned into political analysts and some politicians showed up regularly on TV screens to campaign for Huntington’s theory. “The barbarians are at the gate” was the phrase repeated by many of these fear mongers; you just need to look at the devastation created by the terrorist attacks: Ground Zero was there to prove it.

Immediately after the attacks of 2001, the United States of America went to war under the pretext of defending democracy. Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, said: “This is not a battle between the United States of America and terrorism, but between the free and democratic world and terrorism.” Terrorism was linked to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, all of which are Muslim countries. Despite what has been repeated by George W. Bush, and later by Barack Obama, that the West was not at war against Islam, the Muslim world felt so, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq supported this belief.

Here in Canada, several Muslim men were arrested, shipped to torture, and left in dungeons without trial, all under the name of protecting national security. My family was personally and directly affected by those newly developed procedures such as extraordinary rendition. In September 2002, on his way back home, my husband Maher Arar was arrested by the Americans and sent to Syria against his will via Jordan on board of one of those “ghost planes” operated by private companies and CIA agents to transfer alleged terrorists to what later were discovered to be secret prisons. While he was tortured and kept in a dark hole for more than a year, I tried my best to bring his case to public attention.

Very few politicians listened to my plight. Some of them at that time used my husband’s case as the “scary example” in order to make political gains. It took a lot of courage from different individuals, politicians and human rights organizations to change the tide and get my husband back home. Too late. The harm was done. We will always be living under the shadow of those tragic events.

Even after public inquests revealed there was no evidence linking my husband and others to terrorist activities, public opinion was already accepting the idea that there must be a link between all Islam and terrorism. After all, “where there is smoke there is fire,” goes the famous proverb. The stereotypes and unproven claims went on forever: Islam is a dangerous religion that is incompatible with democracy; its followers are reluctant to integrate; they are capable of double language.

As a consequence, western Muslims either felt victimized or played the defensive card. Every time a group of young men were arrested and charged under the anti-terrorism act, and before knowing whether they were guilty or innocent, it was the ideal opportunity for some media outlets to feed the climate of mistrust and suspicion. The clash of civilizations was working well.

But the recent mass murder in Norway, perpetrated by a blond, cynical, Norwegian, pure laine, suggests that all the prejudice against Islam and the perceived threat of Islamization of Europe are not simply salon discussions or intellectual challenges. They are a real danger to social cohesion. The fear mongering claiming that Muslim immigrants will impose Islam on Europeans and North Americans may have incited a brain-washed individual to take action and kill innocent people.

I personally never believed in Huntington’s theory. I always believed in the importance of dialogue and debate. I don’t believe in the superiority of “one civilization.” We all learn from each other.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the route chosen by the West and in particular the U.S. after 9/11. Muslims became an easy target and acts of terrorism committed under the name of Islam gave the best alibi to continue to engage in a never-ending war.

It is time to reflect on the last 10 years. A huge number of victims died since the attacks of 9/11. Their religions, or the civilization they belonged to, shouldn’t be a factor. They were all human beings.

This article was published on the Ottawa Citizen issue of September 6, 2011.

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