This year, Israel came under unprecedented international scrutiny when it launched a campaign to bomb Gazan civilian centers, including prominent buildings within the city, in response to rocket attacks from Hamas. Defenders of Israel’s actions cited the fact that the Hamas attacks put Israeli civilians in danger in addition to military targets, implying that this means Israel is merely responding proportionately (or what it sees as proportionately) to terrorism which can only be ended with force. Such is the perspective on modern conflict put forth by Samuel Huntington, who argued for a “Clash of Civilizations” theory where every facet of what’s considered “Western civilization”—which by a broad definition includes Israel—must defend from the provocations of Islamic fanatics who are impossible to reconcile or reason with.
But can this conflict truly be explained by religious extremism on one side? If not, what are the conditions that have led Hamas and its aligned entities to wage war? And can their impacts truly be alleviated by the extreme responses that Israel carries out against Palestinians, and that the U.S. military carries out against global Muslims? These are the questions that prompt Huntington’s narrative to be countered by the theories of Edward Said, who’s strongly repudiated his claims about the relationship between the “West” and the Islamic world.
In his 1993 article The Clash of Civilizations? The next pattern of conflict, Huntington painted a picture of a world after the Cold War which was already certain to fall back into instability. Huntington wasn’t the only thinker from that moment to expect this, but he differed from others in that he placed central emphasis on the role of cultural differences in creating such tensions. He wrote that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural.” His reasoning was that the global socioeconomic divisions which had been behind Washington’s competition with the Soviet bloc, and which had caused the socialist revolutions that created this bloc, no longer mattered. “Those divisions are no longer relevant,” he concluded. “It is far more meaningful now to group countries not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their culture and civilization.”
Edward Said repudiates these assertions in his article The Clash of Ignorance, where he deconstructs the central assumption behind Huntington’s analysis—namely, that civilizations are not fluid and intertwined things, but utterly separate entities. If this narrative were true, it would give some credibility to Huntington’s claim about global inequalities no longer factoring into conflict, because societies would indeed be motivated to fight not for socioeconomic reasons but for the sake of intercultural rivalry. But Said summarizes why this view doesn’t account for the basic realities of anthropology and sociology: “Huntington is an ideologist, someone who wants to make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history, and that over centuries have made it possible for that history not only to contain wars of religion and imperial conquest but also to be one of exchange, cross-fertilization and sharing.”
The logical conclusion of this type of simplistic thinking on cultures comes out in the way that Israel, and the imperialist powers which support Israel, wage war. In Israel’s case, this reductive mentality can be traced to the country’s founding ideology of Zionism. As Mujtaba Razvi assesses in Interrelationship between Zionism, Imperialism and Racism: “Zionism’s first claim was that it intended to take upon itself the onerous message of ‘civilizing and modernizing’ Palestine. Such a claim dove-tailed perfectly with the 19th century racist orientation of European capitalism which sought a cultural justification through the claim that it was ‘colonizing backward nations’ with the purpose of ‘civilizing’ and ‘preparing’ them for self rule.”
In his work Orientalism, Said describes the narrative about history that the imperialist powers—and by extension the Zionist settler-colonial project—uses to justify this belief. He writes that in the “European imagination,” Europe is “….depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile ‘other’ world beyond the seas. To Asia are given the feelings of emptiness, loss, and disaster that seem thereafter to reward Oriental challenges to the West; and also, that lament that in some glorious past Asia fated better, was itself victorious over Europe.”
This story that Orientalists tell themselves couldn’t fit better with Huntington’s assertions about the world being able to be neatly divided between different civilizations, and about those civilizations being fated for rivalries where certain ones must win out against others. It also fits with Huntington’s claim about socioeconomics now being irrelevant to why conflict happens; when your central concept of history is that it’s defined by stronger cultures winning out over weaker ones, you can easily conclude that factors like capital, profit, and inequality aren’t as important as culture in producing conflict. That the Cold War was an exceptional blip in history where socioeconomics was momentarily relevant.
This special emphasis on culture when it comes to conflict, stemming from the belief that certain cultures are inferior, is instrumental in Israel’s atrocities against Arabs. In their study Participation in Atrocities Among Israeli Soldiers During the First Intifada: A Qualitative Analysis, Yoel Elizur and Nuphar Yishay-Krien describe the thought processes of the Israeli Defense Force members who had participated in the brutality: “Soldiers who engaged in brutal behaviors dehumanized and demonized Palestinians by calling them ‘animals,’ ‘filthy,’ ‘primitive,’ and ‘people who do not care for their children.’” For context, the researchers also interviewed many IDF soldiers who didn’t articulate these kinds of sentiments. But the fact that blatant anti-Arab racism is shown by this study to be typical within the IDF, as well as a correlating factor with violence, shows ethno-centric beliefs to be a motivating factor behind Israeli war crimes. And even those types of milder soldiers who the study identifies as “The Incorruptible,” despite lacking consciously hateful attitudes and wanting to condemn any malpractice they see from their peers, are described by the researchers as acting with complicity and being in the minority: “they were isolated within the company, afraid to endanger themselves by breaking rank, and and intimidated by local commanders who supported brutality.”
What’s notable about this case in regards to socioeconomics and inequality is that the soldiers had served within two mechanized infantry groups stationed in Gaza refugee camps throughout the uprising. These conditions among the people who the soldiers were committing atrocities against are significant because despite Huntington’s claims to the contrary, the economic divide between the “Western” and “Oriental” sides clearly factored in to why violence occurred. The sentiments from the soldiers about how the Arabs were dirty, backwards, and neglectful towards their children all pertain to the poverty of the locals. The deprivation of the Arab communities—itself a product of Israel’s blockade, displacement, and apartheid against Palestine—reinforces the prejudice which motivates the occupiers to perpetuate further violence against the occupied.
This dynamic where dire conditions get created by the policies of the imperialist powers and their partnered state of Israel, then these conditions get exploited to dehumanize the victims, is reflected by the narratives that have gone along with the “War on Terror.” These narratives paint Muslims and Arabs as representing an innately lower civilization, one which needs to be aggressively kept separate from “Western” civilization. As Beydoun Khaled writes in War on Terror, War on Muslims, “the war on terror was expeditiously crafting a new binary-driven script. You are ‘either with us or against us,’ President Bush stated emphatically nine days after the 9/11 terror attacks, speaking explicitly to foreign nations, but also explicitly to Muslims in the United States and abroad.”
This demand is put upon Muslims living in the “Western” countries because for the overlapping ideologies of imperialism, Zionism, and Orientalism, everything is framed as a struggle between “our” civilization and “their” civilization—with “their” civilization often not even being acknowledged as being part of the “civilized world.” And to be accepted into the “civilized world,” Muslims need to aggressively show that they stand by the United States and its actions. Otherwise, they’ll be accused of standing with “terrorism.”
This comes back to the idea that the “War on Terror,” and its miniature version within Israel’s war against Hamas, are struggles of self-defense against fanatics who will only stop attacking when they’re wiped from existence. But if Hamas and similar jihadist groups are fighting to liberate their homelands from occupation, economic blockade, and a paradigm of military aggression (all of which are happening not just in Palestine but throughout numerous other places in the region), can they even be called terrorist groups? Writes K. M. Sajad Ibrahim in The Question of Terrorism: Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Middle East Peace Process, a group can fall out of the “terrorism” classification even if it can be considered “extremist”: “The role of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the present-day context assumes the nature of a national liberation movement, which stands for the liberation of their homeland from Israel and the Zionists. So it is not correct to treat all extremist groups as terrorists.”
Further evidence against Hamas being a terrorist organization is the fact that those Israeli civilian deaths Israel’s defenders focus on don’t occur due to an intentional strategy by Hamas. In 2014, Hamas leader Khaled Meshal clarified that “We do not target civilians, and we try most of the time to aim at military targets and Israeli bases. But we admit that we have a problem. We do not have sophisticated weapons. We do not have the weapons available to our enemy so aiming is difficult. Not only does the violence from Hamas only exist due to Palestine’s popular desire for defense from an occupier, but Israeli civilians are only endangered by this violence because Palestine is deprived of the weapons which would make this defense more precise. When the defenders of Israel’s actions have pointed to the impacts of the Hamas attacks on civilians, they’ve engaged in another example of the “West” creating precarious situations, and using this precarity to justify further atrocities.
What form the basis for the views on terrorism adjacent to Huntington’s philosophy are a binary concept of what civilization is, and a disregard for the context behind the actions of groups like Hamas. This Orientalist interpretive framework portrays the “West” as being a cohesive force which stands diametrically opposed to Islamic civilization, which is seen as inferior or even as not a real civilization at all. Whereas the framework put forth by Said, and by ideologically adjacent academics like Sajad Ibrahim, aims for a nuanced and empathetic view towards Muslims and Arabs. This view factors in the ways that the imperialist powers and their partner Israel have oppressed and attacked Muslims and Arabs, seeing this violence as at the root cause of why terrorism (or what’s subjectively deemed to be “terrorism”) occurs. Using this framework, it becomes apparent that the extreme backlash that Israel and Washington carry out is not going to make jihadist attacks less likely, because these responses don’t address the conditions driving the conflict. If anything, they bring more attacks upon the “West” by giving Muslims and Arabs more reasons to retaliate.
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