The recent shocking events in Iraq appeared to take public opinion by surprise and, indeed, the proclamation of a self-styled “Caliphate” by the leader of the newly formed IS was initially largely underestimated and considered the product of a relatively small splinter-group emerged from the Syrian conflict and with loose ties to Al Qaeda.
Realization soon set in that this new interlocutor in the perennial Middle East conflict was actually more ruthless, more determined, better armed and certainly more skilfully organized than Al Qaeda had ever been, and had, with some ability and strategic insight, taken advantage of the political chaos in Iraq, which had somehow been overshadowed, in the eyes of the West, by events in Syria and the emerging collapse of Libya.
Western reactions were slow in coming, but, when they appeared, they all conformed to the generally accepted mantras, the tragicomic pantomime of international leaders in search of visibility while in desperate pursuit of a strategic plan. Then, on his way back from a visit to Korea, Pope Francis stunned the world by coming out in support of U.S. bombing raids aimed at the containment of this new, apparently redoubtable force in the Middle East.
The Pope’s statement was stunning not because the Roman Catholic Church was seen as “taking sides”: after all, for the entire period of the Cold War the Church had been clear, with varying degrees of intensity, in its anti-Communist stance, and there are still some who maintain that during World War II the Papacy, after the accession of Pius XII, showed more sympathy for the Axis than was later admitted. What was really astounding in the Pope’s statement was that, for the first time since the loss of temporal power (1870), the leader of the Roman Catholic Church specifically showed approval for an act of war.
It has to be remembered that the Holy See, in the first fifteen centuries of its existence, was a World Power which had no hesitation in joining and breaking political and military alliances in a permanent struggle against either the Empire, a.k.a. the “Holy Roman Empire” or the Caliphate, which, after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, was identified with the Turkish Sultan, the “Commander of the Faithful”: this can explain both the Pope’s pavlovian reaction to the news of the Caliphate’s possible resurrection and the subsequent silence, on the part of an exceptionally loquacious Pontiff, on this delicate and potentially risky subject.
The political impact of the Holy See on the international scene tends to be underestimated in a Western world dominated by “Protestant”, or “Secular” powers (One is reminded of Joseph Stalin’s question on the number of Divisions commanded by the Pope), but, nonetheless, the event did add fuel to the resurrection of a term – “The Clash of Civilizations” – which had lain dormant for a number of years, save for a brief reappearance after the terrorist attack of September 2001.
Over a decade and a half ago Samuel P. Huntington’s book, “The Clash of Civilizations”, had made a considerable impact on Western public opinion, soon to be downgraded, however, to an all-purpose catch-phrase, with the result that the message itself became confused and, to a certain extent, discredited. At a grass-roots level, however, the concept has, since September 11, 2001, but especially in the light of the “Caliphate's” actions and statements, taken on a rather disturbing aspect in the form of growing, seemingly irreversible Islamophobia.
The impact of Huntington’s book appeared to reside more in the title than in the content, and the term itself was more often than not trivialized and misused by those who had not read the original work.
Many famed pundits and intellectuals, perhaps in the name of “political correctness”, took to attacking the concept and comparing it unfavourably to the much more optimistic future promised by Fukuyama (“The End of History”): some – and I trust that the irony of this will not be lost – indicated the “friendship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia as a sure sign that the “Clash of Civilizations” would not occur.
The events of September 11, 2001 radically changed the general perspective, with the “War on Terror” monopolizing the attention, while the “Clash of Civilizations” was seldom brought up if not in a bellicose, truculent tone very far indeed from the letter and the spirit of the original text.
I had a taste of this early in 2002, talking to a Northern European diplomat from whom I heard, for the first time, that we – i.e. “The West” – should not only recognize but actually welcome the existence of the “Clash of Civilizations” (he actually used the term) and prepare for a war of annihilation against Islam, in which, he assured me, “hundreds of millions” of Hindus and Buddhists would be on our side and help defeat the enemy.
At the time, I dismissed these ideas as merely the delirious rant from a slightly tipsy older colleague, and thus much too far-fetched to be taken seriously.
Since then, however, events have been indicating the existence of an ingrained and deepening hostility to Islam, which has re-emerged in a particularly virulent form after the declaration of the “Caliphate” and its extremely violent actions and language. The trend has been showing an alarming cumulative effect and Islamophobia is gaining ground, more often than not abetted by those very political institutions which should normally guard against such potentially dangerous developments.
A perplexing dichotomy seems to have emerged. On the one hand, in most countries, the political and cultural leadership seem intent to show that current military struggles, though they oppose the Western Powers to Islamic organizations, are in no way directed against Islam. Concurrently, however, and with growing vigour and ever shriller language, in the same countries grass roots movements are growing which portray Islam as a philosophy of violence and a traditional and dangerous enemy of Western civilization. These opinions are conditioning the behaviour and language of the respective national leaderships.
Huntington depicted a situation which, in his view, had to be taken into consideration for a valid analysis of international political developments. Perhaps the case was overstated, for, at the time, even the Iranian president Khatami was on record stating that he did not believe in the inevitability of such a clash. At present, it is disturbing to note that the concept is becoming a battle-cry, used to inflame western opinion by giving an historical and philosophical justification to the budding and growing Islamophobia visible in the U.S. and in so many European societies. The “Clash”, from a situation to be feared and neutralised, seems to be evolving into a desirable development, as envisaged, many years ago, by my tipsy colleague.
It is as wrong to overestimate as it is to underestimate an adversary, but it is not possible to ignore the apparent control that the IS seems to have over public relations, and nothing appears to be left to chance. Al Qaeda was an illegal movement, in exile, with limited aims (the destruction of Western governments and their allies), whereas in IS we have a territorial reality, multilingual prowess, an apparent multicultural appeal and an aim which sinks its roots into history, taking advantage of the current political disarray which obtains in most of the Arab world.
In over a quarter of a century spent in Muslim countries, I have come across anti-American and anti-Western feelings, especially after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but, even in recent years, I have not noted a basic widespread revulsion against Christianity and its faithful, comparable to the growing, often irrational and misinformed animosity of western public opinion against Islam.
These tendencies must therefore not be underestimated, and need to be addressed rationally and comprehensively. Otherwise they could end up fomenting a similar, mirror image, hostility to Christianity in a number of Muslim countries. The “Clash of Civilizations” could then become a reality. And this, it can be argued, could well be one of the self-proclaimed Caliphate’s principal aims.