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A Clash of Civilizations?. Thomas Abraham JMSC 0042. What was this all about?. After the Sept 11 attacks . The “ clash of civilizations” theory suddenly gained new prominence in the west Originally put forward by Bernard Lewis, an American historian of the Middle East in 1990.

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A Clash of Civilizations?

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A clash of civilizations l.jpg

A Clash of Civilizations?

Thomas Abraham

JMSC 0042


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What was this all about?


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After the Sept 11 attacks

  • The “ clash of civilizations” theory suddenly gained new prominence in the west

  • Originally put forward by Bernard Lewis, an American historian of the Middle East in 1990.

  • Expanded and given prominence by Samuel Huntington of Harvard University in an article in Foreign Affairs, later expanded into a book.


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Huntington’s thesis

  • “The fundamental source of conflict..will not be primarily ideological or economic. The great divisions among humankind will be cultural.”

  • “The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

  • He divides the world into seven or eight major civilizations: Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American.

  • Huntington saw the main source of conflict in the world as being between western and Islamic civilization


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  • Bernard Lewis: Islam “ an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage”.

  • Traces the rivalry back to the time of the Islamic invasion of Spain, the western Crusades, the Ottoman invasion of eastern and central Europe, and the European defeat of the Ottomans after WW1.

  • “The Muslim has suffered succesive stages of defeat….It was too much to endure, and the outbreak of rage against these alien, infidel and incomprehensible forces that subverted his dominance….was inevitable.”


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  • Bernard Lewis’ ideas have influenced important members of the Bush administration, including vice president Cheney

  • Their assumptions:

  • Islamic societies are fundamentally anti democratic and repressive.

  • Islamists are resentful and hate the freedom and liberty they see in the US, and want to destroy it.

  • If Islam and the west are to live together, Islamic countries need to be democratized and modernised: this is the project in Iraq.


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Islamic extremists too believe in a clash of civilization

  • The West and Islam will “constantly be enemies…Islam must win and westerners will be destroyed. But we don’t have to make then enemies if they allow Islam to continue to grow so that in the end they will probably agree to be under Islam. If they refuse to be under Islam there will be chaos. If they want to have peace, they have to accept to be governed by Islam.” Abu-Bakr Bashir, head of Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia.


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Huntington’s and Lewis’ ideas have been vigorously criticised

  • Confuses the thinking of a small Islamic fundamentalist fringe, with the majority of Muslims

  • Does not distinguish between Arab Muslims and non Arab Muslims

  • Are “civilizations” that distinct and are they based on religion?


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Bin Laden’s war: the beginnings…

  • 1979-Soviet forces arrive in Afghanistan to support communist forces who had taken power in a coup a year earlier.

  • Resistance against the Soviet forces soon became a “ jihad”, a holy struggle to evict an atheist invader from a Muslim country

  • Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were the largest backers of this jihad. The Saudi’s provided the funds, and Pakistan provided the training camps. Thousands of youth from across the Muslim world flocked to join this “ jihad”


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  • Among them was Osama Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy construction industry businessman.

  • Bin Laden, born in 1957, was the 17th of his father’s 57 children. He studied business administration and then Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah.


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  • Bin Laden’s father was one of many who provided funds for the Afghan mujahideen, and Bin Laden began visiting the area in 1980.

  • By 1982, he settled down in Peshawar, Pakistan, the main centre for the Afghan mujahideen. He brought in engineers from his company, and built roads and other buildings for the fighters


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The CIA’s role

  • By the early 1980, the CIA had begun funding and arming the mujahideen against the Soviet Union.

  • The CIA, with the help of the Pakistani intelligence services and Saudi money, set up training camps, poured large amounts of money and weapons into the region.

  • In 1986, his company built a huge CIA financed underground tunnel and storage complex for the mujahideen

  • Between 1982 and 1992 an estimated 35,000 young Muslims from all over the world were trained in these camps.


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  • “ I settled in Pakistan in the Afghan border region. There I received volunteers who came from the Saudi kingdom and all over the Arab and Muslim countries.

    I set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by American and Pakistani officers. The weapons were supplied by the Americans, the money by the Saudis.”

    Osama bin Laden in an interview to AFP, 27 August 1998


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  • 1989, Bin Laden forms his own group, known as Al Qaida, or “the base”. Using his own money,as well as money from Saudi Arabia, the organisation grows, and attracts Arab militants

  • In 1990, after the Soviet withdrawal, Bin Laden returns to Saudi Arabia and works in the family business. He also sets up a welfare organisation for Arab veterans of the Afghan war


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  • In 1991, after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait Bin Laden wanted the Saudi royal family to create a force of Afghan war veterans to fight Saddam. Instead, the Saudis allowed US forces to be based in Saudi Arabia

  • Bin Laden was furious about US troops would be based so closed to the sacred sites of Mecca and Medina. He criticized the Saudi royal family for allowing non Muslims to be based in the country

  • The Saudi royal family revokes Bin Laden’s citizenship


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Bin Laden in Sudan and Afghanistan

  • 1992, Bin Laden moves to Sudan, where he helps an Islamic revolution under Hassan Turabi.

  • He uses his money to fund Islamic militants and gets together more Arab veterans from Afghanistan and runs construction projects

  • By now, he has begun the attract the attention of the US as a financier of terrorist organisations

  • Saudi Arabia and the US put pressure on Sudan to give Bin Laden up. He leaves for Afghanistan in 1996, where he is welcomed by the Taliban

  • 1998 Bin Laden issues a call for jihad against the US in the middle east


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Events leading to 9/11

  • From 1993, terrorist attacks had begun against the US

    --A group led by Ramzi Yousef tries to blow up World Trade Centre in New York with a truck bomb

    --Ramzi Yousef’s associates planned to blow up 11 US bound aircraft an attack in 1995


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  • Nov 1995 car bomb kills 5 Americans in Riyadh

  • June 1996 truck bomb kills 19 US solidiers in Dharhan

  • August 1998, Al Qaeda carries out truck bomb attacks at US embassies in Nairobi, and Dar es Salaam. 224 die, including 12 Americans, and thousand wounded

  • December 1999, plot to attack Los Angeles International Airport foiled

  • Oct 2000: Al Qaeda team in Yemen blows a hole in a US destroyer, USS Cole, killing 17 sailors and almost destroying the ship.

  • September 11 2001


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  • What drives Bin Laden and his followers?

    -In his own words, it is the US presence in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Countries, Israel

    -He sees this as part of a US plan to dominate the Muslim people, exploit their oil

    -Like Bernard Lewis and Huntington, Bin Laden too sees this as a war against the “crusaders”


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Is there a broader war between Islam and the west?

  • The war in Iraq has convinced more and more people in the Middle East that the US seeks to dominate them, using Israel and Iraq as bases.

  • Not a clash between Islam and the west, but US interests, and those of the people of the Middle East.


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Further reading:

On Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda:

PBS website in the US has a lot of basic documents and material

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/binladen/

BBC:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_depth/world/2001/war_on_terror/default.stm

  • The Taliban by Ahmed Rashid

  • Ghost Wars by Steve Coll


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