Terror in the Horn and the Limits of the Clash of Civilizations Paradigm

By Dr. Mustafa Y. Ali

The clash of civilizations theory, attributed to Samuel Huntington, assumes that terrorism will undoubtedly yield to a severe clash of civilizations. The civilizations that will clash, according to this theory, are the Western civilization on the one hand which is considered to be triumphant in many respects, (militarily, diplomatic, economically, culturally and technologically); and the Islamic civilization on the other, seen as humiliated, full of resentment and one that opposes modernity and globalization—according to Samuel Huntington.

<p”>The clash of civilizations theory suggests that 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terrorism’ is providing a watershed for this epochal clash. To many decision makers, scholars, governments and analysts, the current spate of terrorism is spearheaded if not by Islamists, by individuals who use the name of Islam as an ideological tool to ‘besmirch the West.’ The perpetrators of terror invoked the name of Islam in their war.

The clash of civilizations theory is insufficient in explaining the impact of terrorism on international relations, when relations between the West and the Islamic nation-states were to be considered. The clash of civilizations framework becomes highly doubtful, especially after the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US. The predominantly Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even an arch-enemy of America – Iran, all condemned those acts of terrorism.

Some nation-states actually went ahead to provide assistance and support to the US. Oman, Pakistan, Turkey and Azerbaijan—all predominantly Muslim countries—provided military bases for the US troops. Saudi Arabia, Iran and the United Arab Emirates who had diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, immediately terminated those relations. The diplomatic relations to that country were discontinued by these Muslim countries to express displeasure with Afghanistan’s support for the al Qaida’s terror network. Osama bin Ladin and the al Qaida network were left to invoke ineffective fatwas to ‘kill the infidels’ wherever they are.

The US and the Western nation-states did not want to lose their Muslim allies either. Though the situation was precarious, international relations that ensured the immediate problem of terrorism received support across the civilizations became the cornerstone of most foreign policy from the nation-states that wanted to address terrorism. From this perspective, the clash of civilization between the Muslim world and the Western one may not necessarily be true. After many incidents of terrorism, majority perpetrated by non-state actors in the name of Islam, they have failed to create a situation whereby the West and the Muslim world can be said to be at war in the same manner and breath similar to the USSR and US during the Cold War.

Huntington’s central thesis further notes that the ‘balance of power among civilization is shifting: The West is declining in relative influence; Asian civilizations are expanding their economic, military, and political Strength; Islam is exploding demographically with destabilizing consequences for Muslim countries and their neighbours.’ Of particular interest is Huntington’s claim that, ‘the West universalist pretensions increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations, most seriously with Islam and China; at the local level fault-line wars, largely between Muslims and non-Muslims, generate ‘kin-country rallying the threat of broader escalation.’


The renaissance of religion in Africa has followed different lines, and most observable has been its challenge to the state. In most conflicts in Africa, weather inter-state or intra-state, none appear to be following (or caused by) ‘inter-civilizational fault-lines’. Even those that might appear to be, for example Sudan, Nigeria and others, a keener look indicates that they are all politically motivated, or as a result of competition for resources, power or marginalization and exclusion. Religion is however manipulated in these conflicts as a powerful mobilizing tool and as an intensifier of the conflicts.

The Horn of Africa conflict system demonstrates the non-civilizational character of the conflicts in the region. Ethiopia and Eritrea which are religiously mixed, recently went to war against each other. While relations between the Muslim-dominated Sudan and Christian ‘led’ Ethiopia ‘are quite amicable, relations between the two almost entirely Muslim countries, Somalia and Djibouti are quite strained.’ Al Shabab, a terrorist outfit that survives almost entirely by manipulating Islam, pose an existential threat to the Muslim-majority Somalia.

It poses much less threat to Kenya or Ethiopia. Religiously mixed countries with sizeable majorities from both Islam and Christian such as Tanzania, Ethiopia and Eritrea, would, if the Clash of Civilization thesis is applied, be experiencing serious intra-state instability occasioned by religion and religious differences. This is not the case. In fact they are more peaceful than the ‘religiously homogenous’ societies such as Somalia, Uganda or the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the same vein, Sudan exemplifies how an intra-state conflict between the Government-led force and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) led rebellion – both conflicting parties professing same faith. Ethno-political conflicts pitting Amhara, Oromo and other ethnic communities against the government dominated by the minority Tigray threatens the stability in, posing an existential threat of Ethiopia.

Huntington’s structural approach to the role terrorism plays in fashioning relations between states focuses on deep-seated concerns about Islam as a civilization, that, as he claims, in many ways differs from the Western civilization, hence the generation of fault-lines between the two. He recognizes the inherent differences and complexity of the Western and Muslim civilizations in their cultural attitudes, values and knowledge. Reactionary nationalist populist campaign politics played by some leaders in the West capitalizes on the perceived threats brought about by these benign differences, but blows them out of proportion for political expediency.

The clash of civilization thesis seems to be unexplained when some issues were to be considered. Huntington does not explain much, what accounts for clash within civilizations. Beyond the Horn of Africa, intra- civilizational conflicts such as the ones that affected Algeria, Iran/Iraq, Iraq/Kuwait and others are not adequately explained by this claim. As it is, the clash of civilization thesis does not explain incidences of domestic terrorism such as the one inflicted on the US nationals by one of its own citizens—Timothy McVeigh. Neither does it explain the calamitous terrorist act on Norwegians by a Norwegian—Anders Behring Breivik.

Similarly, the paradigm does not explain why Al Shabab spends most of its energies targeting its own countrymen and women, and leaders who exclusively belong to Islamic faith tradition. Neither does the paradigm explain why al Shabab has failed to cause Muslims and Christians in the region to fight each other in an all-out sectarian communal interfaith violence. This renders the paradigm unhelpful, even irrelevant, in attempts to objectively understand and resolve what has degenerated to become a critical threat to national security for nation-states of the Horn of Africa—terrorism.


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