The West and the Muslim World, the Roots of Conflict



To say that an effective cure of a disease requires a sound diagnosis is to state the obvious. Yet, in the face of the 9/11 plague, and of the scourge of terrorism in general, the Bush administration has utterly failed to shed any light on some of the submerged factors that might have provoked such heinous attacks. Instead, the simplistic and politically expedient explanations such as “good vs. evil,” “clash of civilizations,” or the “Islamic incompatibility with the modern world” have shed more heat than light on the issue.

Aside from their poisonous implications for international relations, such explanations simply fail the test of history. The history of the relationship between the modern Western world and the Muslim world shows that, contrary to popular perceptions in the West, from the time of their initial contacts with the capitalist West more than two centuries ago until almost the final third of the twentieth century, the Muslim people were quite receptive of the economic and political models of the modern world. Many people in the Muslim world, including the majority of their political leaders, were eager to transform and restructure the socio-economic and political structures of their societies after the model of the capitalist West. The majority of political leaders, as well as a significant number of Islamic experts and intellectuals, viewed the rise of the modern West and its spread into their lands as inevitable historical developments that challenged them to chart their own programs of reform and development.

In light of this background, the question arises: What changed all of that earlier receptive and respectful attitude toward the West to the current attitude of disrespect and hatred? This brief survey of the relationship between the Muslim world and the Western world, especially the United States, will show that the answer to this question lies more with the policies of the Western powers in the region than the alleged rigidity of Islam, or “the clash of civilizations.” It will show that it was only after more than a century and a half of imperialistic pursuits and a series of humiliating policies in the region that the popular masses of the Muslim world turned to religion and the conservative religious leaders as sources of defiance, mobilization, and self-respect. In other words, for many Muslims the recent turn to religion often represents not so much a rejection of Western values and achievements as it is a way to resist and/or defy the humiliating imperialistic policies of Western powers.

Early Responses to the Challenges of the Modern World

Not only did the early modernizers of the Muslim world embrace the Western technology, but they also welcomed its civil and state institutions, its representational system of government, and its tradition of legal and constitutional rights. For example, the Iranian intellectuals Mulkum Khan (1833-1908) and Agha Khan Kermani (1853-96) urged Iranians to acquire a Western education and replace the Shariah (the religious legal code) with a modern secular legal code. Secular political leaders of this persuasion joined forces with the more liberal religious leaders in the Constitution Revolution of 1906, and forced the Qajar dynasty to set up a modern constitution, to limit the powers of the monarchy and give Iranians parliamentary representation.

Even some of the Ottoman sultans pursued Western models of industrialization and modernization on their own. For example, Sultan Mahmud II “inaugurated the Tanzimat (Regulation) in 1826, which abolished the Janissaries [the fanatical elite corps of troops organized in the 14th century], modernized the army and introduced some of the new technology.” In 1839 Sultan Abdulhamid “issued the Gulhane decree, which made his rule dependent upon a contractual relationship with his subjects, and looked forward to major reform of the empire’s institutions.”

More dramatic, however, were the modernizing and/or secularizing programs of Egypt’s renowned modernizers Muhammad Ali (1769-1849) and his grandson Ismail Pasha (1803-95). They were so taken by the impressive achievements of the West that they embarked on breakneck modernizing programs that were tantamount to trying to hothouse the Western world’s achievements of centuries into decades: “To secularize the country, Muhammad Ali simply confiscate much religiously endowed property and systematically marginalized the Ulema [religious leaders], divesting them of any shred of power.”[iii] In the face of dire conditions of underdevelopment and humiliating but unstoppable foreign domination, those national leaders viewed modernization not only as the way out of underdevelopment but also out of the yoke of foreign domination.

Not only the secular intellectuals, the political elite, and government leaders but also many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as “Islamic modernizers,” viewed modernization as the way of the future. But whereas the reform programs and policies of the political/national leaders often included secularization, at least implicitly, Islamic modernizers were eclectic: while seeking to adopt the sources of the strength of the West, including constitutionalism and government by representation, they wanted to preserve their cultural and national identities as well as Islamic principles and values as the moral foundation of the society. These Islamic modernizers included Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), Qasim Amin (18631908), and Shaikh Muhammad Hussain Naini in Egypt and Iran; and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1875-1938) in India.

To be sure, there was resistance and, at times, even violent clashes. But, by and large, nationalist modernizers in many Muslim countries did manage to pursue vigorous agendas of social, economic, and political reform. John Esposito, one of the leading experts of Islamic studies in the United States, describes the early attitude of the political and economic policy makers of the Muslim world toward the modern world of the West in the following way:

Both the indigenous elites, who guided government development programs in newly emerging Muslim states, and their foreign patrons and advisers were Western-oriented and Western-educated. All proceeded from a premise that equated modernization with Westernization. The clear goal and presupposition of development was that every day and in every way things should become more modern (i.e., Western and secular), from cities, buildings, bureaucracies, companies, and schools to politics and culture. While some warned of the need to be selective, the desired direction and pace of change were unmistakable. Even those Muslims who spoke of selective change did so within a context which called for the separation of religion from public life. Western analysts and Muslim experts alike tended to regard a Western-based process of modernization as necessary and inevitable and believed equally that religion was a major hindrance to political and social change in the Muslim world.

Karen Armstrong, author of a number of books on religious fundamentalism, likewise points out the following:

About a hundred years ago, almost every leading Muslim intellectual was in love with the West, which at that time meant Europe. America was still an unknown quantity. Politicians and journalists in India, Egypt, and Iran wanted their countries to be just like Britain or France; philosophers, poets, and even some of the ulama (religious scholars) tried to find ways of reforming Islam according to the democratic model of the West. They called for a nation state, for representational government, for the disestablishment of religion, and for constitutional rights. Some even claimed that the Europeans were better Muslims than their own fellow countrymen since the Koran teaches that the resources of a society must be shared as fairly as possible, and in the European nations there was beginning to be a more equitable sharing of wealth.

Armstrong then asks: “So what happened in the intervening years to transform all of that admiration and respect into the hatred that incited the acts of terror that we witnessed on September 11?”

While profound questions of this type could go some way to help a national debate over some of the more submerged factors that contributed to the 9/11 atrocities, the beneficiaries of war dividends–who are closely linked to the U.S. Defense Department and the Zionist lobby, and who seem to be in charge of the Bush administration’s foreign policy making–have successfully kept such questions off the national debate. In fact, these beneficiaries have so far succeeded in preempting a national debate on the issue altogether.

It is necessary to acknowledge, once again, that the Muslim world’s earlier openness to the modern world was far from even or uniform: along with advocates of change and adaptation there existed forces of resistance and rejection. Focusing primarily on such instances of rejection, proponents of the theory of “clash of civilizations” can certainly cite, as they frequently do, many such incidents of resistance in support of their arguments that horrific acts like those committed on 9/11 “are due to inherent incompatibility of the Muslim world with Western values.”[vi] But such selective references to historical developments in order to support a pre-determined view do not carry us very far in the way of setting historical records straight. A number of issues need to be pointed out here.

First, contrary to the rising political influence of “radical Islamists” in recent years, radical Islamic circles of the earlier periods did not sway much power over the direction of national economies and policies. Their opposition to Western values and influences was largely in the form of passive “rejection or elusion.”[vii] They simply refused to cooperate or deal with the colonial powers and their institutions (such as modern European schools) spreading in their midst: “They did not attempt to assume direct political control but used their position to preserve tradition as best they could under the rapidly changing conditions of the time.” And while they “remained an important factor in influencing public opinion, …they basically used their position to encourage obedience to those in power.”

Second, change almost always generates resistance. Resistance to change is, therefore, not limited to Muslims or the Muslim world. In fact, the Christian Church’s nearly 400-year resistance to capitalist transformation in Europe was even more traumatic than that of the Muslim world. The resulting travail of transition created more social turbulence than has been observed in the context of the Muslim world. Whereas the Church of the Middle Ages anathemized the very idea of gain, the pursuit of gain and the accumulation of property are considered noble pursuits in Islam. Opponents of transition to capitalism in Europe not only tried (and almost hanged) Robert Keane for having made a six-percent profit on his investment and “prohibited merchants from carrying unsightly bundles” of their merchandise, but also “fought for the privilege of carrying on in its fathers’ footsteps.”[ix] As Karen Armstrong points out, during the nearly 400 years of transition, the Western people often “experienced…bloody revolutions, reigns of terror, genocide, violent wars of religion, the despoliation of the countryside, vast social upheavals, exploitation in the factories, spiritual malaise and profound anomie in the new megacities.”

Third, Muslim societies, like less-developed societies elsewhere, are expected, or compelled by the imperatives of the world market, to traverse the nearly four hundred-year journey of the West in a much shorter period of time. Furthermore, the travails of transition in the case of these belatedly developing countries (vis-a-vis the case of early developers of the West) are often complicated by foreign interventions and imperial pressures from outside. External pressure has included not only direct colonial and/or imperial military force, but also pressure exerted from the more subtle market forces and agents such as the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. Despite its turbulence, the painful process of transition to capitalism in the West was largely an internal process; no foreign force or interference could be blamed for the travails of transition. And the pains of transitions were thus gradually and grudgingly accepted as historical inevitabilities.

Not so in the case of belatedly developing countries. Here, the pains of change and transition are often perceived not as historical necessities but as products of foreign designs or imperialist schemes. Accordingly, the agony of change is often blamed (by the conservative proponents of the status quo) on external forces or powers: colonialism, imperialism, and neo-liberalism. Actual foreign intervention, realizing and reinforcing such perceptions, has thus had a delaying impact on the process of reform in the Muslim world. For intervention from outside often plays into the hands of the conservative, obscurantist religious leaders who are quite adept at portraying their innate opposition to change as a struggle against foreign domination, thereby reinforcing resistance to reform, especially religious reform. Today, for example, U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, and Turkey, far from facilitating the process of reform or helping the forces of change in these countries, is actually hurting such forces as it plays into the hands of their conservative opponents and strengthens the camp of resistance.

Whatever Happened to the Once-Popular U.S. in the Muslim World?

Prior to World War II, England and other European powers dominated world politics and markets, not the United States. In its drive to penetrate into those markets in competition with European powers, the United States, often citing its own war of independence from the British empire, frequently expressed sympathy with the national liberation struggles of the peoples of the colonial and other less-developed regions. Unsurprisingly, this made the United States–not just the country, its people, and its values but also its foreign policy and its statesmen–quite popular in the less-developed world, especially the Muslim world, as it portrayed the prospect of an unconditional ally in a rising world power.

Thus, for example, when the late Egyptian leader Jamal Abdel Nasser faced the European opposition to his state-guided economic development program, he turned to the Unites State for help. Nasser’s appeal for the U.S. support had been prompted by the United States’ veiled expressions of understanding of Egypt’s aspirations to chart an independent national policy. Nasser perceived those sympathetic gestures as signs of genuine friendship and cooperation. But when the United States revealed its conditions for the promised cooperation, the Egyptian leader was deeply disappointed.

One major condition required Egypt to enter into the then military alliance in the region, the Baghdad Pact. This was one of the early military alliances that the Unites States established in the region, not only to counter the Soviet influence but also to supplant its enfeebled allies, Britain and France. As a savvy statesmen, Nasser understood the “necessity” of such alliances and was, in fact, willing to join the proposed military pact. But the United States expected more. In addition, the U.S. wanted to “shape” Egypt’s economic policies. As Mahmood Hussein put it, “the United States claimed the right to control the Egyptian state’s economic policies.”[xi] Disillusioned–indeed, with his back against the wall–Nasser turned to the Soviet Union to temper the pressure thus exercised against Egypt. The turn to the Soviet Union was, therefore, precipitated more by expediency, or by default, than by ideological affinity.

Like Egypt’s Nasser, Iran’s liberal-nationalist prime minister Mohammed Mossadeq also initially harbored illusions of unconditional friendship with the United States. This was because, in the dispute between Iran and England over the control of Iranian oil, the United States had originally conveyed signs of neutrality, even sympathy, with Iran’s grievances against England. Prior to the 1953 nationalization, Iran’s oil was essentially controlled by Britain. As promised during his election campaign, Mossadeq took steps to nationalize the country’s oil industry soon after being popularly elected to premiership in 1951. As England resisted giving up its control of Iran’s oil industry, a severe crisis ensued between the two countries. “Mossadeq had thought that the United States might warn London not to interfere, and for a while Truman and Acheson maintained the pretense of neutrality by advising both sides to remain tranquil.”[xii] It soon became clear, however, that while trying to weaken the British Empire, the United States was pursuing its own imperialistic agenda. And when Mossadeq resisted compliance with that agenda, he was fatally punished for “insubordination”: His democratically elected government was soon overthrown by the notorious 1953 coup, which was orchestrated by the CIA and British intelligence. The coup also brought the Shah–who had fled to Rome–back to power, aboard a U.S. military plane with the CIA chief at his side.

It is now common knowledge that, since the 1953 violent overthrow of Mossadeq’s government in Iran, the United States has helped or orchestrated similar coups against duly elected governments in a number of other countries. In each case, the United States replaced such legitimate governments with “friendly” dictatorial regimes of its own choice. A sample of such handpicked regimes includes those of General Pinochet in Chile, the Somoza family in Nicaragua, Duvalier in Haiti, and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The list of the U.S. interventions and adventures abroad is quite long. In his latest best-seller, Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated, Gore Vidal lists some 200 such interventions since WW II.[xiii] Most of today’s regimes in the Muslim world (such as those ruling in Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, and a number of smaller kingdoms in the Persian Gulf area) are able to maintain their dictatorial rule not because their people want them stay in power but because they are useful to some powerful interests in the United States.

It is not surprising, then, that many people in these countries are increasingly asking: Why can’t we elect our own governments? Why can’t we have independent political parties? Why can’t we breathe, so to speak? Why are our governments so corrupt? Why are our people, especially Palestinians, treated like this? Why are we ruled by regimes we don’t like and don’t want, but cannot change? And why can’t we change them? Well, the majority of these countries’ citizens would say, because certain powerful interests in the United States need them and want them in power!

Nor is it surprising that many people in the Muslim world, especially the frustrated youth, are flocking into the ranks of militant . forces, and employing religion as a weapon of mobilization and defiance. It is also no accident that desperate violent reactions are usually directed at the symbols of U.S. power–not at those of the Japanese, for example. Correlation between U.S. foreign policy and such reactions was unambiguously acknowledged by the members of the United States’ Defense Science Board, who wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and science, “Historical data shows a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”

Calling such tragic and often destructive reactions to U.S. international involvements “blowbacks from imperialistic U.S. foreign policies,” Chalmers Johnson in his illuminating book, Blowback, lists many instances of U.S. interventions in the domestic affairs of other countries, as well as some of the violent responses to such interventions:

What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowbacks from earlier American operations…. For example, in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the U.S. government organized a massive campaign against the socialist-oriented Sandinista government. American agents then looked the other way when the Contras, the military insurgents they had trained, made deals to sell cocaine in American cities in order to buy arms and supplies. If drug blowback is hard to trace to its source, bomb attacks, whether on U.S. embassies in Africa, the World Trade Center in New York, or an apartment complex in Saudi Arabia that housed U.S. servicemen, are another matter.

The point here is, of course, not to condone or justify, in any way, the destructive or terrorizing reactions to U.S. foreign interventions–legitimate grievances do not justify illegitimate responses. Nor is it meant to disrespect the innocent victims of such atrocious reactions, or to disparage the pain and agony of the loss of the loved ones. The point is, rather, to place such reactions in a context, and to suggest an explanation. As Gore Vidal puts it, “It is a law of physics…that in nature there is no action without reaction. The same appears to be true in human nature–that is, history.”[xvi] The “actions” Vidal refers to here are U.S. military or covert operations abroad, which are sometimes called state or wholesale terrorism. “Reactions,” on the other hand, refer to desperate individual, or group, terrorism, which are also called retail terrorism.


Close scrutiny of the Muslim world’s early responses to the challenges of the modern West reveals that, despite significant resistance, the overall policy was moving in the direction of reform and adaptation. That policy of adaptation and openness continued from the time of the Muslim world’s initial contacts with the modern world in the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries until approximately the last third of the twentieth century. During that period, the majority of the political elite and/or national leaders viewed the rise of the modern West, and its spread into their territories, as an inevitable historical development that challenged them to chart their own programs of reform and development. Not only did the political elite, the intellectuals, and government leaders view modernization as the way of the future, but so did many Islamic leaders and scholars, known as “Islamic modernizers,”

It is true that obscurantist conservative forces, both religious and otherwise, have always defied reform and resisted change. It is also true that, at times, religious nationalism played an important role in the anti-colonial/anti-imperial struggles. But because Islamic leaders often lacked clear programs or plans for the reconstruction and development of their societies, political leadership on a national level often fell into the hands of secular nationalists who offered such nation-building plans. After WW II, those plans were fashioned either after the U.S. model of market mechanism, as in the cases of the Shahs of Iran and the Kings of Jordan, or after the Soviet model of “non-capitalist development” and/or Arab “socialism,” as in the cases of Nasser’s Egypt and Qaddafi’s Libya. Both models nurtured dreams of economic progress, democratic rights, and political/national sovereignty. Accordingly, secular nationalist leaders who promoted such models, and promised economic well being and social progress, enjoyed broader popular support than the conservative religious leaders who lacked plans of economic development and national reconstruction.

As long as the hopes and aspirations that were thus generated remained alive, promises of an “Islamic alternative” remained ineffectual in their challenge of the plans of the secular nationalist leaders. But as those hopes gradually and painfully turned into despair and hopelessness, such promises began to sound appealing. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, most of the national governments’ hopeful and auspicious plans that had hitherto nurtured dreams of economic progress, democratic rights, and political sovereignty turned out to be hollow and disappointing. Frustrated, many Muslims turned to religion, and sought solace in the promise of an “Islamic alternative.”

Equally disappointing were the policies of the United States in the Muslim world. Before supplanting the European imperial powers in the region, the U.S. promised policies of neutrality and even-handedness in the Muslim world. Once it firmly replaced its European rivals, however, the United States set out to pursue policies that have not been less imperialistic than the policies of its European predecessors. U.S. imperial policies in the region have, therefore, strongly contributed to the nurturing of the Islamic revival of the recent decades.

These historical observations refute the claim that Islam and/or the Muslim world are inherently incompatible with modernization, and that, therefore, the rise of an Islamic militancy in the last few decades, and the violent reactions such as the 9/11 attacks, are essentially manifestations of “the clash of civilizations.” The claim that attributes the Islamic resurgence to the “inherently confrontational nature of Islam” tends to downplay, or overlook, specific socioeconomic factors and geopolitical policies that underlie the rage and reactions of the majority of the Muslim people.

Dr. ISMAEL HOSSEIN-ZADEH teaches economics at Drake University, Des Moines, IA. He can be reached at:


Ismael Hossein-zadeh is Professor Emeritus of Economics (Drake University). He is the author of Beyond Mainstream Explanations of the Financial Crisis (Routledge 2014), The Political Economy of U.S. Militarism (Palgrave–Macmillan 2007), and the Soviet Non-capitalist Development: The Case of Nasser’s Egypt (Praeger Publishers 1989). He is also a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.