Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Please Support CounterPunch’s Annual Fund Drive
We don’t run corporate ads. We don’t shake our readers down for money every month or every quarter like some other sites out there. We only ask you once a year, but when we ask we mean it. So, please, help as much as you can. We provide our site for free to all, but the bandwidth we pay to do so doesn’t come cheap. All contributions are tax-deductible.

The Confusion of the West

It’s only when appearance is mistaken for reality that the “Clash of Civilizations” can become a plausible interpretation of the recent violence in France. Huntington’s concept was born moribund, its staying power attributable to its ideological use-value rather than its explanatory power. Indeed, Edward Said and others have demolished the racist tenets of the Western depiction of a monolithic, historically static, and fanatical Islamic culture that never underwent Enlightenment.

First, the notion of a discrete Islamic culture or “civilization” antagonizing a similarly discrete, albeit historically fluid, evolving, and diverse West, ignores the historic interaction between these ostensibly segregated worlds. It was the West, of course, that systematically undermined secular nationalist figures including Mossadeq and Nasser and installed and supported tyrants including the Shah and Saddam Hussein, whose killing and torture of communists and others were not only directed by the CIA but generated power vacuums then exploited by Islamists. And indeed, to interpret, à la Bill Maher, Saudi Wahhabism, the Mujahideen, Bin Laden or the Taliban as “natural” and organic manifestations of a monolithic “Islamic civilization” ignores the West’s central role in, when it suits its interests, directly supporting reactionary Political Islam.

Second, the “Clash of Civilizations” fallacy ignores the heterogeneity and antagonisms within so-called “Islamic civilization,” a construct frequently divorced from the presence of actual Muslims from Indonesia to Los Angeles. The apparent battle-lines between a representation of “Islamic World backwardness” and Western liberalism have hardened around the debate concerning Charlie Hebdo‘s proclaimed right to free speech in its continued mockery of Islam. The issue couldn’t be clearer to the heralds of liberal idealism, as the Islamists are guilty of having inadequate reverence for the core Western value of free speech (although liberals tend to forget that freedom of speech concerns freedom from governmental, versus private, interference). Indeed, I even saw a commercial the other day for the TV program “Madam Secretary” in which the Secretary of State tells us that “human rights” is the US’s core value, so it must be true.

But while critics and scholars, including Noam Chomsky, cogently demonstrate that “human rights” is indeed not a core value of the US, which selectively flouts such rights as it sees fit, it is also possible to concede that human rights, including freedom of speech, in fact is a core US value and then inquire what it really consists of. For a right’s significance ultimately lies in the power conferred upon those who grant it. Can you imagine what confusion you would have caused by telling people a thousand years ago that they can now say what they want free from government interference? It’s only the total normalization of the modern state that prevents us from recognizing its granting of rights as something other than a presumption of terrible power. The right conferred is always defined by the “exceptional” circumstances legitimizing its withdrawal, and the only difference here between the West and Political Islam is in how those circumstances are determined.

The US, of course, downed foreign planes and scoured the world for Edward Snowden, a leaker of state secrets and thereby an accused traitor, an executable offense. Notably, the intensity of the hunt for Snowden existed irrespective of the actual damage the leaks did to the somewhat nebulous, if not religious, notion of “state security.” The mistake, as many have noted and as Slavoj Žižek  and others continue to make, is to view so-called Islam (or properly Political Islam) as a religion (whose constructed and modern tradition and authority Political Islam invokes) rather than as the political movement it in fact represents. That is, the incommensurate debate between the West and Political Islam represents not a language of politics misunderstanding a language of religion but a language of politics misidentifying a competing language of politics. And these are politics shaped less by timeless and placeless metaphysics than the wreckage of Gaza, Fallujah, and Kabul viewed through the eyes of an already stigmatized minority further alienated by an enduring economic-cum-political crisis. Indeed, these languages are not fundamentally different insofar as they both reflect the needs of power in the modern world, regardless of whether this power is devoted to preserving the legitimacy of the nation-state’s monopoly of violence or establishing the legitimacy of a religion-invoking reactionary movement attempting to monopolize power itself.

I’m not forwarding a liberal PC argument suggesting that we ignore or relativize the reactionary violence of Islamist movements. But criticizing such movements without identifying the nationalist Western doubles that they are pitted against mystifies not only both phenomena but also the world system that shapes their motives and conduct. Indeed, defenders of Western free speech and human rights (what does it mean to march with Hollande and Netanyahu?) do not merely explain away the West’s internal contradictions — from right-wing terrorism to the Espionage Act to prohibitions against both “crossing the line” in US academia and Holocaust denial in Europe. They also imagine that their “objective truth claims” exist apart from the antagonisms of their relations with others and are thereby just as incidental to power as were the 19th century colonists’ obsessive cataloging of the “human rights” abuses of those they sought to dominate. They are not, as the (bourgeois) ideal of free speech is inseparable from the West’s ambitions for and language of power, whether in legitimizing the US nation-state itself or its battles against less evolved Others who “irrationally” and “primitively” reject Western ideals.

And, to be fair, why would anyone want to join mainstream Western society, which is toxic even during the “good times”? Finding themselves on the narrow edge of a collapsing economic order and political center, the Islamists murderously lash out, providing wrong answers to wrong questions that ultimately mirror, rather than fundamentally challenge, the confusion of the West.

Joshua Sperber has written on libertarianism, labor, and the left and can be reached at


More articles by:

Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at

October 16, 2018
Rob Seimetz
Talking About Death While In Decadence
Kent Paterson
Fifty Years of Mexican October
Robert Fantina
Trump, Iran and Sanctions
Greg Macdougall
Indigenous Suicide in Canada
Kenneth Surin
On Reading the Diaries of Tony Benn, Britain’s Greatest Labour Politician
Thomas Knapp
Facebook Meddles in the 2018 Midterm Elections
Muhammad Othman
Khashoggi and Demetracopoulos
Gerry Brown
Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics: How the US Weaponizes Them to Accuse  China of Debt Trap Diplomacy
Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker – Peter Lehman
The Brazilian Presidential Elections and “The Rules of The Game”
Robert Fisk
What a Forgotten Shipwreck in the Irish Sea Can Tell Us About Brexit
Martin Billheimer
Here Cochise Everywhere
David Swanson
Humanitarian Bombs
Dean Baker
The Federal Reserve is Not a Church
October 15, 2018
Rob Urie
Climate Crisis is Upon Us
Conn Hallinan
Syria’s Chessboard
Patrick Cockburn
The Saudi Atrocities in Yemen are a Worse Story Than the Disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi
Sheldon Richman
Trump’s Middle East Delusions Persist
Justin T. McPhee
Uberrima Fides? Witness K, East Timor and the Economy of Espionage
Tom Gill
Spain’s Left Turn?
Jeff Cohen
Few Democrats Offer Alternatives to War-Weary Voters
Dean Baker
Corporate Debt Scares
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Affair and and the Anti-Iran Axis
Russell Mokhiber
Sarah Chayes Calls on West Virginians to Write In No More Manchins
Clark T. Scott
Acclimated Behaviorisms
Kary Love
Evolution of Religion
Colin Todhunter
From GM Potatoes to Glyphosate: Regulatory Delinquency and Toxic Agriculture
Binoy Kampmark
Evacuating Nauru: Médecins Sans Frontières and Australia’s Refugee Dilemma
Marvin Kitman
The Kitman Plan for Peace in the Middle East: Two Proposals
Weekend Edition
October 12, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Becky Grant
My History with Alexander Cockburn and The Financial Future of CounterPunch
Paul Street
For Popular Sovereignty, Beyond Absurdity
Nick Pemberton
The Colonial Pantsuit: What We Didn’t Want to Know About Africa
Jeffrey St. Clair
The Summer of No Return
Jeff Halper
Choices Made: From Zionist Settler Colonialism to Decolonization
Gary Leupp
The Khashoggi Incident: Trump’s Special Relationship With the Saudi Monarchy
Andrew Levine
Democrats: Boost, Knock, Enthuse
Barbara Kantz
The Deportation Crisis: Report From Long Island
Doug Johnson
Nate Silver and 538’s Measurable 3.5% Democratic Bias and the 2018 House Race
Gwen Carr
This Stops Today: Seeking Justice for My Son Eric Garner
Robert Hunziker
Peak Carbon Emissions By 2020, or Else!
Arshad Khan
Is There Hope on a World Warming at 1.5 Degrees Celsius?
David Rosen
Packing the Supreme Court in the 21stCentury
Brian Cloughley
Trump’s Threats of Death and Destruction
Joel A. Harrison
The Case for a Non-Profit Single-Payer Healthcare System
Ramzy Baroud
That Single Line of Blood: Nassir al-Mosabeh and Mohammed al-Durrah
Zhivko Illeieff
Addiction and Microtargeting: How “Social” Networks Expose us to Manipulation