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


Joshua Sperber teaches political science and history. He is the author of Consumer Management in the Internet Age. He can be reached at