Is the opposition of the East and the West or the so-called “clash of civilizations” a fantasy or a reality?

Fethullah Gülen

Is the opposition of the East and the West or the so-called “clash of civilizations” a fantasy or a reality? If it is a reality, then how can we transform this clash into a tolerated togetherness and this togetherness into cooperation?

Some background is useful here about the often debated issue which is known in scholarly literature as the “Huntington Thesis,” first articulated in 1993. According to many scholars and theoreticians, after the cold war a political order will appear consisting of human rights, liberal democracy, and a capitalist market economy. Francis Fukuyama, an American political scientist and author, said in 1992 ideological conflicts will come to an end, which would mean the “end of history,” because history progresses through dialectical oppositions.

Another American political scientist Samuel Huntington arrived at a different conclusion regarding the global system which came into existence after the cold war: Although the ideological period has ended, the end of conflicts did not arrive.

The world has returned to its normal situation determined by cultural clashes, and the axis of global clashes in the future will be cultural and religious. For this reason, the concept of “different civilizations” is the best vehicle to explain the phenomenon of clash as the most clear or the highest expression of cultural identity.

Huntington, in his article published by the Foreign Affairs (Summer 1993), stated:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

According to Huntington, the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the wars breaking out between Chechnya and Russia and between India and Pakistan have taken place at the fault lines existing between the civilizations of the world after the cold war.

Huntington also believes, contrary to many, that Western political values are not universal. Insistence on this naive belief, namely, the desire to export the democratic norms to non-Western countries, will generate reactions in other civilizations. The actors Huntington is especially calling our attention to are the “challenging civilizations,” which he defines as Indo-Chinese and Islam. He claims that China will eventually become “a dominant regional power” by taking other nations under its influence. Since the Chinese culture is different from the West, which is based on values such as diversity and individualism, in the long run China will be a threat to the West.

Huntington furthermore argues that by the higher rate of population growth in Islamic civilizations, along with insufficient economic development, created enormous problems in these countries and at their borders. He points out that this instability causes an Islamic reaction and the fundamentalist movement. As an illustration, he mentions the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the first Gulf War. When Huntington advanced his thesis, there were no organizations such as Al-Qaeda and their acts of violence worldwide. After such violence occurred, the Huntington’s thesis received more approval in the West.

The most controversial and debatable aspect of the Huntington thesis is the claim in that “Islam has bloody borders.” He attributes this to several causes, one of which is an increase of population in the Islamic countries, with an especially large proportion of the youth. Additionally, Muslim countries are neighbors with civilizations of Indo-China, Orthodox, the West, and Africa. Huntington claims that potentially Islamic civilization is close to Chinese culture. In human rights and democracy, they contradict the West. Both civilizations emphasize armaments and they will conflict with other civilizations, especially with the West. Therefore, he claims, these two civilizations will establish alliance and alliance against the West.

According to Huntington, the major conflict is between the Muslims and the non-Muslims. The borders between these two civilizations are the “bloody fault lines,” where the conflict is taking place. The conflicts start with Islam’s entrance into Europe from two fronts. The Western front is the Muslim’s conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and it continued for centuries until Muslims were forced to leave that area. The Eastern front is the occupation of Europe by the Ottoman Turks, which ended with the defeat in Vienna.

Huntington believes that there are three factors, sparking the conflict between Islam and Christianity, which is the foundation of the Western civilization:

1. Both are missionary religions, which aim to convert people from other faiths.

2. Both are universal religions, adopting the principle of “either all or none” and claiming that their faith is the “best.”

3. Both are “teleological” religions, which claim that their own faith and values are the cause for this universe to come into existence; they claim that their religion contains the purpose of the existence of humanity and life.

This is the summary of Huntington thesis. Of course, as is the case with every other theory, there are those who criticize him. Amartya Sen from India is one of his critics. In his book Identity and Violence: The illusion of Destiny, Sen does not agree that civilizations will inevitably clash. According to him, the clash can only occur when people recognize each other with only one identity, for instance Hindu or Muslim. But people have more than one identity and socio-cultural ties. For instance, a Hindu person can be a woman, an architect, parliamentarian, and someone’s daughter. All these make up the sphere of one’s identities and one continues a shared life with others in each one of these. In these what is regular is not a clash but one of reconciliation.

Paul Berman, in his book Terror and Liberalism, says that among religions and cultures, there are no longer rigid lines of demarcations and barriers; and therefore, an inevitable clash should not be expected. All cultures, to an extent, have permeated each other and the nations belonging to different religions share common human values and life interests. If that was not the case, how could the U.S. and Saudi Arabia be allies? Berman raises an interesting point: Many Islamic extremists spent a long time in the West, either to study or to live. Thus, the cause of the clash can be attributed to philosophical and political tendencies, rather than cultural and religious identities.

Many critics believe, contrary to Huntington, that social values can be disseminated and changed. For instance, Taiwan, Turkey, South Korea, and more recently, many of the Eastern European and Latin American countries, have acquired democratic administrations.

One of the most severe criticisms to Huntington thesis comes from Edward Said, a Palestinian-American literary theorist. In his article “The Clash of Ignorance,” he argues that when Huntington sees civilizations as fixed and never changing universe of values, he is prevented from understanding the dynamic exchange and interdependence of cultures, which were always in existence. Huntington’s views are based on clashes and conflicts between cultures, rather than harmony and reconciliation. Said states that the thesis that every culture is closed on itself is a viewpoint formed by looking solely at the map and depends on the notion that civilizational groups or races have their own special fates and psychologies. This refers to an imagined geography, legitimizing the establishment of certain policies (Western Imperialism). The thesis of “clash of civilizations,” which contains an essential core of intervention and assault, is aimed at creating a psychology for the sense of urgency and a threat in the minds of the Americans, and the maintenance of the Cold War through other means. But, it also prevents the building of bridges among different cultures and the efforts to form a Weltanschauung or world view conducive to agreements, reconciliations, and co-existence.

Other critiques advance the argument that the civilizations Huntington defines do not constitute real unities at all; they even clash among themselves within each civilization. They point out that the Islamic world consists of Arabs, Iranians, Turks, Kurds, Berberians, Albanians, Bosnians, and Indonesians, and in these societies, important differences can be observed in both religious and cultural spheres. This strengthens the thesis that civilizations are not single value systems, placing all their members into the same formats.

In “Western civilization,” two different cultural groups, Catholics and Protestants, have been living together harmoniously, although they had once fought against each other for centuries. One might mistakenly believe that there was never a conflict between them. When one looks at such kind of facts, Huntington’s thesis is substantially weakened.

The more realistic thinkers opine that the most important cause of the conflicts in the Islamic world is “modernity,” the conflicts arising from the traditional socio-economic structures and values and the desire to resist modernity; this is more important and severe than the conflicts arising from religion.

Another criticism is implicit in the words of the Pope John Paul II, who is an ardent defender of interfaith and intercultural dialog: If Islam or Christianity is envisioned wrongly under the impact of political and ideological aims, then conflicts will arise.

No matter what is said, pro or con, Huntington’s thesis has stirred up a great deal of controversy. Serious initiatives took place in order to establish and protect world peace. These initiatives can be gathered under the heading “Intercivilizational Dialog.” For example, the United Nations declared the year 2001 as the year of Intercivilizational Dialog. While many people attribute this idea to Iran’s former President, Muhammad Khatemi, years earlier Gülen had visited Pope John Paul II, who pioneered this issue in the Western world, and at the time, Gülen proposed to the Pope to work in cooperation. The Gülen Movement was planned to be the Muslim representatives of the project. During the 59th general assembly meeting of the United Nations in 2005, under the co-chairmanship of Recep Tayyib Erdoğan, the Prime Minister of the Republic of Turkey, and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the President of Spain, an initiative was begun: “The Alliance of Civilizations.”

The aim of this initiative was for different societies to come together to cooperate, in order to prevent extremism and fundamentalism. It sought to prevent tension and polarization, stemming from differences in religious and cultural values, especially between the Western and Muslim countries. In the words of Giandomenico Picco, the former United Nations secretary general special representative to manage the activities of the year of Intercivilizational Dialog, should always echo in our ears:

History does not kill, ideology does not destroy, and institutions do not rape. The only entity on this planet who can do that is the human being, the individual.[1]

After this background, we can turn to Gülen’s response to the question above concerning the clash of civilizations:

As for the clash of civilizations, as advanced by Huntington: I am in the opinion that in this kind of claims, rather than realistic assessments regarding the future, the purpose followed is to condition others, the public opinion in determining new aims; and within the framework of those aims, and on behalf of the power, holding the domination of the world. Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the thoughts of humanity were divided along the clash between the West and the East or the NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This time, by fabricating an artificial enemy, a civilization clash is aimed based on the cultural and religious differences. Thus, what is intended is to generate a setting in which the dominant block can retain its hegemony in the world.

As a matter of fact, until today the clash was something desired by some power centers. Namely, through the imagined existence of an enemy and presented as a threat, the masses were alarmed and in this way they were prepared to accept every sort of a war to come.

In fact, from yesterday to today, whether represented by the Prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, peace be upon them, no religion pleasing to God was ever grounded in the foundation of a clash. Let alone being grounded, these religions and especially Islam has declared a war against mischief, clash, conflict, and oppression. Islam means peace, security, and safety. Therefore, in a religion where prosperity, safety and the peace of the world is an essential part, wars and conflicts are just accidental, out of the norm. Islam has taken the war as an incidental event caused by the human nature, and in order to offset the balance, it decreed some regulations and limited it. For instance, by commanding, “Your hatred for a group of people should not keep you away from justice and fairness,” Islam established principles of justice and the peace of the world; it has built a principled front of defense by stipulating that the protection of religion, life, property, reproduction, and the mind is a legitimate right which is also accepted by the modern systems of law as basic rights.

As against this, while from the outset the Christianity was established purely as an abstract religion of love, in the matter of war which is a human reality, it did not set any determined rules. As it could not prevent the world wars, hundred-year wars, and many others, including the Nagasaki and Hiroshima, what is more, it in fact contributed to facilitate these wars manifesting themselves in their savagery, and catastrophic, bloody and violent. Yes, the Western history has been a history of wars, starting with the Muta and Yarmuk at the inception of Islam, continuing with the Crusaders and the wars in the following centuries against Islam and even the wars within itself. The perspectives of Huntington and the people like him are the product of the same mentality, and reflect the same psychological state.

We, with the grace and blessings of God, shall do everything within our means to continue the breeze of dialog and tolerance which started these days and promise a capability to spread to the rest of the world. God willing, we are going to disprove all the pundits in their predictions of the future. We believe that these winds of peace have enough power to overcome many deadly weapons, mechanized divisions and many other negative effects. This fresh message, the plan of which goes back well into the past, being exposed in every sector of the society and staged for everyone to see, is a divine complement for the heroes of love in our days. For this reason, we are saying that tolerance and dialog have to be represented in the best possible ways in our country and in this matter it should be an example, by any means possible. With the grace of God, if Asia is revived in this matter, it must not be an imaginary fantasy for the whole world to group around it. This would cause not the clash but the religions based on divine sources coming together around these foundations, and humanity, if God wills, is going to experience a new and a blessed spring, one more time.[2]

In this matter, the role that Gülen appropriates and assumes for himself is thus:

The thing which gives this poor man the love to orient himself to dialog at the world scale is benevolence and beauty which are inherent in the nature of man himself. My belief and my hope is complete that the humanity, whose ferment consists of goodness and kindness, one day will augment that ferment and will be forced by that ferment to come to the pre-ordained line. I believe that at this moment, the humanity, who is tired of wars, conflicts, bloods shed, the oppressions committed, is ready for a universal dialog and peace, and the conjuncture is appropriate for such a dialog, and for such a blessed aim we are exactly at that proper point, if we do not take a wrong step.

It is obvious that nothing positive could be done by enmity, on a ground of fighting, and always taking a pasture against agenda of others, and acting in reaction. Because of that, in our days when the common civilizational values came to the fore, at least as a goal, one can resolve the issues by speaking to others. This means dialog. There is a truth, which was always prevalent among us but which the world had discovered only after the collapse of the iron curtain that in the next century religion shall have a dominant voice in the world affairs. This is a natural goal the humanity is marching toward. At this moment Islam and the Christianity are the two religions the adherents of which are the largest. Buddhism and Hinduism have also a lot of adherents. The Judaism, although appears small in terms of its numbers, is effective. Therefore, today it stands out as an apparent fact that the universal revival, peace, and prosperity of the world will have to go through a dialog, based on the common points between these religions.

We are not doubtful about our values, and as we are not asking anyone to join us, no one has it in their mind to offer us the same. From now on, the conquest of the hearts and minds, intermingling through mutual love and respect will follow. This is the real conquest, not gaining land. Now with this sentiment, our meeting with the Pope was only natural. ...

In no period of history, there was such an easy rapprochement; people of the world had a chance to coalesce with each other, to mutually accept each other. This shows that our hope is not unfounded. Political passions and historical animosities are taking place mostly in terms of quarreling on the worldly interests. We have never been in a fight to share the blessings of this world. We have no eyes set upon anything worldly, therefore we do not have to compete with anyone for anything, and we cannot oppose anyone. As for the rewards in the hereafter, they are like “light,” they are spiritual, and therefore they cannot ever diminish by sharing. Six billion people benefit from the Sun, and one’s benefit from it does not prevent someone else to do the same. The spiritual gains are similar. Therefore, those who act today with political passions, will realize that we do not have the slightest worldly expectations; and, God willing, the fact that the political narrow passions do not benefit anyone will be comprehended; the real wealth will be discovered.[3]

[1] “Dialogue among Civilizations,” United Nations, New York, 5 September 2000,
[2] Gülen 2008d, 231–232.
[3] The interview given to Aksiyon magazine, 14 February 1998.

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