The end of the Cold War in 1991 marked the end of the geopolitics of nearly half a century, when a “democratic” Western alliance confronted and competed with the totalitarian “Communist” bloc in a potentially destructive nuclear standoff. What would be the faultlines of the new post-Cold War world was a question then pondered over by scholars. In his thesis, Clash of Civilizations and Remaking of the World Order, American academic Samuel Huntington held the ideological conflicts of the Cold War would be replaced by civilisational conflicts “prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims”. Huntington held that the clash would be between Islamic resurgence and the demographic explosion of Islam on the one hand and the values that Western civilisation believed are universal and should be accepted by all civilisations.
In the two decades since Huntington expounded his views, bloody conflicts transcending national borders that have emerged involved the US and its NATO allies on the one hand, and Islamic countries, on the other. In instances like the attacks on Iraq and Libya, the West demonised the leaders of nations they attacked and proclaimed that they were replacing their rulers by “liberal” Western dispensations. In recent days, movements against existing regimes in the Arab World were labelled as manifestations of universalism of “Western values” of “liberal democracy”, with the Western world professing to side with those demanding change. Such interventions were selective, as uprisings in countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, regarded as crucial to Western interests, were conveniently ignored.
Needless to say, the lofty motives attributed to intervention in these conflicts covered the more mundane factor of the interests of Western companies in the oil and gas resources of the country attacked. But did these efforts succeed in fulfilling the stated and unstated objectives of the Western world? In Iraq, the dictatorial but secular and Sunni minority-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein has been replaced by a new order dominated by the Shia majority and the growth of a Shia-Sunni divide in the country, supplementing the historical divide between Kurds and Arabs. In Egypt, recent elections have produced a Parliamentary majority comprising Wahhabi and Salafist elements dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which proclaims: “God is our objective, the Quran is our Constitution, the Prophet is our leader, jihad is the only way and death for the sake of God, the highest of our aspirations.” In Libya, where the dictatorial but secular regime of Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown, the new Western installed ruler Mustafa Abdul Jalil has proclaimed that secular law would be replaced by Sharia law as its “basic source” of governance. Jalil has vowed to introduce Islamic banking and revoke Gaddafi’s ban on polygamy.
Western interventions have, however, had one side-effect, intended or unintended. They have sharpened historic, sectarian Shia-Sunni and civilisational rivalries between Persians and Arabs and between Arabs themselves. There is no dearth of instances where conservative Arab states are making common cause with Israel, to call for military strikes on nuclear installations in Shia-dominated Iran. Iran, in turn, is stirring up restive Shia populations in monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. It is also making common cause with the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria, which is confronting a Sunni-dominated uprising. Within Pakistan, the Shia-Sunni divide is leading to bloody conflicts in Karachi and the Punjab and Baluchistan provinces. In these circumstances, one cannot but ask if Huntington’s definition of world civilisations in purely religious terms was at all correct. Ultimately, while any civilisation is powerfully influenced by religious factors, can one really ignore considerations of history, culture, ethnicity and language? If Indian society was to be divided along religious or sectarian lines and motivated by the Islamophobia sweeping across the West, our country would today have been engulfed in civil wars.
;The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own.