In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, suggested that world politics was entering a new phase. In that new phase, ideological disputes and economic interests would no longer be the primary source of global conflict. Instead, ‘the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.’ Huntington identified a list of ‘major civilizations’ whose interactions would shape the global order: ‘Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization.’ These civilisations, claimed Huntington, were marked by real and fundamental differences of ‘history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion.’ Out of such differences, ‘the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts’ had arisen. While such conflicts were not inevitable in the future, if they came it would be out of the clash between civilisations.
Peter Oborne, The Fate of Abraham, Simon and Schuster, London, 2022
Huntington also quoted passages from other authors characterising Islamic nations as those most fundamentally and immediately opposed to Western interests and values. The historian Bernard Lewis was quoted as saying:
We are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both.
While he refrained from outright approving those sentiments, Huntington claimed that they represented how Western and Islamic countries themselves perceived one another. But in 1996, in a book-length exposition of his ‘clash of civilisations’ theory, he went further:
The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.
Huntington thus rejected the assertions of Western politicians that they held no quarrel with or distaste for Islam itself, only ‘Islamism’ or ‘extremist Islam’. It is Islam itself that the West takes issue with; and the West itself with which Islamic countries find themselves in conflict.
For a long time, except at the fringes, politicians at least in the US and the UK denied Huntington’s framing, insisting on the great respect in which they held the Islamic faith. President George W. Bush, for example, declared:
Some of the comments that have been uttered about Islam do not reflect the sentiments of my government or the sentiments of most Americans. Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of people, is a peaceful religion, a religion that respects others. Ours is a country based upon tolerance and we welcome people of all faiths in America.
In a speech on extremism in July 2015, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced:
Every one of the communities that has come to call our country home has made Britain a better place. And because the focus of my remarks today is on tackling Islamist extremism – not Islam the religion – let me say this.
I know what a profound contribution Muslims from all backgrounds and denominations are making in every sphere of our society, proud to be both British and Muslim, without conflict or contradiction.
And I know something else: I know too how much you hate the extremists who are seeking to divide our communities and how you loathe that damage they do.
It might be said that these protestations of tolerance were only that – protestations attempting to obscure that Western countries’ treatment of Muslims both domestically and geopolitically were actually characterised by tacit acceptance of Huntington’s thesis of Islam itself as fundamentally opposed to Western values and interests. Donald Trump’s open antipathy towards Islam and Muslims themselves, while deplorable, might at least be commended for dropping the pretence, and laying bare a perception of Islam that, whilst taken to extremes in Trump’s presidency, has permeated Western policy throughout the last decades:
Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on. […] Mr. Trump stated, ‘Without looking at the various polling data, it is obvious to anybody the hatred is beyond comprehension. Where this hatred comes from and why we will have to determine. Until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses, our country cannot be the victims of horrendous attacks by people that believe only in Jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life. If I win the election for President, we are going to Make America Great Again.’
In The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, Peter Oborne, the highly respected conservative journalist and broadcaster, sets himself against Huntington’s thesis and its prevailing influence on US and UK domestic and foreign policy. Western politicians and governments, Oborne sets out to prove, have misrepresented, misunderstood and mistreated Islam and Muslims for as long as they have interacted with Islamic countries or had Muslim populations. There is no ‘clash’ between Islam and Western culture and values. By proceeding on the false basis that Islam is fundamentally incompatible with Western society, the West has wronged Muslims both in their countries and worldwide.
Oborne approaches his task in three stages. First, in Parts One to Three of the book, he addresses each of the US, the UK and France, in turn, giving a narrative of each country’s interaction with Islam across its history. These chapters are comprehensive in breadth, ranging from the Venerable Bede’s description in the eighth century of ‘Saracens’ as ‘shiftless, hateful and violent’ to up to date (at the time of writing) comment on the nascent Biden administration’s restoration of ‘normality’ to US-Muslim relations. The chapters addressing the UK, however, end around the middle of the twentieth century with discussion of Winston Churchill’s attitudes towards Islam. Recent UK politics are then the subject of the second stage of Oborne’s analysis, filling Part Four of the book. Oborne’s discussion here focuses on the role of right-wing think tanks, in particular Policy Exchange’s influence on leading Conservative party lights, and on two of the most notable recent incidents of hysteria directed against Muslims, namely the Trojan Horse affair in Birmingham’s schools and the narrative of Muslim ‘grooming gangs’ operating across the country unburdened by police forces which are themselves too frightful of accusations of racism to intervene. Oborne then, in Part Five, gives a more personal narrative, describing his interactions with Muslim communities at the ‘bloody borders’, quoting Huntington’s language, over the last fifteen years – amongst them Darfur in 2006, Syria in 2014 and Myanmar in 2017.
The book concludes by emphasising the fundamental similarities between Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions as descended from the faith of Abraham. As Oborne puts it, when describing his visit to Hebron and the site of the 1994 killings by Baruch Goldstein:
Surely it [the Tomb of the Patriarchs, also called the Sanctuary of Abraham or the Cave of Machpelah] belongs to Abraham alone, patriarch to three great religions and a man of peace. We are all his descendants: the people of the book. We all worship his God. I fell to my knees and I prayed.
With this shared heritage in mind, Oborne implores us to reclaim our common humanity by ‘thinking again about Islam and the West’, setting aside recent analysis ‘beset by intellectual and moral error’ and rejecting the hypothesis that Islam and the West represent two incompatible and clashing civilisations. The results of that false hypothesis have been catastrophic, including ‘illegal wars, torture and a general repudiation of democracy, human rights and decency’ which have ‘awarded a legitimacy to movements such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State’ which ‘had always argued that Western support for liberal democracy was a sham.’
It does not take much persuading to accept Oborne’s basic point that policymakers and the commentariat in the US and UK by and large agree with Huntington’s characterisation of Islam as the ‘other’, contrasted against what they would label their countries’ Judeo-Christian traditions. Some commentators have accepted this clearly and without demur, as did Douglas Murray when he said in 2006 that conditions ‘for Muslims in Europe must be made harder across the board’, or in 2017 that what the UK needs is ‘a bit less Islam’. Others, such as George Bush or David Cameron, at least make the pretence of tolerance and understanding. Perhaps the best recent indicator that this is just pretence, though post-dating Oborne’s book, can be seen by comparing reactions to the Ukrainian refugee crisis with reactions to the plight of Syrian or Afghan refugees. Ukrainian refugees – admittedly after some reluctance in the case of the UK – have been granted an open door to seek safety throughout Europe. That same door is firmly shut to Afghans and Syrians. In France, 79% of the public favoured accepting Ukrainian refugees while at the same time 51% opposed welcoming Afghan refugees. Said one commentator in France: ‘They [Ukrainians] are culturally European’. Said another: ‘there is a difference between Ukrainians who take part in our civilisational space and other populations who belong to other civilisations.’
Despite its sub-title, ‘Why the West is Wrong about Islam’, Oborne’s book is not an apologia for Islam against such attitudes. The reader looking for an account of the diversity of Islamic thought and cultures, and their relations to Western norms, should look elsewhere – for instance, Christopher de Bellaigue’s excellent The Islamic Enlightenment – though they could do worse than starting with Oborne’s suggested list of further reading. Oborne’s concern is instead to take the West’s treatment of Islam and Muslims on its own terms, exposing the ignorance and arrogance at the heart of that treatment. One does not need a detailed account of Islamic cultures and thought across history to see just how far the West has gone wrong in this respect.
Here, the book perhaps suffers in its attempt to do too much. Oborne compresses a little over a thousand years of history of three countries – the US, the UK and France – and their colonies into around two hundred and fifty pages. Inevitably some detail falls by the wayside, though within that constraint these chapters are an impressive history and worthwhile to the general reader. Even when Oborne turns to discuss the UK in the modern day – chapters fifteen to twenty covering about the last twenty years – there is so much to cover that Oborne lacks the space to fully justify his analysis and conclusions. In chapter 18, for instance, Oborne deals with the ‘Trojan Horse affair’, which purported to expose a conspiracy to infiltrate and ‘Islamise’ a series of schools in Birmingham. Oborne does his best in the space available to pull apart the alleged conspiracy – the treatment, for instance, of ordinary Muslim practices such as the call to prayer or Arabic tuition as evidence of extremism when the equivalent Christian practices, such as singing of hymns in assembly, are considered unexceptional. But the network of allegations and evidence involved is simply too vast for a convincing rebuttal to be contained in the few pages Oborne allots to the topic.
Notwithstanding those limitations, Oborne’s basic analysis is compelling. Nobody is helped by the Western insistence on treating Islam as a policy problem to be solved. We would all benefit if politicians and commentators were willing to acknowledge the prejudices that continue to underlie their treatment of Muslim individuals and nations. As Oborne argues, though the West denies Huntington’s analysis, disavowing that it sees any clash of civilisations, its actions belie that denial. So the West gives succour to retrogressive forces both within itself, and to those in Islamic societies which rely on that same ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative to bolster their support. Oborne gives the example of al-Qaeda, who claim the actions of the US and its allies as a ‘twisted moral sanction’.
Oborne ends his book with an appeal for unity, comparing Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself to the Prophet Muhammad’s similar words on being asked by a Bedouin for something to take him to heaven. Coming as it does at the end of a catalogue of mistreatment and misunderstanding, the prospects of this appeal being taken up might feel remote. As Oborne notes just a few paragraphs previously, the ‘American, British and French media don’t report on Muslims. It targets them, fabricating stories and fomenting at best distrust and at worst hatred.’ While this continues, Oborne’s call for understanding seems likely to go unanswered, at least by those politicians and journalists who most need to hear it.
There seems then a danger that the reader of Oborne’s book will come away with a message not quite intended. While there need not have been a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West, ultimately one has been created, by avoidable and regrettable, but now long-established, policy choices and a culture of distrust and misunderstanding.
Such a gloomy attitude should be resisted. As a corrective, one need only turn to one of the countless accounts of positive interchange and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. One such account, all the more compelling for taking place during a period of intense conflict between Christian and Islamic societies, can be found in the writings of Usama Ibn Munqidh. Usama was a poet and diplomat, born in northern Syria in July 1095, shortly before Pope Urban II began preaching for the First Crusade. He travelled widely over the ninety years of his life, including in the lands conquered and ruled by the European crusaders. In his autobiography, the Kitab al-I’tibar, Usama spoke in some detail about his interactions with Europeans (‘Franks’). As one would expect, given the era and that Usama was dealing with Franks as invaders, precursors of modern colonialists, the work is not a marvel of tolerance or cross-cultural understanding. Usama describes the Franks as ‘mere beasts possessing no other virtues but courage and fighting’. But underneath this invective one can see real affection by Usama for the people he meets. In one passage, he describes a Christian knight as his ‘constant companion’ who called him ‘my brother’, adding that ‘Between us there were ties of amity and sociability’. While he records, and mocks, examples of barbaric attempts at medicine by certain Franks, equally he acknowledges the good when he sees it. In one passage, he relates a ‘wondrous example’ of Frankish medicine, saying that he later adopted the technique he observed for his own use as a physician. Most telling is the following passage, in which Usama describes praying at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, at that time controlled by the Franks:
Whenever I went to visit the holy sites in Jerusalem, I would go in and make my way up to the al-Aqsa mosque, beside which stood a small mosque that the Franks had converted into a church. When I went into the al-Aqsa mosque – where the Templars, who are my friends, were – they would clear out that little mosque so that I could pray in it. One day, I went into the little mosque, recited the opening formula ‘God is Great!’ and stood up in prayer.
It was possible a thousand years ago for Usama ibn Munqidh to describe the Templars, today the stereotypical symbol of Christian intolerance and violence, as his friends. The Fate of Abraham rightly focuses on the divisions that have been fostered by the West, and the harm that has been done, and is still taking place, as a result. But we would be justified in believing that where we are is not inevitable or unchangeable. Oborne’s book is to be welcomed as a contribution to the more mature and informed conversation that will be necessary to encourage that change.