Pitfalls of the “West versus Islam” Rhetoric

East Versus West

Not long ago—I mean just ten or twelve years ago, right after 9/11—it was commonplace to speak of the “West versus the East” divide. The divide had an old pedigree, as historian Anthony Pagden forcefully postulated in his magisterial “Worlds at War.” The narrative came in great part, I believe, from a misinterpretation of Samuel Huntington 1996 “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.” But Huntington never depicted the struggle to come in terms of a “West versus East” confrontation—rather a “West versus the Rest” divide, in virtue of the struggle some world cultures seemed to go through adopting to the pressures of Western modernization.

After 9/11, most of “the West” public opinion assumed the narrative. Many commentators (at least in the U.S. and Western Europe) and even political voices (including G.W. Bush demanding the American people to understand, in a speech September 16, 2001, that “this crusade, this war on terrorism” was going to last for a while) cast the war on terror as a modern reenactment of the old, same divide that went back all the way to medieval times (if not before). In this mental framework, the religious overtones of this opposition between a Christian West and a Muslim East took the front seat.

In recent weeks many American commentators, alarmed by the December 2, 2015, San Bernardino attacks, and on the wake of the November Paris attacks, have cast again the fight against radical terrorism as a “West versus Islam” struggle. Many political observers, including even GOP presidential candidates, resort(ed) to a rhetoric that demonizes Muslims, insults Islam, and/or proposes racist anti-Muslim measures. In particular, Trump’s comments proposing “barring Muslims to enter the US” potentially are creating negative reactions among Muslims, and can act as a catalyst for ISIS recruiting.

Political scientist Seth Jones, Director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corporation, is one of the sensible and well-informed voices warning that we should not make this struggle an “Us versus Islam” confrontation”—for that’s exactly what ISIS wants. Jones argues that “Anything that smacks of the West versus Islam walks into a dialogue that is helpful to ISIS, because then they try to portray that as ‘We ISIS are the vanguards of Islam’—and they are not. I think it’s dangerous to walk down a road in our dialogue where we are painting the West versus Islam [picture] because that is not the case, and when we do that it helps ISIS rather than undermines its validity”.

I agree with Seth Jones. But, at the same time, two important questions are in many Westerners’ minds. And these are questions which have to be asked to Muslims and Middle-Easterners, or to experts well-versed on the realities of the Muslim world—because the ordinary man and woman in the West can hardly answer knowingly  and with accuracy.

  • Many Westerners assume that ISIS is Islam—but do Muslims across the globe, and especially in the Middle East, identify ISIS as Islam? Does in reality ISIS represent Islam or Muslims? Are radical jihadists righteous speakers of Islam to the eyes of ordinary Muslims?
  • The Second question: if jihadism is so deeply embedded in the Islamic belief system, as being by far one of the most important of communal obligations according to the Hadith (almost acting as the sixth pillar of Islam, so-to-speak) then is any peaceful co-existence between Western and Eastern traditional values possible?


Huntington, Samuel. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996.
Jones, Seth G. “How Does ISIS Recruit?” Here & Now. Wednesday, December 23, 2015,
Pagden, Anthony. Worlds at War. The 2,500 Struggle Between East and West. New York: Random House, New York, 2008.


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