Shortly after the Paris attacks in November, a number of Republican presidential frontrunners regurgitated the idea that the war against ISIS represents a “clash of civilizations.” While this is a favorite Republican talking point, there are several problems with this framing.
For one, critics say it simply plays into the hands of radical militant groups like ISIS.
“The Republican rhetoric sadly serves the ISIS playbook,” Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) wrote in the Hill this week. “Republican calls for religious tests, databases to track Muslims, bans on travel and the specter of internment camps help breed new homicidal terrorists, creating the conditions for a clash of civilizations. This is exactly what ISIS wants and is nothing our country needs.”
But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from painting the fight against ISIS as a grander war between Islam and the West.
“This is a clash of civilizations…There is no middle ground on this,” Republican candidate Marco Rubio said in November. “Either they win or we win. And we need to begin to take this seriously. These are individuals motivated by their faith.”
Jeb Bush shared a similar sentiment: “This is an organized effort to destroy Western civilization and we need to lead in this regard.”
And Ben Carson said in December: “We are currently facing a clash of civilizations [between radical Islam and western values].”
Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have not used the exact words “clash of civilizations,” but their other rhetoric — Trump’s call to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and Cruz’s equating of Syrian refugees to jihadists — shows that they’ve made the same link. Hillary Clinton said Trump was “becoming ISIS’ best recruiter” last month.
Not only is using such terminology ancillary to ISIS’ worldview, but experts say it also gives the group too much legitimacy. Calling the war against ISIS a “clash of civilizations” is effectively equating ISIS with the entirely of Islam.
“ISIS isn’t a civilization,” Peter Beinart wrote in the Atlantic earlier this year. “In parts of Iraq and Syria, it’s a self-declared, though unrecognized, state. Elsewhere, it’s a network of terrorist groups linked by a common ideology. ‘Civilizations’ are cultural groupings. In calling the Paris attack a ‘clash of civilizations,’ Rubio evoked Samuel Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs essay of the same name. In that essay, Huntington defined ‘civilization’ as ‘the broadest level of cultural identity people have’.”