Clash For Civilization

Creating an Effective Partnership in Fighting Extremism Between the West and the Muslim World

The new outburst of violent terrorism in Paris, the threat of plans for other attacks in Belgium, and reports of other planned attacks by ISIS have all raised the specter of Jihadist attacks throughout Europe. They have also renewed all the fears and concerns that the tragedy of “9/11” caused in the United States. At the same time, the ongoing struggle between China and its own Islamic extremists, and similar threats to Russia, East Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia have led to increased counterterrorist activity in much of the rest of the world.

Most of the resulting counterterrorist activity is useful and necessary, but it has sometimes led to focus on Islamic extremism that threatens to create a real “clash between civilizations.” If the support of “counterterrorism” confuses extremism and Jihadist violence with Islam and with the beliefs and attitudes of the vast majority of Muslims, it can trigger bigotry and prejudice of a kind that divides and separates the West from the Muslim world. If the search for security goes too far, it can go from necessary measures to the kind of counterterrorist activity that becomes broadly anti-Islamic, and further divides the Islamic and non-Islamic worlds.

At the same time, some in the Muslim world remain in denial about the true character of this threat. The threat is not terrorism in some generic sense, and it does not focus primarily on the West. Violent Islamic extremists may attack the US and other targets outside the Muslim world in passing, but it is a form of violent religious extremism that uses Islam as an ideological and political base to attack the mainstream of Islam, the governance of every state with a large Muslim majority, the values of virtually all Muslims, and the real world economic base for future development in every Muslim country.

It is a threat that feeds on regional, and national sectarian, ethnic, and tribal divisions in the Muslim world. It is a threat whose goals go far beyond using terrorism to change specific policies or leaders. It seeks to take control of states and then to dictate every aspect of human life. And, it is a threat whose violence that seeks to progress from terrorism to insurgency and civil war whenever it finds – or can create – a window of opportunity. This means that this type of threat can ultimately only be defeated by Muslims, by discrediting its abuse of one of the world’s great faiths, and by addressing its causes.

The Security Partnerships the Sustaining the “Clash for Civilization”

Both those inside and outside the Muslim world need to understand that the struggle against violent Islamic extremism is not a clash between Muslims and the West or a “clash between civilizations.” It is a common threat that is focused on the Muslim world, and one that can only be contained and defeated by a security partnership between the West, Muslim states, and other states. In essence, it has become a “clash for civilization” rather than a clash between nations or faiths.

Broad attacks on Islam, Muslim denial of the true character of the threat -- and counterterrorism measures that are so extreme that they become dysfunctional -- can all undermine the security partnerships between Muslim and non-Muslim states that offer the only effective way to fight violent Islamic extremism.

These strategic partnerships have become the core of what is approaching a global effort to fight that most dangerous forms of terrorism, and put an end to the civil wars and insurgencies that now threaten the stability of the Middle East. In the case of the US, our national security strategy, and our military force posture is dependent on such partnerships. In the Middle East alone, we now have such partnerships with Muslim states like:

  • Bahrain (where we base our fleet in the Gulf),
  • Egypt (which is a critical staging point for US air movements and access to the Suez Canal),
  • Jordan (which has long been an ally and is deeply involved in the fight against ISIS),
  • Kuwait (which provides air bases and land warfare facilities),
  • Lebanon (where US aid plays a key role in its fight against extremism),
  • Morocco (which has a key strategic position in North Africa and the entry to the Mediterranean),
  • Oman (which has been an ally for years and faces Iran across the straight of Hormuz),
  • Qatar (where we locate our main airbase in the Gulf, and is a member of the coalition against ISIS),
  • Saudi Arabia (which is our main partner in Gulf security, plays a critical role in the fight against terrorism, and is our partner in our efforts to defeat Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and bring some form of stability to Yemen),
  • Turkey (which is a long-standing NATO ally), and
  • The UAE (which as become a key military partner to our aid and naval forces, is also fighting ISIS, and provides bases to outside US allies like Britain and France).

More broadly, we are active military partners with Afghanistan and Iraq in their efforts to defeat major insurgencies that are driven by Islamic extremist movements. We have long sought to work with Pakistan in helping it deal with its growing Islamist extremist violence and we have close relations with Indonesia and other states with large Muslim populations in Asia.  

We share many of these partnerships with key European allies like Britain, France, Germany and Italy, as well as Australia – whose close relations with Indonesia have had a major impact in East Asia. Nations like Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and the Philippines also play an important role. In a different part of the Muslim world, Russia and China have important partnerships with the Muslim states of Central Asia.

Movements like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State could have no greater victory than to undermine these strategic partnerships and create a real “clash between civilizations.” Violent Islamic extremists seek to feed on any broad alienation of non-Muslims from the vast moderate majority of Muslims.  They know this will lead to western attacks on Islam rather than on what is a small minority of violent Islamic extremists. They know it will help create the kind of counterterrorism efforts that alienate Muslims living outside the Middle East and Islamic states as well as within them, and threaten the partnerships in counterterrorism between Muslim governments and the West.

Strengthen the Strategic Partnerships Between the US, Europe, and the Muslim World.

Effective counterterrorism and counterinsurgency action not only needs to recognize such risks, it needs to recognize the reality that violent Jihadist extremism can only be defeated by continuing to strengthen the partnerships between West and Islamic nations that cut across religious and cultural divisions, and focus on a combined effort to deal with a violent minority that is a threat to both Muslims and non-Muslims.

No one – Jew, Christian, or Muslim – can afford to let acts of violent extremism by a small minority of extremists trap them into ignorance, intolerance, and division. As the rise of the Islamic State has shown, no country can afford to ignore the impact of any broad victory by Islamic extremism in an insurgency or civil conflict that creates a lasting state-like entity. The risks in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen go far beyond terrorism per se.

The only way to permanently contain and defeat violent Islamic extremism is to create a steadily stronger partnership between Islamic and non-Islamic governments in both counterterrorist efforts and in fighting the threat of extremist insurgents.

The Burke Chair has prepared an analysis of the trends in violent Islamic extremism entitled the “Clash For Civilization:” Creating an Effective Partnership in Fighting Extremism Between the West and the Muslim World. The full report is attached here as a downloadable PDF, and is available on the CSIS website at

The analysis of the trends in extremist violence shows both the sharp rise that has taken place since 2010, and that the term “terrorism” no longer applies in a world where such violence has escalated to insurgency in nations like Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It shows that virtually all of the current patterns of violence are located in Muslim countries and that attacks in the West are very limited by comparison. It shows that some 90% or more of the casualties come from Muslims killing Muslims, and that the primary ideological battle is not some clash between civilizations, but rather a religious struggle for the future of Islam.

Focusing on the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan and Pakistan

The report also shows that –as important as defense of the Homeland may be – the strategic center of gravity is in the Middle East, North Africa, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. This is the area where violent Islamic extremism must be defeated and this defeat can only come through strengthening the strategic partnerships in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism between the US, Europe, and moderate Muslim states. It is also an area where polls show that the vast majority of Muslim opposed extremism even before the executions, torture, and repression caused by Daesh created a far broader level of popular anger throughout the region.

At the same time, the report shows that extremism is driven by a wide range of demographic, economic, social, and political pressures within Muslim states, as well as by failed governance in the states hit hardest by the political upheavals in 2011 and the years that followed. There is no one set of causes, and the forces involved vary radically by country. But is it also clear that it is far easier to talk about removing the causes of extremism than to do so, and many of the pressure involved will only increase over the coming decade.

Effective short-term action can only come through strengthening cooperation in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. The report suggests, however, that this means far more public transparency to build mutual understanding and a broad base of support. It also requires careful attention to human rights and to the impact of such measures – some of which can result in alienating the people they are intended to protect, and do more harm than good.

The fact that there is no quick and easy way to deal with the causes of violent extremism also does not mean that counterterrorism and counterinsurgency alone can ever succeed in eliminating and defeating it. Success requires reform and progress. It requires local regimes to honestly face and address the key problems their peoples face over time. It also requires a far more comprehensive and modern approach to fighting the ideological and religious battle against Islamic extremists – an effort the West can help address in some way, but a battle only mainstream Muslims can win.

Addressing the Western Cause of Islamic Extremism

The West too, however, needs to address its own level of ignorance and intolerance, and discrimination against Muslims – particularly in Europe where they are becoming a major share of the population that are sometime treated as an alien underclass. Just as is the case in Middle East and North Africa, the West also needs to build a far greater level of understanding of the common values of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Ignorance has never been a secure source of tolerance in dealing with the differences between Christian sects and anti-Semitism, and it is not just Muslims who need to fully examine the common values of the “peoples of the book.”