Countering the Islam vs. the West Paradigm

By: Jocelyne Cesari

December 4, 2015

Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, December 4, 2015

Two decades after Samuel Huntington published the Clash of Civilizations (1996), the Islam vs. the West paradigm is stronger than ever. Though a considerable portion of academia has debunked the idea of the so-called incompatibility between Islamic and Western values, this dominant perception that pervades political and media discourse has changed very little. The divide between Muslims and non-Muslims has intensified within Western liberal democracies, where the perception of Islam as the external enemy has combined with a fear of the religion itself. Consequently, Muslims are seen as internal and external enemies in both Europe and the United States. However, the social and cultural realities of Muslims of “flesh and blood” starkly contradict the Islam vs. the West divide.
In Europe, Muslims have been the unwelcome “other” for several decades before 2001 for a number of reasons. Most Muslims in Europe are immigrants or have an immigrant background, and constitute approximately 5 percent of the European Union’s 425 million inhabitants. European Muslims, in general, have a relatively low socio-economic status. The majority of Muslims immigrate to Europe from underdeveloped nations with few marketable skills and little education. Across Europe, they are often concentrated in segregated, urban areas plagued with delinquency, crime, and subpar living conditions.

In the Netherlands, for example, almost all of the country’s 850,000 Muslims live in four major cities – Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht, and the Hague – and make up 30 percent of the overall population. The high density of immigrants from one ethnic group in specific areas is the product of an alarming trend blending separatism and ghettoization. In this regard, Muslims in Europe remain at the core of multiple social processes related to the evolution of the European Union and the redefinition of migration flux since the 1970s.

 In the United States, the idea of Islam as an external enemy traces back to the Iranian Hostage Crisis (1979–1981). The sentiment became more acute after the end of the Cold War and 9/11. Unlike in Europe, however, Muslims in the United States have not been as central to socio-economic change and immigration policy. They are not the majority immigrant group in the country, nor do they occupy the bottom rung on the socio-economic ladder.[i] In reality, they are often professionals and members of the upper middle classes. The Islamization of the war on terror, on the other hand, has significantly increased American uneasiness about Islam – a phenomenon evident in increasingly controlled U.S. immigration policies.[ii]

The Islam vs. the West paradigm is very much alive in both the United States and Europe. Since 9/11, the conflation of the “internal other” and the “external enemy” has exacerbated the discourse and politics vis-à-vis Muslim minorities in the West. From this, a trend has emerged: western self-definition based on the concepts of progress, nation, rational individuality (à la Robinson Crusoe), and secularization. All of these are constructed in opposition to the values of the Muslim world. In labeling Islam as its foil, the liberal modernist story was able to emerge, not unlike how Europe’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire gradually established the East-West binary, which decisively impacted world politics in the 18th and 19th centuries. The distinction between East and West, however, was more than a product of religious differences; it was a reflection of political defiance. “The orientalization of the Orient,” as Edward Said deemed, was the primary effect of a European cultural crisis linked to the advent of modernity – an identity that solidified when contrasted against that of its Ottoman neighbor.

The construction of Islam and Muslims as the enemy within liberal democracies takes place within this preexisting environment. Islam plays a dual role as both the internal enemy – represented by Muslims having migrated to a new nation – and the external enemy – encompassed by Muslims living in Islamic countries and who are perceived as security threats. Muslims are viewed as internal enemies based on the belief that they endanger the core liberal values of western societies and exacerbate social problems. Muslims are also perceived as external enemies due the rise of violent Islamic extremism and the accompanying war on terror. These conditions make expressions of Islamic identity and practice, from hijab to dietary restrictions, appear to be political acts.

Interestingly enough, there is no empirical evidence based on the behavior of Muslims in European and American countries that supports this fear.[iii] Muslims’ political practices are actually not very different from their average non-Muslim neighbors. Both in Europe and in the United States, Muslims place more trust in national institutions and democracy than their fellow citizens. Participating in institutions, such as mosques, is linked with greater social and political engagement, as has been repeatedly proven for other religious traditions.

Symbolic integration refers to the inclusion of a particular group into the history and shared memory of a national community. Shared cultural practices divide the world into “friends” and “enemies.”[iv] Symbolic boundaries are thereby constructed around the “national community,” both inter-nationally and intra-nationally. “Enemies” do not only reside outside of the territorial confines of the Nation-State, but also within, reflecting the “internal structure of social divisions.”[v] Symbolic boundaries within any given national community operate within a two-dimensional typology: friends/enemies and internal/external.[vi] Some groups are internal enemies (territorial, linguistic, or ethnic minorities), while others are external (hostile, foreign countries). Muslims are now both. The gap between the social and political reality of Islam and the construction of Islam as the enemy reveals a lack of symbolic integration.

A drastic change in the existing national narrative of each country could facilitate the symbolic integration of Islam into Western society by incorporating Muslims and Islam into the psyche and culture of the national communities to which they belong. It is a daunting task, but by taking a hard look at the differences between the constructed views of Islam and its realities, it can be done.


[i] In the US, the “prototypical immigrant” is a low-skilled Mexican or Central American worker rather than a conservative Muslim. Of the 15.5 million legal immigrants who entered the United States between 1989 and 2004, only 1.2 million were from predominantly Muslim countries. There was a sharp drop from more than 100,000 per year prior to 2002 down to approximately 60,000 in 2003, but this recovered somewhat to 90,000 in 2004.

[ii] Ariane Chebel D’Appollonia, Frontiers of Fear: Immigration and Insecurity in the United States and Europe (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[iii] See the Oxford Handbook of European Islam. 

[iv] J.C. Alexander, “Citizen and Enemy as Symbolic Classification: On the Polarizing Discourse of Civil Society,” in Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality, ed. M. Fournier and M. Lamont (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1993), 289-308. Zygmunt Bauman, “Modernity and Ambivalence,” Theory, Culture and Society 7 (1990): 143-69. Philip Schlesinger, Media, State and Nation: Political Violence and Collective Identities (London: Sage, 1991).

[v] Philip Schlesinger, Media, State and Nation: Political Violence and Collective Identities (London: Sage, 1991).

[vi] This approach builds on Georg Simmel’s structural approach of the stranger, which examines an individual’s twofold position as an outsider and an insider when entering into a new group.

This article was originally published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.

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