The September number of Le Monde diplomatique devotes seven pages to a special section on the notion of "the clash of civilizations," commenting in its introduction to its section on this "specter": "Rarely has the disconnect between discourse and reality been as great.  The rhetoric of 'the clash of civilizations' confuses, under cover of the struggle against terrorism, any serious analysis of global relations.  Al-Qaeda is serving as a frighteningly bloody specter, just as anarchist violence did in the 19th century."  --  In the article translated below, the origins of this concept -- "the clash of civilizations" -- are recounted by Alain Gresh, the editor-in-chief of Le Monde diplomatique, who was born in Cairo in 1948 and is the co-author of several volumes, including Un Peril islamiste? (1994) and Les Cent Portes du Proche-Orient (1992)....

[Translated from Le Monde diplomatique (Paris)]

By Alain Gresh

Le Monde diplomatique (Paris)
September 2004
Page 23


"The crisis of the Middle East . . . does not spring from a quarrel between states, but from a clash of civilizations." [Note 1: Bernard Lewis, The Middle East and the West (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 135.] It was all the way back in 1964 that a still little-known British academic coined the expression that would one day become so famous. Without a doubt, Bernard Lewis is a precursor. Established in the United States since 1974 [when he began teaching at Princeton], a specialist on Turkey, he is not shy about being active in politics as well. Very close to Mr. Paul Wolfowitz and the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, he supports both Israeli policies and the Bush administration. "Revealed" to the larger public after September 11, he has penned two pointed essays that present themselves as "scientific" contributions: What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam, which have been well received. [Note 2: What Went Wrong: Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response was published in hardcover by the Oxford University Press in 2002, in paperback by Perennial in 2003, and in French translation as Que s'est-il passé? L'Islam, l'Occident et la modernité by Gallimard in 2002; The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror was published in hardcover by Modern Library in 2003, in paperback by Random House in 2004, and in French translation as L'Islam en crise by Gallimard in 2003.] People have even been willing to overlook the fact that the author continues to deny the Armenian genocide . . .

Passing without notice in the 1960s, the formula was launched anew by him twenty-five years later in an article entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why So Many Muslims Deeply Resent the West, and Why Their Bitterness Will Not Easily Be Mollified." [Note 3: Atlantic Monthly, September 1990 [available online]. There he describes the Muslim worldís state of mind and concludes: "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." "I think," he explained in 1995, "that most of us will agree in saying, and some have said so, that the clash of civilizations is an important aspect of modern international relations, although few of us will go so far as to say, as some do, that civilizations have foreign policies and form alliances." [Note 4: Bernard Lewis, " 'I'm Right, You're Wrong, Go to Hell': Religions and the Meeting of Civilization," Atlantic Monthly (May 2003).]

The vision of a "clash of civilizations," which first of all opposes two clearly defined entities, "Islam" and "the West" (or "Judeo-Christian civilization") is at the heart of Bernard Lewis's thought, which is an essentialist body of thought reducing Muslims to a frozen, eternal culture. "This hatred," he insists, "goes beyond the hostility toward certain specific interests or actions or even particular countries and becomes a rejection of Western civilization as such, not so much for what it does, but for what it is and the principles and values it practices and professes." [Note 5: Lewis, "The Roots . . .," op. cit. (reverse translation)]. The Iranians did not revolt against the Shah's dictatorship imposed by a coup d'état fomented by the CIA in 1953; the Palestinians are not fighting against an interminable occupation; and if the Arabs hate the United States, this is not because of its support for Mr. Ariel Sharon or their occupation of Iraq: in reality, what Muslims are rejecting are freedom and democracy. How should we understand the Kosovo conflict or the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea? By the refusal of Muslims to be governed by infidels, explains Bernard Lewis.

It is in 1993 that the American Samuel Huntington takes up the formula of "the clash of civilizations" in a famous article in Foreign Affairs. [Note 6: Samuel Huntington, "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (1993).]

Rejected verbally in France, the concept is nevertheless little by little establishing itself in people's minds. When President Jacques Chirac spoke of "aggression" in December 2003 in Tunis, in speaking of headscarves, journalist Elisabeth Schemla rejoiced: "For the first time, Jacques Chirac admits that France is not exempt from the clash of civilizations." [Note 7: December 10, 2003,]

"Without exaggerating its importance," writes Emmanuel Brenner in a pamphlet entitled France, Beware of Losing Your Soul . . ., "you have to remember the cultural stakes in terms of which conflicts between worldviews that are different, or even antagonistic, are understood. . . . This cultural dimension is lacking in many observers who omit from their accounts the historical background that we express without being aware of it. You have only to think of the Crusades and the confrontation of the two shores of the Mediterranean, you have only to think of Islam's advance into Southeastern Europe right up to the gates of Vienna in the 17th century, you have also only to think of the time when Turks were feared and hated, and then of the time of colonization and the violence that accompanied it, and finally of the time of decolonization, which also what often bloody. This confrontation, ancient and recurrent, has left strata in the conscience of peoples." [Note 8: Emmanuel Brenner, France, prends garde de perdre ton âme . . . (Éditions Mille et une nuits, 2004), p. 106]. And that is why, he concludes, that many young French Beurs [young North Africans born in France from immigrant parents] are "culturally" anti-Semitic . . . From Mohammed to the Ottomans' siege of Vienna, from decolonization to Islamism, from Islamism to al-Qaeda, from headscarves to Beurs' anti-Semitism, the circuit is complete, history is repeating itself. Death to the Saracens!

Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Phone: 253-535-7219
Web page:
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.