The Clash of Civilisations and the Travel Ban

Luca Lo Scavo & Caroline Guillet point out Samuel Huntington’s legacy in the Trump era. 

On January 27th, US President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. This caused unprecedented chaos in international airports, where people were stopped from traveling and thousands of visas revoked. Trump justified his position by claiming it was an attempt to defend homeland security and stop the influx of refugees and potential terrorists (Bobic, 2017).

A wide range of protests and discontent both domestically and internationally followed on social media and on the streets. Legal challenges have been widely raised at different levels, with jurists contesting the executive order on the legal grounds of the American Constitution and UN Declaration of Human Rights. 

Trump´s Ban shares a lot of common misconceptions with a much older book by Samuel Huntington: ‘The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order’ (1996). In his controversial book, Huntington categorises 7 different, geographically-based civilisations defined in terms of religious, cultural and ideological characteristics. He claims that new post-Cold War conflicts would be fought on the fault lines of these civilisations’ groupings. It is usually claimed that such analysis provoked the change itself and originated the situation that is was meant to explain. In other words, Huntington’s analysis ‘shape(d) times as well as reflect(ed) them’ as Mo put it in 1996 (Huntington, 1996). The ideological power of his ideas can be exemplified by the War on Terror in 2001 and eventually the travel ban of Trump’s administration in 2017.

Both Huntington and Trump generalise their understanding of cultures and ideologies to an extent that they become flat, horizontal ideas devoid of meaning. Their categorisation is also misleading. For Huntington, cultures, religions and ideologies can be unilaterally represented on a map. Trump universally matches terrorism to Islam and some arbitrarily chosen countries. They both refuse to acknowledge the complexity of overlapping, entangled cultural identities and political events.

This mechanical understanding of cultures is not based on empirical research and is causing a growing degree of division in societies. A closer, analytical look at conflicts in the Middle East would highlight the Western bias underpinning Huntington and Trump’s positions.

To better understand current conflicts in the Middle East and the rise of terrorist organisations like ISIS, one must bear in mind the historical context. Only with a long-term perspective can one make sense of how Western imperialist projections resulted in overstretched interference and mismanagement. To give a concrete example, the rise of ISIS can be partly derived from the US-led intervention’s mismanaged peace-keeping and democratisation projects, as suggested by Chomsky (2015). Furthermore, long before, the 1916 French-British Sykes-Picot Agreement artificially constructed a border between Syria and Iraq, which is now a major reason for ethnic and strategic contention between the two Middle-Eastern states, both of which have seen a strong ISIS presence.

The historical legacy which shaped the Syrian-Iraqi border exemplifies a Western imperialist tradition that is far from reconciling with a complex reality. The Trump administration should empirically engage with the issue of security and terrorism, including learning from history and Western intervention in the region. In a similar vein, the current “new” cold war between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran encounters the same danger of oversimplification. While the actors tend to view the present conflict in Yemen as concerning the two major branches of Islam, a closer look tells a different story: the Houthi rebels of the Zaidi sect, which is predominantly Shia-led, will fight against Sunnis if this is to their pragmatic advantage and build alliances with opposition groups whether they are Sunni or Shia (Al Batati). This deconstructs a vision of religion in this case Islam that is monolithic and stretches uniformly and uncontestedly from Kabul to Casablanca, from Tunis to Jakarta.

Trump’s travel ban has caused domestic and international unrest, and worse, is fulfilling a prophecy which is inherently ahistorical and inexact in its analysis. The broad opposition to this executive order demonstrated that this top-down initiative deeply affected some Americans, and many citizens have proven their ability to protest against this artificial and simplistic portrayal of reality.

Luca Lo Scavo and Caroline Guillet are graduate students in International Relations and Diplomacy at Leiden University.

Photo by Fibonacci Blue