Throughout the so-called “war on terror,” the notion of a “clash of civilization” between Islam and the West has usually been dismissed as politically incorrect and intellectually wrongheaded. Instead, the most common interpretation has been that the world has entered a new era characterized by conflict “within” a particular civilization, namely Islam, with fundamentalist Muslims as much at war against moderates as against the West.
The strategic conclusion derived from such an analysis was clear, ambitious, and easily summarized: democratization. If the absence of democracy in the Islamic world was the problem, bringing democracy to the “Greater Middle-East would be the solution, and it was the historical duty of the United States, as the most powerful and moral nation, to bring about that necessary change. The status quo was untenable. Implementing democracy, with or without regime change, was the only alternative to chaos and the rise of fundamentalism.
Today, Iraq may be on the verge of civil war between Shiites and Sunnis. Iran under a new and more radical president is moving irresistibly towards possessing a nuclear capacity. A free electoral process brought Hamas to power in Palestine, and the unfortunate episode of the Danish newspaper cartoons illustrated the almost combustible nature of relations between Islam and the West.
All of these developments are paving the way to new interpretations. Rather than a “clash of civilizations,” we might instead be faced by multiple layers of conflict, which interact with each other in ways that increase global instability.