Through the Looking Glass: The Clash of Civilizations Narrative in Extremist Worldviews


Orwa Ajoub and James Root


At a crowded mosque on a Friday, as Muslims gathered for the Jumu'ah prayers, bullets rang out from an extremist’s gun and shattered the peace and tranquillity, marking the deadliest terrorist attack in the nation’s history. This describes both the attack on the al-Noor mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white supremacist terrorist on the 15th March 2019, and the attack on the al-Rawda mosque in Northern Sinai, Egypt, by an alleged IS terror cell on the 24th November 2017. While these attacks differed in size and motivation, the shared belief in the use of violence and the turn to terrorism for extremist groups invites comparisons, in order to uncover the similarities and differences in patterns of radicalization and turns to violence.

Rather than focusing on the operational and organizational aspects of the use of violence, and the mechanisms of transmission of extreme ideas, as is the focus for many counter-terrorism studies and groups, in this article we focus on the ideas and worldviews of terrorist groups and individuals themselves, and how they use these to justify committing their atrocities. Salafi-Jihadis[1]  and white supremacists see the world in a way reminiscent of Samuel Huntington’s 1996 “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, which posited that in the post-Cold War era, world conflicts would emerge between “civilizations” rather than between nation-states and ideologies. While this has not yet become the dominant narrative of global politics,[2] the horrific violence carried out by those in the fringes of society who adopt this worldview should serve as a warning of the catastrophic consequences should Huntington’s hypothesis come to pass.

For this analysis we have looked at four statements from Salafi-Jihadi groups about the Christchurch terror attack, including one from IS, two from Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), and one from Hurras al-Din (a jihadi group in Syria aligned with AQC). We complemented this by looking at the “manifesto” published by the attacker in Christchurch, the “manifesto” of Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who carried out the 2011 Norway attacks, and reactions to the attacks from the Daily Stormer, a white nationalist/white supremacist online blog and magazine. We have made the ethical decision not to share links or references to the sources in question to avoid driving traffic to them.

 We begin this article with a discussion of the concept of radicalisation and follow with analysis of texts and speeches from Salafi-Jihadi and white supremacist groups and individuals. We outline the similarities in their worldviews with regards to history, conspiracy, and narratives of the modern world, drawing on ideas from Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilisations” as well as Thomas Hegghammer’s concept of “macro-nationalism”.


Radicalisation


The terms “radicalism”, “extremism”, and “terrorism” lack clear academic definitions or indeed clear popular definitions, with the terms and their derivatives (radicals, extremists, terrorists) often used interchangeably or inconsistently.[3] There has been, for example, a wide discussion of the use of the term terrorist to describe individuals who carry out these attacks, with clear examples of the media and public commentariat in the West using the term much more readily to describe Islamist-inspired violence than that carried out by white supremacist or far-right individuals and groups.[4] This article is not the place for an attempt to more clearly define these terms, though the two authors prefer the terms “extremist” and “terrorist” to describe the Christchurch attacker and other white supremacist/far right or radical Islamist who have carried out similar attacks.

The term radicalisation, however, has been defined more clearly by Mark Sedgwick as the process by which “usually in a situation of political polarisation, normal practices of dialogue, compromise and tolerance between political actors and groups with diverging interests are abandoned by one or both sides in a conflict dyad in favour of a growing commitment to engage in confrontational tactics of conflict-waging.”[5] The process of radicalisation can lead to individuals or groups becoming described as radicals, extremists, or terrorists, depending on their subsequent actions and beliefs. Sedgwick also notes that the process of radicalisation is “generally accompanied by an ideological socialisation away from mainstream- or status quo-oriented positions towards more radical or extremist positions involving a dichotomous world view.”[6] It is the contents of this ideological socialisation which is the focus of the remainder of this article.


Narrative of Threat and Invasion


As highlighted in other recent articles,[7] both Salafi-Jihadis and white supremacists construct a narrative of threat and invasion to justify their violent acts. Radical Islamists point to military interventions and occupations in Muslim-majority countries, as well as attacks like the one in Christchurch, to present Muslims as victims as a result of their religious identity. Statements from (AQC), Hurras al-Deen and IS reflect their fear of the enemy, represented by “the Americans, Zionist and extremist Crusaders” and “infidels with all their sects and faiths.” AQC starts its statement by the following verse of the Quran, inciting Muslims to jihad and legitimizing it as self-defence: “To those against whom war is made, permission is given (to fight), because they are wronged;—and verily, Allah is Most Powerful for their aid.” The enemies in this war, they claim, will never cease fighting against Muslims until they turn away from their religion. For al-Hurras, the Christchurch attack was part of an endless “War of Faith”, in which Christians will never be satisfied until Muslims convert away from Islam. To confirm this, Hurras al-Deen cites the following verse which also warns Muslims against their enemy: “Nor will they cease fighting you until they turn you back from your faith if they can. And if any of you turn back from their faith and die in unbelief, their works will bear no fruit in this life and in the Hereafter.”

This narrative of the conflict has been mirrored by the white supremacist with different description and connotation of the battling parties. White supremacists argue that the migration of Muslim populations to Europe and other areas of the “West” (including the United States, Australia, and New Zealand) constitutes an invasion which must be stopped. This ranges from arguments about the impossibility of cultural assimilation or multiculturalism, to the “Great Replacement” (White Genocide) conspiracy theory which seems to have motivated the Christchurch terrorist. This “theory” contends that “globalist elites” have conspired to allow large waves of non-white migration to “white countries” with the intention of eliminating the “white race”.

Through the narrative of threat and invasion, both groups are able to justify targeting civilians and non-military personnel. AQ asks “Muslim youth” to target “Crusader fighters” in their bases and headquarters, and not in their churches and centres of worship, its statement giving the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks as an example to follow as if the cartoonists were fighters in a military base. IS spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir has not specified any rules for carrying out the revenge the war against “Crusaders”. Al-Hurras adopts what AQC calls the morality of war through which “Muslims respect and follow the Islamic rules of war” forbidding “killing women, children, the elderly, and clerics in their worship places.” They claim that the Christchurch attack shows that “the infidels have no principles, and this attack is part of their nature and faith.”

Within the manifesto of the Christchurch attacker, he makes a distinction between armed and unarmed invaders, claiming in fact that the unarmed invaders (i.e. migrants/refugees) are more dangerous as they cannot be killed legitimately according to prevailing liberal ideology and morality. Following his belief in the “Great Replacement Theory” however, he insists that people should “not fret on the manner of how victory is achieved, all methods are possible, in the face of ethnic genocide, all morality is ambiguous.” Supportive posts on the Daily Stormer call him a hero, claiming that “he did what the authorities in our countries should be doing to assure the safety and continuity of our civilization and people.”

The narrative of threat and invasion is used to justify extraordinary, violent acts against unarmed civilians, which otherwise would not be permissible. AQC urge Muslim youth to “tell the world through words and actions” that Muslims are merciful and that they are not “blood shedders”. However, the statement stresses that bloody revenge shall be carried out only “to preserve Muslims’ life” which is the target of their enemy. Indeed, AQC, al-Hurras and IS to a certain degree depict their role in their war as the protectors of the religion and territories. “We fight those who fight us in religion, and remove us from our lands”, concludes AQC statement. Furthermore, the Christchurch attacker claims in his manifesto that he does not hate Muslims “living in their homelands”, but rather dislikes those who “invade our lands live on our soil and replace our people”, while reserving his hatred for converts who “turn their backs on their heritage”.


A Revisionist Historical Worldview


For both groups however, the narrative of threat and invasion is not just something that has emerged since the US-led interventions in the Middle East or recent waves of migration to the West. There is a perception of a long historical enmity in which both groups narrate a continuous civilizational conflict stretching back to the earliest days of Islam. Thomas Hegghammer uses the concept of “macro-nationalism” to discuss the ideologies of Anders Breivik and al-Qaeda, describing it as “a variant of nationalism applied to clusters of nation-states held together by a notion of shared identity, like ‘the West’ or the ‘ummah.’”[8] They support their narratives of a current threat with historical reference points, including many shared historical memories between the groups such the Umayyad conquest of Andalusia, the Crusades, and the 1453 capture of Constantinople. This use of historical narrative and identification with past struggles is essential to the ideological socialisation away from mainstream worldviews; as Eric Hobsbawm said with regards to nationalism, “Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are to heroin addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the market.”[9] The role of the historian is similar for other processes of identification with religion, race, and “civilisations”.

The Christchurch attack, according to radical Islamists, is an episode in the conflict between the “righteous Islam” and the “polytheist and infidel Crusaders”. In his response to the Christchurch attack, Adnan Hadid, an AQ affiliated ideologue, draws on historical examples to claim that the conflict between Islam and the west is eternal, civilizational, and ideological. Hadid points out that it was the white man who travelled around the world to ‘civilise’ indigenous peoples, but instead killed them and exploited their lands. The white man has not changed, contends Hadid, but has equipped himself with the ‘crusaders mentality’ which is filled with hatred and enmity against Muslims. Hadid believes that there is no difference between the perpetrator of the Christchurch attack and the French leader Gouraud, who entered Damascus in 1920 heading to the tomb of Salah al-Din Al-Ayoubi, “and he kicked him with his feet: “Oh, we have returned, Salahuddin”, or Charles de Gaulle’s slaughtering of a million and a half Muslims in Algeria when they demanded their freedom, or even Mussolini killing “half of the Libyan Muslim population.” In keeping with the “macro-nationalist” ideology, the examples are drawn from across both the Western and Muslim world.

To bolster his claim about the eternity of the conflict and its ideological roots in history, Hadid asserts that ’crusaders’ want with each murder the declaration of revenge for the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottoman Turks, and vengeance for the 711 defeat in the Battle of Guadalete, which began the Umayyad conquest of Andalusia. Constantinople also features in the manifesto of the Christchurch terrorist, who claims that “We are coming for Constantinople and we will destroy every mosque and minaret in the city” after which “the Hagia Sophia will be free of minarets and Constantinople will be rightfully Christian owned once more.”

The Christchurch terrorist claimed in his manifesto that his attack was “revenge against Islam for the 1300 years of war and devastation that it has brought upon the people of the West and other peoples of the world.” Recognising the importance of historical narrative, he insists that “victors write the history and the writers of history control the cultural climate of the present time.” The drive to revise historical narratives to suit the notion of perpetual conflict includes arguments by Anders Breivik that the Crusades were a “defensive campaign” to protect Christians from aggression by Muslims, a historically false claim but one with currency even in more “mainstream” politics.[10] Breivik situates the Crusades alongside the 732 Battle of Poitiers/Tours, and the 1683 Siege of Vienna, as crucial moments in which the Christian West successfully defended itself against aggressive Muslim expansionism. Situating themselves within these grand historical narratives, figures like the Christchurch terrorist claim legitimacy for their own actions as a necessary continuation of what they perceive as the eternal, historic struggle between Christianity and Islam.


Each to Their Place


Underpinning both the historical narratives and the contemporary narrative of invasion is the idea of exclusive civilizational spaces, and an attack on the notion of multiculturalism or peaceful co-existence. Both radical groups call for violent revenge as the only means to preserve their identities, and distance the enemy from “their” geographical and cultural spaces. While calling on Muslims to take revenge for the Christchurch attacks, IS spokesman Abu Hassan al-Muhajir nevertheless criticises Muslims who are “intrigued” by life in “polytheists’ lands”, inciting them to “take vengeance for their religion and for the sons of their Ummah” rather than continuing to live passively in the West.

 

Along similar lines, white supremacists on the Daily Stormer claimed that the Christchurch attack was “six million times more justified” than Islamist terror attacks because “they were in his country”. The Christchurch terrorist’s manifesto makes repeated reference to the notion of “European lands” (which seems to include Australia, New Zealand, and all areas generally considered “the West”), and states to Turks that while they “can live in peace in [their] own lands”, if they attempt to “live in European lands, anywhere west of the Bosphorus, we will kill you and drive you roaches from our lands.” Throughout the writings of the far-right there are attacks on the notion of multiculturalism, with the Daily Stormer claiming that the Christchurch attacker “is not a product of “hate,” he is the natural product of a multicultural society. Period.” In their worldview, Muslims and White/Christian/Westerners cannot coexist peacefully in the same geographical space, and this impossibility has driven civilizational conflict throughout history.

 One of the most heavily criticised elements of Huntingdon’s “Clash of Civilisations” thesis was its essentialist division of the world into clear and distinct civilisations with little space for understanding how civilisations and cultures have historically interacted and changed.[11] This essentialist division is replicated by both Salafi-Jihadis and far-right/white supremacists who tie cultural and civilizational identity to fixed geographical spaces, and seek to create monocultural areas free of their cultural enemies.


Conclusion: A Clash of Civilizations Narrative?


The writings and ideologies of Salafi-Jihadi and far-right/white supremacist groups share common “macro-nationalist” or civilizational understandings of history and the contemporary world. Through narratives of threat and invasion, both groups claim to be defending their own civilisations from attack by outsiders. These shared narratives are underpinned by a warped, but deep, sense of history and the importance of heritage, and are motivated by a desire for revenge for actions carried out long ago. Moving beyond the ideology motivating those at the extremes of our societies to engage in horrific acts of terror, we also need to challenge the historical narratives of perpetual conflict in which the ideology and identity of extremists are rooted.

 

While the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis was rightly criticised and debunked by the scholarly community, clearly it has lived on as a discourse animating extremist groups at the fringes of modern society. The development of a “macro-nationalist” or civilizational worldview or ideology merits further study, and future research could and should explore how these discourses of a never-ending conflict between fundamentally incompatible groups are shaped and formed. Can we find some of the roots of these perspectives in the ways in which history is taught and discussed? How are they reinforced through culture, media, and politics? The catastrophic consequences of the adoption of a “Clash of Civilisations” worldview are clear to see in the actions of terrorists, from the far-right to the radical islamist. Challenging these worldviews needs to go beyond scholarly rebuttals to the theory itself, to understanding how they become adopted in the first place.


AUTHORS


  • Orwa Ajjoub is an affiliated researcher at the center for Middle Eastern Studies in Lund university. In 2018, Orwa graduated from the same institution where he defended his Master’s thesis which looks at the theological aspect of the split between Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS in 2013. Although his interest has been mainly focused on Salafi-Jihadi groups in the Middle East, Orwa wrote some articles about the Syrian society during the war and particularly about Syrian LGBTQ in Europe. His work was published on different media websites such as Syria Deeply, Huffington Post and World Policy. During the last two years, Orwa has participated in two academic conferences where he discussed al-Qaeda presence in Syria. In addition to writing journalistic articles, Orwa is currently working on an academic report discussing the future menace of the Islamic state and other Salafi-Jihadi groups such al-Qaeda.

  • James Root recently graduated with an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Lund University, Sweden, with his thesis "Imagining a Revolutionary Iran: National Narratives in the Revolutionary Discourses of the Mojahedin-e Khalq". His research interests include Iranian history, cultural and historical sociology, nationalism, and the uses of history in political discourse.


FOOTNOTES


[1] There has been an academic debate regarding the term Salafi-jihadism and what makes a group Salafi-Jihadi. This report adopts Shiraz Maher’s argument through which he contends that five features characterize Salafi-Jihadism namely: Jihad, Tawhid or monotheism, takfir or excommunication, al-Hakimiyya or applying Allah’s rule, and Wala wal Baraa or loyalty to Muslims and disavowal to non-Muslims. For further elaboration see, Shiraz Maher (2016) Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea

[2] Although the idea does have a growing influence - see rise of “identarians” and alt/far right in Europe/USA, Dugin’s “Eurasianism” in Russia, neo-Ottomanism in Turkey, notion of “Shia Crescent”/”Axis of Resistance” in Iran/Middle East

https://theintercept.com/2017/02/11/as-tensions-rise-steve-bannon-and-isis-get-closer-to-their-common-goal-civilizational-war/

[3] The BBC editorial guidelines for the language to use when covering acts of terrorism discusses this in detail: https://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidance/terrorism-language/guidance-full

[4] https://www.justsecurity.org/63499/how-news-media-talk-about-terrorism-what-the-evidence-shows/

[5] Mark Sedgwick (2010) “The Concept of Radicalization as a Source of Confusion, Terrorism and Political Violence”, 22:4, 479-494, DOI: 10.1080/09546553.2010.491009

[6] Mark Sedgwick (2010) “The Concept of Radicalization”

[7] See for example: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2019/03/22/feature/how-white-supremacy-and-islamist-terrorism-strengthen-each-other-online/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.8c9b2f7497f4

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/opinion/sunday/the-rise-of-the-macro-nationalists.html

[9] Eric Hobsbawm, “Ethnicity and Nationalism in Europe Today,” in Mapping the Nation, ed. G. Balakrishnan (London: Verso, 1996), 255.

[10] See for example: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-rubenstein/myths-about-crusade-myths_b_1031722.html

[11] https://www.thenation.com/article/clash-ignorance/