NEW PODCAST LIVE NOW Reflecting on the Good Friday Agreement

Manufacturing a Clash of Civilisations: Lecture Transcription

Published October 24, 2017 by Dr Julian Hargreaves

Manufacturing a Clash of Civilisations

Festival of Ideas

Saturday 21 October 2017

Faculty of Law, University of Cambridge


Thank you. Good afternoon. My name is Dr Julian Hargreaves; I am Research Fellow at the Woolf Institute, an Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, and a member of St Edmunds College.

I study British Muslim communities and have written journal articles and conference papers on anti-Muslim violence, the discrimination of Muslim women in public places, relations between British Muslim communities and the British state. By way of an example, my most recent study uses statistics from the Crime Survey of England and Wales to examine police stop and search among young British Muslim men.

Over the course of the next few minutes, I will attempt to persuade you that within the context of studying British Muslim communities the Clash of Civilisations debate has been given a level of prominence that it does not deserve. I will argue that Clash of Civilisation theories as offered by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis are too simplistic to be used as tools to explain the causes and consequences of anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred. But, I will also argue that scholars who attempt to provide a counter-narrative to the Clash of Civilisations theory do little to help victims of anti-Muslim hatred. In fact, I would go further and say that a fixation on the Clash of Civilisations debate has become something of an intellectual diversion among academics: an academic game with little of any practical use for British Muslim communities.

Ladies and gentlemen, the purpose of this short talk is not to antagonise my fellow panel members. I'm not suggesting that everyone's wrong or that nobody knows anything. Instead, I hope to raise a few points that will perhaps begin a discussion around the nature and role of academic research in this area. I will put forward a case for the increased use of empirical data within debates around British Muslim communities and a greater consideration of local factors. In order to put my money where my mouth is, or at least to put my research where my mouth is, I wish to support my arguments with some discussion of recent fieldwork conducted in Blackburn.

Overall, I argue that both sides in the Clash of Civilisations debate have raised the temperature on discussion of topics related to British Muslim communities without necessarily illuminating those same topics. In short, it is my submission that debates around the Clash of Civilisations shed more heat than light.

The 'Clash of Civilisations' debate

Before I turn to my recent fieldwork in Blackburn and my arguments about the use of empirical data I would like to say a few words about the Clash of Civilisations theory as it relates to British Muslims and Islam. My fellow panel member did a very good job of summarising the Clash of Civilisations theory, but I thought it might be worth revisiting very briefly one of the key texts, an essay by Bernard Lewis.

Whilst it is Huntington's development of the Clash of Civilisations theory that has attracted most attention beginning with his essay in Foreign Affairs in 1993, Bernard Lewis used the term three years earlier in his essay for the same journal. Lewis argues, not very persuasively I may add, that most Muslims resent the West, and that most Muslims reject Western civilisation and view its principles and values as 'innately evil'. Westerners, claims Lewis, are viewed as the 'enemies of God'. For Lewis, the struggle between 'the Muslim world' and Europe represents an unbroken history reaching back fourteen centuries. Lewis uses this history to explain his perception of the widespread anti-Americanism and anti-Westernism which, he claims, are now shared across the Muslim world, with Muslims accusing the West of sexism, racism and imperialism.

This is all summarised by Lewis as a situation in which fundamentalist leaders in the Muslim world now see Western civilisation, with its secularism and its modernism, as the greatest challenge to the way of life they wish for their people. In Lewis' own words, 'the perhaps irrational but surely historical reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both'.

Applications of the 'Clash of Civilisation' debate

Thinking around the Clash of Civilisation theory has informed much discussion around Islamophobia in the UK. Let me offer one or two quick examples. An edited work on Islamophobia published in 2011 and available in many university libraries features some of the big names in the study of Muslims and Islam. The edited work features 17 references to a clash of cultures or civilisations that either directly reference Huntington's and Lewis' work or otherwise use their theories to establish discussion around anti-Muslim prejudice and violence.  

One of the most important reports on Islamophobia in the UK was published by the Runnymede Trust in 1997. It is, arguably, the most influential single document in the study of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice and violence in the UK – with hundreds of citations in the last 10 years alone. The Runnymede Trust report sets out various definitions of Islamophobia using Huntington's work to support assertions around the nature of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice.

A debate in the New York Times and New Yorker offers a more recent example of the Clash of Civilisations debate. Roger Cohen wrote an article entitled, 'Islam and the West at War' in which he describes the 'abject failure of the Arab world'. This description was rejected by Robert Wright writing in the New Yorker, one of the first to review Huntington's book in the 90s. He describes Cohen's conclusions as melodramatic.

A few weeks ago in the Huffington Post a contributor (Abdullah Sharif, author and former diplomat) used a recent speech by Trump and the Clash of Civilisations theory to highlight new manifestations of Islamophobia. Sharif's counter-argument included a reminder to readers that both Muslims and non-Muslims contributed towards the development of science.

What I hoped to have demonstrated here is that the Clash of Civilisations theory is often front and centre in the most visible debates around Muslims and Islam – with scholars and commentators often spending a good deal of energy refuting and debunking it. Students of Islamophobia, racism and intergroup relations between Muslims and non-Muslims will invariably encounter the Clash of Civilisations debate – in fact it is hard to avoid it. One could even argue that the only reason for the longevity and reach of the Clash of Civilisations theory is the force with which it has been opposed: it is its opponents which have given the theory its power.

Blackburn case study

I'd like now to turn now to my fieldwork in Blackburn to show why neither side in this debate offers much to the study of British Muslim communities. Blackburn is a town in North West England with a population of around 113,000. It is a former mill town and an almost stereotypical example of post-industrialisation. Unemployment there is higher than in others parts of the country; health indicators suggest a place with lower wellbeing than elsewhere; and life expectancy in Blackburn is lower than the national average.

Blackburn has a reputation for being ethnically diverse and ethnically segregated. In fact, it has been called the most segregated place in Britain. Despite the town's overall diversity there are areas which are almost exclusively white and areas where 95% of residents are of South Asian heritage. The question for us this afternoon is this – to what extent does the Clash of Civilisations debate help us to understand Blackburn?

First of all, let us turn to the issue of segregation. Given that the dominant religion among South Asian communities in Blackburn is Islam, does the segregation suggest some form of clash of cultures, some immutable and irreconcilable difference between Muslims and non-Muslims? I would argue no. Large-scale migration from South Asia to Blackburn began in the 1950s as people pursued opportunities in the town's textile industry. New communities with mosques, halal butchers and networks of family support attracted South Asian newcomers through the 1960s and 1970s.

There is much debate around the present situation in Blackburn. For some, the segregated nature of the town is caused by 'white flight' from areas that have seen increased numbers of South Asian households. Local residents and local authority staff have given me accounts of suspicion, mutual distrust and hostility between the two dominant social groups – white and South Asian. However, for others, segregation in Blackburn is no more than expressions of social and cultural preference. There are those who perceive workplaces, schools, local youth projects, and sports clubs to be the sites of good integration. Although there is a recognised problem of prejudice and hostility across various forms of local online media, reported cases of violent anti-Muslim hate crime are lower in Blackburn than in some nearby towns and cities. Clashes, whether of civilisation, culture or any other types appear to be relatively uncommon. There is also little evidence for a wholesale rejection of Western values among Blackburn's Muslim communities.

Whatever your views on Blackburn, the issues facing residents involve a complex set of factors about which the Clash of Civilisations says nothing: post-colonial migration; post-industrialisation; demographic change; social and economic deprivation; and the lack of local authority resources. Where prejudices exist in Blackburn we must consider an equally complex set of explanatory factors: shifting patterns of identity and diversity; the presence and visibility of cultural difference; the segregated nature of residential areas; the suspicions aroused through separation. Where anti-Muslim hatred exists in Blackburn we must consider current factors: the recent terrorist attacks in the UK; ongoing conflicts across the Middle East; local patterns of internet and social media use; and the effectiveness of the town's hate crime reporting and support services. These considerations are denied to us if we fixate either on great sweeping historical narratives concerning Islam and the West or on crafting counter-arguments to these problematic theories.


Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in the UK are contingent on a myriad of political, social and economic factors and the solutions to issues around anti-Muslim prejudice and hostility require practical steps that engage with insights from local people and upon fostering meaningful encounter between diverse groups. Huntington and Lewis can't teach us much about this stuff, but neither can many of their opponents.

Back to Blog