The News Media and the "Clash of Civilizations"

By Seib, Philip | Parameters, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

The News Media and the "Clash of Civilizations"


Seib, Philip, Parameters


The "call to jihad is rising in the streets of Europe, and is being answered," reported The New York Times in April 2004. The Times story quoted a Muslim cleric in Britain touting the "culture of martyrdom," ab imam in Switzerland urging his followers to "impose the will of Islam on the godless society of the West," and another radical Islamist leader in Britain predicting that "our Muslim brothers from abroad will come one day and conquer here, and then we will live under Islam in dignity." (1)

For those who believe that a clash of civilizations--particularly between Islam and the non-Islamic West--is under way or at least approaching, the provocative comments in the Times article were evidence that "the clash" is not merely a figment of an overheated political imagination. Ever since Samuel Huntington presented his theory about such a clash in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993, debate has continued about whether his ideas are substantive or simplistic. For the news media, this debate is important because it helps shape their approach to covering the world.

News Coverage and the Huntington Debate

In Huntington's article, which he refined and expanded in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, he argued that "the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." (2) In the book, Huntington said that "culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world." Huntington's corollaries to this proposition, in summary form, are these:

* "For the first time in history, global politics is both multipolar and multicivilizational."

* As the balance of power among civilizations shifts, the relative influence of the West is declining.

* A world order is emerging that is civilization-based.

* "Universalist pretensions" are increasingly bringing the West into conflict with other civilizations, especially the Islamic world and China.

* If the West is to survive, America must reaffirm its Western identity and unite with other Westerners in the face of challenges from other civilizations. (3)

One reason that Huntington's clash theory initially had appeal was that policymakers, the news media, and others were moving uncertainly into the post-Cold War era without much sense of how the newest world order was taking shape. They were receptive to a new geopolitical scheme, particularly one that featured identifiable adversarial relationships that would supersede those being left behind.

The us-versus-them alignment of the Cold War's half-century had been convenient for the news media as well as for policymakers. The American perspective was that the bad guys operated from Moscow and its various outposts, while the good guys were based in Washington and allied countries. Not all the world accepted such a facile division, but those who did found it tidy and easy to understand. Many American news organizations shaped their coverage to conform to this worldview; there was Cold War journalism just as there was Cold War politics.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union, and other events marking the end of the Cold War, the news media found themselves searching for new ways to approach international coverage. New York Times foreign editor Bernard Gwertzman sent a memo to his staff in December 1992 calling for adjustments in coverage: "In the old days, when certain countries were pawns in the Cold War, their political orientation alone was reason enough for covering them. Now with their political orientation not quite as important, we don't want to forget them, but we have an opportunity to examine different aspects of a society more fully." (4)

But absent the Cold War's principal threat--possible nuclear conflict between the two superpowers--interest in international news became less acute. …

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