A Clash of Systems: An Analytical Framework to Demystify the Radical Islamist Threat

By Harvey, Andrew; Sullivan, Ian et al. | Parameters, Autumn 2005 | Go to article overview

A Clash of Systems: An Analytical Framework to Demystify the Radical Islamist Threat


Harvey, Andrew, Sullivan, Ian, Groves, Ralph, Parameters


In the Winter 2004-05 issue of Parameters, Philip Seib makes a laudable effort to establish the imperative for journalists, policymakers, and the American public to "undertake a more sophisticated analysis of how the world works." (1) This is critical because the analytical framework adopted by the media and policymakers has a direct effect on how they approach news coverage and frame discussions regarding the threat posed by radical Islamist extremists. This in turn directly affects public opinion in the United States and the world, which in the context of a war of ideas is directly related to the success or failure of both sides. Professor Seib also pointed out the fact that the "clash of civilizations" theory espoused by Samuel Huntington has been widely criticized, and this article rejects it as an appropriate analytical framework. Our purpose is to provide an alternative framework that portrays the current global conflict as a clash of systems, not civilizations.

The central danger of accepting Huntington's model as a basis for analysis is that it is the chosen model of radical Islamists, who in turn use it to mobilize support. If a clash of civilizations is accepted in the West--or worse, accepted by the populations in Muslim states--then the forces attempting to overturn the global system could eventually succeed. Success, however, is not battalions of extremist Islamists marching down Pennsylvania Avenue; rather, it is the replacement of "apostate" regimes with an Islamic Caliphate, which can occur only once the current US-led global system is destroyed. Therefore, it is imperative that the wider global war on terror focus on the systemic implications of the struggle, which provides a credible methodology to address and mitigate the root causes that fuel the ideology of extremist Islamism.

Many authors have identified the imminent threat posed to the United States by radical Islamists in the ongoing Global War on Terrorism, and a number of them have described it as a war of ideas. What is lacking in the ongoing discourse, however, is a conceptual framework necessary for an in-depth analysis of the basic conflict. The current threat environment is based on a clash of systems between the US-led global system, in which the phenomenon of globalization has created unprecedented connectivity and prosperity in the developed world, and those who oppose this system and wish to replace it with another paradigm. The ideology seeking to overthrow the global system is extremist Islamism. (2) It is put into action by transnational Islamist terrorists as well as regional and indigenous extremists, who wish to replace the secular, US-led global system with an Islamist world order. States along the periphery of the US-led system, where Western liberal democratic ideology and values underlying globalization directly clash with radical Islamism, constitute the main battleground. This is where the primary objective of US national power should be aimed: at convincing the undecided multitudes that becoming part of the global system is a better option than fighting against it. In order to prevent states and populations in this periphery from accepting integration into the global system, radical Islamists attempt to frame the ongoing conflict as a clash of civilizations.

Clash of Systems Framework

The first part of this framework is to establish that there is an international system made up of states and non-state actors. Though there is no world government, rules that guide interactions among these actors on the world stage do exist. (3) These are formed either by consensus (norms of international law and commerce) or are imposed by a major power such as the United Kingdom in the 19th century and the United States in the 20th. (4) This system includes not only norms of interaction, international law, and treaties, but also institutions. The most important aspects of the post-World War II world system are the West's multinational organizations. …

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