Paradigms do not have to be true to become accepted wisdom. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” is a case in point. When in 1993 Huntington first presented his notion that future international politics would be based on cultural conflicts — especially between Islam and the West — most commentators dismissed him as somewhat strange if not downright wrong. They pointed out that politics are made by states, and states pursue national interests not cultural goals. They also pointed out that “civilizations,” with their complexity, fluidity, porousness and inherent contradictions, could not be boiled down to simple essences — with “bellicosity” ascribed to Islam and the Magna Carta to the West. They further< pointed out that his paradigm was reminiscent of nineteenth-century social Darwinism, with Islam, Confucianism, Hinduism and Africa substituting for the yellow, brown and black perils. The politically correct word culture had merely replaced the politically incorrect word race. What is more, both paradigms took politics out of international politics. Some noted that Huntington did not even seem to consider African- and Latino Americans as members of Western civilization — even if they had lived in the US for over 200 years. [1]

Despite these realities, when September 11 struck, the mainstream media in the US — print and audiovisual, intellectual and popular, newspapers and journals, conservative and liberal — implicitly, automatically and unanimously adopted Huntington’s worldview. [2] Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations — without the questions mark that had appeared in his original article — became an instant bestseller. His former critics now praised him for “his cruel and acute observations” and for “looking the world in the eye.” He himself declared modestly that September 11 had “regrettably hastened the clash”; that he was not surprised the hijackers were educated since they were motivated by cultural hatreds; and that he was not taken aback by the violence since bloodshed was so associated with Islam, in Kosovo, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir and the Caucasus. [3]

Quality papers, such as the New York Times, ran one article after another with such titles as “This Is a Religious War,” “Yes, This Is About Islam,” “Islamic Rage,” “Muslim Rage,” “Islamic Anger,” “Muslim Anger,” “The Core of Islamic Rage,” “Jihad 101,” “The Deep Intellectual Roots of Islamic Terror,” “Faith and the Secular State,” “The Force of Islam,” “Kipling Knew What the US May Now Learn,” “Al-Jazeera: What the Muslim World Is Watching,” “The Real Cultural Wars,” “The Revolt of Islam,” “The One True Faith,” “The First Holy War” and “Feverish Protests Against the West Trace to Grievances Ancient and Modern.” The last three articles featured the same picture of Richard the Lionheart. If these articles did not search for the source of the crisis in theology, especially in the Quran, the hadith and the sharia, they found it in medieval history, especially in the Crusades. Contemporary politics got left out — a strange absence for daily newspapers.

The media had a field day with the last will and testament of Muhammad Atta, the hijackers’ leader. This letter exhorted his colleagues to pray and carry out their ablutions, purify their souls, consider their victims as “animal sacrifices” and recite the appropriate Quranic verses promising martyrs “eternal bliss.” [4] Few noticed that the authorities, for reasons known only to themselves, did not release the first half of the final will and testament. This did not prevent them from unanimously declaring that the hijackers had no political motives whatsoever. Even months later, Thomas Friedman, the in-house expert on the Middle East at the New York Times, was claiming that these terrorists had left no political demands precisely because they had none and that their real motive was “Muslim rage against Western civilization.” [5]

Rather than investigate further or even suspend judgment, the media resorted to Islam to frame the September 11 crisis and the presumed motives of the hijackers, and to answer the oft-posed question: “Why do they hate us?” What is more, a host of editorials, op-ed pieces, news items and supposedly analytical articles made vague but abundant references to Islam to explain a wide variety of social, economic and political ills found anywhere from Morocco to Indonesia. “Islam” framed the problem whether discussing autocracy, educational shortcomings, population explosions, youth unemployment and even the failure of science to develop in the Middle Ages.

The genre’s piece de resistance is an article in the New Republic written by David Landes, the renowned professor of history at Harvard and the author of the best-selling Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Entitled “Girl Power: Do Fundamentalists Fear Our Women?,” the eminent scholar argued in all seriousness that the 19 suicide hijackers had crashed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon because they were outraged by how well the West treated its women. The Muslim world, he declared, “feels threatened by this issue.” [6]

How can one explain Huntington’s triumph — one which goes well beyond the US media into the American literati and intelligentsia known to the press as the “attentive public”? One could argue that journalists, as well as their audience, share Huntington’s ingrained and old-fashioned cultural premises. Orientalism is alive and well. One could also argue that for journalists and their audiences, Huntington’s broad-brush strokes are easier to catch than cumbersome details of how numerous states behave in the real world. After all, the category of Islam purports to explain politics from Morocco to India, from Sudan to Central Asia, and not just politics. But explanations based on state and national interests would involve in the same region at least 27 political entities and ten major national groups. Such details would tax the attention span of most journalists, not to mention readers.

One could offer another, more cogent explanation. By placing the September 11 crisis in particular and the question “Why is the US so unpopular in the Middle East?” in general within the framework of Islam and the clash of civilizations, one can avoid the dreaded P word — Palestine — and the even more dreaded term “Occupied Territories.” In fact, right after September 11, the New York Times launched a new section called “A Nation Challenged,” devoted to “exploring the causes, solutions and trauma of the crisis.” This section lasted four full months and ran sundry articles on Islam — including Islamic theology and medieval history — but scrupulously avoided anything connecting the rise of radical political Islam with Israel and Palestine.

The many articles in this and other sections that addressed the causes of the crisis either ignored Palestine entirely, or referred to it in passing, or mentioned it only in order to dismiss it as a real issue. A piece entitled “Exploring the Flaws in the ‘Root Causes’ of Terror” began by claiming that it was silly to look for deep-seated reasons for such a horrendous crime. It continued by ridiculing those who thought that US policy toward Israel had anything to do with the crisis, and concluded by insisting that the root cause of the hijackings did come from “a totalitarian religion.” [7] Only one full-length article in the New York Times discussed September 11 in the context of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Entitled “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism,” it equated anyone who linked September 11 to the Palestinian issue with the Nazis who had blamed the Jews for World War II. [8] In the words of the Guardian, American journalists find any linking of September 11 to the Palestinian plight to be “morally questionable.” [9]

Few dared to cross the taboo line. When a Saudi prince, in donating $10 million to the families of the World Trade Center victims mentioned the P word, Rudolph Giuliani, then mayor of New York, promptly returned the money and denounced him for “justifying the horror.” The State Department added that any linking of the attacks to US policy was “inappropriate and objectionable.” [10] Similarly, when Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) raised the possibility that US support for Israel may have had something to do with the attacks, she was promptly trounced by fellow politicians for “crossing the line,” “undermining the war” and “giving comfort to the enemy.” [11]

This severance of the Palestinian plight from September 11 fitted in nicely with the official mantra that “we are attacked not because of what we do but because of who we are.” George W. Bush, in his immaculately well-prepared address to a joint meeting of Congress, began with the question “Why are we being attacked?” His answer was that “enemies of freedom” are threatening “civilization because we believe in progress, pluralism and tolerance.” [12] The P word never intruded. In his followup address to the UN, Bush declared the war to be in defense of “civilization” — he used the word no less than five times — and ended with “we face enemies that hate not our policies, but our existence, our tolerance of openness and our creative culture.”

Nineteenth-century social Darwinism suffered a major setback with the outbreak of World War I. Awkward phenomena such as state interests, national enmities and imperial rivalries revealed the hollowness of a paradigm built upon the dubious concept of race. We may be at the onset of a similar setback for the equally dubious concept of the clash of civilizations. For a full six months after September 11, the US media was unanimous in casting the crisis in the context of Islam and civilizational conflict. But recent events, namely the reoccupation of the West Bank, the siege of Arafat, the destruction of Jenin and, most potent of all, the blatant talk of ethnic cleansing, of learning from the Germans in the Warsaw ghetto and of refusing to “ever accept a Palestinian state” have made it all but impossible for the US media to avoid the dreaded P word. Awkward facts have a nasty tendency to poke holes in inflated paradigms — hopefully without the need for another international war.


[1] See map on p. 205 in Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997).
[2] The one notable exception was the Christian Science Monitor. See Peter Ford, “Why Do They Hate Us?” Christian Science Monitor, September 27, 2001.
[3] New York Times, October 20, 2001.
[4] New York Times, September 29, 2001.
[5] Thomas Friedman, “No Mere Terrorist,” New York Times, March 24, 2002.
[6] David Landes, “Girl Power: Do Fundamentalists Fear Our Women?,” The New Republic, October 8, 2001.
[7] Edward Rothstein, “Exploring the Flaws in the ‘Root Causes’ of Terror,” New York Times, November 17, 2001.
[8] Jonathan Rosen, “The Uncomfortable Question of Anti-Semitism,” New York Times, November 4, 2001.
[9] Guardian Weekly, March 14-20, 2002.
[10] New York Times, September 17, 2001.
[11] New York Times, October 18, 2001.
[12] New York Times, September 21, 2001.

How to cite this article:

Ervand Abrahamian "The US Media, Samuel Huntington and September 11," Middle East Report 223 (Summer 2002).

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