Any of these conflicts might seem limited when they start, but given the cultural differences involved, at any time they could turn into a broader cultural war involving not a small part of the Middle East but all of it, and that sort of war would be a major threat to world civilization, a Huntington shows in his book.
Khater (2004) offers a look at many documents of Middle Eastern history, documents written by participants and observers of events and trends from the eighteenth to the twentieth century. A survey of these documents helps show how the West has gotten the issues wrong numerous times an how the Islamic countries fail to understand the nature of the West at the same time. Of particular note are the many diplomatic cables and other correspondence addressing the situation in Iran before the revolution and the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in the 1970s, showing how wrong the West had the situation and so demonstrating much about what would happen later. Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, as they say, but seeing how wrongly events were viewed at the time does not instill confidence that the West has it any more right when looking at the current situation.
Huntington does say Islam has bloody borders and notes the many fault line wars in the region, counting some 32 such conflicts during the Cold War. He sees such wars as emerging in areas where even minor cultural differences can become a source of conflict, and he further states, "Intense antagonisms and violent conflicts are pervasive between local Muslim and non-Muslim people" (Huntington, 1996, p. 255). The current conflict in the region is an example, and the long-standing enmity between much of Islam and Israel shows how such conflicts can become ingrained and foster even more conflict with supporters of Israel, as has happened since the creation of that state in 1948.
We may see Islamic states as less modernized and so more given to the need to have enemies as an internally unifying force, but this would be wrong. We can see in our own history how the same forces apply, as has been the case since the end of the Cold War. As the Communist world lost power, Americans looked elsewhere for enemies. Enemies serve to have a unifying effect on a largely heterogeneous people, and the Communist threat allowed Americans to decide who they themselves were, what they stood for, and to do so by comparing themselves to the enemy. Without that enemy, this imposed and somewhat false unity can disappear.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. notes the end of the tensions of the Cold War era and finds that we are in the process of exchanging one set of hatreds for another. There are always new ideologies to challenge democracy. This is evident in portions of Eastern Europe where long dormant ethnic hatreds have surfaced, as in Bosnia, and in the Middle East today:
The disappearance of ideological competition in the third world removes superpower restraints on national and tribal confrontations. As the era of ideological conflict subsides, humanity enters... A possibly more dangerous era of ethnic and racial animosity. (Schlesinger, 1992, pp. 9-10)
Given that both East and West are subject to many of the same internal forces, the idea of conflict can itself be a part of the cultural make-up of various nation-states and can cross boundaries as we see ourselves as part of something larger, in this case the idea of Western civilization, in opposition to the forces of unreason represented by a different cultural system. That system has much the same response to the West, again seeing it as a threat to the way of life they have created and prize. The fears raised by Huntington's thesis are very real, and the road to overcoming them long and difficult.
Cleveland, W.L. (1999). A History of the Modern Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
Gelvin, J.L. (2008). The Modern Middle East: A History. New York, (2nd Edition) Oxford University Press.
Gumley, F. & Redhead, B. (1992). The Pillars of Islam. London: BBC Books.
Huntington, S.P. (1993, Summer). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, 22-49.
Huntington, S.P. (1996). The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Khater, a.F. (ed.) (2004). Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East. New York: Houghton-Mifflin.