In 1993, on the heels of the demise of the Soviet Union, Foreign Affairs published an essay by little publicly-known political scientist. The hypothesis of his piece was that the coming “great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural...[and that] the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” Samuel Huntington’s paper was titled The Clash of Civilizations?, with a soon to be removed question mark indicating the possible uncertainty of the premise.

An analysis that focuses on abstract entities such as ‘civilizations’ as opposed to state and individual actors is bound to be reductive. Consequently, there has been much legitimate criticism of Huntington’s simplifications, not least from the historian Bernard Lewis, the man responsible for coining the term that provided the title for the piece. But the theory persisted, despite the fact that most of the conflicts in the post-USSR era have been internal. Al-Qaeda’s attacks on New York and the storm they triggered did much to boost Huntington’s thesis (and sales), even if the pattern has been laid out prior to 9/11.

Conservatives of all stripes and colours, from social traditionalists all the way to radically intentioned supremacists, took this theory to heart. It was very well adapted to their own narratives being advertized to the general public, and the boost from the academia was surely appreciated. Despite the assertions of some, those enamored with this analysis on the ‘Muslim side’ are hardly limited to Al-Qaeda or ISIS members and their sympathizers.

For many, Huntington’s ‘clash’ is very real, as it perfectly validates their own worldview, and helps in creation of the kind of society they would like to see. The thesis captured the imagination of parties as seemingly different as the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin’s government, Fox News, and the ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood and Hizb-ut-Tahrir. ‘Televangelists’ – whether Christians like Pat Robertson who love to talk about Islamofascism, or Muslims like Zakir Naik with their constant rhetorical attacks on other religions – are beamed into the living-rooms of millions. The fact that the decision to invade Iraq contributed to the ‘clash’ and was not just symptomatic of it, or that the overwhelming majority of Muslims around the world are victimized at the hands of other Muslims, matters little. These actors continue to sell the idea of separate, religiously inspired civilizations to a growing number of supporters. Their wide access to media and publicity ensures that their ideas are the ones that stick.

The popular understanding of the contemporary political situation as a clash between these simplified western and Islamic worlds has become among the dominant paradigms through which the world is examined in popular discourse. Facing diminishing opposition, this understanding of current events has become quite conventional. Faith in secular nationalism is becoming a relic of the twentieth century across large swathes of the world. The ideological void it leaves behind is filled up by the politics of ethnicity and religion – not only to the right of the political spectrum, but also the left, which enables some of those on the opposite side, so long as their ethnicities are more exotic than white. The world where such politics of identity are nurtured and promoted is a world that is increasingly receptive to Huntington’s oversimplifications.

In western countries, organizations like CAGE, whose job appears to be the promotion of an ‘us and them’ account of grievance within Muslim communities, are endorsed by human rights heavy-weights such as Amnesty International. Despite CAGE’s clear affiliation with radical Islamism, they have been promoted and given an important platform for years. In the U.K., where such trends are most visible, the left has become complicit in allowing various radical, aggressive, organized and well-funded Muslim associations to become the spokespeople for the whole of the Muslim community. Hizb-ut-Tahrir recruits freely on university campuses that are rife with extremist Muslim speakers. Meanwhile, Muslims and non-Muslims alike who try to challenge them are increasingly restricted. The prominence accorded to the Islamist religious-right in turn stimulates the growth of the European far-right in a continuing cycle.

Because they have the most access to power and resources, these organizations are presented as if they speak for all Muslims. This, of course, happens to the detriment of the liberals, who simply cannot afford the same degree of exposure as these global ultra-conservative movements, which often include extremist strains. In the rhetoric of western conservatives, the very existence of these Muslims who are socially or politically progressive is viewed as an exercise in deceit – since they don’t fall into the accepted mold of what a Muslim ‘should’ be. The Islamist far-right takes a similarly dim view of the liberals, who are seen as apostates that bring disrepute to the religion through their efforts to modernize it. Meanwhile, those on the far-left find them a confusing nuisance that defies the left’s racism of lower expectations, heaped abundantly on those who aren’t white.

However flawed, the creation of this new mythological tale can play a crucial role in the future organization of societies. History has often been made through the success of reductionist narratives, except the stories told now include a global component. The imposed limitations of this worldview in countries like Russia or Pakistan have had a disproportionably negative effect on the internal liberal opposition within both political and religious institutions, allowing the tenets of reactionary groups to exert increasing influence over mainstream ideology. This has resulted in more rigid societies where minorities are increasingly persecuted, while the majority holds increasingly exclusivist opinions.

Meanwhile in western countries, every terrorist attack; every justification of extremists offered by groups like CAGE; and every public figure from a multitude of organizations like IEra who is given the platform to argue in favor of things like the death penalty for blasphemy and apostasy, create people who are more willing to give their allegiance to the rising right-wing. This feeds into the divisive agenda of these organizations, which are committed to whipping up public antagonism towards Muslim minorities.

The clash of civilizations hinges on the endorsement of the ‘us and them’ industry. It is a lucrative business, and has always been so. In order to challenge it, the once-again rising militarism of the west, whether it is in support of regular warfare or the far-right, must be confronted. Likewise, there is a need to acknowledge the fact that the idea of ‘Muslims’ as a dour, humourless and ultra-conservative monolithic block springs from different sources, including prominent Muslim groups who are afforded the centre stage to advocate their absolutism. And furthermore, left-leaning institutions and individuals need to reject the idea that unlike civilized white folks, all Muslims are best represented by organizations whose very goal is to bring Huntington’s increasingly proverbial clash to fruition. Because history shows that it’s not that hard.