U.S. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) listens to a question at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York May 13, 2015. 
Photo by Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Rubio’s mistaken view of a ‘clash of civilizations’

Marco Rubio was in Iowa last week, telling an audience the day before Thanksgiving that ISIS has created a dynamic in which we “find ourselves today in a clash of civilizations” between the “civilized world” and “radical animals.”
The Guardian reported that an attendee at the Cedar Rapids forum was concerned about the senator’s rhetoric, arguing that phrases like “war of civilizations” was a mischaracterization that might “inflame Islamophobia.” The voter described ISIS as “a fanatical splinter group that is obviously quite dangerous, but it’s not a war of civilizations, it’s a war against a particular group.”
Rubio responded by sticking to his sound-bite script.
“This is not a geopolitical conflict. This is not a conflict between ISIS because they want us out of the Middle East,” Rubio said. “This is a civilizational conflict – not with Islam – with radical Islam, particularly their interpretation of radical Islam.” […]
“This is not an anti-Muslim…. Radical jihad is a view of civilization that we must reject and defeat for what it is. Either they win, or we do.”
The audience, according to The Guardian’s report, “erupted” in applause, which is probably why Rubio keeps using rhetoric like this.
The problem, however, is that the concerned voter was correct and the senator was not.
It’s worth noting, as a recent New Yorker piece mentioned, that “even George W. Bush disavowed the clash-of-civilizations argument,” suggesting Rubio represents a hawkish worldview that’s even further to the right of the most recent Republican administration.
But just as important is the fact that the senator’s argument doesn’t stand up well to scrutiny. Peter Beinart recently published a great piece in The Atlantic, billed as a “primer for Marco Rubio.”
…ISIS isn’t a civilization. In parts of Iraq and Syria, it’s a self-declared, though unrecognized, state. Elsewhere, it’s a network of terrorist groups linked by a common ideology. “Civilizations” are cultural groupings. In calling the Paris attack a “clash of civilizations,” Rubio evoked Samuel Huntington’s famed 1993 Foreign Affairs essay of the same name. In that essay, Huntington defined “civilization” as “the broadest level of cultural identity people have.” And he suggested that the world contains “seven or eight” major ones: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African.”
The most straightforward way to interpret Rubio’s statement, therefore, is that the civilizational “they” that attacked Paris is Islam. Among the grassroots conservatives Rubio is wooing in his campaign for president, that’s a popular view…. But it’s worth noting how fundamentally his analysis diverges from that of both of America’s post-9/11 presidents. George W. Bush said America was at war with an ideology that had “hijacked Islam” in the same way Nazism had hijacked Germany or communism had hijacked Russia. Barack Obama has argued that even this assessment gives violent jihadists a stature they don’t deserve. Rubio, by contrast, is … doing exactly what the Islamic State wants: He’s equating ISIS with Islam itself.
Indeed, for propaganda purposes, ISIS and its allies are delighted to be characterized as a powerful “civilization” that represents an existential threat to the West. Rubio has bought into the militants’ pitch,  but that doesn’t make it true.