In the fall of 1990—around the time U.S. troops arrived in Saudi Arabia, enraging Osama bin Laden—the historian Bernard Lewis sounded an alarm in The Atlantic about brewing anti-Americanism in the Muslim world. “[W]e are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them,” he wrote. “This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”
America’s two post-9/11 presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, attempted a balancing act: combatting jihadist terrorism while seeking to avoid the impression that the Western and Muslim worlds were engaged in the kind of clash Lewis described.
Donald Trump may soon steer the government in a different direction. Several of the president-elect’s national-security appointees have argued that the United States is at war with “radical Islamic terrorism,” or “radical Islam,” or something broader still, such as “Islamism.” They have described this war as a primarily ideological struggle to preserve Western civilization, like the wars against Nazism and communism. The war is not confined to extremist Sunni Muslims or extremist Shia Muslims; the Islamic State and the Islamic Republic of Iran are seen as two sides of the same coin. Notably, these appointees have put forth this sweeping vision before taking charge of the nation’s security—before a terrorist attack has occurred on their watch.