Samuel Huntington’s “Bloody Borders” Revisited

In 1993, in a controversial essay written for Foreign Affairs titled “The Clash of Civilizations,” the influential Harvard University political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (d. 2008) wrote:

“In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.”

Samuel Huntington

Samuel Huntington, Harvard University’s Albert J. Weatherhead University Professor. Staff Photo Jon Chase/Harvard University News Office

Critics responded swiftly. They argued that Huntington’s claim represented an unfair attack on Islam and refused to take into account other factors (such as economics, for example) beyond simple religious differences. Others rejected his particular definitions of “civilizations.” Nevertheless, a few years later, Huntington defended and stood firmly by his original comments in his 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. In it (pages 256-258), he laid out evidence that he argued “was overwhelming” in support of his thesis. He noted that while Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population, “they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization.”

For his evidence, he list three primary points.

  1. After analyzing various studies and statistics considering the period of 1993 to 1994, he points out- “There were, in short, three times as many intercivilizational conflicts involving Muslims as there were conflicts between all non-Muslim civilizations. The conflicts within Islam were also more numerous than those in any other civilization, including tribal conflicts in Africa. In contrast to Islam, the West was involved in only two intracivilizational and two intercivilizational conflicts. Conflicts involving Muslims also tended to be heavy in casualties. Of the six wars in which…200,000 or more people were killed, three (Sudan, Bosnia, East Timor) were between Muslims and non-Muslims, two (Somalia, Iraq-Kurds) were between Muslims, and only one (Angola) involved only non-Muslims.”
  1. Huntington also highlights a New York Times study of 48 locations around the globe where 59 ethnic conflicts were taking place in 1993. In half of these locations Muslims were clashing with other Muslims or non-Muslims. Slightly over half of the conflicts were intercivilizational conflicts, and two-thirds of those involved Muslims clashing with others.
  1. Based on another study considering 29 wars involving 1000 or more deaths in 1992, Huntington pointed out that “Muslims were fighting more wars than people from any other civilization.” He also noted that 12 of these wars were intercivilizational conflicts, and Muslims battling other civilizations made up 75% of this total (9 out of 12).

After presenting such evidence, Huntington then provocatively took his thesis a step further by noting that not only were Islam’s borders “bloody,” but so were “its innards.”

Huntington also referenced the controversy over his earlier comments in his 1993 essay in a footnote, claiming “No single statement in my Foreign Affairs article attracted more critical comment than: “Islam has bloody borders.” I made that judgment on the basis of a casual survey of intercivilizational conflicts. Quantitative evidence from every disinterested source conclusively demonstrates its validity.” (page 258)

Huntington was, of course, making these claims prior to the events of September 11, 2001. After 9/11, during the era of the “War on Terror,” much of the world began to pay attention to Islamic conflicts with far greater interest than had been the case before. Unsurprisingly, Huntington’s thesis gained renewed interest as many westerners sought to understand what drove Islamic militancy.

Yet Huntington made this claim 23 years ago and based it on a snapshot of evidence drawn from the years from 1992 to 1994.

How might his claims hold up today?

Islamic Wars vs. Religious Wars Involving All Other Religions Historically

In thinking about this, a recent story that caught my attention has to do with the claims of the editors of the Encyclopedia of Wars, by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod. They document 1763 historic wars of which they identify only 123 (7%) as primarily religiously motivated, for which casualty estimates account for less than 2% of all people ever killed in warfare. While their analysis has been cited as a powerful rebuttal to those who cite religion as the main cause of conflict, an interesting side note to Phillips and Axelrod’s categorization of the wars was that of the 7% of all historic wars that they designate as primarily religious, 54% of them involved Islam. So according to their analysis, Muslims have been involved in more religious wars than all other historic religions combined (see graph- Islam 3.8% vs. non-Islam 3.2%).


This seems significant to Huntington’s thesis. While Huntington cited various studies to show Islam was disproportionately involved in worldwide conflict from 1992 to 1994, Phillips and Axelrod’s analysis holds the same is true for, specifically, religious based conflict as a long term historical trend as well.

But just as Huntington took a snapshot of worldwide conflicts involving Muslims from 1992-1994 to make his argument for Islam having “bloody borders,” I was interested in taking a similar snapshot of the present. Specifically, how do Muslims compare with members of other religious groups in terms of worldwide conflict over the past few years? Particularly when based on a current “casual survey” of conflicts similar to the one by Huntington in 1993? Huntington pointed out, for example, that Muslim societies were engaged in a high degree of conflicts not only among themselves, but also throughout the world against Orthodox Serbs, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians. These non-Muslim religious groups did not show the same degree of conflict either amongst themselves or with other religions as documented in the Muslim world.


Council on Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker

According to the Council of Foreign Relations Global Conflict Tracker, an interactive guide to ongoing conflicts around the world (that they consider of to be of some level of concern to the United States), there are (as of my viewing of it on May 27, 2016) the following conflicts in the following regions:

In the Americas, the CFR lists only “Criminal Violence in Mexico.”

In Europe, the CFR lists the “Conflict in the Ukraine,” “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict—the disputed border region between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” and “Islamist Militancy in Russia.”

In Sub-Sahara Africa, the CFR lists “Boko Haram in Nigeria,” “Destabilization of Mali,” “Violence in the Central African Republic,” “Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” “Civil War in South Sudan,” “Al-Shabab in Somalia,” and “Political Crisis in Burundi.”

In Asia & the Pacific, CFR lists, “Taliban in Afghanistan,” “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea,” “Tensions in the East China Sea,” “North Korea Crisis,” “Islamist Militancy in Pakistan,” “Conflict Between India and Pakistan,” “Sectarian Violence in Myanmar,” and “Uighur Conflict in China.”

In the Middle East and North Africa, the CFR lists “Civil War in Syria,” War Against Islamic State in Iraq,” Civil War in Libya,” “Sectarian Conflict in Lebanon,” “Islamist Militancy in Egypt,” “Kurdish Conflict,” “Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” and “War in Yemen.”

In total, the CFR lists 27 current conflicts in five regions. Of them, four of the five regions (with the exception of the Americas, which is largely conflict free and has a very small percentage of Muslims in the overall population) involve Muslim groups in conflict with other Muslims or non-Muslims. Of Europe’s three conflicts, two of the three conflicts involve Muslims, including the “Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict” and the “Islamist Militancy in Russia.” In Sub-Sahara Africa, four of the seven conflicts involve Muslims, including “Boko Haram in Nigeria,” “Destabilization of Mali,” “Violence in the Central African Republic,” and “Al-Shabab in Somalia.” In Asia and the Pacific, five of the eight conflicts involve Muslims, including “Taliban in Afghanistan,” “Islamist Militancy in Pakistan,” “Conflict Between India and Pakistan,” “Sectarian Violence in Myanmar,” and “Uighur Conflict in China.” In the Middle East and North Africa, all eight of the conflicts listed by CFR involve Muslims.

In sum, 19 out of the 27 conflicts (70%) in four out of five regions of the world currently monitored by CFR’s Global Conflict Tracker involve Muslims. Moreover, many of these conflicts, as Huntington initially highlighted, continue to be between Muslims and non-Muslims, in Nigeria, China, Russia, India, and elsewhere.

One may protest this result by noting that some of the conflicts have primarily ethnic or political differences driving them, rather than religious motivations, which is true. But this does not always necessarily exclude a religious element that also often contributes to the intensity and longevity of a conflict once it has begun. Also, the CFR has not claimed to include every single conflict of any scale (the absence of the current conflict involving the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines comes to mind, among others), but these conflicts certainly seem to make up the bulk of the major current conflicts and there is no doubt that a considerable number of them are shaped to greater and lesser degrees by religious concerns. Also, just listing all of the conflicts which involve Muslims does not suggest anything about the justness of the causes for which they are fighting for, but only their disproportionately high participation in various conflicts around the world.

Additional Evidence?

There is additional evidence one might consider. Terrorism, for example, is not the same category as “warfare,” but the two are often closely related and one can be a product of the other. The overwhelming majority of the world’s terrorism is carried out by Muslims. As I have previously noted:

“According to the Global Terrorism Index by the Institute for Economics and Peace, the total numbers of deaths due to terrorism (of all kinds) in 2014 were 32,685. Of those deaths, nearly 4 out of 5 (78%) were in just four Muslim majority countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Syria, as well as in Nigeria, which has a significant Muslim minority (40%) and where the Islamist group Boko Haram has been on a rampage slaughtering several thousand people in numerous terrorist attacks. So this accounts for 78% of all deaths due to terrorism, but much of the remaining 22% of deaths were also attributable to Islamic extremism in countries like Somalia, Yemen, etc…

In contrast, 95 of the 162 nations that were included in their survey had zero terrorist deaths.

In the “age of terror,” it is almost inconceivable that so many nations had no terrorist deaths when we seem to be bombarded with images and reports of terrorism daily and have learned to live with it, yet it is apparently possible to avoid terrorism, as these 95 nations have shown. It demonstrates how terrorism, worldwide, is heavily concentrated in Muslim countries and to dismiss the extent of Islamic terrorism by noting that “all religions” have their terrorists is to miss the highly unique struggles of the Muslim world in this regard and the disproportionately high level of terrorist acts carried out by Muslim extremists in comparison to any other group.

The Global Terrorism Index also notes, for example, that since 9/11 only 0.5% (half of 1%) of all terrorist related deaths took place in western countries, to include the United States, Canada, Australia, Europe, etc… This number includes not only deaths due to attacks by right wingers, racists, nationalists, etc… but also Islamic terrorists operating in Western countries who were often responsible for the most deadly attacks. So “right wing” terror attacks account for… only a portion… of only half… of 1%… of all worldwide related terrorist deaths in 2014, based on the GTI study.”

Does the “Bloody Borders” Claim Still Stand?

People will read these statistics in ways that suit them and can interpret the conflicts, either in Huntington’s time or today, in different ways. Some hold Huntington’s thesis never stood to begin with because it was flawed for only considering Muslim involvement rather than the specific causes of particular conflicts. Nevertheless, as for today, at about 22-23% of the world’s population, Muslims undeniably continue to be involved in a disproportionately high number of current conflicts (70%). So 23 years later the numbers still look similar to what Huntington highlighted in 1993.


Some argue that Islam, as a religion, is inherently more violent than other faiths. It’s true that Islam was born in a hostile environment that led to numerous conflicts for the early Islamic community as recorded in the Qur’an and Hadith. The Prophet Muhammad himself personally fought in or sanctioned as many as 86 battles during his military career overseeing the consolidation of his rule in the Arabian Peninsula. Because of the early Islamic community’s nearly constant warfare, and Islamic military expansion that took place throughout the Middle Ages after Muhammad’s death, reaching from the coasts of modern Portugal to the Hindu Kush, historic Islamic holy and legal texts are full of positive references to warfare and some modern movements within Islam (e.g. Salafism) have cited and embraced these authoritative texts to promote warfare as a meritorious act in the promotion of Islamic causes. Some groups (e.g. ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, etc…) adhering to such movements are causing enormous trouble on the world stage at the moment, gaining significant support in some parts of the Muslim world. Obviously, as demonstrated by the Global Conflict Tracker and the Global Terrorism Index, members of no other religious group are currently witnessing this type of phenomenon on this high of a scale and, sadly, it is primarily (but not exclusively) Muslims who are suffering from it.

Yet of course the reasons for any conflict are complex and not all of them involving Muslims are necessarily primarily connected to religious faith as political, ethnic, or nationalist reasons can sometimes provide greater motivations. Particularly in the modern age, when nationalism has reached its greatest impact historically. Indeed, some critics would argue that western colonialism is largely responsible for the current fractured and combative state of the Muslim world, but I would note that non-Muslim peoples who were also subjected to the hardships of European imperialism during the 19th and 20th centuries do not currently suffer from the same plague of violence that we see in much of the Islamic world. There seems to be a noticeable difference. In the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Belgium, for example, Theodore Dalrymple, responding to this point, noted, “impoverished and unemployed Christian Congolese, of whom there are many in Belgium, are not blowing themselves up in the airport and the metro.” Indeed, many poor non-Muslims the world over have experienced the same political and economic hardships as Muslim communities that might also be connected with the effects of colonialism, but yet they do not resort to this type of violence on anywhere near the same scale and scope, or on so many varying civilizational fronts. This is not to say all Islamic communities demonstrate greater degrees of violence than non-Muslim communities, as many do not, but certainly the numbers show an overall higher degree of involvement by Muslim communities in conflicts than non-Muslim communities. 

Moreover, the analysis of Phillips and Axelrod suggests that historically (not just today in the post-colonial world) Islam has been involved in a greater degree of religiously (in particular) inspired conflict than all other religions combined, so this is not just a modern phenomenon that can be solely explained through modern colonialism. Indeed, historically, Muslim armies have been a powerful colonizing force beginning with the Arab Conquest, during which up to two-thirds of the Christian world was conquered including once Christian North Africa and the Levant, parts of southern Europe like Spain and Sicily, and the whole of the once powerful Byzantine Empire. Some historians, such as the influential Cambridge historian Jonathan Riley-Smith, have argued that such threats ultimately prompted the calling of the First Crusade in response to requests for aid from the Christian Byzantine Empire under pressure from Turkish forces in Asia-Minor in the late eleventh-century. In the later medieval and early modern period the Ottoman Turks conquered and occupied much of eastern Europe and threatened parts of central Europe. So historically Islam has had its own colonization issues on a far greater scale than the West and remains dominant in most of the lands Muslim armies won by conquest.

Certainly Islam represents a spectrum of beliefs, with some Muslims holding extremist views that demonstrate a greater propensity for violence, while other Muslims hold peaceful beliefs that are not in significant conflict with western values. So the numbers and historical considerations I have presented here are not meant to suggest that all Muslims are violent or that all non-Muslims are peaceful. But an objective look at the numbers nevertheless demonstrates that Muslims are disproportionately involved in conflicts around the world in greater numbers than members of other religious groups. This may be the case for a number of factors. I’d imagine sociologists, political scientists, religious experts, and others could offer a variety of insights and differing opinions. Undoubtedly, there is no simple explanation. I leave it up to the reader to consider these numbers and arguments and decide for themselves to what degree the historic framework or religious teachings of Islam may or may not play a role in this phenomenon.