South Sudanese demonstrate in favour of a separation between South and North Sudan
South Sudanese demonstrate in favour of a separation between South and North Sudan during the sixth day of registration before the referendum in Juba, South Sudan, November 20, 2010. REUTERS

Voters in the ongoing referendum in South Sudan on independence from the rest of the country have been given a very interesting choice on their ballot papers.

Being a region of the world with particularly high illiteracy rates voters will not be voting "Yes" or "No" but will instead have to put their mark next to a picture of either a pair of shaking hands if they wish to remain under the rule of Omar al-Bashir, or a solitary hand if they favour secession.

It can only be a sign of the suffering inflicted on the southerners: who follow mainly Christianity and ancient tribal beliefs; by their Arab Muslim neighbours to the north that the majority appear to be voting against the shaking hands, which usually symbolize peace, friendship and solidarity with fellow human beings.

As it is the people of South Sudan appear to be adamant that far from wanting to shake the hand of the North in some warm fuzzy celebration of national brotherhood they would rather put some distance, or at the very least a border, between them and the people they regard as their oppressors.

This sad fact again raises the question posed by the late Samuel Huntingdon nearly two decades ago in his well known but controversial work "The Clash of Civilisations". Huntingdon claimed that far from ushering in a new era of peace, the collapse of the Soviet Union simply marked the beginning of new conflict between civilisations, which he categorised into Western, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin American, African, Japanese, Hindu and Chinese.

The theory managed to paint the world into different colours using extremely broad brush strokes and so had the feeling to it that it might well have been thought up in the pub or the bath, rather than in the study or the library.

However like many ideas thought up in pubs and bathtubs there was something to be found there (remember Archimedes). It was, among other things, the statement by Huntingdon about the characteristic unique to what he defined as the Islamic civilisation, notably the statement that "Islam has bloody borders" in a way that none of his other civilisations do.

This aspect of his theory has certainly been shown to be true in the years since it was published, in that everywhere where Islam meets another of Huntingdon's civilisations, be it South Sudan, North Nigeria, Israel, Kashmir, Chechnya, East Timor, West China etc, there is, or has been until recently, conflict almost without exception and often without cease.

In this respect South Sudan, which is voting on the issue secession after decades of civil war with the Muslim North came to an end in 2005, is just part of a wider phenomenon of violent conflict in places where Islam comes into contact with non-Islam.

Of course Huntingdon's point was not necessarily that the post-Cold War world would be about Islam versus the rest, but that all the fault-lines between civilisations would see conflict. There is certainly evidence for this. The Japanese civilisation is for example still widely hated by people in the Chinese thanks to the former's atrocities in the Second World War and their tendency to act as though they did nothing wrong (in stark contrast to the Germans who are only now beginning to shake off their own long-felt national guilt). Similarly in the U.S.A. one could point to hostility to Latino immigration as evidence of the clash between Western and Latin civilisation.

However while these and other examples may lead to angry protests, crimes against immigrants and other undesirable scenes, they do not generally compare with the oppression and violence often found on the boundaries of Dar al-Islam.

This is a great shame because there are many in the Muslim world who would like nothing but peace with their neighbours, for example people such as Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, who issued the first fatwa condemning terrorism in all circumstances, Maajid Nawaz of the anti-extremism think tank Quilliam and the recently assassinated Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab province in Pakistan.

The killing of Taseer reveals the sad truth that while there are many Muslims who do not want religious strife, there are enough of them out there who do and who are not afraid to put their beliefs into action. Perhaps the saddest thing about the death of Taseer was that the killer, his own bodyguard, received praise and adulation from supposedly educated sections of Pakistani society in the form of large numbers of its lawyers and clerics.

Such people can now be found even in British cities, leading to the formation of extreme groups such as the English Defence League to counter Jihadist Muslims. This in turn leads to conflict on the streets whenever the extremists from both communities meet thus giving us the spectacle of a kind of Clash of Civilisations in micro.

Britain however benefits from the fact that people who hold such extreme beliefs, either from the Islamic or English communities, are generally kept as far as possible from any kind of political power.

In much of the Muslim world however it is the extremists who hold power, whether officially or unofficially. Pakistan is a case in point. The country itself is lead by a man, Mr Asif "ten per cent" Zardari, who is seen to be more interested in money than Islamism. This makes him preferable to say, Osama bin Laden or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Pakistan is also the country where a judge can, using the law of the land, sentence a woman to death for apparently asking "what's Mohammad ever done for you?"

Given the trouble some of his followers have caused in recent years I'd say that was a pretty good question for her to have asked and I for one hope to see the day when it will be answered not by the bullets and bombs of the bearded fanatics, but by the reasoned words and kind actions of decent Muslims with the voice and power that will make the Islamists a thing of the past.