A Clash of Civilisations? 20 April 2013

Nabila Shah explores Huntington’s famous thesis and asks whether his prophecy has been fulfilled.

Afghanistan WarDespite being written almost twenty years ago, Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis of the ‘clash of civilisations’ still generates much response, discussion and debate even today. The American political scientist who died in 2008, gained worldwide prominence with his original 1993 article, which was later developed into a separate publication entitled, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

Huntington’s central premise was that in the post Cold War world, individuals will increasingly define their identity in terms of which cultures and civilisations they belong to. These civilisations are created by and based on the presence of certain shared factors such as religion, tradition, history and language. It was Samuel Huntington’s belief that such factors could unite groups of people into one, single, over-arching civilisation. As such, the major civilisations which exist in the contemporary world are: Western, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, African, Islamic, Hindu, Sinic and Japanese.

The next aspect of his theory is that with the rise in civilisational identity, there will also be a corresponding rise in the number of conflicts that will occur between these different civilisations. Indeed, Huntington emphatically predicted that “the fault lines between civilisations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Why must civilisations clash? Huntington provided a number of answers to this. Civilisations will compete and clash due to the deep differences between themselves, particularly in the realm of religion and belief. The static nature of religious and cultural identity is a cause of confrontation as it cannot be easily changed, in most cases; an individual’s religious identity is decided and prescribed at birth. Huntington elaborated on this point when he wrote, “In conflicts between civilizations, the question is ‘What are you?’ That is a given that cannot be changed.”

Blame is also placed on the process of globalisation, which has produced new opportunities for the peoples of different civilisations to meet and connect. Rather than viewing these encounters as prospects for dialogue and for the recognition of commonalities, Huntington claimed that they only served to enhance civilisational identity and the “awareness of differences.”

The most controversial aspect of the thesis is the belief that the two civilisations which will clash the most are Islam and the West. For evidence of this, Huntington pointed to historical precedents, asserting that the two groups have been in a state of conflict for more than a millennium, ever since the rise of Islam in the seventh century, through the early Islamic conquests of the Middle East and North Africa, the Crusades, the Ottoman conquests in Europe, Western colonialism of Muslim lands, the rise of Arab nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries and the recent Gulf wars.

Huntington maintained that Islam and the West will continue to collide because of the presence of certain cultural characteristics on each side which antagonise and provoke the other. On the Western side, the fault lies in its aspiration to universalise its culture. The West utilises establishments such as the UN, coupled with military might and wealth to “run the world in ways that will maintain Western predominance.” This concerns the Islamic world because, according to Huntington, Islam is fundamentally opposed to Western norms and values.

On the Islamic side, a whole host of reasons are referred to; including Muslims’ high population growth, leading to a rise in immigration to Western countries and Western fears concerning Muslims. Furthermore, mention is made of Islam’s borders with other civilisations. Huntington referred to the tensions between Muslims and Christians in Africa, Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and Hindus in India, and concluded that such conflicts reflected Islam’s inability to integrate and to live amicably with others. In short, for Huntington, “Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards.”

These ‘bloody’ borders of Islam; however, does not stop the Islamic and Sinic civilisations from cooperating with each other.  Huntington believed this was a clear case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Islamic and Sinic nations will cultivate decent inter-relations in order to damage and defeat their common foe and adversary; that of the West. For evidence of this, Huntington pointed to the selling of weapons and armoury between the two civilisations which exists to counterbalance and indeed, to confront the supremacy of the West.

Today, Huntington has his fair share of both supporters and critics. Those who defend his propositions observe that self-perception based on civilisational and religious lines is increasing in today’s modern world, confirming an intrinsic element of his thesis. They point to the nature of the contemporary Islamic world with the rise of extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as well as puritanical movements such as Salafism, which is becoming a more popular expression of Islam; arguing that this is sufficient evidence that humans in general and Muslims in particular are becoming more attached to their individual civilisations.

Perhaps the greatest vindication of Huntington’s thesis is provided by the events of September 11, 2001 and July 7, 2005.  For some, particularly with regards to the media coverage, these attacks verified that Islam was the ultimate ‘Other’ and that Huntington was right all along. Thus, for example, the day after 9/11, the New York based Daily News ran with the headline, “It’s War” which was plastered over the front page.

Similarly, an editorial in The Times utilised Huntington’s theory as the primary explanation for why the London bombings occurred, writing that, “London was attacked because extremists want to ignite a ‘holy war’ between themselves and democratic society.” What’s more, it could also be said that the beliefs of Huntington were reflected by the suicide bombers themselves; cue Mohammad Siddique Khan’s video tape declaration, “We are at war and I am a soldier.”

In the face of these terrible events, there is a human need for quick answers. Samuel Huntington’s clash thesis offers this completely. Muslims attacked New York and London because as Muslims, they are at complete odds with the Western world. These acts of terrorism are nothing new; this is what Muslims have been doing for centuries. Indeed, the strength and effectiveness of such quick fixes can be ascertained by the fact that various commentators who were former critics of Huntington, such as Robert Kaplan and Fouad Ajami, reverted their stance and become wholesale supporters of the clash worldview.

In spite of receiving such prominent sponsors, Huntington’s theory has been severely criticised for a plethora of reasons. The first major criticism takes the shape of objection at his concept of civilisations. In his writings, Huntington presented civilisations as homogenous foundations, they are seen to be static and everlasting; yet, most people would argue that this is more or less impossible. Civilisations are multi-faceted and incredibly diverse and this holds true even for the world of Islam.

Some examples will help to demonstrate this point further. If Muslims possessed a standardised identity, fashioned by the Islamic religion, it would be inconceivable for the Algerian middle and professional classes to halt democratic elections in 1991 and support the military coup primarily because an Islamic party was set to win;  but this is exactly what occurred.

Likewise, history has preserved many instances of Muslim states attacking other Muslim states, whether in the first Gulf War, in Syria supporting Christian fighters in Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, or in Egypt sending weapons to arm groups in Yemen in the North Yemen Civil War. Another event which completely contradicts Huntington is in the report of Afghans celebrating the Taliban’s loss of Kabul in 2001 while a more recent example of inter-conflict in the Muslim world is the ongoing Syrian civil war.

These occurrences serve to illustrate that Muslims, like any other group, are plagued by internal divisions and ruptures. The very concept of a united Islamic civilisation is thus put into severe suspicion. Not all Muslims see their personal identity as inherently clashing with the West – European and American Muslims are a living examples of this.

In the thesis, there is a lack of reflection on this diversity, meaning that Huntington was guilty of dangerously misrepresenting and oversimplifying Islam. People may be more likely to view themselves in civilisational terms, as Huntington’s supporters highlight; yet, this does not hold true for all peoples and all places.

This criticism directly leads on to the next weakness with Huntington’s hypothesis; the difficulties inherent in his illustration of Islam and Muslims as the Other. In Huntington’s works, it is almost as if he assumed that the ‘real’ Islam is to be identified with the one which is most violent and which is most opposed to the West.

However, Muslims, like any other religious or cultural group, possess numerous identity forms and not all of these have to result in conflict with the West. The Arab Spring has categorically displayed this; rather than fighting against the West, vast sections of the Muslim population are engaging with Western institutions to fight their own rulers, as in the case of NATO’s intervention in Libya. This reinforces that Islam is not the ultimate enemy of the West, weakening the thesis of the clash of civilisations.

Huntington’s concept of an Islamic-Sinic union can also be criticised. It is clear that such a union does exist, especially between Pakistan and China, with the former providing military and economic aid to the latter and with the Chinese Foreign Minister recently declaring that “any attack on Pakistan would be construed as an attack on China.” Nevertheless, there is important counter evidence of Western states selling arsenal and weapons worth billions of dollars and pounds to Islamic states. In the last year America sold fighter jets worth 30 billion dollars to Saudi Arabia, whilst in May, the British defence company, BAE Systems, signed a deal worth £1.9 billion to supply trainer jets to the Arab kingdom. In the face of Huntington’s Islamic-Sinic union, these examples ultimately do not make any sense and the question must be asked, though it devastates his thesis; why are supposed enemies selling weaponry to each other?

The clash of civilisations thesis also ignores the very recent history of colonialism, and how this dramatically affects relationships between those who govern and those are governed. The Arab Spring has shown how the wider population of ‘Islamic Civilisations’ are unsupportive of their oppressive governments. Huntington overlooks this important distinction.

Finally, he focuses solely on areas of conflict – the bloody borders- and not on the areas of shared and fruitful co-existence. There are Muslim Westerners and indeed Western Muslims who exist as children of two major civilisations and find the notion of conflict between their fusion of identities outdated and unnecessary.

As can be inferred from the above discussion, the clash of civilisations is an incredibly complex theory and consequently, it should not be accepted or rejected without thorough analysis. Huntington may have been right in arguing that civilisational identity is rising, especially in relation to Muslims and Westerners and it is most probably true that the two groups view each other with much suspicion and mistrust. Yet, his hypothesis suffers from numerous stereotypes; he himself wrote that “Sweeping generalizations are always dangerous and often wrong,” but his work contains many. Huntington perceived civilisations as standard entities when they are clearly not, thus putting into doubt the civilisational aspect of his thesis. He represented Islam as the West’s ultimate rival, when the Arab Spring and other encounters between Islamic and Western countries show otherwise and this ruins the clash aspect of his theory. Correspondingly, Huntington’s clash of civilisations has more weaknesses than it does strengths, which means that there is an opening for a more realistic approach to world affairs to come through.

About Nabila Shah

Nabila Shah has a Joint Honours BA degree in Theology and Islamic Studies at the University of Birmingham. She has a particular research interest in contemporary Islam and the relationship between Jews and Muslims in the middle-ages.

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