On its 20th anniversary, I’ve been rereading the essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ (1993) by Samuel P. Huntington. It is a farsighted, pre-9/11 and hotly-debated analysis and prediction of global conflict patterns. It put forth a thesis on the ‘new phase of world politics’ after the Cold War ended. Huntington basically argues that all future conflicts, wars and possibly world wars – will be over cultural and religious divisions. This post is a layman’s review of the argument. In case someone wants a still simpler version, it is this: “there are things called civilizations and they will fight among themselves”.
The Clash of Civilizations deals with modern, post-Christian empires and conflicts – but draws inferences from much older civilizations, cultures and traditions. But first, I’ll paraphrase how the essay defines and differentiates a civilization.
1. What is a Civilization?
The highest, common cultural grouping of people. The only higher dimension of commonality is the Homo Sapiens species. In modern times, racial boundaries have been blurred – but not that of civilizations.
We are all human beings. Physically, we can be divided into races. Culturally, we are categorized into civilizations. Different civilizations, like Western, African, Islamic and Hindu, can contain many sub-cultures and nations. But these smaller units often share unique languages, history, traditions, folklores, religion and most importantly, identity. So, for example: I am a Dhakaite (Dhaka city resident), a Bangladeshi, a Muslim, a citizen of the subcontinent, an Asian and a part of the Islamic civilization. Of course, part of my identity is influenced by the Hindu civilization – and by the same token, civilizations often overlap.
Civilizations may consist of a large population e.g. China (“A civilization pretending to be a state” – Lucian Pyle), many countries e.g. Latin America or a single country with a (relatively) small population e.g. Japanese. But they all identify with commonalities inherent in their respective civilizations. In historical research, 21 civilizations have been identified – only 6 of which exist till this day.
2. Reasons for Civilizations Clashing
Huntington identifies a number of reason why civilizations will clash. I summarize these below:
- Basic Differences: nations fight and nations become friends. Their differences emerge and then vanish. But civilizations are fundamentally unique from one another and have been so for thousands of years. Each views man, family, society, nation, world and God in a unique way. It may be okay to move out of one’s parents’ house in the West – but it’s viewed as relegating duty & responsibility in the East.
- Smaller World: through increased trade, travel, immigration and cultural exchanges – civilizations are coming into contact with one another. While languages may be learned and discrimination/racism, overcome – cultural identities are permanent baggage, always harder to explain or reconcile. This is why the French prefer European over African migration; why Americans resent Chinese investments, but not Canadian.
- Disappearing Nation States: with economic modernization and democratization – nation states are becoming identical. They no longer offer unique identity elements to citizens. Religions and culture are moving in to act as the primary sources of international identity. So, people are increasingly clinging harder to their religion, traditions and customs. This means: more and more polarization of civilizations e.g. unsecularization of the world, rise of the far-right and the re-Islamization phenomenon.
- Civilization Consciousness: following the end of colonialism, civilizations are returning to their roots. As the proverbial ‘West’ rises to the peak of its power – confronting all non-western civilizations through economics and warfare – the latter are turning inwards, to soul-searching (e.g. Asianization, Hinduization, Islamization etc). They are increasingly seeking to reinvent themselves and the world in non-western ways.
- Solidifying Civilizations: as two-sided conflicts (communism vs democrats, Nazi vs Allies) have subsided – regional blocs are coagulating. European nations aren’t fighting each other, USA-Canada-Mexico are coming together. So question has gone from ‘which side are you on’ to ‘who are you’.
- Regional Economics: countries are seeing the benefit in trading with neighbors and keeping war out. Platforms for regional economic cooperation (e.g. EU, Mercosur, African Union, SAARC) are thriving. Trading relationships are strengthening cultural / religious cohesion and unity.
The essay suggests that key conflicts will be between Islam and the West. It predicts continuation of the 1400-year old conflict that started with the so-called birth of Islam. “The Muslim world has bloody borders”, it claims. Even if decrepit regimes fell, it suggests, there would still be a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
3. Where Are We Now?
Twenty years back, Huntington had predicted that the clash would happen along the ‘fault-lines’ between civilizations: the line that runs between Scandinavia and Russia, the historic Habsburg and Ottoman borders etc. One experienced the Renaissance, Enlightenment and French Revolution – the other, Turkish Ottoman / Tsarist Empires. While this account is highly West vs. Non-West oriented – it’s also supported by real divergences in economic growth, democratization and religious (mostly Islamic) orthodoxy. The present Islam vs. West narrative, rise of an monolithic China, isolation of Japan, rise of trade blocs and pan-Arabism have fallen into place. The solidification of distinct civilizations seems well underway.
I feel The Clash of Civilizations stems from a very primitive instinct and a series of historical lessons. Admittedly, it’s not politically correct and makes no attempt to integrate wishful thinking in its prediction of the future. It fails to account for diversity and shades in the monolithic civilizations it presents. Still it’s useful as a macro analysis of global conflict. It may also be argued that the West’s foreign policy has been influenced by Huntington’s essay. Much of the economic, diplomatic and military interactions with non-western elements have had a tribalist feel. Consider the following passage from the book:
Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle (P-184)
All of the above – combined with endless wars in the middle-east, the budding Cold War 2.0 between USA and China, use of ‘regional stability’ as a foreign policy standard, regional preferences for the War of Terror and even small things like squabbling over control of international institutions, rising far-right groups, tougher immigration and ethno-racial profiling by law-enforcement – may all be pointing towards an impending clash of civilizations.
However, I see trends and events that don’t seem to fit the bill. Some of these include the constant infighting in Africa, regional leadership struggle between Egypt and Turkey, China’s no-conflict policy, growth of substantial, enfranchised diaspora communities in the west, increasing development aid and trade between regions and resurgence of social values and traditions in a financially-troubled west. All these seem to promise to bring the civilizations together.
Of all these, the biggest surprise has come from the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. It seems that over the next decade or so, conflicts are likely to arise out of fundamental differences between governments and the governed. In a world that’s rushing towards individualistic, liberal worldviews – resources used to create / reinforce / drive regional agendas and fund overseas wars – will be challenged by citizens. They will demand economic emancipation, freedom of speech, freedom of religion and better living standards & employment.
The future may well hold a clash of governments and peoples. And I don’t mean only in Arabia. There are indeed important lessons to be learnt in the global melting pot – what I will call the class of civilizations.
- The Roots of Muslim Rage, Bernard Lewis, 1990
- Myth of Clash of Civilizations, Edward Said, 1998
- What Clash of Civilizations, Amartya Sen, 2006