20 Years of ‘The Clash of Civilizations’

Read an expanded version of this post ontrib

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”.

Samuel P. Huntington, Co-Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, Professor at Columbia and Harvard Universities
Samuel P. Huntington, Co-Editor of Foreign Policy Magazine, Professor at Columbia and Harvard Universities

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.

Figure: 2 sample civilizations and their constituents
Figure: 2 sample civilizations and their constituents

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.

Source: wikimedia
Emerging Alignment of Civilizations – the thicker the line, the greater the conflict (source: Wikimedia)

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.

civil - conflict
Key conflicts between Islam and the West (The Clash of Civilizations)

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.

Fault-lines between civilizations (source: wiki)
Fault-lines between civilizations (source: wiki)

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.

Arab Spring comes to Tahrir Square (photo: global envision)
Arab Spring comes to Tahrir Square (photo: global envision)

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.

Further reading

  1. The Roots of Muslim Rage, Bernard Lewis, 1990
  2. Myth of Clash of Civilizations, Edward Said, 1998
  3. What Clash of Civilizations, Amartya Sen, 2006


  1. This post was brilliant, as always 🙂 I believe that what we all have in common will transcend our differences; it would definitely be better for us to resist encroaching government power, then to fight each other.

    • Hey Judithann – always a pleasure to have you visit. I, too, want to believe we can transcend our differences. Current affairs, labeling, profiling and wars depress me immensely – because deep down, I know we are not really that different. We want and love the same things. I do hope that is enough. Thanks for reading.

  2. Thanks again Adnan for an excellent post. (BTW, I am, as always, humbled by your command of English)

    The factor that has become so significant in all these analyses, but that is mostly missing in them, is the proliferation of misinformation. We are experiencing a new and powerful sort of agitprop facilitated by these new media. Janet Reitman’s excellent story about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in Rolling Stone http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/jahars-world-20130717 points out the serious misinformation that he and his family had integrated. She quotes one of his mother’s salon clients: Dzhokhar’s mother “told her she believed 9/11 was a government plot to make Americans hate Muslims. ‘It’s real,’ she said. ‘My son knows all about it. You can read on the Internet.'”

    If I believed ideas like this, I might well take up an active jihad as well. Here in the USA we have FOX News, which in the name of political benefit and power, routinely broadcasts incendiary falsehood under the guise of editorial freedom. Our Teaparty movement has been built on a steady diet of misinformation, much of it anti-immigrant and anti-islamic. We see this happening on all sides, causing these deepening but polarizations, but all built on untruths. Mark Twain once said, “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Today, it circles the world three times while the truth is still selecting it socks.

    Fortunately, this same pervasive new media that is fueling these divisive myths, can also spread the truth as well as allow for as much organization of good-will as it can these cabals of ill-will. My hope here is that as more people become more media literate, and understand the problems of confirmation bias and all the other propaganda pitfalls, we may come to a place where hopefully “the truth will out”.

    • Thank you so much Nesden for your kind words and an excellent, thoughtful comment.

      The Rolling Stones article was indeed a revelation – in its attempt to investigate the other side of the story. Its a great start! I’ve always flinched every time a tragedy struck – fearing it was going to be another crazy Muslim. Because that’s what the Dzhokhars are: Muslims. The media won’t identify McVeigh, Stockham, Breivik or the dozens of school-shooters as ‘Christian’ terrorist; and I support the latter – because it wasn’t religion that drove them to their misdeeds. That there may be political, cultural and emotional motivations – is missing from mainstream reporting. And that just widens the rift, the chasm.

      In the context of this post – I see misinformation (with its ripple effects) as an arm of a bigger conflict – as you said ‘agitprop’, only with a rallying cry. Like the ‘2-minute hate’. If a clash is brewing, then the media will reflect it. And given its fervor, someone / something must fueling it. Therein lies the root of the problem: what motivates, incentivizes this propaganda machinery? This is precisely where I see The Clash of Civilizations theory becoming relevant.

      I, too, believe as we meet & talk to each other, become neighbors and blog-followers – our cultures will, not clash, but embrace each other. And we’ll see neither hates the other. Then, the inane rhetoric of “they hate freedom/Islam” will sell no more. It all tells me to look out for sincere, intelligent and perceptive citizens – in the East, West or Middle – who will stand up to their governments and propaganda machines and say, ‘we know better than that!’.

      Thank you for reading and sorry about such a long reply.

What do you think? Drop a line - and I will too.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s