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The ‘clash’ Huntington foresaw

  • Published at 01:36 pm April 13th, 2019
East vs West


For people seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the fault lines between the world’s major civilizations-- Samuel P Huntington

When his 1993 essay “The Clash of Civilizations”, later made into a book with the title The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, took readers across the globe with a sense of unease and excitement (provocation as well), it was not clear whether Samuel Huntington was trying to sell his “theory of clash” on purpose—based on premeditated thinking sans sound empirical research. The question still remains, and the key element of his thesis continues to trigger a strong feeling of disharmony about understanding and definition of people along the lines of their ethnicities and faith.   

Samuel P Huntington, one of America’s greatest political thinkers, argued in his book that the days of nation-state rivalries over the likely issues such as trade, territory or ideology have ended, and that causes of future animosity would erupt over differences in religion, history, language and tradition. He made his statement quite pointed while saying that cold war antagonisms were relatively minor compared to “the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity.” This he termed civilizational conflict in the post-cold war world. Not only in Christianity and Islam, the seeds of discord, he mentioned, is potentially alive in other faiths as well. However, he excluded Judaism from any of the civilizational groups. 

Huntington’s observations on the conflict between what he calls Islamic civilization and the Western world appears to be too straightforward (if not sweeping) as though mingled with an air of prophesy. The Islamic civilization, he wrote, is the most troublesome. People in the Arab world do not share the general suppositions of the Western world. Their primary attachment is to their religion, not to their nation-state. Their culture is inhospitable to liberal ideals, like pluralism, individualism and democracy. He observed that these regimes could fall, but he did not believe that they would modernize in the Western direction. They would follow their own trajectory. This observation, though not totally unfounded, led him to drastically conclude that there would be a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The Western nations would do well to keep their distance from Muslim affairs. The more the two civilizations intermingle, the worse the tensions will be. 

One has reasons to consider such observations too rash and to a great extent, impulsively drawn. As a matter of fact, animosity in the Islamic world is more pronounced within its own boundaries, not just in very recent times; it did register its presence in the past too, though things have got worse in recent times than ever.

According to Huntington, world politics has entered a new phase where we are noticing a new paradigm in international politics towards a “civilization-based world order” which stresses categorization of nations based on culture. States of the same culture will more likely “cooperate” with each other than with states of different “civilizations”. Huntington suggests “that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilization identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, as well as disintegration and conflict in the post-Cold War world”. 

Huntington defines civilization as “a cultural entity…in which villages, regions, ethnic groups, nationalities, religious groups, all have distinct cultures at different levels of cultural heterogeneity.” He says although numerous villages within a country may be different, they nonetheless share a common national identity. A civilization is therefore the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of culture people belong to.

In his book Huntington argues that the post-Cold War world is made up of eight, perhaps nine major civilizations: Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, Sinic, Slavic-Orthodox, Western, “and possibly African”. Critics take issue with such categorization, terming it simplistic and highly problematic. Some suggest this classification as “arbitrary”, because Huntington does not clearly define the attributes which define a state under a particular civilization. There are others who find “inconsistencies” with the categorization of different civilizations. For example, Huntington is unsure whether there is an African civilization although he begrudgingly includes it in his list of major civilizations. Curiously enough, he does not label Judaism as having its own civilization.

Huntington expands his argument by suggesting that religion will be the “most important” component distinguishing one civilization from another. According to Huntington, religion is taking the place of the nation-state in terms of identity. Citizens are looking more to religion in the face of globalization and modernization. “As people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms”, he said, “they are likely to see an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ relation existing between themselves and people of different ethnicity or religion … Differences in culture and religion create differences over policy issues, ranging from human rights to immigration to trade and commerce to the environment."

Now why does he think that the clash set off by the differences in civilizations is so easily predictable? Huntington offers the following explanations: 

Differences among civilizations are too basic in that civilizations are different from each other along the lines of history, language, culture, tradition, and, most importantly, religion. These fundamental differences are the product of centuries and the foundations of different civilizations, meaning they will not be gone soon.

The world is becoming a smaller place. As a result, interactions across the world are increasing, which intensify “civilization consciousness” and the awareness of differences between civilizations and commonalities within civilizations.

Due to economic modernization and social change, people are separated from longstanding local identities. As a result, religion has replaced this gap, which provides a basis for identity and commitment that transcends national boundaries and unites civilizations.

The growth of civilization-consciousness is enhanced by the dual role of the West. On the one hand, the West is at the peak of power and on the other, a return-to-the-roots phenomenon is occurring among non-Western civilizations. A West at the peak of its power confronts non-Western countries that increasingly have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.

Cultural characteristics and differences are less mutable and hence less easily compromised and resolved than political and economic ones.

Economic regionalism is increasing. Successful economic regionalism will reinforce civilization-consciousness. Economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted to a common civilization.

There is a definite fault line in these observations although there are elements that may not be ignored, except of course the core issue of civilization defined largely along the religion line. The idea that religion as a binding tool among a group of people unites them under a common identity, and even transcends national boundaries, does have a basis but assuming this cohesion as a potentially threatening force to global peace is simplistic. In fact, such cohesion is not a new or post-cold war phenomenon. The post-9/11 scenario followed by the rise of Islamic terror groups must not be deemed as the defining factor of such “clash theory”. True indeed, in recent times, religion, especially Islam, is seen more as an identity badge by many of its followers living in both Muslim-majority states as well as in the West. The same, though not necessarily in a comparable way, applies to the upsurge of Hinduism in secular India as a poster of nationalism under current the BJP rule. The Buddhist Myanmar has already demonstrated what it is capable of, by way of ruthless ethnic cleansing, and eventually, driving around a million Rohigya population out of the country due to their religious identity.

Coming to the idea of clash, one may tend to view Huntington’s notion of clash or war as highly flawed. He rejected the possibility of war in the post-cold war world over issues such as trade, among others. Contrary to his prediction and understanding of geo-political dynamics, there is, in fact, a war currently raging between America and China, and no wonder that trade is at the center of the conflict. This war, unlike the conventional kind, need not employ military arsenal, and can be more effective, albeit destructively, by levying high tariffs to block imports from the other party.  

Several of Huntington’s assumptions, suppositions and predictions have been strongly opposed by scholars like Edward Said and Amartya Sen who found them impossible to reason out. Throughout the book it is clear he’s attempted to put America as a solid proxy for the West and it is his way of looking at things that has made him sound outlandish when he says, “The American multiculturalists…reject their country’s cultural heritage. Instead of attempting to identify the United States with another civilization, however, they wish to create a country of many civilizations, which is to say a country not belonging to any civilization and lacking a cultural core. History shows that no country so constituted can long endure as a coherent society. A multi-civilizational United States will not be the United States; it will be the United Nations.” 

It appears from many of such statements that it is the cultural fabric of the United States that worries him most, and indeed it is the undefined American culture as a proxy of the West that he considers critically vulnerable to multiculturalism. Is there an American culture distinctly apart from the confluence of various cultures for hundreds of years in that country of immigrants? 

Far from addressing the issue, Huntington raised his fears about not only multiculturalism but even universalism—the “vacuousness of universalism” as he termed it.

Where then is the bottom line, or is there any? As a botched-up solution to world peace and harmony, Huntington in the concluding lines of the book said, “… an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against (future) world war.” Sadly, this makes no sense. He has failed to define the international order. 

Wasi Ahmed is a bilingual fiction writer and essayist. His original and translated fiction has been anthologized in Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka and the UK. He has eight short story collections and four novels to his credit. He received the Gemcon Literary Award 2010 for his book Trishimana.