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Huntington: The ‘clash’ he foresaw

Wasi Ahmed | November 25, 2018 00:00:00

When his 1993 essay The Clash of Civilisations, later made into a book with the title The Clash of Civilisations 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 and not on sound empirical research. The question still remains, and the key element of his thesis continues to trigger a strong feeling of disharmony in his understanding and defining of people along the lines of their ethnicities and faith.

One of America's greatest political thinkers, Samuel P. Huntington 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 with 'the continuing and deeply conflictual relation between Islam and Christianity.' This, he termed civilisational 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 civilisational groups.


“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 civilisations”

Samuel P. Huntington


Huntington's observations on the conflict between what he calls Islamic civilisation and the Western world appears to be too straightforward (if not sweeping) as though mingled with an air of prophesy. The Islamic civilisation, 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 modernise 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 civilisations between Islam and the West. The Western nations would do well to keep their distance from Muslim affairs. The more the two civilisations 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 of 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 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 "civilisation-based world order" which stresses categorisation of nations based on culture. States of the same culture will more likely "cooperate" with each other than with states of different "civilisations". Huntington suggests "that culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilisation identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, as well as disintegration and conflict in the post-Cold War world".

Huntington defines civilisation 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 civilisation 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 civilisations: Confucian, Hindu, Islamic, Japanese, Latin American, Sinic, Slavic-Orthodox, Western, "and possibly African". Critics take issue with such categorisation, terming it simplistic and highly problematic. Some suggest this classification as "arbitrary", because Huntington does not clearly define the attributes of what defines a state under a particular civilisation. There are others who find "inconsistencies" with the categorisation of different civilisations. For example, Huntington is unsure whether there is an African civilisation although he begrudgingly includes it in his list of major civilisations. Curious enough, he does not label Judaism as its own civilisation.

Huntington expands his argument by suggesting that religion will be the "most important" component distinguishing one civilisation 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 globalisaation and modernisation. "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 civilisations is so easily predictable? Huntington offers the following explanations:

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

2. The world is becoming a smaller place. As a result, interactions across the world are increasing, which intensify 'civilisation consciousness' and the awareness of differences between civilisations and commonalities within civilisations.

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

4. The growth of civilisation-consciousness is enhanced by the dual role of the West. On the one hand, the West is at the peak of power. At the same time, a return-to-the-roots phenomenon is occurring among non-Western civilisations. 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.

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

6. Economic regionalism is increasing. Successful economic regionalism will reinforce civilisation-consciousness. Economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilisation.

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 civilisation defined largely by religion. 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 Islam-predominant 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 for the sake of religion by way of ruthless ethnic cleansing and driving around a million Rohigya population out of the country.

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 it is trade at the centre of the conflict. This war unlike the conventional kind need not employ military arsenal, and can be more destructive, albeit effective by levying high tariffs to block imports from the other party.

Huntington's thesis has provoked controversies in the past two decades over several of his assumptions, suppositions and predictions that scholars like Edward Said and Amartya Sen found impossible to reason out. Through out the book it is clear he had been trying to put America as a solid proxy for the West and it is his way of looking at things that 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 civilisation, however, they wish to create a country of many civilisations, which is to say a country not belonging to any civilisation and lacking a cultural core. History shows that no country so constituted can long endure as a coherent society. A multicivilisational 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 worried him most, and indeed it is the undefined American culture as a proxy of the West that he considered 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, a novelist and short story writer, is Editorial Consultant at the FE. wasiahmed.bd@gmail.com

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