Book Review: “The Clash of Civilizations” Essay
In an article published in the Summer 1993 edition of Foreign Affairs Harvard professor of Political Science Samuel Huntington advanced a highly controversial thesis, in which he contended that the major conflicts in the future will be between civilizations, and not along political or ideological dividing lines. This essay examines the validity of his claims, and advances a contrary views that the speculated civilizational clashes are largely confined to perceptions, and that the resurfacing cultural identities do not carry with them enough conviction of purpose for a distinct clash of civilizations to occur.
Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is a remarkable tour de force of inductive analysis based on geopolitical trends and supplemented with a profound understanding of religion as determining human identity. He paints a picture in which modernism, secularization and free market participation has leveled people across the globe, and yet the essential religious identity resists all the powerful mechanics of egalitarianism. ‘What are you?’ is the crucial question in the conflict between civilizations, points out Huntington, suggesting towards something immutable (1993).
As an inevitable outcome, therefore, the world is heading for a tremendous clash of civilizations.
Huntington’s thesis is result of meticulous research and a faultless chain of inductive reasoning, in which discrete points of conflict are analyzed from a predominantly religious perspective, and brought together to see how the tectonics of religion are able to explain the troubled areas of the world. With a broad overview of history Huntington describes the age of kings making way for republics with the French Revolution. The mercantilist European nation states clashed in the First World War, and heralded a new world order in which ideologies – Communism, fascism, democracy – came to form the basis of nation states. The elimination of fascism in the Second World War, left the world divided along the lines of Communism and free market democracy – the Cold War era, which was characterized by military build-up and rapid economic growth. However, the final demise of Communism in 1991 eliminated the ideological make-up, and allowed civilization re-organize along the more fundamental lines of division, that of religion.
Various conflict point in the world are put forward to illustrate how the dimension of religion is beginning to reassert itself over and above all other indoctrinated political ideologies. Explicitly identified are the spheres of civilization known as Anglo-Saxon, European, South American, African, Moslem, Hindu, Sinic-Confucian and Slavic-Orthodox. These are not absolutely exclusive to each, and there are various degrees of affinity between them. Thus North and South America are able to come together under certain terms. Arabs, Chinese and Westerners, are far more exclusive to each other, and therefore come across as distinct cultures (Ibid).
Apart from the demise of political ideology Huntington gives six other reasons for the rise of civilizational identity. Firstly, as already stated, it is the most fundamental level of identity. Secondly, in a shrinking world there is more interaction with different civilizations, which helps to intensify consciousness of one’s own. Thirdly, modernization weakens political affiliations to state. Fourthly, as the West becomes more and more powerful and exclusive the smaller nations react and try to foster local identities, to wit the “Asianization” in Japan, or the “Hinduization” of India. Fifthly, cultural characteristics are less mutable. And finally, economic regionalism is on the rise, which tends to enhance cultural identity.
From the perspective of discrete civilizational blocks such an analysis is hard to refute. With sweeping generalizations Huntington is able to impart personal character to civilizations he talks about. In the arena of conflict, with such well-defined combatants, a game plan that accords with the character traits, the weaknesses and strengths, of the players will not seem implausible. At one point Huntington observes that, regarding the case of Islam versus the West, in both camps the general attitude adopted is that there is indeed a civilizational clash between the two (Ibid). But the fact is that these are attitudes and not convictions. They are meant to reinforce sense of identity, but hardly propels into action. They are expressions of personal angst engendered by cosmopolitan existence; hardly a war cry.
It begs the question of whether such sweeping generalizations of Huntington’s are justified in the first place. When we shift focus from civilization to the individual the picture suddenly loses clarity. The clinching question is this: How willing is the individual to fight on behalf of his civilization? Because to mobilize a civilization against another requires a conviction of purpose to match. When we recall the crusades of the Middle Ages we have an inkling of what a clash of civilizations means. The Crusaders marched to Jerusalem on foot with a sense of purpose that is almost impossible to imagine for modern urbanites troubled with a lack of identity and belonging. Such conviction does not manifest itself anywhere in the free market paradise of today, neither among individuals, nor among nation states.
The 1990 gulf war, which Huntington puts forwards as substantiating his theory, actually tears it to pieces. Saddam Hussein was merely pulling a publicity stunt when he announced his war against the US lead coalition as a war of Islam against the West – his own Iraq was the most Westernized of all Arab nations. Apart from with a few terrorists such a call did not resonate at all with the Moslems worldwide, and only led to some Moslems seeking the vicarious pleasure of opposing and demonizing the United States in private. Huntington cites the Arab and Moslem nations as withdrawing from the coalition, but for what other purpose but to service the orgy of affected indignation among the masses. In short, the response of the Moslem world was confined to sentiment and posturing, exactly when they were offered with the most opportune occasion for them to express solidarity towards Islam. No inclination towards genuine civilizational conflict was manifested through this event.
Towards the end of this long essay Huntington is heard to concede that internecine strife is a frequent occurrence among Moslems, and because it is do it severely mars the possibility of forming a civilizational front. He says: “Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders” (Ibid). The summary in the final sentence is not quite accurate, because along with bloody borders there are also blood-spilt interiors, and this does not describe a civilizational front at all. The Palestine resistance against Israel (representing the West) is made a prominent argument in Huntington’s thesis, but he fails to mention the internecine bickering among the Palestinians themselves. These internal fault lines have magnified in recent times, and now we have reports of armed clashes between the supporters of Hamas and Fatah (“Palestinian rivals”, n.d.). If this sets an example then what hope of a united Islamic front to stand up to the West?
Is the West itself gearing up for a civilizational confrontation? US imperialism seems to give this impression, and Huntington concurs. (Ibid). But he is indeed speaking of “economic” imperialism here, and this makes a crucial difference. All the wars fought by the West since the Second World War, when analyzed to the roots causes, will be found to have economic motives at heart, and in the case of the two recent Gulf Wars even more so. Now, if the United States had been a mercantilist nation, in the vein of eighteenth century European nations, than the charge of imperialism would be justified. But America stands for democracy and the free market, and as such the economy it is defending is a world economy, and not simply its own. Huntington describes the World Bank and the IMF as imposing a Western blueprint on the developing world in the guise of aid and finance. But institutions like the IMF are run on the principles of the Smithsonian economics of supply and demand, and the same is adopted by almost all the nation states. Competition necessarily has winners and losers, but that does not mean that the winner and the loser are in opposing civilizational camps, when both are playing the game by the rules. The Westerner is sometimes heard to militaristically espouse universal principles of democracy and self-determination, as against the tenets of the other civilizations of the world. But the fact is that the same principles have been adopted everywhere, only with lesser degrees of conviction. So if the West sounds vociferous on behalf of democracy and the free market, as against all other norms, that is not making for civilizational confrontation. It is more an act of affirmation.
Again, the Gulf war highlights the Western attitude towards civilization, as it did in the Moslem case. The second Gulf War should have rallied the West against the scourge of Moslem terrorism. But instead it has given rise to a deeply divided United State, indeed a deeply divided West. The war drags on, fought by the impoverished classes of America and mercenaries. The will to fight for the sake of a civilization is not manifest here.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe, in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, people were willing to fight for the sake of religion. The wars of religion had pitched Europe into a terrible state of anarchy, and the reaction to this was the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. It was characterized by a group of philosophers who openly rejected religion in favor of a purely rational paradigm, based on the science of Galileo and Newton. This brand of thinking also had a religious fervor attached to it, and was indeed responsible in the end for the anarchy let loose by the French Revolution. Among the French philosophers of the Enlightenment Voltaire was one with uncommon insight. He was imprisoned and exiled on numerous occasions due to his outbursts against the Catholic Church. In one of his exiles he was confined for two years in Protestant England. Here he observed an extraordinary evolution taking place among the English, and in which he saw the cherished escape route from religious anarchy. He found a multitude of religious sects existing together in harmony. “An Englishman, as one to whom liberty is natural, may go to heaven his own way,” he observes (2004, p. 14). This natural talent for liberty of the English was most exemplified in the setting of the financial stock exchange of London:
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. (Ibid. p. 18)
Voltaire was most prescient, for it is indeed this Anglo-Saxon talent that has overtaken the world, and has nullified all religions in favor of a secular order centered on trade and free markets. What Huntington describes as re-affirmation of religious identity within the alienating order of secularism may indeed be nothing more than cowardly relapse into a comfort zone of presumed identity. Only when secularism is abandoned completely, and a true religious identity is fostered, are we able to speak in terms of civilizational conflict. Huntington’s bland prescription at the very end of the essay is: “For the relevant future, there will be no universal civilization, but instead a world of different civilizations, each of which will have to learn to coexist with the others” (1993). This reeks of secularist compromise, and disqualifies him from speaking in terms of civilizations.
Huntington, Samuel P. “The Clash of Civilizations?” (First appeared in Foreign Affairs, 1993). Retrieved 25 November 2007. Website: http://history.club.fatih.edu.tr/103%20Huntington%20Clash%20of%20Civilizations%20full%20text.htm
“Palestinian rivals: Fatah & Hamas.” Retrieved 25 November 2007 from BBC News. Website: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/5016012.stm
Voltaire. (2004). Letters on the English Or Lettres Philosophiques. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing.
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