The Clash of Civilisations

President Trump’s speech in Warsaw, in which he urged Europeans and Americans to defend Western civilization against violent extremists and barbarian hordes, inevitably evoked Samuel P. Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” — the notion that superpower rivalry would give way to battles among Western universalism, Islamic militance and Chinese assertiveness. In a book expanded from his famous 1993 essay, Huntington described civilizations as the broadest and most crucial level of identity, encompassing religion, values, culture and history. Rather than “which side are you on?” he wrote, the overriding question in the post-Cold War world would be “who are you?”

In 1993, Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an article in the journal Foreign Affairs entitled “The Clash of Civilizations?”48 The article began with a provocative claim that the European epoch of global politics was coming to an end and, with it, interstate conflicts such as World Wars I and II and the Cold War. With the end of the Cold War, Huntington asserted, the world was changing. “World politics,” he declared, “is entering a new phase” in which “the fundamental source of conflict” will “occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.”

A civilization, Huntington argued, is “a cultural entity,” and he proceeded to identify eight such civilizations – Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and African. Civilizations differed in terms of “history, language, culture, tradition, and, most important, religion.”50 Each civilization, Huntington argued, had a core state – for example, India in Hindu civilization, Russia in Slavic-Orthodox, and China in Confucian – but nation-states were becoming less important sources of identity for people. The future, then, would be one of ever-widening collisions among groups and countries from different civilizations, such as the war in Chechnya that pit “Slavic-Orthodox” Russians against “Islamic” Chechens, or the “Hindu”–“Islamic” (India–Pakistan) clash over Kashmir. Empirical analysis to discover whether Huntington’s different civilizations were “real” led political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Wayne E. Baker to the cautious conclusion that “societies with a common cultural heritage generally do fall into common clusters” but that their positions also reflect other facts like economic development.

Edward Said takes a critical view of Samuel Huntingdon's thesis.

Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war “between the Islamic world and the Americans and their allies” to combat a “new crusade led by America against the Islamic nations” seems to reflect Huntington’s argument regarding the clash of civilizations. The United States, bin Laden argued, had made “a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims,” and he urged Muslims everywhere to take up arms against America. Civilizational conflicts, Huntington argued, would feature a “kin-country syndrome” in which members of a civilization would try to help others from the same civilization against their common foe. Thus, Muslim militants from many countries who joined the Afghan resistance to Soviet occupation after Moscow’s 1979 invasion have reappeared in a variety of settings pitting Muslims against non-Muslims including Chechnya, Kosovo, and Iraq. In Iraq, for example, the militant Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (1966–2006), deceased leader of the group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, frequently used non-Iraqi volunteers, “holy warriors” he called them, as suicide bombers against US forces and Shia civilians. “O Muslim youths . . . especially in neighboring countries and Yemen,” Zarqawi declared, “jihad is your duty.”54 Most of these volunteers were non-Iraqi Arabs, many of whom came from Saudi Arabia; others came from Syria, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Yemen, and elsewhere, including Europe.55 To buttress his case Huntington pointed to a number of events in global politics in 1993 that reflected growing tensions between countries in different civilizations, assistance among people within the same civilization, or potential alliances between certain civilizations against others, especially the West. They included:

• Fighting among Croats, Muslims, and Serbs in Bosnia, Western failure to help Bosnia’s Muslims in an appreciable way, and Russia’s support for Slavic Serbia in the Bosnian conflict.

• Muslim and Chinese rejection of the West’s version of universal human rights, suggesting a Confucian–Islamic alliance against the West.

• The voting along civilization lines to hold the 2000 Olympics in Australia rather than China.

• China’s sale of missile components to Pakistan; China’s testing a nuclear weapon; and North Korea’s effort to obtain nuclear weapons, suggesting a growing Confucian threat to the West.

• America’s “dual containment” policy toward Iran and Iraq, and America’s military preparations for two major regional conflicts against North Korea and Iran or Iraq.

• German limitations on admission of refugees.

Huntington argued that the West’s influence had begun to decline and that it increasingly had to face challenger civilizations that “have the desire, the will and the resources to shape the world in non-Western ways.” Asian civilizations were enlarging their economic, military, and political power, and Islamic countries had rapidly growing populations and an expansive religious ideology. Western primacy, Huntington feared, was threatened by the rapidly growing power of China and the possibility of an emerging “Confucian–Islamic military connection.” Under these conditions, global politics would become “the West versus the rest.” Despite the emphasis Huntington placed on the threat from China, the best remembered phrase from his article was his assertion that the “crescent-shaped Islamic bloc, from the bulge of Africa to central Asia, has bloody borders.”

This phrase was widely recalled after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 by Islamic terrorists. Observers invoked Huntington’s clash-of-civilizations thesis as they asserted that the attacks marked the beginning of a war between the Western and Islamic worlds, not a conflict with a relatively small minority of militant and fanatic Muslim fundamentalists. Huntington’s concern that Muslim and Western values were in conflict seemed to be reinforced by the storm of anger that swept Muslim communities around the world after a Danish newspaper in September 2005 published 12 cartoons satirizing Muhammad and ridiculing the activities of Muslim militants. The cartoons were then reproduced in other newspapers across Europe. Their publication aroused Muslims because Islam bans depictions of the Prophet and because many Muslims regarded the cartoons as highly provocative. By contrast, many Westerners regarded the issue as one of freedom of speech and thought that Muslim protests and intimidation threatened individual freedom and secular values. Twelve writers, most of whom were Muslims living in the West, declared that the furor showed that: “After overcoming fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new global totalitarian threat: Islamism.” The growing gap between Muslim and non-Muslim perceptions of the world were reflected in a recent poll in which majorities or near majorities of non-Muslims in the West viewed Muslims as “fanatical” and not respectful of women, while Muslims viewed Westerners as “immoral” and “selfish.”

More recently, Huntington produced heated reactions when he expressed concern at the large-scale immigration of Hispanics to the United States who, he argued, were not assimilating into American society. Americans, he argued, define their national identity and culture to include “the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, including the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to create a heaven on earth, a ‘city on a hill.’” In his view, Hispanics, more than other minorities, were establishing insulated cultural islands in areas such as Southern California and South Florida, and the sheer number of Hispanics in the United States – up from almost 9 percent of the population in 1990 to 13.7 percent in 2003 or close to 40 million (not counting 3.9 million citizens of Puerto Rico), of whom as many as a quarter are illegal – threaten to undermine America’s culture. According to Huntington, the “Mexican/Hispanic Challenge” posed by Mexican immigration is unlike previous waves of immigration into the United States. Mexican immigrants, he argues, unlike their predecessors, do not assimilate. The result, he fears, will be “a culturally bifurcated Anglo-Hispanic society with two national languages.” A number of factors, he believes, make Mexican immigration to the United States unique, including the fact that Mexico is America’s neighbor, thereby permitting continuous movement back and forth across the border, the high concentration of Mexicans in particular localities like Los Angeles, the high proportion who enter the United States illegally, the persistence of the immigration northward, and Mexico’s historical claim to American territory. In addition, the Mexican government supports the flow northward as an economic and political safety valve, advocates an open border, and is prepared to let Mexicans living in the United States vote in Mexico’s elections. Mexico even published a pamphlet entitled “Guide to the Mexican Migrant” that is filled with practical hints to help migrants enter the United States illegally and safely. The publication infuriated US opponents of illegal immigration. Huntington argues that factors limiting the assimilation of Mexican migrants are failure to learn English, poor education levels, low income, low naturalization and intermarriage rates, and, most importantly, failure to acquire American identity. The density of links across the US–Mexican border and the mixing of cultures has produced a unique region in southwestern US and northern Mexico “variously called ‘MexAmerica,’ ‘Amexica,’ and ‘Mexifornia’” which, Huntington believes, “could produce a consolidation of the Mexican-dominant areas into an autonomous, culturally and linguistically distinct, economically self-reliant bloc within the United States.”

Huntington’s analysis is an extension of his view that we are entering an era of clashing civilizations. He is a nationalist whose views are those of one who fears that relentless globalization will undermine existing national cultures and perhaps even national independence. To his critics, Huntington is a xenophobe, even a racist, whose belief that American culture is rooted in Anglo-Protestant tradition is false and whose fears are overheated.

To his supporters, he summarizes the resentment against a global tidal wave that threatens national identities, boundaries, and traditional values. Some of his critics contend that Hispanics do, in fact, assimilate in the same way that their predecessors did. Others argue that his version of American culture, while suitable for the Pilgrim Fathers, had already been made obsolete by previous generations of immigrants.

Finally, many of his critics argue that Huntington simply does not understand how the United States has repeatedly integrated waves of immigrants into a culture that reflects them all. Huntington’s overall clash-of-civilizations thesis is flawed in a number of respects.

First, the concept of the state is central to his framework; indeed one of his civilizations consists of a single country, Japan, and three others are virtually coterminous with a single state: Confucian and China, Hindu and India, and Slavic-Orthodox and Russia.

Second, it remains unclear precisely what a civilization is. In some cases, the definition seems to rest on a common religion, whereas in others ethnicity or other factors play a major role.

Third, even in recent years, major conflicts have arisen between countries from within the same civilizations that Huntington identifies, for example, the war between Islamic Iran and Iraq between 1980 and 1988.

Fourth, each of the civilizations Huntington identifies has any number of internal fault lines. Muslims, for example, are engaged in conflict among themselves in a number of countries, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. China and North Korea eye one another with suspicion, as do China and Vietnam. Moreover, strong alliances exist between countries from different civilizations, like that between the United States and Japan. Finally, to some extent, Western culture is less about religion and language and more about modernization, and modernization is spreading globally, toppling traditional institutions and ways of life that stand in its way. Nevertheless, Huntington’s argument highlights the growing importance of identity in global politics and the growing resentment of non-Western societies toward cultural and economic globalization, which non-Westerners view as a kind of Western cultural and economic hegemony over them.

Perhaps the most controversial of Huntington’s claims about civilization is that when they come into contact, they “clash.” In fact, encounters among those from different civilizations rarely result in conflict. Instead, they often bring cultural enrichment for the civilizations involved, especially for those who encounter a more advanced civilization, like the nomadic Mongols and Jurchens (Manchus) who conquered China in the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries. Empirical analysis tends to refute Huntington’s conclusion. For example, political scientists Bruce Russett, John Oneal, and Michaelene Cox argue that “traditional realist influences as contiguity, alliances, and relative power, and liberal influences of joint democracy and interdependence, provide a much better account of interstate conflict” and that pairs of countries “split across civilizational boundaries are no more likely to become engaged in disputes than are other states.” Even disputes between the West and the rest of the world, or with Islam, were no more common than those between or within most other groups.

In conclusion, according to data collected by the World Values Survey, Huntington is correct in identifying a clash of civilizations but is wrong in concluding that the clash between the West and Islam concerns political values, particularly over the desirability of democracy. Democracy is, in fact, popular in both civilizations. “Instead,” declare Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “the real fault line between the West and Islam, which Huntington’s theory completely overlooks, concerns gender equality and sexual liberalization.”