The expression ‘Clash of Civilizations’ often crops up in political, academic, media and bar-stool debates. It did the other evening at my local. Whilst the phrase derives from colonial ‘clash of cultures’ terminology, its contemporary usage is widely understood to have emerged from the title of a 1993 Foreign Affairs paper which presented the thoughts of Samuel P Huntington. In his article, Huntington envisaged that future, post-Cold War conflicts would be fought, not along traditional lines of ideological and/or economic disputes, but would instead be characterised by cultural and religious hostilities. Huntington argued that this new phase of civilisational conflict would be “particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims“, specifically along the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic states. The initial logic appears self-evident enough; seemingly reinforced by modern history, apparently validated by current world conflicts and, arguably, a central premise of contemporary foreign policy and counter-terrorism thinking. Proponents of Huntington’s work hold him up as an almost latter-day soothsayer of world conflict, a political scientist clairvoyant of almost Nostradamian stature. But how accurate is Huntington’s hypothesis? Is it really as patently obvious has his advocates claim? In a devastatingly informed lecture entitled The Myth of The Clash of Civilizations delivered in 1996 at the University of Massachusetts, the late Edward Said concentrated his considerable intellectual attentions on the deconstruction of Huntington’s claims. The critique put forward by Said hits the nail squarely on the head.
Primarily, it is hard to overlook the unreliable sources Huntington utilises which are often based on the secondary and tertiary conjecture and opinion of very selective, politically right-leaning commentators who largely ignore wider anthropological advancements in our understanding of how civilisations actually operate. What’s more, the blinkered, Anglo-centric view his analysis takes is truly striking. As Said phrases it, for Huntington the West is the “locus” around which all other cultures ought to revolve, a framing starkly revealed in his West-vs-Rest strategic prescriptions;
The West must exploit differences and conflicts amongst Confucian and Islamic states to support, in other civilisations, groups sympathetic to Western values and interests, to strengthen international institutions that reflect and legitimate Western interests
Samuel P Huntington
A worryingly imperialist statement in itself, although perhaps more revealing still is the title of Huntington’s paper, for the term ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ is not his own but directly taken for Bernard Lewis’ 1990 Atlantic Monthly article The Roots of Muslim Rage which, in language eerily reminiscent of the most evangelical Bush administration rhetoric, claims all Muslims are infuriated by modernity and Western freedoms! This extremely offensive, stereotypical perspective is mirrored by Huntington’s extraordinarily simplistic tripartite typology of ‘Western’, ‘Confucian’ and ‘Islamic’ civilisations.
So what exactly is, say, the ‘Western culture’ when it’s at home? I’m sure I haven’t a clue! Surely considerable cultural diversity exists in Northern and Southern England alone, not to mention the variety found within those communities, and let alone between Western countries themselves. In much the same vein, are we really to believe that over one billion Muslims spread across the planet are in fact one monolithic, static and homogenous ‘Islamic culture’? Is this not a similar narrative to the one espoused by extremists themselves, and a generalisation of epic proportions? What of the intra-civilisational conflicts which perpetuate within such groupings? For example between South/North Korea, China/Tibet, India/Pakistan, if only to call out the most immediately obvious and skirt over the rife sectarian violence prevalent between Sunni and Shi’ite or Protestant and Catholic divisions (Iraq and Ireland being obvious examples).
What then, of the similarities that are readily identifiable between these purportedly clashing civilisations? What of the most overt connection between us all, that of free-market global capitalism? To my knowledge, Huntington conveniently skips any commentary on global economic collaboration. Indeed this, to my mind, is the crux of the crisis and the underlying question here; whether we, as humankind, wish to highlight our commonalities or differences, whether we want to emphasise conflict or co-operation, whether in the end, as Said asks;
…we want to work for civilizations that are separate, or whether we should be taking the more integrative, but perhaps more difficult path, which is to see them as making one vast whole, whose exact contours are impossible for any person to grasp, but whose certain existence we can intuit and feel and study.
I believe such questions of peaceful coexistence have far more import to real-world scenarios, such as the Israeli/Palestinian or Unionist/Republican conflicts for example, than inflammatory notions of an inevitable war between poorly conceptualised, yet vastly encompassing, antiquated colonial clichés. Huntington believes we are entering an age of cultural conflict, I believe this is a fallacy. Instead I am inclined to agree with Said’s position; that we in fact live in an age of cultural definitions. These can never do justice to the richness and diversity found in the singular world we live, nevertheless this mix should be cherished and nurtured, not stifled or feared.