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Clash of Civilizations – a Bad Idea

November 12, 2010

In championing Sam Huntington's 1993 question and 1996 book "Clash of Civilizations," Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes of a "scramble to make sense of a new world order after the collapse of the Soviet Union." In the new November-December issue of Foreign Affairs she supports what she calls "Huntington's civilizational model of international relations," saying that it "reflects the world as it is – not as one wishes it would be" and that it "allows decision-makers to distinguish friends from enemies." "The Clash of Civilizations," she concludes, "is a classic that should be taught in every international relations and history class – until a new world order emerges."

I would like to disagree. Huntington's theory is built on categories he and others called civilizations. In Ayaan's words these were "seven or eight historical civilizations, of which the Western, the Muslim, and the Confucian are the most important." Western civilization is a useful concept. Historians use it to identify and narrow the subject of their study. That's okay. But Latin America is arbitrarily categorized apart from the rest of Western civilization. And Confucianism elevated to a civilization in the late 20th century is too much of a stretch. Islam viewed as a civilization is not quite so ridiculous, but Islam is hardly a monolithic entity expressed culturally or politically, and this brings of to the quotes of Ayaan's that just mentioned about making sense of the world order and distinguishing friends from enemies.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali does well drawing from her experiences and taking aim against abuse and inequality of women. She is right-on when she points disparagingly to the mindsets of various men who speak for Islam. (It is better, in my opinion, that she speak straight rather than with diplomatic hypocrisy.) She describes Islam with a good amount of accuracy. But how does the concept of Islam clashing with the West AS A CIVILIZATION add to this? How does it add MORE to our understanding about who our enemies are than can be determined by an examination of particulars.

Samuel Huntington

Samuel P. Huntington, a big idea academic

It seems to me that Ayaan is mistakenly cramming good thinking on specifics into too big of an abstration and supposition about historical development – contrary to what she has described as her admiration for Karl Popper. Huntington's "clash of civilizations" is too grandiose an idea and built on a shabby foundation. Accurate views of the world are created by looking at connections between specifics rather than cramming specifics into assumed constructs. If the al-Qaeda attack on September 11, 2001 is analyzed using specifics, as would a sociologist or good historian, this would preclude the conclusion that 9/11 was the work of Muslims in general – the abstraction that Huntington considered a civilization.

In considering the validity of Huntington's big idea, let us consider the biggest of wars in recent times. This was not a clash between civilizations; it was a clash within what people call Western Civilization. Huntington's idea of a clash of civilizations involves winners and losers – the triumphant and the vanquished. Fascism was a state of mind within Western Civilization. The demise of fascist political parties changed Western Civilization a bit. Why should we suppose that either Western Civilization or Islam is going to be defeated as fascism was. Islam is likely to exist a hundred or two hundred years from now. Also, In two hundred years, fundamental aspects of Western Civilization are likely to still exist. The question is not whether Western Civilization or Islam will be defeated or victorious. Regarding Islam and Muslims, the question is about change made by Muslims themselves. The wars between the West and Islam existed during the late 11th century to the early 13th century with the Crusades and an aggressive Christendom. Don't look for the 21st and 22nd centuries to be carbon copies of the late Middle Ages.

Today there is war – real violence – not so much between Western civilization and Islam; the war is mainly between Muslims. There are Muslims who use violence against those those they see as heretics or as insufficiently faithful to "true" Islam. And there are those who support established authority, order and reject politics by violence. There are Muslims living in Western societies that believe in the tradition of tolerance and diversity in ideas that has taken root in the West. Elsewhere there is still a desire among Muslims to punish those who want to live free from religious and male domination, people who want the right to choose freedom from conservative Islamic strictures. Muslims will have to change that themselves, and one thing that non-Muslims can do is avoid the hysteria that often accompanies real wars.

There is the opinion among some Muslims that Western troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are a part of a war between the West and Islam. That interpretation encourages belief in Huntington's big theory. So too do suicide attacks on Westerners by a few Muslims. But rather than being a struggle of historic proportion as were the World Wars and the Cold War, these attacks, as cruel as they are to its victims, may be like the anarchist bombings of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: of little lasting impact on the course of history.


At, customer reviews of Huntington book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, number 264. The comments included the following:

Trade and cooperation between states make distinctions between civilizations artificial and meaningless. This book is a pointless academic exercise – a mix of facts and fiction concluding with a totally impossible recommendation.

Much of the west has very good relations with islam, and much of islam has very good relations with the US.

Where for example, is the rift between the United States and countries like Japan and Singapore?

...I do not see how this book provides useful tools for analyzing international conflicts in the post Cold War period. Even recent issues between the United States and Middle Eastern countries, which might seem to be a poster child for Huntington's approach, the intricate details seem to be much more important than any abstraction of a clash of civilizations.

I was not convinced that Huntington has made a sufficient case that when people of different cultures are forced together, they always end up fighting: there is too much evidence that the opposite often happens.

Huntington's divisions of civilizations are arbitrary and inconsistent. Some, like "Orthodox", referring to Russia and Eastern Europe – and believe it or not, "Buddhist" – are religious; while others, like "Sinic" (China) sound ethnic, and "Latin America" looks like nothing more than a linguistic civilization (based on Spanish, that is).

The professor wants to turn the West into a citadel, ceasing contact with the rest of the world. But who's listening? Would Royal Dutch/Shell stop building their Chinese pipeline? Would Toyota stop selling cars to Americans? Would USA move all troops out of Korea? I think the professor is living in a world of his own.


Edward Said: "The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations," (lecture delivered in 1996)

Francis Fukuyama: "The End of History Revisited," (lecture delivered in 2007)

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