The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations was a controversial theory developed in the 1990s that warned of world wars caused by different cultural ideas.

The Clash of Civilizations is a thesis that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. The American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington argued that future wars would be fought not between countries, but between cultures. It was proposed in a 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, which was then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?”, in response to his former student Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington later expanded his thesis in a 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.

The phrase itself was earlier used by Albert Camus in 1946, by Girilal Jain in his analysis of the Ayodhya dispute in 1988, by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage” and by Mahdi El Mandjra in his book “La première guerre civilisationnelle” published in 1992. Even earlier, the phrase appears in a 1926 book regarding the Middle East by Basil Mathews: Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations (p. 196). This expression derives from “clash of cultures”, already used during the colonial period and the Belle Époque.

The history of the world is rife with internal and external conflicts. However, not every one of these wars could be called a “clash of civilization”.

The Clash of Civilization was a 1996 book written by American political scientist Samuel Huntington. In brief, the book states that religious and cultural differences will be the key starting point of conflicts among different groups in the world after the Cold War. The book accuses Islamic extremism in particular as the biggest threat to the peace of the world.

This theory has been very controversial since its inception. An outline of the theory and its main criticisms are available below.

What Is a Civilization?

There are many types of civilizations found around the world – however, “western” culture and Islamic culture have been singled out as two of the world’s most encompassing. In general, the Western world comprises of Europe and other places that Europeans had settled in the past such as Canada, Australia, and America while the Islamic world is mainly concentrated in North Africa and the Middle East. In his book, Huntington paid a lot of attention to these two worlds and extensively described them explaining how the two could cause conflicts in the world.

Why Do Civilizations Clash?

Samuel Huntington believed that there were aspects of both Islamic and Christian (western) culture that were destined to clash with one another. This is particularly because of the “all-or-nothing” nature of religions, were followers believe that only their faith is the right one and use it to justify acts which could even turn violent.

Huntington also believed that civilizations clash because they are separated from one another by language, tradition, culture, history, and religion. In terms of the clash between Christianity and Islam, Huntington stressed that clash is unavoidable because the two main religions (Islam and Christianity) keep holding to the claim that they are “only true religion” in the world. Additionally, Huntington asserted that while the world shrinks with globalization, interactions all over the world increase, intensifying what Huntington calls “civilizational consciousness”: the know-how of the differences among commonalities and civilizations inside the civilization.

How Can a Clash of Civilizations Be Avoided?

Samuel Huntington proposed three types of general actions that non-western civilization can use in response to countries in the western region. One is that the non-western countries can try to achieve isolation so that they can maintain their values and protect themselves from invasion by the west. Secondly, the non-western countries could accept and be part of the western values.

Additionally, through an economic transformation, countries outside the western world can attempt to balance western power. While still maintaining their values, they can cooperate with other non-western countries to come up with military power and economic cooperation. Huntington believed that accumulating the power of non-western civilizations and putting them together could push the west to cultivate a better know-how of the fundamentals of the culture behind other civilizations. In that regard, western civilization will stop been regarded as “universal” as different civilizations will be able to coexist and come together to shape the future world.

Criticism of the Clash of Civilizations

The clash of civilizations has garnered plenty of criticism. The denunciation of the clash of civilization by different individuals can be organized under three sub-headings: ethical, methodological, and epistemological critiques.

Epistemological Critique

This critique condemns the clash of civilizations for its elitist, realist, and orientalist outlook. This criticism tears about the assumption of the persistent probability of war between civilizations, which it says shows a fear that is embedded in political realism.

The critique also points out how the language of “them” and “us” is deeply rooted in Huntington’s thesis, creating a sense of otherness which can open the door to prejudice.

Methodological Critique

This critique states that Huntington neglects to consider the internal dynamics and myriad complexities of Islam, as well as the Muslim world at large. This critique states that the clash of civilizations theory is an overgeneralization and is selective.

Ethical Critique

The ethical critique rebukes the immoral importance of the entire thesis. It claims that the clash of civilization is a decided thesis that aids a particular interest and is not helpful in predicting world conflicts.

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