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Clash within civilizations? Revisiting Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations’

By Majid Alam

When the neighbouring nations throughout the world are in conflict and major powers are involved in these conflicts, it is important to revisit Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). Huntington’s book came at a time when the western-style capitalism prevailed over communism after the fall of Soviet Union. After the Soviet crisis, the scholars in the West and elsewhere wondered over the future implications of the monopoly of western capitalism. The Clash of Civilizations tries to answer the question, “Next who?” The book, along with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, is considered among two canonical post-cold war books. While The End of History presupposes a post-ideological western liberal democracy, The Clash of Civilisations features China and political Islam as potential rivals to the West.

Almost two decades after the publication, the book could be revisited to assess the current crisis facing our world. The war in Syria is not between two distinct civilisations, but between two camps led by the United States and Russia. The war in Syria is a clear manifestation of what Huntington said of local wars going global. Huntington’s prediction that China, as a civilisation, would challenge the autonomy of the West, appears to be prophetic, especially when one sees the power it exercises in South Asia. One Belt and One Road (OBOR) initiative is an ambitious Chinese project to increase cross border connectivity between countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa. Through this economic diplomacy, China is not only boosting its economy but also spreading its economic control over nations spread across continents.

Similarly, the issue of South China Sea, seen as an exercise of Chinese intervention, has divided loyalties of nations between pro- and anti-China ones. Countries such as India and Japan worry of China’s growing influence in the area. Chinese ports in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and its close relation with Pakistan and Nepal worry India. Japan’s dispute with China over South China Sea, maritime routes, and ideological differences worry the country.

In the introduction to the book, Huntington writes, “Culture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilizational identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” Huntington argues how the conflict in the post-cold war era would be on the basis of identity, based on the civilisation one belongs to. He borrows Kissinger’s idea that the world is divided into “at least six major powers — the United States, Europe, China, Japan, Russia, and probably India — as well as a multiplicity of medium-sized and smaller countries” distributed among five different civilisations, namely Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, and the West.

But in the current geo-political scenario, identities are very fluid and not driven by civilizational affinities. It appears Huntington is wrong in assuming that neighbouring nation-states form a part of a single civilisation. When he talks about the Western civilisation, he includes the countries in Europe, the United States, and also Greece. He thinks of Greece as part of the western civilisation since it follows Christianity. Despite being the philosophical fountainhead of western civilization, Greece has a distinct history, mythology, language, and society. If we go by Huntington’s formulation, the western civilisation is grounded in Christianity, which came into existence much after the flourishing of Greek civilisation.

Similarly, while we analyse the crisis in the Islamic world in the present times, Huntington’s argument about the Middle East as a single civilisation, capable of challenging the West, doesn’t appear credible. Today, countries in the Middle East are divided over their narrow geopolitical concerns and in their affinity to western powers. “Islamic Civilization” as an operative category becomes visible only when external players like the US and Russia intervene in the region. Though the geographical entity, the Middle East, is bound by a singular language, history, and religion, the nation-states don’t appear to be motivated by similar political aspirations. This could be best seen in the case of Turkey, Iran, and Egypt. When Huntington suggests that the Middle East is the centre of Islamic civilisation, he fails to acknowledge that Israel, situated in the area, has a different political and religious aspiration.

When Huntington talks about Islamic civilisation, he repeatedly uses the word “ummah” to denote the brotherhood shared by the people in the Islamic world. But in the current times, the rift is more visible among these Islamic countries. Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen, while Turkey kills Kurds in Syria, and the Syrian President kills its Sunni population. Iran and Saudi Arabia are two rivals, who want to have their cartels in the area. The two countries are fighting a proxy war in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq. In Syria, Iran is supporting the Syrian President, while Saudi and the US support the Syrian rebels. While Saudi claims that Iran backs Houthis in Yemen, Saudi has inflicted huge damage on the country in an effort to control it. Therefore, the concept of “ummah” no longer dominates the international politics of the Middle East, neither does the Middle East plan to unite the region as a single civilisation.

Huntington’s division of the world into Chinese, Indian, Islamic, Western, and Japanese civilizations have ceased to exist. Going by the current geopolitics, the division would look as follows: the Western Civilisation including the European Union, along with the UK and the US; the Chinese or Sinic Civilisation with its roadmap of One Belt One Road Initiative, including Pakistan and Iran; the Islamic Civilisation, subdivided into Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey as the three major poles; North Korea, a game-changer in the current global politics, a civilisation of its own.

While the idea of a united Islamic world challenging the West no longer seems valid, the emerging Islamic terrorism in the form of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses threat to the Islamic world itself from within. The retreat of Russia with a stable leader, Vladimir Putin, fails the entire supposition behind the book. Contrary to Huntington’s claims, one could say that conflicts today are not among the civilisations; rather, the clash is within the civilizations. The idea of nation-states seems to have exceeded the idea of civilizations.  

Majid Alam
 is a freelance journalist and blogger, currently pursuing Masters in Convergent Journalism from AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, India.


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