The Clash of Civilizations

clash of civilizations

samuel huntington by david levine

The Clash of Civilizations is a theory, proposed by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. This theory was originally formulated 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 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 first used by American historian, Bernard Lewis in an article in a 1990 issue of ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ titled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage.’

Huntington began his thinking by surveying the diverse theories about the nature of global politics in the post-Cold War period. Some theorists and writers argued that human rights, liberal democracy and capitalist free market economy had become the only remaining ideological alternative for nations in the post-Cold War world. Specifically, Francis Fukuyama argued that the world had reached the ‘end of history.’

Huntington believed that while the age of ideology had ended, the world had only reverted to a normal state of affairs characterized by cultural conflict. In his thesis, he argued that the primary axis of conflict in the future will be along cultural and religious lines. As an extension, he posits that the concept of different civilizations, as the highest rank of cultural identity, will become increasingly useful in analyzing the potential for conflict.

Huntington has fallen under the stern critique of various academic writers, who have either empirically, historically, logically or ideologically refuted his claims. In a 1999 article explicitly referring to Huntington, Indian economist, Amartya Sen points to the fact that ‘diversity is a feature of most cultures in the world. Western civilization is no exception. The practice of democracy that has won out in the modern West is largely a result of a consensus that has emerged since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the last century or so. To read in this a historical commitment of the West – over the millennia – to democracy, and then to contrast it with non-Western traditions (treating each as monolithic) would be a great mistake.’

Palestinian political scientist, Edward Said issued a response to Huntington’s thesis in his ‘The Clash of Ignorance.’ Said argues that Huntington’s categorization of the world’s fixed ‘civilizations’ omits the dynamic interdependency and interaction of culture. A long time critic of the Huntingtonian paradigm, and an outspoken proponent of Arab issues, Edward Said also claimed that not only is the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis a ‘reductive and vulgar notion,’ but it is also an illustration ‘of the purest invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims.’

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