WHAT IS THE ‘CLASH OF CIVILIZATIONS’ THEORY?
The clash of civilizations is the hypothesis that peoples’ cultural and religious identities will play the primary role in international relations.
“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”
An excerpt from ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ by Samuel Huntington, Foreign Affairs vol. 72 (Summer, 1993).
Huntington divided the world into nine major civilizations: Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu, African, Sinic, Japanese, Latin American.
HOW AND IN WHAT CONTEXT IT WAS DEVELOPED
This hypothesis was first developed at a lecture in 1992 at the American Enterprise Institute and then further developed by Huntington in his 1993 essay on Foreign Affairs. Huntington’s thesis is viewed worldwide as the mainstream theory explaining international relations in the post-Cold War era, in most European and North American universities it is in the syllabus and considered as a major work to be studied.
You can find below how often Huntington’s work appeared on top US Universities’ reading lists:
Aforementioned, the essay was written in 1993, so 2 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the argumentation goes in line with what Fukuyama and Bernard Lewis wrote those years.
The essay was actually written in response to his student Fukuyama’s ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ (1992).
Huntington extended his thesis with his 1996 book ‘’The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order’’.
It is also remarkable that the phrase was used in a 1990 essay called ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ by Bernard Lewis.
First of all, one should bear in mind that all these articles/books appeared right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the 1990s, when there was a vacuum in the balance of power in the world.
There was apparently the need to create a new antagonist; as we see in the caption in Lewis’ article; “The Roots of Muslim Rage; Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” For Lewis’ article, the caption gives itself away. Lewis suggests the inevitability of a clash between Muslims and the “West” and implies that this hatred on the part of Muslims is unlikely to go away.
Like Lewis, Huntington warns the reader against Islam and claims that Islamic extremism will be the biggest threat to peace.
‘’More recent factors contributing to a Western–Islamic clash, Huntington wrote, are the Islamic Resurgence and demographic explosion in Islam, coupled with the values of Western universalism—that is, the view that all civilizations should adopt Western values—that infuriate Islamic fundamentalists. All these historical and modern factors combined, Huntington wrote briefly in his Foreign Affairs article and in much more detail in his 1996 book, would lead to a bloody clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations. The political party Hizb ut-Tahrir also reiterate Huntington’s views in their published book: The Inevitability of Clash of Civilization.
Once again, as Edward Said once wrote, we must keep in mind the close relations between these professors and their states’ policies, think tanks and other institutions.
‘Clash of Civilizations’ was used by Albert Camus in 1946 and in 1990 by Bernard Lewis in his article ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ in the Atlantic Monthly. It derives from the phrase ‘Clash of Cultures’ which was used in the Belle Epoque and the colonial period. Here is an example from Louis Massignon; the famous French Orientalist of the 20th century;
Louis Massignon, La psychologie musulmane (1931), in Idem, Ecrits mémorables, t. I, Paris, Robert Laffont, 2009, p. 629: “Après la venue de Bonaparte au Caire, le clash of cultures entre l’ancienne Chrétienté et l’Islam prit un nouvel aspect, par invasion (sans échange) de l’échelle de valeurs occidentales dans la mentalité collective musulmane.”
This thesis is part of a broader pattern in the Orientalist literature and involves the powerful discourse that suggests a categorical division in people’s values and cultures. It involves the division of the world into large geographical areas that are represented as homogenous entities, oversimplifications, deterministic approaches and the treatment of peoples as static objects that are primarily defined by religion or race.
OSWALD SPENGLER’S ‘DECLINE OF THE WEST’
Huntington’s book is very similar in many aspects to Oswald Spengler’s ‘Decline of the West’ (1918, First Volume). In the book, Spengler divides the world into 8 high cultures; Babylonian, Egyptian, Chinese, Indian, Mesoamerican (Mayan/Aztec), Classical (Greek/Roman), Arabian, Western or “European-American”. He claims that history should be studied through civilizations, not through ideologies or epochs, and whole cultures evolve as organisms. Then basically he goes on to state that cultures have a lifespan of about a thousand years of rise, and a thousand years of decline. The final phase of each culture is, in his words, a “civilization”, very similar to what Huntington claims.
Even though Spengler’s book received a lot of criticism, it became a really popular book in Europe in the 1920s and influenced the intellectual atmosphere significantly.
A 1928 Time review of the second volume of the Decline of the West described the immense influence and controversy Spengler’s ideas enjoyed in the 1920s: “When the first volume of The Decline of the West appeared in Germany a few years ago, thousands of copies were sold. Cultivated European discourse quickly became Spengler-saturated. Spenglerism spurted from the pens of countless disciples. It was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathize or revolt. It still remains so.”
Therefore, we discover that this pattern of thinking has been a popular one since the last century, advocating war and alarming the West about losing its ascendancy.
ARGUMENTS AGAINST IT
First of all, I don’t believe that it serves humanity to promote such views. Claiming the inevitability of the clash between the civilizations means advocating war and discouraging dialogue, since it suggests that people from different civilizations cannot get on or coexist.
With its tone, it resembles the discourse during the Cold War era, which basically said that the conflicts will not be economic or social, they will be ideological, the ideology of the West against the communist ideology. Again, this time, the West is the center around which other civilizations turn, and fight against for ascendancy or dominance it is suggested. With an aggressive tone talking about the inevitability of clashes and aimed at opinion and policymakers, I don’t think the aim is peace and understanding.
Furthermore, it discourages the efforts to really understand the world, people, and the human experience as a whole since it portrays a world far from reality and disregards historical facts. It is an oversimplification. Like Orientalism, it divides the world into civilizations and claims that people from so-called different civilizations have values that are categorically different from each other. It disregards the fact that identities (whether national, religious or ‘civilizational’) are dynamic and ever-changing, that many regions of the world have had extensive contacts with other regions of the world, and that humans have been migrating and going around since the dawn of history.
‘’The pyramid of civilization isn’t the creation of a single country, a single tribe, nor a single epoch. The story of this pyramid, which was constructed stone by stone and stands erect thanks to the efforts of all humans is like the story of humanity and its never-ending struggle and achievements through history.’’
Şevket Süreyya Aydemir (1897-1976), Turkish writer, intellectual, economist, historian
It disregards the fact that every country, region, and city have different backgrounds. It categorizes and classifies people and distracts us from the real sources of conflict and problems in the world. There are countless social, economic, religious differences within a given country or a region. Let’s take Islam as an example. First of all, not all Muslim majority countries speak the same language and there are multiple languages spoken in any given Muslim majority country, as well as there are multiple religions (ancient Christian communities in the Middle East), sects of different religions (sects within Islam, different Christian groups such as Copts, Maronites, Melkites and other religious groups such as the Druze and Yazidis), or groups with different attitudes towards religion (secularist movements for instance). These are some facts to consider before viewing a vast geographical area as a homogenous entity that acts as a single organism. Thus, one cannot simply say the Islam in Indonesia and Morocco are the same since there are huge differences even within countries and regions.
I don’t think anyone has the right to confiscate the achievements of humanity under any exclusive banner whatsoever. I am against any kind of essentialism, in the sense that I do not believe that there are essential, categorically different characteristics that make one German, Italian, Western or Chinese. I recognize the need for identity which is a human need, however, I strongly believe that instead of promoting antagonisms and worldviews that resemble computer games like Age of Empires, we should advocate a more profound understanding of human experience. There is one civilization, the civilization of humanity, like Günhan Karakullukçu once said.
In addition, Western civilization as such is an invention, or in Peter Katzenstein’s words, it is not given but politically made. The author of ‘Civilizing the Enemy: German Reconstruction and the Invention of the West’ Patrick Thaddeus Jackson traces the current notion of “Western Civilization” to 19th Century German intellectuals, shows how ideas about “The West” were transmitted to American elites via Columbia University’s “Contemporary Civilization” program.
FURTHER READING AND RESEARCH:
Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West
Why the Clash of Civilizations is wrong. Peter Katzenstein
Edward Said Lecture / The Myth of the Clash of Civilzations
Noam Chomsky on The “Clash of Civilizations”
Bernard Lewis’ article; The Roots of Muslim Rage
Edward Said’s article ; The Clash of Ignorance
Nancy Bisaha’s book; Creation of East and West