Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis provokes unreasonable anger

In a perfect world human beings would probably wish for world peace, as they do on the beauty pageants. But the world is not perfect; even the taffeta-wearing beauty contestants know, deep down, that war and conflict are going to be a feature of the real world for a few more years yet.

What then can we hope for? If we cannot stop conflict then we can at least try to understand what causes and sustains it. For this, a culture of intellectual enquiry that promotes open and honest debate would help. Yet on occasions this also seems too much for humanity, even in those places where liberality and toleration of opinion are well established, such as in Britain.

An episode of the BBC Radio 3 Night Waves programme, broadcast on 2 October 2013, illustrates the point. Philip Dodd presented the show and what followed was a lively – and dispiriting – discussion on Samuel Huntington and his thesis, the Clash of Civilizations, between Maria Misra, Gideon Rose and Douglas Murray.

Even the phrase, Clash of Civilizations, is contentious, as is the name of its author; it has the undeserved knack of making people groan with despair, even those with only a passing interest in international relations and history. It is unfortunate, but some topics are just like that: they provoke argument, disagreement and often outright hostility, but in a way that elevates the disputation above the ordinary. It is, however, ironic – though unsurprising – that discussions like this, concerned with global conflict and ways to mitigate and reduce it, so often become belligerent themselves. And so it was in this instance.

Samuel Huntington was a Harvard political scientist, and first published this thesis as an essay in 1993, in Foreign Affairs, the US magazine on international relations. The basic argument was this: in the post-Cold War world, future conflict would be caused more by culture than ideology – religion being a prime example of where cultural identity could create friction points between one broad civilisation-group and another.

The discussion began well enough, with Gideon Rose – current editor of Foreign Affairs, member of the Council on Foreign Relations and former student of Huntington – commenting on the context of this twenty-year-old publication: The old paradigm of the Cold War had gone; the United States of America bestrode the world in what Charles Krauthammer called the ‘uni-polar’ moment; and two explanatory ideas, one optimistic and one pessimistic, were in vogue.

On the one hand, optimists were suggesting that the world had made a breakthrough and liberal democracy, peace and prosperity were in more-or-less permanent ascendancy; and on the other hand, pessimists were suggesting the world was in a temporary phase, soon to be followed by a return to the sort of geopolitical conflict to which the world had become accustomed during the long years of the Cold War. Huntington took a third view.

For Huntington, both the optimists and pessimists were missing an important point. He argued that conflict was sure to return, but that this conflict would occur less along the traditional fault lines of ideology and geopolitics and more along those of cultural identity. The world had, in more recent history, been preoccupied, quite understandably, with Communism, Nazism and traditional power politics as causes of conflict, which had obscured the role of culture. And he chose to express this through the fairly well-understood notion of civilisation because civilisation represented cultural identity at the broadest level.

This is where the debate began to go awry. Douglas Murray – journalist, commentator and Associate Director of the Henry Jackson Society – began to say that Huntington had a point. Expressing this view, however, turns out to be a little like expressing the view that Enoch Powell also had a point. But that is another discussion. Huntington’s argument was ‘highly plausible and prophetic’ he said. Then he read a quote: ‘Somewhere in the Middle East the half-dozen young men could well be dressed in jeans, drinking coke, listening to rap, and between their bows to Mecca putting together a bomb to blow up an American airline.’

One can see why this sort of comment might make people uneasy, just as the mention of Enoch Powell makes people uneasy when discussing immigration and national identity. It confronts people with inconvenient images and arguments that are often too much to bear. The idea that young men from such a broad geographical region as the Middle East, who are every bit as easy with the baubles of modernity – jeans, coke and rap music – as their Western counterparts, can then just as easily decide to attack the culture and civilisation which provides them is difficult to process.

But this – or something pretty similar – is what happened on 11 September 2001 when four airliners were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the fourth crashing into a field short of Washington, which is presumed to be its intended target. While few doubt that these attacks took place for a number of reasons, some of which are closer in nature to more traditional explanations for conflict, two things are worth noting: Huntington understood enough of the growing Islamist threat, and its cultural dimension, to include this predictive anecdote; and we see in conflicts across the world, from Sudan to Syria to Iraq, that cultural identity is at the very least a key determiner of the nature of that conflict. Those that recognise this are not taking an unreasonable position. While culture is certainly not the only factor of conflict, it is nevertheless a factor in many instances.

Maria Misra, Lecturer in Modern History and Fellow of Keble College Oxford, was then invited to join the discussion. She did not agree. ‘I don’t think that the concept of civilisations clashing has any explanatory or analytical power whatsoever,’ she said, followed by the obvious comment that ‘six young men does not constitute Muslim civilisation.’

People, in the sort of intellectually free society we value in the West, are free to choose their analytical method; and if Maria Misra doesn’t think the idea of civilisations clashing can help her historical studies, then that is her affair. But to reduce Huntington’s arguments to the title of his essay alone, and to ignore the thousands of words he has written expounding the matter, is not helpful and it is certainly not respectful.

As Douglas Murray pointed out, the proposition is not that the six men of this predictive anecdote, let alone the nineteen people who actually committed the atrocities of 9/11, ‘constitute Muslim civilisation.’ And neither does anyone – except opponents of this thesis, perhaps – restrict the concept of civilisation to something hovering loftily in the clouds far above the messy ground-truth of cultural identity, which is porous, multifarious and understood in an infinite number of ways according to personal perspective.

However, if it is unhelpful to reduce Huntington’s argument to the point where all nuance is excluded, then it is also unhelpful to do the same to Maria Misra’s argument. But it is strange. While she then concedes that ‘culture is very important,’ she simultaneously dismisses the way Huntington has chosen to articulate culture through the notion of civilisation. It is as if she agrees with the nuance of Huntington’s thesis, that culture is a crucial factor in understanding conflict, while at the same time arguing that this is not in fact Huntington’s thesis at all. His thesis, rather, is that ‘civilisations clash’ like pre-programmed automatons with a single purpose to their senseless existence – namely, the creation and maintenance of conflict. This, need it be said, is not the argument. Douglas Murray quotes him again: ‘A major war involving the West and the core states of other civilisations is not inevitable.’

The discussion continued in the recognised manner of debate: a point was made, a point was refuted, a point was accepted. It is worth listening to the whole episode. Conflict, after all, is an important subject. But the debate was characterised by something dispiriting. Vociferous voices have rejected Huntington’s thesis for years now, and it would seem one of Philip Dodd’s guests is among their number. Yet one cannot help wondering why they do this when it seems so clear that Huntington is articulating an indisputable truth – that civilisation, culture and collective identity is at times a cause and at times a feature of conflict in so many instances.

One can debate Huntington’s thesis. Indeed, that is what academic study is all about. But it is worrying when that debate becomes absolutist in nature. It is also worrying that a thesis can be reduced to little more than its title, with the effect of obliterating its nuance. Indeed, Clash of Civilizations implies something nearing apocalyptic proportions, which, if this is the point Huntington was trying to make, deserves a strong challenge. But it’s just a title, similar to a news headline crafted to encapsulate an argument and attract attention. The value of Huntington’s thesis lies in the words underneath that title. And it’s not as one-dimensional as some would have us believe.

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