The Clash of Civilizations?
September 24, 2001 5:08 PM   Subscribe

The Clash of Civilizations? An extraordinarily prescient and compelling 1993 essay, with some chilling predictions that in the last two weeks begin to seem dead on target. [more inside]
posted by dhartung (28 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
[note: if you think my comment is long, the article is longer -- some 8 pages]

This Foreign Affairs article attempted to see the world beyond the Cold War, at a time when phrases like the end of history were being bandied about. Author Samuel Huntington has a vision nothing like the New World Order family of democratic countries fighting totalitarianism together. Instead he sees a trend away from the era of the Bismarckian nation-state entirely, bringing a resurgence in broader trends of conflict between vast regions defined mainly by cultural history. The three civilizations he sees are the Judaeo-Christian West, the Islamic MidEast, and the Confucian East. Increasingly we will face a world in which the democratic, secular values of the West will come up against other cultures which he claims value democracy and secularism far less, and would seek modernization of their technology and economies while rejecting Westernization of their culture.

The fault lines of these battles were drawn centuries ago, he believes, but will be increasingly the fault lines of a world no longer ruled by an ideological battle between two Western schools of thought, liberal democracy and totalitarian socialism. Both will be rejected by the Islamic and Asian worlds as alien and inappropriate. Our conflicts with their societies will be based on a cultural goal of spreading our own values, but these values are undermined by economic and military necessity, so we will prevent these regions from having the money and weapons to determine their own destinies, in our own self-interest.

In this world where ideology is largely dead and discredited, economic interests will vie with cultural prerogatives. Many people will embrace the concept of a kin-country, one which is culturally and historically similar: Islamic nations will see more in common between them, transcending differences in political organization ranging from democracy to military regimes to monarchies; Asian nations will see themselves as a unit fighting Western hegemony; and Western societies will band together even more tightly (US & Britain, anyone?).

Finally, the fault lines cut right through some countries. These torn countries are split between the impulse to join one cultural civilization or another. Turkey is an example torn between the world of Islam and the world of the West (one unlucky prediction here is that the European Community will never allow them membership; they're still on the outside, but transitioning inward). Another is Russia, which would hope to become the leader of a separate Slavic civilization, but may instead find itself moving more and more into the orbit of the West. Africa gets scant mention but seems to be mainly Western due to colonial influence in his view.

I found much in this essay to resonate with current events, particularly the speed with which Russia has proved itself willing to work with us in a war against "Islamic terror". Does Huntington show that we're doomed to a world war between the West and Islam? Is worldwide liberal democracy a lost cause? Is Islamism bound to take over that culture, or will Western values eventually predominate, brought in by economic self-interest?
posted by dhartung at 5:15 PM on September 24, 2001

And if you didn't like that one, there's other choices: Foreign Affairs is reprinting several articles online that deal with the issues at hand, from Islamic and Arab political trends to how the West can deal with terrorism.
posted by dhartung at 5:21 PM on September 24, 2001

And, to play devil's advocate, an equally prescient contemporary critique of Huntington's thesis which challenges its rather broad cultural polarisations, regarding them as a revival of early 20th century historians such as Toynbee and Spengler who addressed the transformation of European colonial power in the light of the collapse of domestic aspirations: "The battle lines in the Caucasus ... are not coextensive with civilizational fault lines. The lines follow the interest of states."
posted by holgate at 5:26 PM on September 24, 2001

Fascinating. Some thoughts: Economic interests seem to be winning out over cultural ones, particularly in Asia -- SE Asia is definitely not part of the same unit as China economically, though it is culturally and geographically. Also, the success of some truly international companies and the high levels of global cooperation (brought on in part by, yes, that Internet thing) between large companies are also unifying forces, not just within the West, MidEast and East, but across them as well (particularly across West and East, though).

Most signficantly, re: the inevitable world war question, I think that the countries that have the strongest ties to the global economy will also have the strongest economies themselves. And war in the future will be far more costly than ever before in history, since it will threaten a greater and greater proportion of a country's economy. E.g., the Middle East can hardly afford a war with the West because they'd lose all the money they make selling oil.

So while these definitely seem to be the political fault lines of the present and future, they don't necessarily have to be economic fault lines, and global economics might possibly prevent the political and cultural divisions from escalating to armed conflict.

Then again, that sounds way too easy, maybe I'm just a naive optimist.
posted by mattpfeff at 5:41 PM on September 24, 2001

I dislike being a bit out of line and calling names, but the political correctness that stresses the universal decency etc of all religions might best take a closer look at things.
From my admittedly limited reading, I know that peoples of no matter which religion more often than not violate the precepts of their holy book(s). Example: the New Testament does not sanction the sort of thingthat the Crusades or the Inquisition represented.
In fact, you embrace Jesus etc and find salvation; otherwise you lose salvation. The Old Testament records many wars (history perhaps) but the Other (non Jew) is to be kept apart: stay with your own kind.
Ok. Now show me the texts (Holy Book or books) of any major religioin that compares to this:

Which not to say that a billion people embrace such things but for sure many many fundamentalists have gone on record as saying (as fundies will do) thattheir book is the only reading needed. Now take very poor people with not much learning, and given what some of this suggests you can see, I believe, where some of what we are witnessing comes from. OPur fundamentalists in America get pissed at abortion and "wrong" books etc but being in a democarcy they usually just make loud noises (yes: there have been exceptions).
Clearly, the wealthy in many Arab lands are not about to mess with this stuff; they will however perhaps be willing to fund it!
Then if you look at the link, go back to home page for more stuff of interest.
Is this authentic reading? Well it checks out chapter and verse with other translations I have looked at online. Anmd an Mideast (Arab) think tank told me that thought they do not make comments on any religion what I sent them (the link aboive) is an accurate rendering.
posted by Postroad at 5:45 PM on September 24, 2001

...palmer states the end of kings in 1793, seems Danton gets thrust back into the foray. what gets me, the holy father is in Kazakstan.??!!(in Armenia tues.) This gentlemen, is going to get out of hand.
posted by newnameintown at 6:29 PM on September 24, 2001

A lot of that reads like Revelation, Postroad: of course, from a (polemical) Hindu perspective, it's perverse and offensive, since there's no eschatological tradition in Hinduism. Not that I'm an Islamic apologist: there's lots of questionable stuff in the Qu'ran, but I don't care for St Paul that much either. But as you say, "Hellfire Sermons" have been used by Christian and Islamic clergy to keep the masses pliant for centuries.

(My girlfriend's family is Southern Baptist, from Georgia, and rather literalist; she told me last night that throughout her childhood, she'd been led to believe that the End Of The World was coming, and that she'd better start praying, as she'd not make it into her mid-twenties. And so she prayed every night to be saved at the Apocalypse. Of course, this raised interesting issues when she asked whether she ought to go to college, since Armageddon was surely round the corner... but she felt both justified and rather cheated when the year 2000 came around and the world had, apparently, not ended.)
posted by holgate at 6:45 PM on September 24, 2001

I take issue with the use of "civilization" to describe certain cultures. How about uncivilization? There's nothing civilized about the forces we will hopefully erase (or at least reduce) in Afganistan (and then, perhaps Iraq and Syria...and so on). Just say no to those who think accept an equivalence between medieval societies, including Islamic medieval societies, and our own.
posted by ParisParamus at 6:48 PM on September 24, 2001

The New Yorker has a take on Huntington this week, comparing his notions to those of Francis Fukuyama (who announced a few years back that history was over, Western secular liberalism had won, nothing left for the historians to write about except occasional mopping-up actions) and implying that H. and F. are about equally simplistic.
posted by jfuller at 7:12 PM on September 24, 2001

Instead of Huntington's mistaken Clash Of Civilizations idea, I've found the more appropriate construct is Spengler's Decline Of The West... personally, this convenient 'war without end' against terrorism sounds eerily like the beginning of the Caesarist phase of politics (Is the 'war' going to be a Republican justification for never leaving power?).
posted by SenshiNeko at 7:58 PM on September 24, 2001

this convenient 'war without end'

Conceptually, how is this different than needing a local police department permanently? (Yes, there's the whole policeman to the world thing, but that's a different polemic.) Thugs are thugs. It's just that thugs can now travel wordwide. Our military needs to perform a police-like function.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:19 PM on September 24, 2001

"Caesarist phase of politics (Is the 'war' going to be a Republican justification for never leaving power?)." Please see the crises of 1798 (XZY-sedition act through Hamiltons race with napoleon) for your answer."military needs to perform a police-like" They are called military police. Urban warfare exercises cover actions concerning occupational matters. Also military Intelligence may conduct exercises within The U.S. They can not operate unless an order by respected governor or President is given. The Qu'ran seems to be a... religious manual. re-reading it makes me even more nervous. (of course the new Testament is just filled with love and good cheer)
posted by newnameintown at 9:25 PM on September 24, 2001

wait till the little..."this is Islam" pamphlets start hitting the streets.
posted by newnameintown at 9:29 PM on September 24, 2001

XYZ affair..sorry.
posted by newnameintown at 9:31 PM on September 24, 2001

Wow, couldn't agree with this article more. And the situation with Russia and China is equally interesting. Should Russia join the western world, or take Poland's lead and try to start a slavic civilization? Furthermore, will Russia ideology even permit them to join the western world? Will China continue to ally itself with Islamic states or distance itself from these countries if a world war comes into play?

Scary shit indeed.
posted by Aikido at 9:41 PM on September 24, 2001

Critical thinking. I've often argued with Christian missionaries that it's not your religion that converts them, but your wristwatch, Levis, that you've traveled from a distant corner of the Earth by modern means to screw with their culture. If there were such a thing as Missionaries of Reason, of Human Common Bond, governments of and by its people and its people not cowtowed by propaganda, I think in little time we'd reach some sort of a global concensus. By "little time" I do not pretend to understand all undercurrents and the chaotic reality of Earth's collective. I also do not pretend to palliative. I'm saying, eventually, atop I fear, millions slaughtered, if reason were to win out, lickity split the world would be a better place. And most certainly do I not advocate wholesale slaughter of any type to reach any end. That there friends is unfortunate, simplistic utopianism. Yet what else are we to strive for in these times?
posted by crasspastor at 10:52 PM on September 24, 2001

Definitely interesting reading. It's interesting that the article plays down economic incentives in favor of cultural bonds. Maybe the benifits of free trade will save the world from the comming Clash.

My personal opinion is that the world needs more God, and less religion.
posted by Loudmax at 11:18 PM on September 24, 2001

Paris, how would you then characterize Western "civilization" between 1800-2000. Around 100 million people died in wars, 6 million were executed simply for being of certain religious and ethnic groups, populations were enslaved, civilians had nuclear weapons dropped on their cities, etc etc.

What exactly meets your definition of civilization? It seems to be rather nebulous.
posted by chaz at 12:24 AM on September 25, 2001

holgate, jfuller, thanks for the links to countervailing opinion.

One of the issues here is a bifurcation of traditional liberal thought. An excellent example is the practice of female circumcision. Is it a backward affront on the rights of women, or a respected regional custom from another culture? How a liberal answers that question (much more likely that any American will choose the former) indicates a tipping point on the slide of cultural relativism. How the question is phrased might also demonstrate revealing prejudices, e.g. anything from sweat shops to the sale of gasoline-burning automobiles.

Is secular democracy just another Western value we're foisting on the rest of the world? I believe there are definitely many, many people in Islam and Asia who think so, even though there are many others who would vehemently disagree. How we manage this cultural divide is now a burning issue in our hands

In the end I don't fully accept Huntington, but I think he has certain excellent points. Whether they represent permanent trends or simply things to watch out for is something only the future can tell us, but I think his concepts of kin-country and torn country are useful in certain contexts. I think it's also helpful to realize that there are definitely people who see the world only in this way, Osama bin Laden apparently being one of them, and a number of knee-jerk Americans joining him.
posted by dhartung at 2:47 AM on September 25, 2001

Samuel Huntington, from the original link:

> In class and ideological conflicts, the key question
> was "Which side are you on?" and people could and did
> choose sides and change sides. In conflicts between
> civilizations, the question is "What are you?" That is a
> given that cannot be changed. And as we know, from
> Bosnia to the Caucasus to the Sudan, the wrong answer
> to that question can mean a bullet in the head. Even
> more than ethnicity, religion discriminates sharply and
> exclusively among people. A person can be half-French
> and half-Arab and simultaneously even a citizen of two
> countries. It is more difficult to be half-Catholic and half-
> Muslim.

This encapsulates the principal problem I have with Huntington's article. He is thinking only about groups of people and claiming that some of these groups are essentially immutable. That's true only if you ignore the individuals composing the groups. It's actually quite easy to imagine an individual who feels himself to be half Catholic and half Muslim. I am nominally an Episcopalian and attend Episcopalian services but deep down there where religion actually lives in religious persons I find I'm a sort of Jewish Buddhist.

It's only if one insists that religion's function is (exclusively) to be a tribal marker that the half-and-half business becomes impossible--there's no tribe of half-Catholic-half-Muslims to belong to, so there can't be a half-Catholic-half-Muslim tribal marker. There certainly aren't enough Jewish Buddhists in Athens, GA, to make a Sunday supper worthwhile...

The implication of positing immutable groups based on un-dividable "civilizational" earmarks is that culture war is inevitable. I did notice Huntington saying "Differences do not necessarily mean conflict, and conflict does not necessarily mean violence." His heart isn't in it, though; that's just academic caution talking. If he really pushed the conflict-isn't-necessary angle everything that's most compelling about his paper would evaporate. The very next sentence after the above is "Over the centuries, however, differences among civilizations have generated the most prolonged and the most violent conflicts."

I think imagining a future filled with predictable ethnic/religious blowups is the counsel of despair. That smacks of realpolitik, and those who practice realpolitik are about as nasty and dangerous as they come--think Otto von Bismarck, think Henry Kissinger. I hope that persons of good will, of any background, will not be stampeded by an intellectual fad (let alone by a single article in Foreign Affairs) into believing that rational discourse across cultural divisions is a doomed effort. But even if were a doomed effort I believe we're expected, as Fitzgerald said, to be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
posted by jfuller at 7:43 AM on September 25, 2001

"I found much in this essay to resonate with current events, particularly the speed with which Russia has proved itself willing to work with us in a war against "Islamic terror". Does Huntington show that we're doomed to a world war between the West and Islam?" How has Russia proved itself. In what capacity is "Islam' prepared to dominate the West. It seems that this guy is taking old historical modality and putting into the context of individual making choices out of inevitability. History proves more then these premises validity. for example, turkey?. T.E. Lawrence helped, if not built the first modern arabic coalition and his superiors did not like it. Lawernce used his training and his , well, soul, to be accepted by Fisal(sic sp.) He was perceived as a turncoat, gone native(and a hero). Now, the brits allowed him to do this wether they thought it a mistake or not. breaking the 'inevitable' factor.
posted by newnameintown at 9:53 AM on September 25, 2001

What exactly meets your definition of civilization? It seems to be rather nebulous.

(writing between depositions in a rush)

Of course, even a barbaric civilization is still a "civilization" according to the word's denotation. But I think it's important to adopt a definition of civilization which incorporates the notion "civilized." On this level, "civilization" is a changing concept. What was acceptable as civilization in the year 1400, or even 1900 should not be accepted today. The places herein in question are medieval-like societies, in terms of their rules, laws and customs. Women are treated like 2nd class citizens; free expression doesn't exist, etc. A coersive theocracy is medevil, primitive, inferior and unacceptable. We should not have respect for such societies.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:17 AM on September 25, 2001

A quick thought, supporting jfuller's comments on the mutability of such "identities": the eastern Catholicism that underpinned Solidarity in the 80s, during martial law in Poland, is quite a different thing from the nationalistic Catholicism of 1990s Croatia. What was it that transformed Bosnia, or Lebanon, from relatively stable multi-ethnic/faith states to war zones? From that perspective, "Ethnic forces" seems as troubling a concept as "market forces".

So, to what extent are these polarities explanatory back-references, in the sense that conflicts are typically resolved as us/them oppositions?
posted by holgate at 11:08 AM on September 25, 2001

Continuing jfuller and holgate's line of thought, a small observation:

The "Western" (i.e., NATO/UN) intervention in the former Yugoslavia -- both times -- was on behalf of the Muslim populations there, and against Christian regimes. In other words, the Western powers sided not with their culture, but with some moral belief, about what we as a civilized society should value and protect -- vs. who we, as a Judeo-Christian society, should defend.

That is extremely encouraging, I think.
posted by mattpfeff at 11:34 AM on September 25, 2001

mattpfeff, that’s good stuff. Look this up: How many atrocties were committed before the bombing started and how many atrocties were committed after the bombing started? Tell me if you still think the effect of the bombs were civilized.

I don’t buy this Clash of the Cultures either. Nations have and will always be interested in conquest to enrich themselves. This has little to do with culture, since most cultures, fairly unanimously, want to be wealthy.

Conquest is controlled by government because they control the military. Culture is very far out of the loop on that. Culture may influence government, but it goes both ways. Just ask the Ministry of Information or the White House Public Affairs office.

Gibbons said Rome declined because the moral base was eroded, Rostovtzeff said the social base eroded. They agree on one thing: Rome couldn’t win anymore wars. It is not morning in America, it is not the end of history, and I don’t buy Huntington’s neo-Gibbons moralism.
posted by raaka at 2:37 PM on September 25, 2001

> Gibbons said Rome declined because the moral base
> was eroded, Rostovtzeff said the social base eroded.

Which Gibbons? The ones in the Washington zoo? When I read Gibbon I came away thinking he said the social base eroded and the institutions eroded. "Moral" = eighteenth century for "social."
posted by jfuller at 4:11 PM on September 25, 2001

"and I don’t buy Huntington’s neo-Gibbons moralism." I agree. i took some miserable potshots at this question.(the popes visit to region seems more telling about the premises of "clash of culture". The article upon examine is worthless, (as would gibbon be in a comparison, or even say durant.) Im sorry i even took a shot. Glib, baseless, chaff...move on.
posted by newnameintown at 7:58 AM on September 26, 2001

"and I don’t buy Huntington’s neo-Gibbons moralism." I agree. i took some miserable potshots at this question.(the popes visit to region seems more telling about the premises of "clash of culture". The article upon examine is worthless, (as would gibbon be in a comparison, or even say durant.) Im sorry i even took a shot. Glib, baseless, chaff...move on.
posted by newnameintown at 7:58 AM on September 26, 2001

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