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Clash of civilizations?

Samuel Huntington, an American political scientist, wrote an article "The Clash of Civilizations" in Foreign Affairs in 1993. The article generated a great deal of discussion and controversy in academia as well as in political circles across large parts of the world. Subsequently, Huntington expanded the arguments contained in the article in a book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996). The crux of Huntington's argument is the following:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the 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. (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, p.22, emphasis added.)

Huntington identifies seven or eight major civilizations (Western, Confucian (Sinic), Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African). Focusing on the cultural lines of demarcation between the Western and Islamic civilizations, he sees Islam and Christianity as potentially pitted against each other as the defining feature of an evolving global scenario. The fault lines, according to Huntington, that may be a source of conflict in the future include that between Islam and Christianity (or animism) in Africa and between the Hindu and Islamic civilizations in South Asia. Huntington predicts that the next war, if it ever occurs, will be a war between civilizations.

Huntington's conceptualization of civilization and his view of the dynamics of civilization are highly problematic. He takes an essentialised, homogeneous and monolithic view of civilization and ignores the internal diversities within each civilization. He characterizes Indian civilization as Hindu civilization, oblivious of the fact that Buddhism was a dominant religion of the country for over a thousand years (India is often described in the Chinese chronicles as "the Buddhist kingdom"), that India has the third largest Muslim population in the world (nearly 150 million), and that Islam has played a highly important role in the development and enrichment of Indian civilization. Huntington's classification of people into categories such as Western civilization and Hindu civilization is too facile, simplistic and straitjacketed. This sweeping categorization glosses over the internal variations in these civilizations, which are reflected in class, ethnicity, location and nationality. As Amartya Sen has rightly pointed out, it is open to question whether humanity can be preeminently classified into distinct and discrete civilizations (Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, 2006, pp. 10-11.)

Huntington's understanding of the dynamics of civilization and of world history is foggy, reductionistic and cynical. He takes a highly exaggerated view of conflict and strife and pays little or no attention to the processes of interaction and exchange between civilizations. Eric Wolf has convincingly argued that interconnections between societies and civilizations are far more widespread than has commonly been assumed. Wolf says that it is misleading to regard the world as an "archipelago of cultures" because cultures and civilizations have been, more often than not, in contact. Underlying Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis is a simplistic and coarse theory of the dynamics of human society and of history.

Huntington's view of Western and Islamic civilizations as discrete and rather fossilized entities betrays his ignorance of the role of Islamic civilization in the shaping of Western civilization. The transmission of the scientific and philosophical legacy of ancient civilizations to Europe during the Middle Ages, which ushered in the Renaissance and played a key role in the flowering of Western civilization, was largely carried out by Muslim scientists, philosophers and translators. The wide-ranging contributions made by Muslims to the development of modern science and medicine, technology and engineering, arts and crafts and architecture have been amply documented.

(See J. R. Hayes, ed. The Genius of Arab Civilization: Source of Renaissance, Cambridge, Mass., 1983) Lord Bhikhu Parekh has rightly pointed out that Islam has been a part of Western consciousness for hundreds of years. Therefore, he says, to juxtapose Western and Muslim societies as wholly incompatible civilizations is totally fraudulent.

Exposing the naivete, myopia and cynicism inherent in Huntington's analysis, The Economist pointed out that "it is striking that the new wave of self-awareness in the Muslim world has not produced any serious move towards a merger of Muslim states, that in the Orthodox Christian part of the world……the recent tendency has been for things to fall apart, not come together…..None of this would suggest that the world is heading for that fearful sounding "clash of civilizations", but rather that global alignments would continue to be determined by the play of interests among nation states of whatever civilization." (The Economist, December 23, 1995-January 26, 1996).

Huntington takes a rather complacent and uncritical view of Western civilization and exaggerates its salient features and virtues. Thus he asserts that social pluralism, individualism and a tradition of individual rights and liberties in the West are unique among civilized societies. He conveniently glosses over the dark side of Western civilization, as reflected in the Crusades, the Inquisition (which offered Muslims the options of conversion, expulsion or execution), the Spanish Reconquista (which provided the first instance of ethnic cleansing in Europe in the 15th century when Muslims, together with the Jews and the gypsies, were forced to leave the country), repressive regimes in Europe, European colonialism, anti-Semitism, and the West's role in undermining the rights and liberties of people in Africa and Asia. (Anti-Semitism has been one of the darkest spots on the face of Western societies. Until the late 1960s, many prestigious universities in the United States maintained restrictive quotas that limited Jewish enrollment. Social cubs often denied, until quite recently, membership to Jews. In 1995 there were more than 1800 anti-Semitic incidents in the US, including acts of violence against Jews and against synagogues. In France, which is home to Europe's largest Jewish population, there were 974 incidents of attacks on Jews in 2004, following which the former Israeli premier Ariel Sharon called French Jews to migrate to Israel because of "the wildest anti-Semitism prevalent in the country.")

The hollowness of Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis has been exposed by some of the world's leading thinkers and intellectuals. Edward Said, for example, decried the clash of civilizations thesis as a deplorable attempt to revive the old good vs. evil dichotomy prevalent during the Cold War era (Edward Said, "A Clash of Ignorance", The Nation, October 22, 2001). Huntington's views have also been publicly denounced by heads of states, statesmen and politicians in many Western countries. The former American president Bill Clinton, in a speech to the Jordanian parliament in 1994, strongly repudiated the clash of civilizations thesis, noting that "there are those who insist that there are impassable religious and other obstacles to harmony, that our beliefs and our cultures must somehow inevitably clash….America refuses to accept that our civilizations must collide."

Huntington states that "the fault lines between civilizations are replacing the political and ideological boundaries of the Cold War as the flash points of crisis and bloodshed." The events that unfolded in the aftermath of 9/11 belied Huntington's prognostication. The massive anti-war protests and demonstrations across Europe, North America, Australia and other parts of the world before the American-led invasion of Iraq and the sharp differences between some of the major European countries and the US and its allies before and after the invasion exposed the absurdity of Huntington's thesis.

Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis rests on fallacious premises and questionable assumptions about the dynamics of human society and of civilization. It is reductionistic and myopic and therefore needs to be discarded. The focus should be on interaction, exchange and dialogue among cultures, civilizations and nation states in the context of our globalizing era.

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