Clash of Civilizations! Huntington’s Clash Revisited

     David Brooks  in  New York Times, March  3, 2011 

     (Note: It is against the background of Islamic State prompted terrorist  attacks in Europe, Middle East, US and elsewhere that Huntigton’s Clash of civilizations becomes very relevant. It was some 23 years ago in 1993 that Samuel Huntington appeared on the American horizon with his novel, fascinating and provocative theory of the Class of civilizations — pleasing to some and painful to others, especially to the Muslim world fraternity. He was instantly labeled “the greatest political scientist” because he seemed to give a vivid live sketch of the bleeding, horror spewing face an ISIS which we see almost daily today with shudder and horror but could not visualize then in 1993 even as remote possibility. Why?

Because shouldn’t violence diminish, recede and disappear in thin air without any trace as man in the jungles makes  progress from his barbaric ways and days and places where the “might-is-right-principle” ruled roost once, to become more refined, polished and humane?   Isn’t that what we call “Civilization?” Didn’t we then speak also of the White Man’s burden of conquering, domesticating, humanizing, civilizing and Christianizing the barbaric nations of the world? Where then can there be room for brute force today tearing at each other (Homo homini lupus=man becoming a wolf to man) and the hugging of loving embrace (declaring: let us make love, not war) becoming bedfellows in the cage termed: civilization? So aren’t we today witnessing  instead a living “Oxymoron”, a “cruel kindness” or a “living death?” A caging in of two incompatibles? Shouldn’t civilization which is refinement ought to eliminate or do away with any and all physical clashes, relics from barbaric days? That was how Huntington’s “Class of Civilizations” was first welcomed or criticized  at least by  sections of humanity then.

Now with the advent of ISIS claiming paternity for terrorism anywhere and everywhere including  the slitting of the throat of an elderly pious priest in France at the altar  praying and offering the sacrifice of the “spotless lamb.” perhaps we are better equipped to swallow this Oximoron, this living contradiction, this paradox of a civilization! For Huntigton there was no universal civilization but only cultural blocs or bricks. Was he perhaps rephrasing the American dilemma of the “melting pot” in which the ingredients refused and still refuse to melt, the result of which we saw as fireworks at Orlando, San Bernardino and Dallas! What one expected was unity bordering on uniformity like white and black becoming brown, not bloody conflict. What then would be the result of religions melting into each other? Possible? Nationalities melting into each other? Languages melting into each other? Like English becoming, not Queen’s English, but Manglish in Kerala?

Whether we like it or not, we cannot disagree outright with Huntington saying: “Islamic civilization is the most troublesome; Muslim world has bloody borders; it is in conflict with other civilizations, especially the Western; it does  not hunger for pluralism and democracy; it takes selectively from the West what suits it but doesn’t reciprocate to give in equal measure; so it is better the two civilizations don’t intermingle or intermarry to produce worse tensions.”  In practice then are we back to square one: “East is east and West is west and the twain shall never meet.”

As for bloody borders it was not Islam but the Catholic Church that started the  holy crusades (another Oximoron) and got its hands sullied, dirty. Finally it got cleansed, tamed and domesticated through a period of enlightenment while Islam has still to go through that process of enlightenment to become a decent member in today’s parliament of religions where they should start dialoguing and learning from each other and not shooting and James Kottordestroying each other. If this is to happen, first the  cut-throat culture of ISIS must change, must stop once and for all. The rest of the world must help it to see reason and do it through persuasion, not through bombardment. That should be the message Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” ought to convey to all of us today. james kottoor, editor)

Samuel Huntington was one of America’s greatest political scientists. In 1993, he published a sensational essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Clash of Civilizations?” The essay, which became a book, argued that the post-cold war would be marked by civilizational conflict.

Human beings, Huntington wrote, are divided along cultural lines — Western, Islamic, Hindu and so on. There is no universal civilization. Instead, there are these cultural blocks, each within its own distinct set of values.

The Islamic civilization, he wrote, is the most troublesome. People in the Arab world do not share the general suppositions of the Western world. Their primary attachment is to their religion, not to their nation-state. Their culture is inhospitable to certain liberal ideals, like pluralism, individualism and democracy.

Huntington correctly foresaw that the Arab strongman regimes were fragile and were threatened by the masses of unemployed young men. He thought these regimes could fall, but he did not believe that the nations would modernize in a Western direction. Amid the tumult of regime change, the rebels would selectively borrow tools from the West, but their borrowing would be refracted through their own beliefs. They would follow their own trajectory and not become more Western.

The Muslim world has bloody borders, he continued. There are wars and tensions where the Muslim world comes into conflict with other civilizations. Even if decrepit regimes fell, he suggested, there would still be a fundamental clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. The Western nations would do well to keep their distance from Muslim affairs. The more the two civilizations intermingle, the worse the tensions will be.

Huntington’s thesis set off a furious debate. But with the historic changes sweeping through the Arab world, it’s illuminating to go back and read his argument today. In retrospect, I’d say that Huntington committed the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is, he ascribed to traits qualities that are actually determined by context.

He argued that people in Arab lands are intrinsically not nationalistic. He argued that they do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West. But it now appears as though they were simply living in circumstances that did not allow that patriotism or those spiritual hungers to come to the surface.

It now appears that people in these nations, like people in all nations, have multiple authentic selves. In some circumstances, one set of identities manifests itself, but when those circumstances change, other equally authentic identities and desires get activated.

For most of the past few decades, people in Arab nations were living under regimes that rule by fear. In these circumstances, most people shared the conspiracy mongering and the political passivity that these regimes encouraged. But when the fear lessened, and the opportunity for change arose, different aspirations were energized. Over the past weeks, we’ve seen Arab people ferociously attached to their national identities. We’ve seen them willing to risk their lives for pluralism, openness and democracy.

I’d say Huntington was also wrong in the way he defined culture. In some ways, each of us is like every person on earth; in some ways, each of us is like the members of our culture and group; and, in some ways, each of us is unique. Huntington minimized the power of universal political values and exaggerated the influence of distinct cultural values. It’s easy to see why he did this. He was arguing against global elites who sometimes refuse to acknowledge the power of culture at all.

But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.

Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.

Finally, I’d say Huntington misunderstood the nature of historical change. In his book, he describes transformations that move along linear, projectable trajectories. But that’s not how things work in times of tumult. Instead, one person moves a step. Then the next person moves a step. Pretty soon, millions are caught up in a contagion, activating passions they had but dimly perceived just weeks before. They get swept up in momentums that have no central authority and that, nonetheless, exercise a sweeping influence on those caught up in their tides.

I write all this not to denigrate the great Huntington. He may still be proved right. The Arab world may modernize on its own separate path. But his mistakes illuminate useful truths: that all people share certain aspirations and that history is wide open. The tumult of events can transform the traits and qualities that seemed, even to great experts, etched in stone.

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