Comparing Samuel P. Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ and Edward W. Said’s ‘The Clash of Ignorance’

Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations has evoked a broad range of responses from political commentators both in the United States as well as abroad. Huntington asserts that the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 had marked a new beginning in the history of international politics.  While prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 major ideological, geo-political and economic conflicts were carried out on the European stage, the end of the Cold War has changed the dynamics and motivations of international conflicts.  In the prevailing world order, the fight for supremacy in the realms of ideology, material wealth and territorial conquest have become secondary to the assertion of ‘civilizations’.  Civilization as a term in historical discourse can be difficult to define, but Huntington narrows down the scope of this term.  According to the author, of all the constituent elements that comprise a particular civilization, its identification with religion, ethnicity and culture form the core.  A civilization’s affiliation with these elements is more enduring and resistant to change than its propensity for change, say, in the economic and ideological domains. Huntington correctly points out that in the hundred years before the end of Cold War there have been radical transformations from monarchy to communism to democracy, from liberal capitalism to stringent economic protectionism, and vice versa across the globe.  Not only have there been numerous instances of such changes but have also oscillated from one extreme to another.  Amid all this churning, the only abstract conception with which peoples in different parts of the world could identify with is their ‘civilization’.

The author goes on to identify eight major civilizations in the new world order.  These include “Western, Confucian, and Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization. The most important conflicts of the future will occur along the cultural fault lines separating these civilizations from one another”. (Huntington, 1997, p.157)  The author further adds that while distinct fault lines are evident between every pairing of these civilizations, the friction is no where greater than between the Western and Islamic blocs.  For, barring few minor variations, the existing nation-states of Western Europe share many things in common.  Similarly, while Confucian and Islamic schools of thought might appear to be discrete at first, they share a common deep rooted tradition.  In effect, this segregates the strands of civilizations into two main categories – the West and the Rest.  In the context of recent rise in Islamist terrorism, Islam appears to be the chief opponent of Western civilization.   This, in sum, is the central thesis of the controversial book by Samuel Huntington.

Huntington’s hypothesis is vulnerable for the fact that he cannot back up his assertions with statistical proof.  The idea of a newly emergent era in human history that would be dominated by ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ might be convincing at the level of theory, but since the theory pertains to events in the future, one cannot ascertain its validity at this point in time.  Also, social science and other related fields of scholarly inquiry are not conducive to theorizing.  This is borne out by the fact that the last great idea in this field of inquiry was Francis Fukuyama’s concept termed the ‘End of History’, which is not proven to be true but can only considered a proposition.  Huntington’s thesis too is subject to the same criticism.  The other drawback of Huntington’s method of research is that he adopts a top-down approach.  For example, instead of working upwards from the pool of empirical evidence, Huntington establishes his thesis at the outset and goes looking for supporting evidence.  Sure enough, the author finds enough instances in history that substantiate his claims.  But as many instances, if not more, can be presented that contradict his thesis.  For example, Huntington stresses the incompatibility of Islamic and Western civilizations by citing several areas of conflict between the two.  But he does not mention instances where these two seemingly incompatible entities do successfully cooperate.  A classic example is the collaboration between the Saudi Royal family and American political leadership.  The elites of Saudi Arabia have strong business ties with American corporations – a relationship that goes back many decades.  Even when the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks were identified to be predominantly of Saudi origin, the political leadership of both nations continued their business as usual.  The theory of ‘Clash of Civilizations’ falls flat on its face when one recognizes how reactionary the Saudi regime is.  The authoritarian regime in Saudi Arabia is considered the most backward looking within the Islamic world.  Yet, the leaders of so-called progressive West continue to maintain strong business and political relations with it.  Contradictions such as these significantly weaken Huntington’s theory.  Even the Al Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden were in the payrolls of CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) as recently as the 1980s.  In fact, a large share of the credit for the successful growth of Al Qaeda is to be attributed to the American government, which nurtured the fledgling terror outfit with funding and supplies of ammunition in order to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  To cite a more recent example, Saddam Hussein was Washington’s blue-eyed boy when it was in confrontation with Iran in the 1980s.  How will Huntington explain this friendship between leaders of distinct civilizations?  Why was there no clash of civilizations then?  As the 1980s turned over to the 90s, and as Saddam Hussein refused to follow orders from Washington (not on grounds of culture and civilization but on grounds of asserting his autonomy in the region) he turns from friend to foe.  In short, the top down methodology attempts to ‘find’ what suits its cause, while failing to notice that which contradicts the thesis.  This remains the primary drawback in Huntington’s work.

1 2 3