Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Paris again: Has Huntington’s thesis been vindicated?

The recent events in Paris (not long after the Charlie Hebdo attacks), which have understandably shocked everyone who values peaceful interaction between people of different cultural orientations, will no doubt fuel renewed intercultural distrust instead. This is to be expected, particularly after reports that one of the attackers might have entered France a few weeks ago under the convenient cover of an influx of refugees seeking asylum in European countries.

In the light of these events one cannot avoid being reminded of American political scientist Samuel Huntington’s claim in the 1990s, that future clashes between countries or regions in the world would not primarily be economically or ideologically motivated, but culturally or “civilisationally” — that is, on the basis of irreconcilable core cultural differences (particularly religion) which, given their provenance over centuries, cannot be eradicated by modernisation. This claim was a response to Francis Fukuyama’s earlier (Hegelian) claim, that history had “come to an end” with the fall of the USSR, which affirmed that liberal, capitalist democracy was the telos or end-goal of historical development.

Since the publication of Huntington’s influential and controversial article, “The Clash of Civilisations?” in the journal, Foreign Affairs; Summer 1993 (later, in 1996, expanded into a book), it has elicited a vigorous debate among scholars, with some supporting him and others rejecting, or even condemning his thesis in the strongest terms. Palestinian-American thinker Edward Said, for example, accused Huntington of outright racism, while Noam Chomsky saw in his thesis the vindication of a ruthless kind of American foreign policy and international interventions.

One might wonder why Huntington’s claims provoked such divergent reactions, but closer scrutiny of his thesis regarding the probable cultural causes of future global conflicts allows one to understand why this was/is the case. In the 1993 article (p. 22-23) he reminds his readers that the foundations and patterns of conflict in the modern period, starting with the Peace of Westphalia (that inaugurated the era of nation states), changed from conflicts between emperors and monarchs trying to extend their power and territories to those between nations after the French Revolution.

This pattern prevailed from the late 18th century until after the First World War (p. 23), when the era of ideology-based conflict between fascism, communism and liberal democracy commenced. After World War 2 this gave way to the Cold War conflict between the two “superpowers” – the US and the USSR – which were no longer merely nation states defined by territory, but political totalities defined by countervailing ideologies. He further points out that, up to this point, the conflicts in question were between political entities within what broadly comprised Western civilisation.

Importantly, with the end of the Cold War non-Western civilisations became co-actors on the world stage of politics, and ceased to be merely the objects of Western colonisation. From this time onwards, therefore, the crucial cultural differences between civilisations will, according to Huntington, be the primary causes of global conflict. An upshot of this is that the division between developed and developing countries is no longer relevant, and that distinctions and groupings should henceforth be made in terms of cultural differences (p. 23).

By “civilisation” Huntington means “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have” (p. 24). This means that, while there will be cultural differences between people living in a northern Italian village and those in a southern village, they will share in a recognisable Italian culture, and similarly with people distributed across other Western countries. More broadly they will exhibit a Western cultural profile compared to people in China, who would, despite smaller cultural differences between those living in the north and the south, would share a common Chinese cultural identity.

Numerically, civilisations may involve either large numbers of people or relatively small numbers – Chinese civilisation encompasses large numbers, while what Huntington calls “Anglophone Caribbean” civilisation includes small numbers of people. Furthermore, a civilisation can include a number of nation states (European states are part of the Western variety despite their cultural differences), and they can have sub-civilisations (European and Northern-American instances comprising the West, and Arabic, Turkic and Malay varieties constituting Islam, for instance).

Crucially, for Huntington, not the political and economic differences among nation states, but the “fault lines” separating civilisations, will determine the nature of interactions, including conflict, for the foreseeable future. He distinguishes the following “major” civilisations (p. 25): “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and possibly African … ” Why would this be the case regarding conflict? He lists several reasons, the first of which is that civilisational differences (like language, cultural values and traditions, and most important for him, religion), are real, fundamental and long-lasting – they are far more enduring than political and ideological differences, for example (p. 25).

Secondly, with globalisation the world has become smaller, so that interaction between people from different civilisations is more frequent, leading to an increased awareness of the differences between civilisations and the “commonalities” within them (p. 25). Thirdly, and significantly, in light of what has just happened in Paris, Huntington (p. 26) reminds one that modernisation and social change globally have weakened “local” identities and the nation state as part of their source.

In his view, it is religion that has filled this gap, and this explains, for him (and others), the emergence of religious fundamentalism (in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam) in an otherwise secular age. Religion has returned with a vengeance, and strikingly, not among illiterates; as he states, fundamentalism is encountered today among young, middle-class, university-educated professionals and technicians. The most significant thing to remember here – regarding the prevalence of religion-inspired “terrorism” – is that Christianity and Islam are universalist and exclusivist religions, that is, their adherents claim that ONLY their specific religion is the right one, whether one believes in it or not. Needless to stress, this may lead directly to intolerance and conflict.

Fourthly, Huntington points to the “dual role” of the West, which is at “a peak of power” (p. 26), but simultaneously provokes the phenomenon of non-Western civilisations wanting to return to their roots, for example in the form of a “re-Islamisation” of the Middle East. Considering that this essay first appeared in 1993, Huntington’s prognosis seems to have been largely correct: What is Isis’s attempt to create an Islamic state in Syria and Iraq other than this? (There are many instances of other “civilisations” increasingly showing signs of wanting to, and having the resources, to “shape the world in non-Western ways” [p. 26] – think of China, or, for that matter, the Brics economic bloc.)

At the same time the non-Western elites that used to be educated at Western universities like Oxford and Harvard, while their indigenous populations remained largely devoid of Western influences, are undergoing an “indigenisation” in education, and concomitantly their indigenous populations are becoming more susceptible to Western cultural styles.

Fifthly, cultural-civilisational characteristics are less changeable than economic and political ones (people can become richer or poorer, or can switch parties), with the result that today the question is not which political party you support as much as “What are you?” (culturally). Particularly religion distinguishes starkly between people (p. 27). Lastly, Huntington claims that economic regionalism is increasing. Again he seems to have been right (think about Brics and most recently the Trans-Pacific Partnership).

I lack the space to focus at length on Huntington’s intriguing analysis (the article is available here), except to add that, drawing on several other scholars, he stresses that the conflict between Islamic and Western civilisations, which has lasted intermittently for 1 300 years (and recently culminated in the Gulf wars), is likely to become more intense and frequent (p. 31-33). In fact, he says (p. 32), “It could become more virulent”. Given the recent (and on-going) events in the Middle East and Paris, I believe his prognosis appears to have been correct, but it will undoubtedly continue to evoke debate.

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