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Samuel Huntington peddles a culturalist thesis about the sources of conflicts in The Clash of Civilizations. He builds on the premise that the “most important distinc-tions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.” If cultural distinctions possess primacy, it follows that they will drive the world’s conflicts. The Clash asserts that […]
by M. Shahid Alam

Samuel Huntington peddles a culturalist thesis about the sources of conflicts in The Clash of Civilizations. He builds on the premise that the “most important distinc-tions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

If cultural distinctions possess primacy, it follows that they will drive the world’s conflicts. The Clash asserts that the Cold War, characterized by the clash of ideologies, was an aberration: the most dangerous conflicts in the new post-Cold War era will occur along the fault-lines of civilizations. Although Huntington iden-tifies nine contemporary civilizations, there are three that monopolize his attention: the West, Islam and the Sinic civilization. The critical conflicts in the coming dec-ades will occur because of challenges to the West from Islam and China.

This is social science at its political best-as ideology. The Clash obfuscates the realities of unequal power: in this case, the deepest, most enduring, and widening divisions between rich and poor countries. It is carelessly constructed, ahistorical and contradictory; it is also contradicted by historical evidence. Nevertheless, Huntington’s thesis has dominated public discourse since it was first launched in 1993. Apparently, ideologies succeed by appealing to interests, not logic or evi-dence.

Interests Don’t Matter?

In the post-Cold War world, Huntington confidently proclaims, “the most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities.”

Huntington claims that conflicts between rich and poor countries are unlikely because the latter “lack the political unity, economic power, and military capability to challenge the rich countries.” Ironically, this contradicts his own thesis about the most serious challenges to the West emanating from Islam and China. Many of the Islamic countries-including the largest-are among the world’s poorest; and China too, despite two decades of rapid growth, remains quite poor. In addition, the Is-lamic world lacks any political unity: it is fragmented into more than fifty countries.

It is not clear that conflicts between rich and poor countries can only occur if the latter are united. Two poor countries, China and India, have populations that exceed the combined population of all Western countries. China is already regarded as a military threat to the United States, though India may not be far behind. Given their enormous size, with another decade or two of rapid growth, these two countries could also begin to offer serious economic competition to the Core countries.

Even smaller countries can become a threat. It has been America’s policy to ostracize countries in the Periphery as rogue states if they do one or more of three things: they resist US hegemony, they possess or are developing long-range missiles, and they possess or are developing weapons of mass destruction. Nearly all the “rogue states” are quite small; the list includes Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Cuba and Libya. It would appear that the United States takes the “rogue states” quite seriously. It is developing the Nuclear Defense Shield to intercept and shoot down missiles fired by the rogue states.

Amusingly, Huntington negates his own thesis-that most conflicts have their source in cultural differences-when he describes the genesis of civilizational conflicts. The civilizational wars, he concedes, originate in the usual sources: the anarchy of states, and conflicts over people, territory and resources; culture enters into these conflicts only later as the rival parties mobilize support among the larger population. Isn’t this a disavowal of the primacy of cultural factors in “civilizational” conflicts?

What Are Civilizations?

An examination of the central concept in The Clash–civilizations-reveals several more flaws and contradictions in Huntington’s thesis.

Huntington defines civilization as ” the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” In addition, each civilization is defined by its core and enduring “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking.”

This is followed by a list of eight contemporary civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin American, the West, and African (possibly). This list might have been convincing if Huntington had identified their core “values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking.” But he refuses to oblige. We are left wondering if indeed these ‘civilizations’ can be defined by some set of unchanging core values; or how great are the differences in the core values of these civilizations. Curiously, there is no room in Huntington’s taxonomy for Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Tibet. They are looking for a home.

At the same time, there exists a strong correspondence between Huntington’s civilizations and Western notion of races. All but one of them can be identified with a ‘race’: the West with Germanic, the Orthodox with Slavic, Latin American with Mestizo (though their elites are almost entirely white), the Sinic and Japanese with the ‘yellow race’, the Hindu with the dark Caucasians, and the African with black. Islam alone does not fit this description. This leads to a suspicion. Is it possible that Huntington’s scheme simply recycles the Western division of mankind into races?

Although Huntington claims that religion is “a central defining characteristic” of civilizations, the correlation between his civilizations and religion is quite weak. The West, Orthodox and Latin American civilizations are all Christian. Latin America is set apart because it is mostly Catholic; but so are Spain, Portugal, Belgium, France and Italy. More importantly, if there can be three Christian civilizations, what prevents Huntington from splitting Islam along sectarian (Shiite and Sunni) or racial lines (Arab, Iranian, Turkic, African and Malay). Finally, there are two civilizations on Huntington’s list-the Sinic and Japanese-which have no clear religious affiliations-at least, as the term is understood in the West.

The concept of civilization creates ambiguity because of its empirical relationship with states. Of the six major civilizations-the Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Indian, Sinic, and Japanese-the last three are identical or nearly identical with a state. India, China and Japan are civilizations and states. In addition, two core states-United States and Russia-contain a third and a half of the total populations of their civilizations. In the event, it becomes easy to construe a straight conflict over interests-say between United States and China, or China and Russia-as a clash of civilizations.

Why Do Civilizations Clash?

There are at least two answers Huntington offers to this question: these clashes have roots in the human psyche and in the nature of cultures.

At the deepest level, the clash of civilizations is rooted in our psyche. People define themselves by identifying with “cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations.” But this is not enough: in order to deepen our identity we must also hate others. In other words, the clash of civilizations is rooted in natural human frailties.

This two-part thesis is problematic in both its parts. The psychic need for identity is better fulfilled by identifying with smaller groups-one’s family, village, tribe, trade union, club, or team-rather than with larger, secondary, more distant groups, such as nations and civilizations. If we do identity with a nation or civilization, this is socially constructed, not rooted in our psyche. Similarly, if our self-definition does feed on hatred, we might derive considerably greater satisfaction in directing this hatred towards rivals at hand-in business, politics, sports, or at the workplace-rather than to abstract and distant entities such as ‘other’ civilizations.

At a different level, Huntington attributes clashes to the nature of cultures: their differences per se and their rivalry. In the context of the West and Islam, he asserts that their conflicts “flow from the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on them.” Thus, the “ongoing pattern of conflict” between the two civilizations results, among other things, from conflicts over the role of religion in politics. Even their similarities become sources of conflicts: their monotheism, which will not accommodate other gods; their universalistic claims that contest the same territory; and the competition of their missionaries.

These claims are rife with problems. Ironically, an Islamic civilization barely existed during the first phase of Arab expansion-leading to collisions with the Byzantine Empire and the Latin West-in the seventh and early eighth centuries. Second, let alone forcing Islam upon their subjects, the first Islamic empire-that of the Omayyads-discouraged conversions to Islam. They preferred the revenues from jizya, a head tax imposed on non-Muslims.

The opposition between the West and Islam over secularism is false. For most of its history, the West defined itself as Christendom, which granted citizenship only to true believers in Catholic dogma. Christians who departed from the true faith, as well as Jews and Muslims, were persecuted, massacred, or expelled from Europe. After a period of murderous wars, following the rise of Protestantism, the West extended religious tolerance to Christian denominations. However, with some exceptions, this tolerance was not extended to non-Christians until quite recently. On the other hand, the tolerance which Islamic empires granted to diverse religious tendencies within Islam, and, to a lesser degree, to other religions, would be embraced by the West only in recent times.

The separation between the Church and State in the West is also exaggerated. The Catholic Church was itself a major power center, often rivaling the princes. In any case, this separation would be hard to enforce, since the leaders of the Church and the state were drawn from the same class of elite landowners. This only grew worse with the rise of Protestantism. Often, this meant that the head of state became the head of the national church: Queen Elizabeth is still the head of the Anglican Church. On the other hand, the Islamic societies had several secular features, some not present in medieval or modern Europe. At least Sunni Islam has never been organized into a Church: it has remained a decentralized religion, in which each local community organizes its own schools and places of worship. The elaboration of legal systems-not just family laws-was never a monopoly of the state. Instead, this was vested in outstanding jurists.

Similarly, the universalist claims and, more importantly, the means employed to achieve them, are historically determined. In the past, Christianity viewed Islam as a false religion, which had to be combated with force. But Christianity hardly defines the West anymore. And though Christians may still believe that Islam is a false religion, it is unlikely that many of them would be too eager to enlist in crusades to extirpate Islam. On the other hand, Islamic societies have moved in the opposite direction over the past century, away from the tolerance of their religion. The Islamic movements that have emerged to resist the marginalization of Islamic societies are more rigid in matters of practice, more defensive, and less tolerant of other religions than almost any of the traditional schools of Islam.

The Evidence

It will scarcely surprise anyone that a theory so weakly constructed as Huntington’s should fail the empirical test: and its fails resoundingly.

First, consider his main thesis which claims that conflicts between two states after 1989 are more likely if they belong to two different civilizations. This is not supported by the evidence. A recent study by Jonathan Fox shows that a comparison of all ethnic conflicts during the Cold War, and the period since, shows a modest decline in the ratio of inter-civilization conflicts to intra-civilization conflicts. We hear no deafening tumult of civilizational clashes after 1989.

Alternatively, we might analyze the historical evidence to check if the probability of conflicts rises with cultural differences. Henderson and Tucker have studied the impact of cultural differences on the probability of international conflicts during the post-Cold War period; their study controls for distance between the countries, the presence of democracy, and an index of power capabilities. Once again, there is no comfort for the clash of civilizations. Cultural differences had no visible impact on the probability of wars during this period.

The Huntington thesis finds no support in the period before 1945. Of 18 major wars fought by great powers between 1600 and 1945, only six involved states from two or more civilizations. Once again, when Henderson and Tucker examined international wars between 1816 and 1945, with controls for other influences, they found that the probability of conflicts between two states was greater if they belonged to the same civilization. Quite the opposite of what Huntington predicts.

Now consider the accusations about Islam’s “bloody borders.” Huntington asserts that “in the 1990s they [Muslims] have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization.” Again, the data tell a different story. In his survey of ethnic conflicts, Jonathan Fox found that Islam was involved in 23.2 percent of all inter-civilizational conflicts between 1945 and 1989, and 24.7 percent of these conflicts between 1990 and 1998. These shares are not too far above Islam’s share in world population; nor do we observe any dramatic rise in this share since the end of the Cold War.

In any case, we have to be careful when we talk about “bloody borders.” A hard look at geography reveals that civilizational borders vary strikingly, and that Islam’s share of such borders is disproportionately large. On the one hand, Islam stretches from Senegal, Morocco and Bosnia in the West to Sinjiang, Indonesia and Mindanao in the East. This geographic sweep across the Afro-Eurasian landmass brings Islam into contact-often close and extensive-with the African, Western, Orthodox, Hindu and Sinic civilizations. We must account not only for the borders between countries, but also the borders between often large pockets of majority Islam within non-Islamic countries and vice versa. It is my impression that if we were to add up all of these borders, Islam’s share might well exceed the combined share of all others. Recognition of these facts might help to place observations about Islam’s “bloody borders” in a less prejudicial perspective.

The Clash as Ideology

Why has The Clash dominated public discourse in the West despite its flawed theory, lack of empirical support, and its espousal of hatred as the necessary foundation of cultural identity?

Our capacity to believe narratives, even quite ridiculous ones, depends on how well they serve our individual and collective interests. Many of the stories social scientists weave about race, culture, economic development, free markets and free trade are implausible, even farcical, once they are seen in their true colors. But they endure so long as they serve powerful interests. They endure because these powerful interests can employ a legion of scholars who willingly-though often unknowingly-trade the prestige of their scholarship for good jobs, good pay, and the accolades of bosses.

The post-Cold War period marked a new intensification in the reach of global capitalism. The communist challenge had forced the Core countries to unite, to forge multilateral institutions to manage their global interests: when the Cold War ended, the Core countries moved decisively, with the multilateral institutions in the lead, to create a global economic regime which allowed Core capital to freely penetrate every segment of the Periphery. The bywords of this new regime are: free trade, liberal exchange markets, privatization, national treatment of foreign capital, and globalization of intellectual property rights.

This has produced rapid immiseration of large parts of the Periphery, the erosion of indigenous capital in much of the Periphery, and widening disparities between the Core and Periphery. Not surprisingly, this more transparent, overbearing and invasive imperialism deepened the demand for ideologies that would obfuscate the growing divisions between, as well as inside, the rich and poor countries. The Clash answers to this demand by giving primacy to religious, racial and civilizational conflicts-thus deflecting attention from the looming battles over the world’s economic divide.

M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston. His recent book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave (2000). He may be reached at Copyright M. Shahid Alam.