The Clash of Civilizations Revisited

In what was probably the most influential essay published in the 1990s Samuel Huntington argued in Foreign Affairs that henceforth “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.”[i] Huntington was criticized by a whole host of academics, journalists, and public persons for being too simplistic in his analysis as well as for making religion the primary marker for his concept of “civilization”. I must admit that I was one of those who joined in this chorus of criticism.

Nonetheless, over the past few years I have been pondering over Huntington’s thesis and gradually revising my views although I have not said so publicly because I was not absolutely sure of my conversion to Huntington’s thesis. But, this week I have seen the light on the road to Damascus (more appropriately on the road to Jerusalem). The light shone in the form of the statement made by Presidential-hopeful Mitt Romney in the Holy City that “Culture makes all the difference” combined with his unqualified support for Netanyahu’s bellicose policy toward Iran. What could explain such “foreign-policy mischief”, in the words of Robert Merry in the National Interest,[ii] but kinship based on common culture (“civilization” in Huntington’s words)?

I realized then that the pattern of double-standards that I had been witnessing in American foreign policy toward the Middle East was an integral part of a world where supposedly immutable differences based on civilizations form the primary source of conflict. Huntington had stated presciently that “A world of clashing civilizations…is inevitably a world of double standards: people apply one standard to their kin countries and a different standard to others.”[iii]

American policies toward Israel, whether on the issue of Palestine or of Iran have been remarkably skewed for reasons of affinity based on a common civilization. It should have been clear from any objective perspective that Israel has been a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset when it comes to America’s relations with the large majority of countries in the Middle East. This has been particularly true since the end of the Cold War when in Arab and Muslim perceptions the American-Israeli relationship has been reversed. Israel is no longer perceived as America’s pawn in the Middle East as it was before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now it is the other way around.

However, for reasons relating to cultural kinship, which has taken different manifestations ranging from “the lobby” to “evangelical Christians”, the United States has allowed its policy toward the Israel-Palestine issue to be largely dictated by Israel. This is true on a wide range of issues from Jewish settlements in occupied Palestine to the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

The fact that the Israeli narrative of the conflict is accepted hook, line and sinker by Senators and Congressmen as well as most members of the executive branch can be explained only through the medium of cultural affinity. Even those American policy makers and publicists who have been mildly critical of Israeli policies have done so to save Israel from itself by preventing the demographic time-bomb from exploding in its face. The Palestinian narrative of dispossession, exile, and occupation and, indeed, of the demographic transformation of Palestine under the British mandate is not only ignored but treated as fictional.

The same set of double standards is at work in relation to the Iran’s nuclear enrichment program which is presumed to be a stepping stone towards nuclear weapons capability. What is remarkable is that the sole country in possession of nuclear weapons in the Middle East – Israel – has led the charge in threatening attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities with the United States and Europe playing supportive indeed submissive roles. Hardly any mainstream commentator in the West, except some brave souls like Kenneth Waltz, have dared to criticize the stupidity of this policy and argue that nuclear deterrence may actually make the Middle East a safer place.[iv]

However, the most startling case of double standards because it involved a member of NATO was the American stance on the Israeli raid on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara that was engaged in providing relief to a besieged Gaza. Nine persons of Turkish origin – including an American citizen – were killed in international waters without a whimper of condemnation or even protest on the part of Washington. This is possibly the first time in recent history that the killing of a U.S. citizen by foreigners has not resulted in at least a formal public protest by the American adminstration. Was it because the American citizen was of Turkish origin and, therefore, perceived as outside the sphere of Western civilization even though Turkey has been a loyal American ally for half a century? Or was it because the tension between Turkey and Israel is perceived in the United States as part of a clash of civilizations in which the United States has to stick by its kith and kin?

Both these explanations fit Huntington’s paradigm for as he pointed out double standards are an integral part of a mindset that sees conflict in terms of clashing civilizations. One has to support one’s kith and kin right or wrong. When this phenomenon occurs in the Middle East or Africa it is referred to as “tribalism”. In the West it is termed the “clash of civilizations.”

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator, Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is the author of The Many Faces of Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Muslim World.


[i] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs 72(3), Summer 1993, p. 22.

[ii] Robert W. Merry. “Romney Edges U.S. Toward War with Iran”, National Interest, August 1, 2012. http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/romney-edges-us-toward-war-iran-7275.

[iii] Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations”, Foreign Affairs 72(3), Summer 1993, p. 36.

[iv] Kenneth Waltz, “Why Iran Should Get the Bomb”, Foreign Affairs 91(4), July/August 2012, pp. 2-5.

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