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Reappraising Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’

Not so long ago I became acquainted with a young Swedish undergrad, next to my workplace at my University, where I had just started my doctoral research. When Sweden and Germany were boiling over the issue of mass sexual assaults — mostly perpetrated by groups of migrant youths — something led me to talk about Samuel Huntington with my young Swedish friend.

This friend, normally very liberal and tolerant, somehow became extremely agitated, and said, everything about Huntington was racist and colonial and supremacist. And ideas like his should be banned across universities as they would be a threat to impressionable late teenagers. I was a bit taken aback by such an over-the-top reaction at the mere mention of the name of a philosopher, controversial though he was. I only read later (to my utter bemusement) that this type of reaction is the latest fad in a certain section of Euro-American academia, and is called “being triggered”. (This is where a section of people try to censor or ban the mere mention of seemingly inconsequential and regular things which might be in any way remotely uncomfortable).

I found out later, unsurprisingly, that she had never read Huntington’s most famous book, The Clash of Civilisations, which she had been so vehement in opposing; in fact she had read none of his books or papers. Why do I say “unsurprisingly”? Because that’s actually more common in academic and student circles than one can imagine; recently, readers will remember, people protested and wrote columns against Lionel Shriver without ever having read her books and without having heard her speak.

Huntington is a now near mythical man, known for his unconventional and controversial ideas. Many of his ideas have been proven to be right with time  just not in the way he foresaw. The main idea for which he is notoriously known is the idea that big civilisational blocks will be in conflict with one another as the world moves from a battle of economics and ideologies, to a battle of civilisations. Yet most conventional wisdom about The Clash of Civilisations come from people who claim to have read the book, and then paraphrase his idea to mean a clash between Islam and the West. It is, of course, not as simple as that, nor is The Clash of Civilisations Huntington’s finest contribution to political science and philosophy. Most importantly, the reflexive critique of Huntington since 1993 is, in a way, a reflection of both the political consensus in Western policy and groupthink within academic circles.

Huntington was a political theorist, the type of which they don’t have anymore. A conservative-realist, Huntington was influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr and his ideas of Christian Realism, and was incessant and steadfast in his defense of the moral and cultural superiority of Western “civilisation”. He unfortunately didn’t live to define this construct clearly enough. His conservatism was old school, almost Burkean, and his realism was respectful of the cultural differences in the worldsomething which he arguably attributed a civilisational character. The Clash of Civilisations was attacked from both the modern left and right, from the liberals and the neocons, which more than anything displayed how deep the political consensus ran in the post Cold War world.

Consider this. What was the main argument of The Clash of Civilisations? No, not a simplistic Crusade like grand clash between Islamic and Non Islamic civilisations. In Huntington’s own words —

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. 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.

If one distills the entire book, then it boils down to this, Huntington divided the World into eight distinct civilisational traits, and said that the chances of conflict is highest in areas which are civilisational faultlines. For example, the Western civilisation and the Eastern orthodox civilisation faultline lies in and around Central and Eastern Europe. Islamic civilisation and Western civilizations cross around the North African coastline and the Middle East. Other civilisational faultlines according to Huntington, lie around Hindu, Sinic, Japonic and African civilisations. See a pattern? Now think, what are the current ongoing conflict zones in the World? Ukraine, Georgia, the South China sea, East China sea, Indo-Chinese, and Indo-Pakistani border. The current and future policy problems? Uncontrollable African and Middle Eastern mass migration to Europe, mostly through North Africa’s coastline. Where is migration causing a rift? Between more conservative and orthodox Eastern and Central Europe and comparatively more socially liberal Western and Northern Europe.

Does that mean Huntington was axiomatically right? Not exactly. On the other hand, Huntington talked about mega clash of civilisations, as if these civilisations are single units. That turned out to be demonstrably false.

On the one hand, we have students in South Africa arguing that “science is racist“— these students will probably find more sympathetic support for their ideology among a certain section of Western academia than among students in China and India. In fact, postcolonial theories, in stranger ways than expected, have brought forth arguments that Huntington never envisaged.

Imagine, the reflexive anti-Western sentiment prevalent among a vast part of sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East, and surprisingly among a certain section of Western liberals. Do you see the same in India and China? Hardly — even though India and China were no less affected by colonialism. In fact, anyone, who has actually travelled around India and China, or has had business and work related exchanges and has come into contact with regular individuals, or has travelled around parts of East Asia, will find to their surprise, the commonality and the pro-Western sympathies present among a majority of the people, especially among the youth and students. This is reflected in the music they listen to, the lifestyle they lead, the movies they watch. My personal experience reflects this and I’ve written about this phenomenon. Incidentally, I call it the Maitra’s Law, if you will; hatred for the West and Western values is inversely proportional to the desire to live in the West, enjoy a Western lifestyle and enjoy the benefits and luxuries that Western society offers. If colonialism and anti-Western sentiment would allow and solidify civilisational block formations then what explains this strange deviation? On this, Huntington’s work remains mute.

It is due to such demonstrable flaws, Huntington has been criticised, since The Clash of Civilisations came out. That, as well as the internationalist zeal of the liberal/neocon consensus. (It is difficult to convey how different and celebratory the heady days of the 1990s were, for those who are not older than their mid-thirties). The battle of philosophical ideas, not just with the Soviets, but even within the West, was arguably won, and Burkean conservatism and political Realism retreated. The liberals and neocons, were essentially two sides of the same coin, or as Stephen Walt has written, neocons are “liberals on steroids”. They were both abstract, universal, internationalist, interventionist and Wilsonian; one rhetorically espousing humanitarianism and the other democracy promotion. Both were devoid of historical, structural and cultural contexts. In a way, these internationalists were qualitatively no different than the Marxists they opposed.

And that is where Huntington is invaluable, even when he was wrong. He was a theorist, a Renaissance man in a certain way, whose hypothesis from his original opus, The Soldier and the State, to his last essay on migration and second generation hyphenated-Americans, deliberately pushed everyone into the zone of discomfort. Some of his ideas have been proven to be correct with time, in ways he never probably imagined or foresaw. And some hypotheses have not ever been tested. Ask yourself, how many universities possibly would fund a graduate student or researcher to undertake such politically incorrect taboo subjects, like the correlation of economic growth with receptivity to science and technology as well as other important cultural or group differences.

And that’s our tragedy. The biggest threat to human civilisation is not from some random weirdos blowing themselves up. The biggest threat is neither solely cultural or economic, but a hybrid of of the two. This is something that needs to be researched more, based on a “Huntingtonian” empiricism. The resources of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, for example, are finite, and in the long run, they won’t last more than fifty to a hundred years. Add to that the increasing automation of labour, and demographic explosion in certain sections of the planet and demographic crash in others — and the persistency of the anti-industrial, anti-scientific mindset, and you have the perfect storm.

To go back to the Science Must Fall video, that would be laughable, if not for thousands of people rushing to fairer shores, because they have no jobs due to structural problems, like post-colonial tribalism, corruption and anti-industrialisation. Huntington would have argued that this is due to cultural differences, while wrongly terming it “civilisational”. In his own words —

[B]ecoming a modern society is about industrialization, urbanization, and rising levels of literacy, education, and wealth. The qualities that make a society Western, in contrast, are special: the classical legacy, Christianity, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, civil society.

Perhaps it is time to re-read, research and reappraise Huntington again.


Sumantra Maitra is a foreign affairs correspondent and doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, UK. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.


  1. kurtzs says

    Thank you for some common sense in this overly PC world. In my 71 years, our species has tripled, and biologists refer to this as plague phase in large mammals. Unfortunately, as p/capita slices of natural wealth decline, the more short term thinking and violent conflict increase. And toxic feedback rises lock step, with added technological leverage. The fallacies of Techno-optimism and Cornucopianism are the mental escape hatches which will fail to reverse overshoot in my opinion.

  2. JustRandom says

    “Now think, what are the current ongoing conflict zones in the World? Ukraine, Georgia, the South China sea, East China sea, Indo-Chinese, and Indo-Pakistani border. The current and future policy problems? Uncontrollable African and Middle Eastern mass migration to Europe, mostly through North Africa’s coastline. Where is migration causing a rift? Between more conservative and orthodox Eastern and Central Europe and comparatively more socially liberal Western and Northern Europe”

    Ukraine and Georgia vs Russian hegemony are conflicts within the “Orthodox” bloc. “Western” V4 are as anti-immigration (or even more so) as the “Orthodox” countries in the way of the MENA refugee/immigrant migration path and so on. Of course you can always define your “civilizations” as they best fit you (“Ukraine was part of Poland-Lithuania. aha!”) but I find your argument, as it stands, unpersuasive.

    We still see conflict occuring primarily between neighboring nations, no matter their supposed belonging to some wider civilization bloc. Even in cases like ISIS, we see more harm ultimately done within (non-monolithic) “Islam” than to outside of it.

    • Michael Morgan says

      Just a slight correction – Western Ukraine is Roman Catholic, not Orthodox, and therefore doesn’t neatly fall within your “Orthodox” block at all. The eastern Ukraine, as we know, was colonised with Russians and sovietised by Stalin as deliberate state policy to weaken Ukrainian Nationalism.

      • JustRandom says

        Currently, 15% of religious Ukrainians are Catholic, Greek rite and mostly in the far west, the rest are Orthodox – the original religion of Kievan Rus and not the later Catholic infilitration from Poland-Lithuania. You’re stretching to save a theory that doesn’t work (notice how you conveniently ignored Georgia). Even Huntington clearly considered Ukraine as part of the “Orthodox” bloc for good reasons.

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  6. Cranky Mick says

    There are entirely too many commas this piece, but it is otherwise excellent.

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