To what extent is there a global ‘clash of civilisations’?

Contrary to liberal belief, Samuel Huntington released his ‘Clash of Civilisation’ thesis in 1993 and seemed to depict a cynical view of the world’s future which disregarded the utopian idealism of thinkers like Francis Fukuyama, who touted the now much maligned and shamed ‘End of History’ theory, which suggested that the course of history in the form of conflict had ceased. Huntington developed a new paradigm to replace the Cold war bipolarity of America and the Soviet Union. He argued that in the post-Cold War world, conflict would no longer be influenced by economic or ideological considerations, but civilizational ones. He argued that there are 8 disparate civilizational entities in the world, all possessed of different cultural traits and idiosyncrasies which repelled each other when in contact. Civilisations, the ‘’broadest cultural identity that people have’’, is an extremely powerful force which defines people far stronger than the economic ideologies of the previous decades. When coined today, the clash is mostly aligned with the conflict between the West and Islam, which in itself seems a limited realisation of Huntington’s theory. In looking at the world today, one could argue that just as Fukuyama was too optimistic, Huntington was too cynical and there is nothing concrete to suggest there is a global clash of civilisations, nor an end to history, but something in between.

    Beginning with the spectre of terrorism, Huntington’s theory finds most credence in the developing and seemingly non-ending conflict between the skewed Islamism of terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and Western civilisation. Many attacks in Europe, such as the killing of 12 cartoonists and journalists working at the controversial Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris, as well as the recent attacks in Borough Market, London in June 2017, have had as a basis for their motivation a disregard and hate for the secularist freedoms inherent in the western civilisation. Huntington argues that European history, and by extension that of the USA, is a result of centuries of conflict which has resulted in a separation of church and state and an enshrinement of secularism. Terrorist groups like ISIS reflect a more religiously minded ideal, supporting the establishment of a severe form of Sharia law. Islamic society has never had to deal with a separation and in fact often collide religion with political constructs. This fight of values puts into light the sort of civilizational conflict that Huntington envisioned. This has resulted in over 1.3 million deaths as a result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and over 40,000 deaths of ISIS members’ deaths as a result of the US led coalition since 2014. Guantanamo Bay too is a reflection of this conflict, for though the Boumediene v Bush case of 2008 allowed all prisoners writ of habeus corpus, in other words the ability to force the USA to provide evidence for their imprisonment, an Appeals court forced judges to take a pro-government assumption in order to limit prisoners’ freedoms. This reveals a fear of the spread of Islamist values and the possibility of further attacks by inmates, a cultural fear which serves to make Huntington’s argument more valid.

However one has to reflect on the fact that there are 6 other civilisations which Huntington reveals, all of which seem to not have resorted to terrorism in order to undermine the values of western civilisation. This seems to feed into the views of critical theorists like Noam Chomsky, who argue that ISIS and Al-Qaida are a result of the political interventions of the West in the Middle East. Realist thinker Mary Kaldor argues that in the landscape of ‘new wars’, such as the internal conflicts in Syria and the guerrilla structures of much of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, severe identities form as a result of the war, and are not its cause. This can be seen with evidence, for the rise of ISIS occurred as a result of Sunni disenchantment in Northern Iraq, preyed upon by Zarqawi and other Al-Qaeda figures from Afghanistan and Jordan. The US presence in the Middle East created the terrorist threat which is so fear inducing today. Furthermore, even Osama Bin Laden’s holy war seemed to cite political influences, such as anger at US support for Israel and ambivalence towards Muslim persecution in Chechnya and Kashmir. Chomsky, Kaldor and even political figures like Jeremy Corbyn argue against a civilizational basis for the Islamic terrorist threat, and put the blame on the inflammation of anger as a consequence of American imperialism.

A further concern raised by Huntington is the sort of microclashes which occur as a result of the inability to assimilate different civilisations together. Once more, it is the presence of Islam in the West which has drawn much discussion. Islamic assimilation into Europe has been controversial for decades. In fact in 2003 the European Court of Human Rights, in the context of the Turkish far right Welfare Party, ruled that Sharia Law was incompatible with European culture and society. A Swiss initiative saw the population vote for a ban on Mosque minarets and an ECJ ruling forced Muslim parents to send their daughters to mixed gender swimming lessons rather than separate them out. The swathe of terrorist attacks in recent years have caused European and American politicians to become harsher in their enforcement of European values. France has especially drawn the ire of more liberally minded individuals when Hollande called the burqa the ‘’uniform of terrorists’’ and banned burkinis from public beaches. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands likened the Quran to Mein Kampf and Donald Trump’s Muslim ban seemed a populist minded approach to terrorist prevention more to appease far right fears than actually impede the course of terrorism. Islam and the West have had their issues, but so have other civilisations; it is notable that Trump has said little on Canadian migration but plans to build a wall with Mexico, arguably an indication of the civilizational incompatibility of American and Latino culture. Western migrants to Japan often find it difficult to assimilate into that culture too, as they do in China, where migration is incredibly low and no Europeans have assimilated enough to, for example, find positions of power in the Communist Party. Confucius institutes in the US have also caused controversy, and the University of Chicago even closed its centre down due to fears of Chinese propaganda. The world is awash with examples of civilisations unable to individuate and align.

On the other hand, of course, one could argue that this only reflects a limited and blinded view of assimilation. According to the UN, 3.3% of all people are migrants, and a globalised world has allowed many to assimilate into their culture, which seems to fit in with liberal belief in the development of interdependence and assimilation between states. Especially in Europe, where the median age is heading to be 40, young Muslims with a median age of 32 are integral for the continent’s future; there is no trajectory open to liberal thinkers’ eyes apart from peaceful incorporation of different civilisations. Millions of Chinese students attend American universities and mosques are commonplace in the urban centres of the UK, for though the West is secular, it has enshrined a tolerance of faith. Ethnic minorities make up 8% of all MPs in the Houses of Parliament, more than ever before. Germany took in over a million refugees in 2015 during the refugee crisis, and the Trump ban has elicited an international uproar which has seen it dismantled three different times by different courts. Furthermore, the problem with Confucius centres in the US is limited, with only 3 out of 472 centres worldwide being closed or causing controversy. Any fears might in fact not be civilizational but ideological, as once again capitalism becomes weary of communism. Furthermore, Chinese averseness to migrants has more to do with its history of being an isolationist state rather than any civilizational precepts. As it changes and opens up, one wonders whether assimilation might also prove positive. Consequently, the idea that assimilation only serves to cause microclashes in the west is entirely misplaced, especially when concerning  Islam, where 44 million people live in Europe and where many bring up generations of children who have been able to develop dual identities which act in flagrant disagreement to Huntington’s theory.

To continue with the positive view of a mixing of civilisations, Mahbubani and Summers present a retort to Huntington entitled ‘The Fusion of Civilisations’, which argues that there is a universality to the human experience which ensures cultures will mix, not repel. Especially focusing on the Middle East, they serve to accentuate the liberal interdependence argument by showcasing how cities like Dubai and countries like Malaysia have opened themselves up to the international community. Dubai’s malls host Louis Vitton and a cornucopia of Western business. In Malaysia too there is an acceptance of liberalism, with 65% of university students being women, a declaration of Malaysia’s ability to be a part of the international community rather than isolate itself to its own civilisation. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim state and yet till recently had a Christian as Mayor of Jakarta and practised their religion in peace with fellow Hindus and Christians, even worshipping at Hindu shrines. The USA has built satellite campuses for many of its universities, including Yale-Singapore and NYU-Abu Dhabi, indicating a joining of cultures. Additionally, fears that China will clash with the USA are debunked by Muhbabani and Summers, who argue that the former is far too ingratiated into the order the US built, having its voting rights increased in the IMF to 6% and being the their largest donor to the US. The Chinese in fact fear ‘luan’, which denotes ‘chaos’, and prefer peace and order. Globalisation and interdependence has ensured that the world’s civilisations will not clash, but in fact will co-operate and, if hyperglobalists are to be believed, further and further lead to a borderless world where all people are global citizens, rather than tied to one state.

However, the optimism of the ‘Fusion’ argument seems to have waned in recent years. Theresa May has fed the populist disapproval with mass immigration present in much of the West by arguing that ‘if you are a citizen of everywhere, you are a citizen of nowhere’. Hyperglobalism doesn’t have the pull it once did. Additionally, China’s newly found economic strength has caused Xi Jinping to argue that China should ‘guide international society towards a more just and rational world order’. Clash of civilisation theorist would argue that this new order would prioritise collective rights and obligations, Asian cultural relativism to western rights of individualism. Satellite campuses and McDonalds branches across the world might be seen as token symbols of globalisation. Liberals like Thomas Friedman, with his Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention, might argue that the interdependence ingrained in a globalised world would prevent war, but Russia invaded Georgia and Ukraine and before WWI, the UK’s biggest trading partner was Germany. Liberal ideas seem to have less weight as realist realities come to the fore once more. However, it is hard to label things as ‘business as usual’ and suggest that conflict between cultures is inevitable since it has, so far, been anything but.

Consequently, in conclusion, the world seems less stable than it was in 1993. Though this might prove to favour Huntington’s argument, the coalescence of the world’s peoples and cultures has put into question the simplicity of there being a clash of civilisations, and also puts into question whether any ensuing conflict will be because of civilizational differences. A war between the US and China would have a basis in typical superpower want for hegemony, based on ideology fuelled by economic considerations. Terrorism has a political consideration and issues with Latino culture in the US has a degree of racism and classism associated with it. Huntington established a new paradigm for global conflict, and though the world might consist of different civilisations, it is undoubtedly the case that the conflicts of today (and tomorrow) still feel somewhat…old-fashioned.

Aidas Zvirblis

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