The Clash of Civilizations (COC) is a hypothesis that people’s cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world. It was proposed by political scientist Samuel P. Huntington in a 1992 lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, which was then developed in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article titled “The Clash of Civilizations?”, in response to his former student Francis Fukuyama‘s 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. Huntington later expanded his thesis in a 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order.
The phrase itself was earlier used by Albert Camus in 1946, and by Bernard Lewis in an article in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic Monthly titled “The Roots of Muslim Rage”. Even earlier, the phrase appears in a 1926 book regarding the Middle East by Basil Mathews: Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations (p. 196).
Russia and India are what Huntington terms ‘swing civilizations’ and may favor either side. Russia, for example, clashes with the many Muslim ethnic groups on its southern border (such as Chechnya) but—according to Huntington—cooperates with Iran to avoid further Muslim-Orthodox violence in Southern Russia, and to help continue the flow of oil. Huntington argues that a “Sino-Islamic connection” is emerging in which China will cooperate more closely with Iran, Pakistan, and other states to augment its international position.
Huntington also argues that civilizational conflicts are “particularly prevalent between Muslims and non-Muslims”, identifying the “bloody borders” between Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. This conflict dates back as far as the initial thrust of Islam into Europe, its eventual expulsion in the Iberian reconquest and the attacks of the Ottoman Turks on Eastern Europe and Vienna. Huntington also believes that some of the factors contributing to this conflict are that both Christianity (which has deeply influenced Western civilization) and Islam are:
- Missionary religions, seeking conversion of others
- Universal, “all-or-nothing” religions, in the sense that it is believed by both sides that only their faith is the correct one
- Teleological religions, that is, that their values and beliefs represent the goals of existence and purpose in human existence.
- Religions that perceive irreligious people who violate the base principles of those religions to be furthering their own pointless aims, which leads to violent interactions.
More recent factors contributing to a Western-Islamic clash, Huntington wrote, are the Islamic Resurgence and demographic explosion in Islam, coupled with the values of Western universalism—that is, the view that all civilizations should adopt Western values—that infuriate Islamic fundamentalists. All these historical and modern factors combined, Huntington wrote briefly in his Foreign Affairs article and in much more detail in his 1996 book, would lead to a bloody clash between the Islamic and Western civilizations. The political party Hizb ut-Tahrir also reiterate Huntington’s views in their published book, The Inevitability of Clash of Civilisation.
Huntington has fallen under the stern critique of various academic writers, who have either empirically, historically, logically, or ideologically challenged his claims (Fox, 2005; Mungiu Pippidi & Mindruta, 2002; Henderson & Tucker, 2001; Russett, Oneal, & Cox, 2000; Harvey, 2000). In an article explicitly referring to Huntington, scholarAmartya Sen (1999) argues that “diversity is a feature of most cultures in the world. Western civilization is no exception. The practice of democracy that has won out in the modern West is largely a result of a consensus that has emerged since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the last century or so. To read in this a historical commitment of the West—over the millennia—to democracy, and then to contrast it with non-Western traditions (treating each as monolithic) would be a great mistake” (p. 16).
In his 2003 book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman argues that distinct cultural boundaries do not exist in the present day. He argues there is no “Islamic civilization” nor a “Western civilization”, and that the evidence for a civilization clash is not convincing, especially when considering relationships such as that between the United States and Saudi Arabia. In addition, he cites the fact that many Islamic extremists spent a significant amount of time living and/or studying in the Western world. According to Berman, conflict arises because of philosophical beliefs various groups share (or do not share), regardless of cultural or religious identity.
Edward Said issued a response to Huntington’s thesis in his 2001 article, “The Clash of Ignorance“. Said argues that Huntington’s categorization of the world’s fixed “civilizations” omits the dynamic interdependency and interaction of culture. A longtime critic of the Huntingtonian paradigm, and an outspoken proponent of Arab issues, Edward Said (2004) also argues that the clash of civilizations thesis is an example of “the purest invidious racism, a sort of parody of Hitlerian science directed today against Arabs and Muslims” (p. 293).
Noam Chomsky has criticized the concept of the clash of civilizations as just being a new justification for the United States “for any atrocities that they wanted to carry out”, which was required after the Cold War as the Soviet Union was no longer a viable threat.