Today's date:
Fall 2013

The Clash of Civilizations Revisited

Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor famous for his book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” died in 2012.

In Part I of this conversation, he responds to NPQ editor Nathan Gardels’ observations about the “clash of civilizations” thesis. In Part II Huntington revisits his thesis after the September 11, 2000 attacks on the US by Osama bin Laden.

NPQ | To be sure, there is a clash of civilizations. But it is the one you posit —a clash among old civilizations of the Christian West, Islam, Confucian China, Hindu India and so on—or a clash between the traditional values of the religious imagination behind all these old civilizations and the secular, fast-lane, consumerist, individualist and permissive global culture emanating from the hypermodern West?

It’s the Catholic Pope John Paul II, the Orthodox Aleksander Solzhenitsyn and the Confucian Lee Kuan Yew versus Michael Jackson, Madonna and Snoop Doggy Dog.

Solzhenitsyn has written: “The time is urgently upon us to limit our wants. It is difficult to bring ourselves to sacrifice and self-denial, because in political, public and private life we have long since dropped the golden key of self-restraint to the ocean floor. But self-limitation is the fundamental and wisest aim of a man who has obtained his freedom.”

Similarly, the Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed has written: “What gives the West its dynamic energy is its individualism and the sheer drive to acquire material items through a philosophy of consumerism at all costs. Such frenetic energy keeps society moving.

“Patience, pace, equilibrium, by contrast, are emphasized in Islam. Haste is the devil’s work, the Prophet warned. But the postmodern age is based on speed. In particular, the media thrive on and are intoxicated by speed, change, news. The unceasing noise, dazzling color and restlessly shifting images of the MTV culture beckon and harass.

“Silence, withdrawal and meditation—advocated by all great religions—are simply not encouraged by the media” which projects the ethos of the West today.

SAMUEL HUNTINGTON | There are many different lines of cleavage in the world. The “clash” I have analyzed between the old civilizations is one; you have put your finger on another one of great significance: the cleavage between those who hold to more traditional forms for religion and morality and those who don’t have much use for either religion or morality. That is a very real difference. I don’t deny this. But it is a cross-cutting cleavage.

When Islamists criticize what the “morally degenerate” West has become they are also criticizing what they view as the imperialism of the West and the accompanying oppression which dates back centuries, even to the crusades.

In my book I quote Fatima Mernissi, the liberal humanist author of Islam and Democracy. Even she notes that president George Bush’s frequent invocations of God on behalf of the United States during the Gulf War reinforced Arab perceptions that it was “a religious war.” And she meshes this old religious conflict seamlessly with the clash of which you speak. She says that individualism, the hallmark of the West, “is the source of all trouble.” And she goes on to say that “...the West alone decides if satellites will be used to educate Arabs or drop bombs on them...It crushes our potentialities and invades our lives with its imported products and televised movies that swamp the airwaves...”

NPQ | To take an example from the other side of the planet, I recall the chancellor of the University of Hong Kong once saying that there is not so much a clash of civilizations between America and Asia, it is just that Asia still has the traditional values of family, community and respect for authority that have gone by the wayside in America.

HUNTINGTON | Certainly the integrity of family and community, not to speak of respect for authority, has declined in the West. But the central Western value going back centuries is individualism. That is the value that Asian societies have never really held very central. That is the constant in the conflict between our two civilizations. No doubt the more extreme forms of individual liberty that have developed in the West today exacerbate this already deep difference.

NPQ | You have made the point in your book that it is possible to have modernization without Westernization. And it is true that the consumption of Big Macs and Coca-Cola may not penetrate the soul of the Japanese or the Muslims.

But the dominance of the American media in the world today is another issue altogether. Images rule dreams and dreams rule actions. Surely, the great empires of the mind based in New York and Hollywood have their impact on the soul of the world order, inculcating the pounding message of the hypermodern, secular West to all within their satellite imprint.

Again I cite Akbar Ahmed: “While Muslims appreciate the spirit of tolerance, optimism and drive for self-knowledge in postmodernism, they also recognize the threat it poses to them with its cynicism and irony. This challenge to faith and piety which lies at the corner of their worldview.”

Perhaps this is the primary clash in the world today, between the Western-based custodians of perception and signifier of symbols—a kind of global nomenklatura, or media class—and the local soul of civilizations still rooted in the ancestral territory of tradition.

As the French thinker Regis Debray has noted, “perceptions in the 20th century have their seat north of the equator because we are the ones with the communications satellites, coaxial cables, news camera’s and videocams.”

HUNTINGTON | Much of what you say is undoubtedly true. The question is how far the message of this Western medium penetrates. How deep does it go?

Already there is a reaction. Various media are being compelled to use other languages besides English and to adapt their programming to local cultures. Even at this moment we are witnessing the chill between Hollywood and China as a result of the warning by the Chinese authorities about the Disney film concerning Tibet.

After all, we are dealing with cultures and civilizations that have existed for centuries, in some cases millennia. They are not going to fade away due to the impact of Western TV.

What the West spits out won’t be ingested over the longer term without being modified and refined. The Japanese have so far been a good case in point—they’ve absorbed the technology of modernization, but they still have a culture that is distinctly Japanese and very different from that of the West.

It is similar to what has happened with the democratic political system. Obviously non-Western societies can be democratic—Japan and India have been democratic in some sense of the word over the past few decades. Will China become democratic? Surely, economic development will force it at some point in the next decade or two to have a more pluralistic system. I am dubious, though, that it would be something we might call democratic. When Russia settles down, will it have a Western democratic system? I’m dubious. But it will have something that reflects its particular traditions, cultural and history.

There is a lot of talk these days about how those 30 or 40 countries that recently became democratic are now “reverting” to their traditional behavior. That is bound to happen. The force of gravity of so much historical weight doesn’t just blow away so easily.

NPQ | It is not surprising that civilizations as coherent entities are centuries or millennia old because the depth and frequency of cultural contact was relativity limited.

To be sure, people migrated and empires conquered. Buddhism, Islam and Christianity spread out around the planet—but over centuries. Nothing compares to the accelerated pace of contact or the quantum leap of mass interaction between cultures today as a result of round-the-clock-in-your-face media or mass air travel.

MTV has become the muzak of the new world disorder; 747 jumbo jets crisscross the planet on their daily routes between civilizations.

No civilization has ever been tested by such an assault. At some point, doesn’t the sheer quantity transform the quality of cultural relations, giving new influences a greater chance than ever to push aside old traditions?

HUNTINGTON | While there is no question technological change has had an enormous impact, it is difficult to foresee exactly what the impact might be. It is complex and differentiated. And it is not all in one direction.

For example, this transportation and media nexus enables people belonging to the same cultural community, but who are geographically dispersed, to maintain their identity. One sees this with the migrant Turks in Europe or the Korean immigrants in America. It is so easy for them to stay in touch with their homeland, to visit frequently, get the news, receive a fax, send money and so on.

One can even argue that this easy contact is slowing down the process of assimilation of immigrants in their host countries and bolstering the older cultural identity.

NPQ | The Korean case is a good example. In Los Angeles, the Korean community dwells in the free American economic space, but still lives in the cultural space back home.

Perhaps the result might be neither the maintenance of the old, nor the eradication of the traces of ancient civilization by a kind of floating hypermodernism. Perhaps what will emerge is some new, planetary civilization of a hybrid nature on the model of a place like Los Angeles. The literary critic Homi Bhabha talks about the “location of culture” being in “thirdspace”—the polycentric zone in between that is defined out of the very clashes we witness today.

The mix is something new. What can it mean for the old German volksgeist that a quarter of Frankfurt’s population is now Muslim Turks?

HUNTINGTON | America has been successful in integrating immigrants so far; whether we can integrate the new wave since 1965—coming mainly as they do from non-European cultures—is an open question for the very reasons we’ve been discussing. Will they assimilate to a changing American culture, or remain autonomous and linked to their old cultures of origin?

Another possibility is that we could well be moving back toward an Ottoman Empire milliyet system of some sort, where separate cultural communities exist autonomously within a loose, overall political authority. It is not a bad model, after all.

NPQ | It seems there is a kind of attraction/repulsion dynamic at work in the clash of civilizations. Even those who reject the hypermodern West are attracted to it. V.S. Naipaul has written about the secret hope of Iranian elites to have their children educated in America. Jack Lang, anti-American French culture minster under Mitterrand, sent his daughter to live with the consul in Los Angeles so she could get into Hollywood movies!

At the same time, the dialectic of globalization is becoming clearer all the time: The more globalization there is, the more the forces of localization are strengthened. As cultural identities are threatened from above, roots are revitalized.

Perhaps these two phenomena are closely linked.

America, the land of immigrants, has always been a kind of geocultural therapy for history’s wounded masses. Its recipe for success has been to take the soil out of the soul. For Turks and Africans, the same is true to a lesser extent with respect to Europe.

This is the attraction not only to real immigrants but to “migrants of the mind” as well who are attracted to the metaphor of opportunity encoded in the West’s global media presence. If you can’t beat your history, you join it. The ancestral territory is all you have.

But when it dawns on you that you can’t beat your history, you join it. The ancestral territory is all you have.

Haris Silajdzic, the former prime minister of Bosnia, put it well: “While the revolutions of literacy, telecommunications and travel have exposed ordinary Muslims to the glamorous material symbols of modernity, such a reality remains beyond the reach of all but one or two percent of the population. So there is frustration and anger. To fill this gap between dreams and reality, people cling to what they trust: their cultural identity and their religion.”

HUNTINGTON | This is without a doubt true. As I say in my book, the demographic bulge in North Africa is creating both the migrants and the militants. And I’m sure you are right that in the militant ranks there are many who are, as you put it, “migrants of the mind” as well. One has to understand this complex, even contradictory, psychological dimension inside history’s clashing actors.

NPQ | Because Marxism assumed its universality, it never had a theory of political relations between conflicting interests once private property was abolished. Similarly, liberalism assumed its universality and thus has had no theory of political relations with cultures that don’t share the same values.

Now that an ascendant Asia and militant Islam are challenging the West, don’t we need some kind of “cultural diplomacy”? What might that look like? Should we, for example, press the Chinese to adopt our human rights standards?

HUNTINGTON | Responding to the argument in my book that the West has to recognize its limits in spreading our way of life to other civilizations, Francis Fukuyama has asked the question in this way: How can we sustain free institutions at home if we take such a relativistic view of our own values?

This comment illustrates the problem. It exemplifies the belief that if you can’t universalize a value, it is no good. Being democratic and supporting human rights is our thing; it is part and parcel of Western civilization. Personally, I think we should promote these values abroad.

But we have to recognize that a large portion of the world sees it differently. If we try to promote human rights in China, they are for the time being going to react against that. We should do what we can, but recognize the limits inherent in the shifting balance of power as China ascends on the world scene.

Osama bin Laden Reinvigorated Western Identity
| To what extent do events since Sept. 11 bear out your theory of a “clash of civilizations”? Are we at war with an isolated terrorist fringe, or terrorists with a large, perhaps vast, civilizational hinterland of sympathy?

HUNTINGTON | Osama bin Laden has declared war on Western civilization, and in particular the United States. If the Muslim community to which Bin Laden is appealing rallies to him, then it will become a clash of civilizations. So far, they appear deeply divided.

Bin Laden is an outlaw expelled from his own country, Saudi Arabia, and later Sudan. The Taliban which supports him was recognized by only three of 53 Muslim countries in the world. All Muslim governments except Iraq—but including Sudan and Iran—condemned his terrorist attack. Most Muslim governments have at least been acquiescent in the US strategy to respond militarily in Afghanistan. The Organization of the Islamic Conference condemned Bin Laden’s terrorism—but did not condemn the US response.

At the same time, Bin Laden appears to have growing popularity “on the street,” particularly in the Arab world where he is able to capitalize on resentment against ruling regimes, Israel and the wealth, power and culture of the US.

Appropriately, the US thinks of its response not as a war on Islam, but as a war between an extensive, transnational terrorist network and the civilized world.

Yet, undeniably, the terrorist actions of Osama bin Laden have reinvigorated civilizational identity. Just as he seeks to rally Muslims by declaring war on the West, he has given back to the West its sense of common identity in defending itself.

NPQ | Your book, The Clash of Civilizations, was not about terrorism, but about the contesting world-views of civilizations bound to clash in the wake of the Cold War.

Bin Laden’s view of the world is that it is now divided “between believers and unbelievers.” Many, like the Japanese writer Haruki Murukami, have chosen to interpret that as a division between “the closed-circuit mind” of any type of fanatic and the “open-circuit mind” cultivated by a pluralist society.

But isn’t the conflict deeper—between the secular pluralism of the nominally Judeo-Christian West and the political monotheism exclusive to Islam?

Indeed, the late Nobel poet Octavio Paz once argued: “Islam today is the most obstinate form of monotheism in a world that otherwise accepts plural truths. We owe to monotheism many marvelous things, from cathedrals to mosques. But we also owe to it hatred and oppression. The roots of the worst sins of Western civilization—the Crusades, colonialism, totalitarianism—can be traced to the monotheistic mindset.

“For a pagan, it was rather absurd that one people and one faith could monopolize the truth. Outside Islam, the world again sees it that way. Islam stands alone. It is the most reactionary force in the world today.”

Similarly, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said to me: “The whole world is implicated in the fragmentation and uprootedness of postmodern pluralism, including China and Russia. There is one exception: Islam. It stands alone as the challenge to the indifference (cultural relativism) sweeping the world.”

HUNTINGTON | It is true that the vigor of the intolerant mindset that can come from monotheism waned in the West after being exhausted in religious wars of the late Middle Ages. Pluralism has been empowered since by a division between religion and politics unknown in the Islamic world. This merger of political and religious life generates conflict in societies both where there is a Muslim majority and non-Muslim minority or a Muslim minority in a country like India, where most are Hindus.

Since Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all monotheistic religions, the practical question is whether they are monotheist and tolerant of other religions, or monotheist and intolerant. All three of these religions have behaved differently in different times. Tolerance was hardly a quality of Christianity during the Crusades.

At the moment, Islam is the least tolerant civilization of the monotheistic religions.

NPQ | You have proposed the “abstention rule”—that the West should abstain from intervening in the internal conflicts of other civilizations—as a way avoid a clash. Osama bin Laden’s biggest issue is the presence of US troops in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia to defend one Islamic country from another. Should the West not be there?

HUNTINGTON | I qualified my abstention rule by saying that it might have to be broken if a vital national interest was at stake. In the Gulf War, our vital national interest was at stake because we could not allow Iraq to take sole control over the bulk of the world’s oil reserves. And our principles were at stake as well. We could not tolerate one country just invading and annexing another at will in violation of all international laws.

So, that was a legitimate action. The continuing American presence in Saudi Arabia now is really minimal, and we are there with the approval of the extraordinarily religious Saudi government.

NPQ | Of the many reasons for resentment against America among pious Muslims is the deluge of materialistic, sensate mass culture that spews at them from Hollywood. MTV has gone where the CIA could never penetrate. Madonna is the Muzak of globalization.

Shouldn’t the West be more sensitive to the message its culture sends out?

HUNTINGTON | They don’t have to watch that if they don’t want to. Many governments, including those of China, Singapore and France, have made serious efforts to stem the penetration of American mass culture whether it comes across the Internet or on TV by satellite. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has banned television sets.
NPQ | The Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci has caused a sensation with her passionate call on the West to vigorously defend itself against political Islamists, saying it is us or them.

Beyond the current campaign against terrorism, what should Western civilization do to defend itself in the broader strategic sense?

HUNTINGTON | I laid out several dimensions of such a strategy in my book,“ The Clash of Civilizations,” and they are just as valid today.

The Western powers of the US and Europe need to achieve greater political, economic and military integration and coordinate their policies so states from other civilizations cannot exploit our differences. Before Sept. 11, Europe and America were moving apart on a whole series of issues from genetic foods to missile defense to a European military. The events of Sept. 11 have for the moment changed that dramatically. After the terror attacks, the headline of Le Monde read “We are all Americans.” Echoing Kennedy, Berliners declared, “We are all New Yorkers.” As I said at the outset, in this sense Osama bin Laden has given back to the West its common identity.

Beyond this, we need to continue the expansion of the European Union and NATO to include the Western states from Central Europe, that is, the Visegard countries, the Baltic republics, Slovenia and Croatia. The United States also needs to encourage the “Westernization” of Latin America.

To avoid conflict, the West must accept Russia as the core state of Orthodoxy and a major regional power with legitimate interests in the security of its southern borders, with whom we can cooperate in dealing with Islamist terrorists.

The West must maintain its technological and military superiority over other civilizations and restrain the development of conventional and unconventional military power of the Islamic countries and China.

Above all, this consolidated West must recognize that intervention in the internal affairs of other civilizations, except where vital interests are at stake, is the single most dangerous source of potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.

NPQ | Will the anxiety and fear caused by terror end globalization by disrupting the free flow of ideas, people and capital? Or might we see a “two-speed” or “two-tier” globalization as the core countries of the West hasten their integration as they fight terrorism, leaving the rest of the world behind?

HUNTINGTON | Globalization has already been proceeding at several speeds for different parts of the world. Indeed, globalization has both stimulated and enabled the likes of Osama bin Laden to plot his attacks on downtown Manhattan from a cave in impoverished Afghanistan.

For the immediate future, I believe Europe and the US will come closer together, faster, driven by the rediscovery of their common interests as a civilization of free societies. Perhaps Latin America and Japan will join them.

Overall, and in the longer term, the economic forces of the market will promote further globalization. This in turn will continue to produce a legitimate reaction because of the income inequality globalization generates within societies, but also between them—including between the tighter Western tier and the rest.

Russia, China and India, while necessarily outside this integrating core, will for the moment, for the practical reasons of their own problems with Islamic unrest and terror, work with the Western-led coalition.