Islam, the Spark that Sets the World on Fire?

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“The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” by Samuel P. Huntington

The Free Press, 2002 [1996], 367 pp.

What has changed in the world of geopolitics and global conflict since the collapse of the Soviet Union? Seemingly everything. Samuel Huntington (d. 2008) was an American political scientist and an advisor to the Carter administration. In Clash, his best known and most influential work, he unfolds a narrative of a world in a state of international anarchy with a single player able to influence it seemingly to his will. He argues that the world has moved from the bipolar setting of the Cold War era, where two superpowers were engaged in a perpetual strife to dominate the globe with their ideology, into the unipolar era where, due to its unparalleled military, diplomatic, and economic might, the only center of power is that of the United States of America; but it will not stop there.

Clash.jpgIn 1996, when the book was originally published, Huntington predicted the rise of alternative centers of power to create a multipolar world – a world which our contemporary reality resembles ever more closely. In his view, these centers would not appear randomly, but rather be based on civilizational characteristics which in turn will create fault lines with the potential to hurl the world into another global conflict. And if there is one civilization which has a higher likelihood of precipitating this conflict than others, it is the Islamic.

Demarcating Civilizations

Huntington opens his magnum opus by carefully delineating the definition of a civilization as opposed to Civilization which is the key to understanding the book. The latter is a development-based criterion used in the Greco-Roman sense in opposition to barbarism. The former denotes a culturally, historically, and religiously close group of peoples not necessarily corresponding with state boundaries. Depending on the criteria used, a civilization can in fact be quite uncivilized and lack Civilization.

In the author’s view, there are seven clear-cut civilizations: Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Sinic, Japanese, Buddhist, and Hindu; and two which currently do not exist but can potentially appear in the future: Latin American – if it differentiates itself enough from the broader Western culture, and African – if it finds a common core which applies and appeals to all the Sub-Saharan peoples.

Decline of the West and rise of the rest

Over the past few centuries, the West has utterly dominated the entire globe, first by way of European powers, and later through American hegemony. This state of affairs will continue into the near future, but in the long term, the West is likely to lose power relatively to other civilizations. The West’s comparative decline is one of the book’s main assertions and a driver behind the subsequent analyses.

When countries first modernized, they attempted to do so in combination with Westernization, that is to say, adopting Western institutions, values, social norms, dress, cultural elements, alphabet, and even religion. However, most countries these days appear to Westernize as they modernize, only to revert back to their own cultural and civilizational peculiarities as they become richer and thus, according to the author, more assertive. This reassertion is particularly evident in the civilizations of Far East, whose rising affluence brought about an elevation of the local cultures and customs and behaviors to a prominent and esteemed position. This includes not only folklore and tradition, but also broader and deeper notions such as regarding national and family ties being more important than the individual itself, which in turn produces both desirable – social cohesion – and less desirable traits – corruption and nepotism.

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This reaffirmation of local idiosyncrasy, coupled with the demise of ideological strife which characterized the Cold War, brings cultural factors to the forefront of global politics. “Political boundaries increasingly are redrawn to coincide with cultural ones: ethnic, religious, and civilizational. Cultural communities are replacing Cold War blocs, and the fault lines between civilizations are becoming the central lines of conflict in global politics” (p. 125). Increasingly, countries sharing cultural affinity are cooperating with each other, and, while finding it difficult to do so across civilizational boundaries, they also group around and follow the lead of their civilization’s core states such as the USA, China, or Russia.

Catalysts of conflict

Huntington posits that although the West is trying to sustain the liberal, free-market world order, it is doing so primarily through international institutions and mediation and is unlikely to enforce those rules militarily, aside from in the direst of circumstances such as human rights abuses – and even then only if it can win without major effort. Nonetheless, the increased assertiveness of non-Western nations will erode the ability of the West to maintain democracy around the globe, uphold international law, or stop nuclear proliferation. Countries like China will find it less difficult to impose regional orders of their own design, and sooner or later such attempts are likely to bring them into conflict with the West, which, though diminishing in relative terms, is not going anywhere in the foreseeable future.

The likelihood of conflict increases with the rise of a civilization’s power, geographical proximity to other civilizations and their core states, and the discrepancies between a civilization and its neighbors – the fault lines. Huntington argues that no other civilization has as many fault lines within and without, is as spectacularly intolerant, prone to conflict, and unaccommodating as the Islamic one. It borders the Western, Orthodox, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sinic civilizations, as well as the African states in the south, and ever since its inception, it has been in a state perpetual conflict with all of them, though the conflicts vary in intensity. The limited contact the Islamic civilization had with China had a mitigating effect on their relations, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Nonetheless, the amount of potential fault lines Islam has with the world and the amount of actual conflicts it generates, both between civilizations and within itself, give credence to the author’s words:

“Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards. The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power” (p. 217)

The formidable militarization of Muslim-majority countries, their high propensity to resort to violence in crisis situations, and the high-intensity violence they use all exacerbate the inherent problems with this civilization. Moreover, on account of its current youth bulge, the Muslim world is destabilized and exports masses of young immigrants who often bring with them attitudes unpalatable to the indigenous populaces of host civilizations and even utterly antithetical to their way of life. Because of these factors, the author posits, far ahead of all other civilizations, Islam is the most likely candidate to hurl the world over the precipice of the next massive conflict.

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To avoid massive civilizational conflicts in the future, Huntington argues, much depends on the world leaders’ understanding of those intercivilizational fault lines and their ability to work actively towards reconciling them. In the age of globalization and diluted identities, in order for the West to survive it needs to come together, reaffirm its distinctiveness, and renew its character in the same way non-Western civilizations do. At the same time, however, it will have to accept the non-universality of its culture and the rising importance of other civilizational groups, but so will they, whilst also contending with the primacy of the West. Denying others their fair share of agency in geopolitics is likely to bring about resentment and conflict.

A prophetic masterpiece

Clash is an absolute masterpiece, not only for its brevity despite the heavy and multifaceted topic it describes, but for its clear style and perhaps most importantly its predictive capacity. The book reads easily and every single sentence serves a definitive purpose – there are no pointless fillers, and all arguments are spelled out in a way even a layman would understand; it is certainly not marred by 21st century political correctness.

But it does not come without its share of imperfect assumptions. The argument that countries rally behind their civilizational leaders is belied by the fact that only the USA can count on such support. Some have criticized the main thesis being inapplicable to Southeast Asia where political considerations still dominate, many more focused on debunking the fairy tale Latin American and African civilizations. Lastly, squeezing Greece, Serbia, and Russia together in a civilizational block solely on account of their religion is to completely ignore any broader considerations. However, all blemishes aside, when taking into account the big picture and weighing the book’s ups and downs, it comes as absolutely no surprise that this bestseller has had such a profound and lasting impact on modern political discourse.

Reviewed by Konrad Duda

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