by M. Shahid Alam
Samuel Huntington peddles a culturalist thesis about the sources
of conflicts in The Clash of Civilizations. He builds on the premise
that the "most important distinctions among peoples are not
ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural."
If cultural distinctions possess primacy, it follows that they
will drive the world's conflicts. The Clash asserts that the Cold War,
characterized by the clash of ideologies, was an aberration: the most
dangerous conflicts in the new post-Cold War era will occur along the
fault-lines of civilizations. Although Huntington identifies nine
contemporary civilizations, there are three that monopolize his
attention: the West, Islam and the Sinic civilization. The critical
conflicts in the coming decades will occur because of challenges to
the West from Islam and China.
This is social science at its political best-as ideology. The
Clash obfuscates the realities of unequal power: in this case, the
deepest, most enduring, and widening divisions between rich and poor
countries. It is carelessly constructed, ahistorical and
contradictory; it is also contradicted by historical evidence.
Nevertheless, Huntington's thesis has dominated public discourse since
it was first launched in 1993. Apparently, ideologies succeed by
appealing to interests, not logic or evidence.
Interests Don't Matter?
In the post-Cold War world, Huntington confidently proclaims, "the
most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between
social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups,
but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities."
Huntington claims that conflicts between rich and poor countries
are unlikely because the latter "lack the political unity, economic
power, and military capability to challenge the rich countries."
Ironically, this contradicts his own thesis about the most serious
challenges to the West emanating from Islam and China. Many of the
Islamic countries-including the largest-are among the world's poorest;
and China too, despite two decades of rapid growth, remains quite
poor. In addition, the Islamic world lacks any political unity: it is
fragmented into more than fifty countries.
It is not clear that conflicts between rich and poor countries can
only occur if the latter are united. Two poor countries, China and
India, have populations that exceed the combined population of all
Western countries. China is already regarded as a military threat to
the United States, though India may not be far behind. Given their
enormous size, with another decade or two of rapid growth, these two
countries could also begin to offer serious economic competition to
the Core countries.
Even smaller countries can become a threat. It has been America's
policy to ostracize countries in the Periphery as rogue states if they
do one or more of three things: they resist US hegemony, they possess
or are developing long-range missiles, and they possess or are
developing weapons of mass destruction. Nearly all the "rogue states"
are quite small; the list includes Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Syria,
Cuba and Libya. It would appear that the United States takes the
"rogue states" quite seriously. It is developing the Nuclear Defense
Shield to intercept and shoot down missiles fired by the rogue states.
Amusingly, Huntington negates his own thesis-that most conflicts
have their source in cultural differences-when he describes the
genesis of civilizational conflicts. The civilizational wars, he
concedes, originate in the usual sources: the anarchy of states, and
conflicts over people, territory and resources; culture enters into
these conflicts only later as the rival parties mobilize support among
the larger population. Isn't this a disavowal of the primacy of
cultural factors in "civilizational" conflicts?
What Are Civilizations?
An examination of the central concept in The
Clash-civilizations-reveals several more flaws and contradictions in
Huntington defines civilization as " the highest cultural grouping
of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have
short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." In
addition, each civilization is defined by its core and enduring
"values, norms, institutions, and modes of thinking."
This is followed by a list of eight contemporary civilizations:
Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Latin American, the West,
and African (possibly). This list might have been convincing if
Huntington had identified their core "values, norms, institutions, and
modes of thinking." But he refuses to oblige. We are left wondering if
indeed these 'civilizations' can be defined by some set of unchanging
core values; or how great are the differences in the core values of
these civilizations. Curiously, there is no room in Huntington's
taxonomy for Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or Tibet.
They are looking for a home.
At the same time, there exists a strong correspondence between
Huntington's civilizations and Western notion of races. All but one of
them can be identified with a 'race': the West with Germanic, the
Orthodox with Slavic, Latin American with Mestizo (though their elites
are almost entirely white), the Sinic and Japanese with the 'yellow
race', the Hindu with the dark Caucasians, and the African with black.
Islam alone does not fit this description. This leads to a suspicion.
Is it possible that Huntington's scheme simply recycles the Western
division of mankind into races?
Although Huntington claims that religion is "a central defining
characteristic" of civilizations, the correlation between his
civilizations and religion is quite weak. The West, Orthodox and Latin
American civilizations are all Christian. Latin America is set apart
because it is mostly Catholic; but so are Spain, Portugal, Belgium,
France and Italy. More importantly, if there can be three Christian
civilizations, what prevents Huntington from splitting Islam along
sectarian (Shiite and Sunni) or racial lines (Arab, Iranian, Turkic,
African and Malay). Finally, there are two civilizations on
Huntington's list-the Sinic and Japanese-which have no clear religious
affiliations-at least, as the term is understood in the West.
The concept of civilization creates ambiguity because of its
empirical relationship with states. Of the six major civilizations-the
Western, Orthodox, Islamic, Indian, Sinic, and Japanese-the last three
are identical or nearly identical with a state. India, China and Japan
are civilizations and states. In addition, two core states-United
States and Russia-contain a third and a half of the total populations
of their civilizations. In the event, it becomes easy to construe a
straight conflict over interests-say between United States and China,
or China and Russia-as a clash of civilizations.
Why Do Civilizations Clash?
There are at least two answers Huntington offers to this question:
these clashes have roots in the human psyche and in the nature of
At the deepest level, the clash of civilizations is rooted in our
psyche. People define themselves by identifying with "cultural groups:
tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the
broadest level, civilizations." But this is not enough: in order to
deepen our identity we must also hate others. In other words, the
clash of civilizations is rooted in natural human frailties.
This two-part thesis is problematic in both its parts. The psychic
need for identity is better fulfilled by identifying with smaller
groups-one's family, village, tribe, trade union, club, or team-rather
than with larger, secondary, more distant groups, such as nations and
civilizations. If we do identity with a nation or civilization, this
is socially constructed, not rooted in our psyche. Similarly, if our
,self-definition does feed on hatred, we might derive considerably
greater satisfaction in directing this hatred towards rivals at
hand-in business, politics, sports, or at the workplace-rather than to
abstract and distant entities such as 'other' civilizations.
At a different level, Huntington attributes clashes to the nature
of cultures: their differences per se and their rivalry. In the
context of the West and Islam, he asserts that their conflicts "flow
from the nature of the two religions and the civilizations based on
them." Thus, the "ongoing pattern of conflict" between the two
civilizations results, among other things, from conflicts over the
role of religion in politics. Even their similarities become sources
of conflicts: their monotheism, which will not accommodate other gods;
their universalistic claims that contest the same territory; and the
competition of their missionaries.
These claims are rife with problems. Ironically, an Islamic
civilization barely existed during the first phase of Arab
expansion-leading to collisions with the Byzantine Empire and the
Latin West-in the seventh and early eighth centuries. Second, let
alone forcing Islam upon their subjects, the first Islamic empire-that
of the Omayyads-discouraged conversions to Islam. They preferred the
revenues from jizya, a head tax imposed on non-Muslims.
The opposition between the West and Islam over secularism is
false. For most of its history, the West defined itself as
Christendom, which granted citizenship only to true believers in
Catholic dogma. Christians who departed from the true faith, as well
as Jews and Muslims, were persecuted, massacred, or expelled from
Europe. After a period of murderous wars, following the rise of
Protestantism, the West extended religious tolerance to Christian
denominations. However, with some exceptions, this tolerance was not
extended to non-Christians until quite recently. On the other hand,
the tolerance which Islamic empires granted to diverse religious
tendencies within Islam, and, to a lesser degree, to other religions,
would be embraced by the West only in recent times.
The separation between the Church and State in the West is also
exaggerated. The Catholic Church was itself a major power center,
often rivaling the princes. In any case, this separation would be hard
to enforce, since the leaders of the Church and the state were drawn
from the same class of elite landowners. This only grew worse with the
rise of Protestantism. Often, this meant that the head of state became
the head of the national church: Queen Elizabeth is still the head of
the Anglican Church. On the other hand, the Islamic societies had
several secular features, some not present in medieval or modern
Europe. At least Sunni Islam has never been organized into a Church:
it has remained a decentralized religion, in which each local
community organizes its own schools and places of worship. The
elaboration of legal systems-not just family laws-was never a monopoly
of the state. Instead, this was vested in outstanding jurists.
Similarly, the universalist claims and, more importantly, the
means employed to achieve them, are historically determined. In the
past, Christianity viewed Islam as a false religion, which had to be
combated with force. But Christianity hardly defines the West anymore.
And though Christians may still believe that Islam is a false
religion, it is unlikely that many of them would be too eager to
enlist in crusades to extirpate Islam. On the other hand, Islamic
societies have moved in the opposite direction over the past century,
away from the tolerance of their religion. The Islamic movements that
have emerged to resist the marginalization of Islamic societies are
more rigid in matters of practice, more defensive, and less tolerant
of other religions than almost any of the traditional schools of
It will scarcely surprise anyone that a theory, so weakly
constructed as Huntington's should fail the empirical test: and its
First, consider his main thesis which claims that conflicts
between two states after 1989 are more likely if they belong to two
different civilizations. This is not supported by the evidence. A
recent study by Jonathan Fox shows that a comparison of all ethnic
conflicts during the Cold War, and the period since, shows a modest
decline in the ratio of inter-civilization conflicts to
intra-civilization conflicts. We hear no deafening tumult of
civilizational clashes after 1989.
Alternatively, we might analyze the historical evidence to check
if the probability of conflicts rises with cultural differences.
Henderson and Tucker have studied the impact of cultural differences
on the probability of international conflicts during the post-Cold War
period; their study controls for distance between the countries, the
presence of democracy, and an index of power capabilities. Once again,
there is no comfort for the clash of civilizations. Cultural
differences had no visible impact on the probability of wars during
The Huntington thesis finds no support in the period before 1945.
Of 18 major wars fought by great powers between 1600 and 1945, only
six involved states from two or more civilizations. Once again, when
Henderson and Tucker examined international wars between 1816 and
1945, with controls for other influences, they found that the
probability of conflicts between two states was greater if they
belonged to the same civilization. Quite the opposite of what
Now consider the accusations about Islam's "bloody borders."
Huntington asserts that "in the 1990s they [Muslims] have been far
more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other
civilization." Again, the data tell a different story. In his survey
of ethnic conflicts, Jonathan Fox found that Islam was involved in
23.2 percent of all inter-civilizational conflicts between 1945 and
1989, and 24.7 percent of these conflicts between 1990 and 1998. These
shares are not too far above Islam's share in world population; nor do
we observe any dramatic rise in this share since the end of the Cold
In any case, we have to be careful when we talk about "bloody
borders." A hard look at geography reveals that civilizational borders
vary strikingly, and that Islam's share of such borders is
disproportionately large. On the one hand, Islam stretches from
Senegal, Morocco and Bosnia in the West to Sinjiang, Indonesia and
Mindanao in the East. This geographic sweep across the Afro-Eurasian
landmass brings Islam into contact-often close and extensive-with the
African, Western, Orthodox, Hindu and Sinic civilizations. We must
account not only for the borders between countries, but also the
borders between often large pockets of majority Islam within
non-Islamic countries and vice versa. It is my impression that if we
were to add up all of these borders, Islam's share might well exceed
the combined share of all others. Recognition of these facts might
help to place observations about Islam's "bloody borders" in a less
The Clash as Ideology
Why has The Clash dominated public discourse in the West despite
its flawed theory, lack of empirical support, and its espousal of
hatred as the necessary foundation of cultural identity?
Our capacity to believe narratives, even quite ridiculous ones,
depends on how well they serve our individual and collective
interests. Many of the stories social scientists weave about race,
culture, economic development, free markets and free trade are
implausible, even farcical, once they are seen in their true colors.
But they endure so long as they serve powerful interests. They endure
because these powerful interests can employ a legion of scholars who
willingly-though often unknowingly-trade the prestige of their
scholarship for, good jobs, good pay, and the accolades of bosses.
The post-Cold War period marked a new intensification in the reach
of global capitalism. The communist challenge had forced the Core
countries to unite, to forge multilateral institutions to manage their
global interests: when the Cold War ended, the Core countries moved
decisively, with the multilateral institutions in the lead, to create
a global economic regime which allowed Core capital to freely
penetrate every segment of the Periphery. The bywords of this new
regime are: free trade, liberal exchange markets, privatization,
national treatment of foreign capital, and globalization of
intellectual property rights.
This has produced rapid immiseration of large parts of the
Periphery, the erosion of indigenous capital in much of the Periphery,
and widening disparities between the Core and Periphery. Not
surprisingly, this more transparent, overbearing and invasive
imperialism deepened the demand for ideologies that would obfuscate
the growing divisions between, as well as inside, the rich and poor
countries. The Clash answers to this demand by giving primacy to
religious, racial and civilizational conflicts-thus deflecting
attention from the looming battles over the world's economic divide.
M. Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics at Northeastern University, Boston.
Born in Dhaka, he attended schools in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Canada. He is the
author of Poverty
from the Wealth of Nations (Macmillan: 2000). His translations of Ghalib
have appeared in several US literary magazines.
Enver Masud, "A Clash Between Justice and
Greed Not Islam and the West," The Wisdom Fund, September 2, 2002
[THE Harvard professor who first proclaimed the global "clash of civilisations"
has ignited a new firestorm with his claim that Mexican immigration is splitting
America in two.--James Bone, "Hispanics are
dividing US, warns academic," The Times (UK), March 22, 2004]
Copyright © 2002 M. Shahid Alam