Must Civilizations Clash?
NOT LONG AGO, I attended a discussion group on the relationship between Islam and the West. During the question period, one of the participants began fulminating against Muslims and their religion, insisting that Islam was a jihadist faith and that “they” were intent on bringing the entire world under Sharia law. “We” had to stand up and fight for our values, he exclaimed, and since Muslims would no more adopt Western ideas than the West would convert to Islam, this was going to be a struggle to the death, one that could last for generations, even centuries. Then, red-faced and shaking, he paused, realizing where his emotions had taken him. “But there are so many of them,” he sighed. A light had gone off: he had grasped that he was on a highway to the Apocalypse, and there was no off-ramp.
The man’s ideas may not have been thought through, but they did have a legitimate pedigree. They were a debased—though not a distorted—version of Samuel P. Huntington’s notion of the “clash of civilizations,” popularized first in an article in Foreign Affairs, then in a book called The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order. Huntington borrowed the phrase from Bernard Lewis, who was referring to the growing hostility between Islam and the West. Huntington expanded Lewis’s concept to encompass the seven or possibly eight civilizations—he wasn’t sure about Africa—that he identified across the globe, and warned that in the future, “emerging intercivilizational relations will normally vary from distant to violent.” He went on: “The fires of communal identity and hatred are rarely totally extinguished, except through genocide.”
In one sense, however, Huntington retained Lewis’s framework. He said that of all the civilizational clashes, the worst, and really the only one that mattered, was that between Islam and everyone else—and to describe the relations between Muslim countries and their neighbors, he coined the phrase “bloody borders.” Optimists might argue that the West’s quarrel was only with Islamic extremists, but that is not how Huntington saw it. “Fourteen hundred years of history demonstrate otherwise,” he wrote. Nowhere had liberal democracy taken root where Islam prevailed. Where, after all, were the public protests against anti-Western violence within the Muslim world? “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism,” he declared. “It is Islam.”
So was Huntington on his own apocalyptic highway? It certainly seemed so. As his book built toward its inevitable end, Huntington imagined a global civilizational conflict. In his particular scenario, the United States, Europe, Russia and India wage war against China, Japan, and most of Islam, but he acknowledged that other sanguinary scenarios were also possible.
Huntington’s grim forebodings are what most readers remember of his book. What they tend to forget are the final four pages, and with reason. In that last, all-too-brief section, Huntington, much like the fellow in my discussion group, paused before the enormity of the vision he had conjured up—and did an abrupt about-face. In a multicivilizational world, he concluded, we have to “accept diversity and seek commonalities.” The major religions may have created deep, seemingly unalterable divisions among mankind but, Huntington wrote, they “also share key values in common,” and “if humans are ever to develop a universal civilization, it will emerge gradually through the exploration and expansion of these commonalities.”