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clash of civilisations - Adarsh Badri

#Notes: The Clash of Civilizations

Writing in the aftermath of the Cold War, in 1993, Samuel Huntington advanced a hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would not be ideological or economic but based on culture or civilization.

Huntington’s thesis emerges as an alternative to Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 End of History thesis that advocated for a post-ideological society, with an ultimate victory for liberal democracy at the end of the Cold War.

Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” and later a full-form book, gives primacy to civilizational differences as the driver of conflicts. Huntington defines:

A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people, and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.

(Huntington, 1993, p.24).

To this author, unlike the globalisation theorists who argued for a less dominant role for the state, nation-states remained essential drivers of world politics. However, the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nation-states based on their civilizational differences.

In other words, the clash of civilizations will dominate world politics in the post-Cold War era. He writes, “the fault lines between civilizations” will be the future battle lines.

How many civilizations did Samuel Huntington see?

For Huntington, the clash will be characterised by interactions/and counter-interactions between eight significant civilisations: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American, and possibly African civilisation”.

Huntington notes: a civilisation is made up of language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and inter-subjective identification of people.

However, there are problems with this classification.

  • There is a neglect/or omission of the Buddhist civilisation (which would account for much of Southeast Asian societies, Sri Lanka, and others).
  • Moreover, why is Islamic civilisation treated as the only one civilisation?
  • There is a perpetual conflict between Shias and Sunnis at the nation-state level.
  • What is a Hindu civilisation? India? The Indian constitution deems it a secular state, meaning that Huntington may add fodder to Hindu-Nationalist tendencies.

The world was divided into the First, Second, and Third Worlds during the Cold War. Huntington argues that those divisions are no longer relevant in the post-Cold War era.

Post-Cold War international politics will transition from a primarily Western focus to one where interactions between West and non-Western civilizations take centre stage.

What are the fault lines between civilizations?

The non-Western civilizations no longer serve as the targets of Western colonialism in the politics of civilizations but rather join the West as movers and shapers of history. More importantly, these clashes are not shaped by political or economic systems—as was the case in the Cold War—but in terms of culture and civilisation.

For Huntington, a fault line would refer to “tectonic plates clashing with each other” in the sense of civilizations and cultures clashing with one another. He writes, “Cultural fault lines that separate civilizations from one another will cause conflicts”.

What are the Six Points in Huntington’s Thesis?

Huntington makes six pointers to justify his thesis:

First, the differences between civilizations are not just natural but genuine. Since each of these civilizations has a different historical, cultural and social primer, they are inevitably at odds with one another—sometimes leading to prolonged and violent conflicts.

Second, the interactions between different civilizational groups in the wake of a globalised world likely cause an increased awareness of one’s civilization—therefore, an increased civilizational consciousness. In essence, the more one interacts with the other, the more one thinks of oneself as different from the other.

Third, modernisation and globalisation are causing people to move away from civilisational identities, which will further fuel an increased desire among people to embrace them—for comfort’s sake.

Fourth, the increased civilisational consciousness among people and cultures has caused people to “return to their roots”, leading to the Asianization of Japan, the Hinduisation of India, and the re-Islamization of the Middle East instance.

Fifth, cultural differences cannot be more easily compromised or resolved than political and economic differences. This will invariably cause conflicts between civilisations. Finally, rather than globalisation, economic regionalism is ever-increasing.

How does a clash of civilizations occur?

In the conflicts of civilizations, the question of “What are you?” cannot be changed. It sustains. As societies define themselves in terms of what they are, there is a likelihood that they would have a list of what they are not, distinguishing one identity from another.

Huntington notes that the clashes between civilisations occur at two levels:

  1. At the micro level, when adjacent groups clash violently. These could be seen as territorial conflicts—often violent and protracted.
  2. At the macro level, “states from different civilisations compete for a relatively military and economic power struggle over the control of international institutions and third parties, and competitively promote their particular political and religious values”.

Huntington’s thesis, at multiple levels, has been correct in predicting various historical events.

For instance, one of the crucial primers of the clash of civilizations was the 9/11 terror attacks in the United States. The conflict between Western societies and Islamic extremist groups—such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda—has been the defining feature of the Global War on Terror, which began in 2002.

The ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict has been another such. But, more protracted of them all is the rise of populism and illiberal tendencies in Europe and the United States, which has given way to anti-immigration laws, cultural anathema, and clashes between different groups. At some levels, today’s Russo-Ukraine conflict is a clash of civilizations.

Critiquing Huntington’s clash of civilizations

While scholars acknowledge the conceptual contribution of the “clash of civilizations”, they have also elicited apprehension towards the whole endeavour.

Some have argued that Huntington oversimplifies complex geopolitical issues and paves the way for cultural and religious stereotypes between communities.

With his characterisation of a “torn country”, Huntington adds a new stereotypical outlook of societies and their sustenance in the international system.

Some, like Akheel Bilgrami, have added that divisions within civilizations are more critical than divisions between civilizations. Bilgrami looks at Muslim society and the kinds of dilemmas the different individuals/groups face.  

Critical References

While my critique of the essay is not exhaustive, you may refer to these articles for an extensive criticism of the “clash of civilizations” thesis:

Cover Photo by Jakob Rubner on Unsplash

Further Reading:


The Clash of Civilisations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel Huntington.

Buy the book on Amazon

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The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama.

Buy the book on Amazon

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