The clash of civilisations revisited
Should our views on this critical issue be re-examined,
asks Mohamed Sid-Ahmed
I have never been much impressed by the "clash of civilizations"
theory advanced nearly a decade ago by American scholar Samuel P
Huntington. Although it was hailed as a prescient analysis of how
international relations were likely to pan out, I saw it more as a
somewhat forced theory concocted as an answer to the "end of history"
theory advanced at the time by another American scholar, Francis
Fukuyama. But the way history has been unfolding since made me wonder
whether my dismissal of Huntington's theory was perhaps overly hasty and
whether I should revise my initial assessment.
Fukuyama's theory was put forward following the collapse of the
Soviet Union and the breakdown of the bipolar world order. The demise of
the bastion of world communism appeared to signal the end of an era when
ideology was the frame of reference for the management of conflict.
After communism suffered a fate similar to the one suffered by fascism
after World War II, there remained only one prevailing ideology, namely,
liberalism. Fukuyama's theory consecrated the victory of liberalism:
what he meant by the end of history was not that history itself had come
to an end but that conflicts over how to interpret the course of events
had come to an end with the unchallenged victory of one specific
In the light of global developments over the last decade, it is no
longer possible to dismiss Huntington's theory as nothing more than an
attempt to upstage another theory which emerged after the breakdown of
the first communist state. The "clash of civilisations" theory deserves
to be interpreted in its own right. A question worth asking here is
whether Huntington's theory would have emerged if Fukuyama had not come
forward with his theory first. In other words, we need to ask whether
Huntington's theory is self- consistent independently from the existence
Both the "end of history" and the "clash of civilisations" theories
were received with great fanfare as major contributions to the field of
political philosophy. That is not an assessment I share. Not only do I
believe that both theories have been blown up out of all proportion, but
that they proceed from premises that are shrouded in ambiguities, not to
The main argument used to validate Huntington's theory is that he was
the first to predict that civilisations will eventually come to clash,
ten years before this became evident in the eyes of most observers. This
was interpreted as proof that his theory is credible and should be taken
seriously. Actually, this argument is faulty. The original theory
attributed to Huntington in the 1990s of the last century is not
the theory currently attributed to him.
In its original expression, Huntington's theory differed from both
Fukuyama's "end of history" theory and from the Marxist theory based on
the idea of class struggle. Neither Huntington nor Marx gave up the idea
of conflict. But Huntington replaced conflict between classes by
conflict between civilisations, eventually even between religions.
Huntington argued the case for the inevitable clash of civilisations
from the standpoint of Western civilisation, one can even say from the
standpoint of the religions of that civilisation, namely, Christianity
(with its different subdivisions) and Judaism, which together make up
what is generally referred to as the Judeo- Christian mainstream
Civilisations look at each other in a variety of manners. Some see
others as "friendly", even as amenable to absorption into their own
civilisation values. That is how America's so-called Christian Zionists
perceive members of the Jewish faith. These devout, not to say
fundamentalist Christians, who today form the Bush administration's main
power base, adopt extreme Zionist beliefs on the basis of Biblical
There are also civilisations that can be seen as hostile. When
Huntington came forward with his theory a decade ago, he spoke of a
Chinese- Arab (or Confucian-Islamic) rapprochement against the West. Now
that China has acquired an ever-more important international stature and
is acting more and more as an independent actor on the global stage,
this rapprochement is mentioned less and less. The downplaying of the
Chinese component can also be explained by the desire to underscore the
Islamic dimension of contemporary Arab civilisation. Describing the Arab
Middle East as a Greater Middle East, is a way to highlight that the
region the West has to confront is not only composed of Arabs, but also
of non-Arab Muslims.
Although the Confucian component was an integral part of the initial
Huntington theory, that is no longer the case. The new reading of the
theory does not place the Chinese and the Arabs in the same basket, nor,
for that matter, Chinese and Muslims in general, but Muslims and Arabs
in particular. This is a clear attempt to attribute terrorism to Islam,
not to Arabs alone, and not to blur attributing terrorism to
Islam by relating Arabs to Chinese as the case was in Huntington's
original version of his theory. However, this has introduced an
inconsistency: how to reconcile Huntington's statement that a clash
between the West and Islam is inevitable, and then adopt the West's
theory of ever-growing globalisation, side-by-side with ever-deeper
clashes between civilisations?
And yet there are facts that cannot be denied and which clearly
indicate that a clash of civilisations is not merely a figment of
Huntington's imagination. One of the first things Amr Moussa did
following his appointment as secretary-general of the Arab League was to
convene a conference on the need for rapprochement between
civilisations, precisely because the opposite phenomenon, namely,
clashes between them, were becoming all too frequent.
The Arab-Muslim dimension in the "clash of civilisations" theory is
gaining ground in large part because of the rise of terrorism and
because the perpetrators of terrorist acts often invoke Islam to justify
actions that are reprehensible in the eyes of the international
community. Unresolved conflict situations in the Middle East are facing
us with an impasse: despair over the inability of the international
community to come up with a viable political settlement induces the
protagonists to commit acts of violence which they see as a lesser evil
than succumbing to an untenable state of affairs, but which are actually
counterproductive. We have no choice but to recognise that there is a
need for an all-out condemnation of terrorism. But it also seems there
is a similar need to go on tolerating, and even perhaps encouraging,
such acts secretly, on the grounds that tolerating them is less costly
than paying the price of condemning them outright. This duality in
behaviour is an expression of weakness, not of strength. It leads to the
further escalation of mutual violence, and makes moving out of the
vicious cycle all the more difficult.
The time has come to put an end to double talk. But to the same
extent that we require the weaker party to come forward with genuine and
courageous self-criticism, and to assume the responsibility of all, and
not only some, of its acts, we must also require the stronger parties to
engage in some genuine self-criticism of their own and to admit that the
terrorist acts perpetrated by their opponents is a consequence of
frustration, despair and total loss of hope in anything constructive.
Despair has reached the point where suicide bombers see death as
preferable to life under a brutal occupation. Here too, it has become
imperative to get out of the vicious cycle, and to have all the
inhabitants of our planet agree that equity, justice and equal
opportunities are indispensable elements for reforming the world system
and for eradicating terrorism.
It is futile in the age of globalisation to build security fences,
however high they may be -- whether actual walls made of concrete, of
electronic spying devices or of instruments of psychological warfare.
Globalisation implies the very opposite of erecting separation barriers.
That is the essence of Huntington's inner contradiction. And it has been
established that the products of the globalisation market, including
WMD, rarely remain the exclusive possession of one contending party
President Mubarak's visit to President Bush's ranch in Texas this
week was an opportunity to tackle some of these fundamental problems.
Were they raised during the conversations?