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Clash of Ideologies
Rather than Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations"

By Salman J. Borhani
April 28, 2004

The notion of a "Clash of Civilizations" has received wide spread attention, especially after the events of September 11. It seems especially relevant in a world which is marked by inter-religious strife in every corner of the world. Yet, Samuel Huntington's proposition of an epic clash is based on several questionable premises. An analysis brings to the fore a basic puzzle that must be answered: If the Clash of Civilizations in inevitable, why have intra-civilization conflicts and inter-civilization cooperation persisted?

Indeed, Huntington's views seem to be based on circumstantial evidence and his conclusions ignore trends of cooperation that have existed for centuries between civilizations. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to show how Huntington's view, although tempting to accept in the current atmosphere, is based upon questionable premises.

There is no doubt that civilizations, as defined by Huntington, exist in the world today. In fact they are a powerful force in the world today, as shown through organizations such as the European Union or the Arab League. If we are to accept that these organizations represent the tendency to aggregate along cultural lines, then logically we must conclude that any civilization-based conflicts would occur along the lines of such organizations.

Yet, we have not seen any pan-Arab/pan-European conflicts since the time of the Crusades. Conflicts that have occurred have been between states, not civilizations. A telling example is the Arab-Israeli conflict. The continuing strife has often been cited as an example of a clash between the Judeo-Christian world and the forces of Islam. Yet, the characterization of this conflict as a cultural or even religious war is misguided. The Arab-Israeli conflict has always been a conflict based upon nationalism, not culture or religion.

In fact, Christian Arabs have often sided with the Palestinians and while there is widespread support for the Palestinians in Europe, while American public opinion has traditionally sided with the Israelis. If this conflict was based on a clash of civilizations, we would see much more homogenous support of the two sides. The Arab world has never been able to unite in the face of Israeli actions and the Europeans have usually been at odds with both the United States and Israel.

Proponents of Huntington's view also point to the rise of Al-Qaeda and anti-Americanism in the Islamic world as an example of inter-civilization conflict. Although claiming to speak for the Islamic world, Al-Qaeda also represents a threat to Muslim countries. It has never spared Muslims in its attacks and has specifically targeted civilians in Iran, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

Further, recent polls have indicated that Muslim apathy toward the United States does not extend toward European countries or the American people and their Western values. Anti-Americanism arises out of specific actions by the government of the United States that are perceived in the Muslim world as threatening or belittling.

Huntington points to the "kin-country syndrome" in attempting to prove that countries will come to the aid of fellow countries that share cultural ties with them. If we are to base civilizations along religious lines, then how can we explain Iranian support of Christian Armenia in its brutal conflict with Azerbaijan or the worldwide condemnation of the invasion of Iraq? The kin-country syndrome is a reality in many instances, yet there are enough counterexamples to prevent it from becoming a rule.

Huntington's theory assumes that civilizations are homogenous enough to promote intra-civilization cooperation. Huntington uses the rise of regional organizations as an example. Yet, such organizations are usually created to gain economic leverage over other blocs, not to divide the world along cultural lines.

The Economic Cooperation Organization might be an all-Islamic club, but its purpose is not to promote Islam as a rallying force, rather to use the efficacy of a regional organization to increase economic growth. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan expanded ECO to the former communist states mainly to serve as spigots to the huge new market Central Asia represents.

ASEAN, for example, groups the United States with the Pacific Rim countries in an effort to coordinate economic policy. No one claims that this organization would lead to civilization-based strife. Further, NAFTA groups the Anglo-American states of the United States and Canada with Latin American Mexico. Regional organizations serve economic policies, not cultural ones, and are usually formed in respect to geographical realities rather than cultural affinity. 

Huntington is correct when he states that the world is getting smaller. No one can deny the fact that technological advances have brought civilizations closer together. Yet, proximity does not inevitably give rise to conflict. The United States has been home to every civilization known to man, yet its system of laws and civil rights has allowed for a relative peace between members of different ethnic groups.

A certain degree of tension always exists when civilizations come together in close proximity, yet multi-cultural societies such as the United States, Lebanon, and Canada have shown that harmony can be achieved when inter-civilization contact is regulated by an equitable legal system.

The clash of civilizations is ultimately based upon the argument that different factors are converging in the world that will ultimately erase national boundaries and create an identity based on pan-national civilization. This idea formed the basis of the failed experiment in pan-Arabism and today is the underlying rationale of anti-globalization activists. Alarmists point to increasing regionalism based along cultural lines and the power of supposed "supranational" organizations such as the World Bank.

Yet, evidence has shown that increased regionalism does not automatically equate to the demise of the nation-state. In fact, the rise of regional, multilateral, and international organizations are a result of rational calculations by national governments that usually are based on realist perceptions of national interest. The EU was formulated in a way that would try to ensure French domination, Japan pushed ASEAN to re-establish its historic presence in the Far East, and the former CENTO states created and expanded ECO to serve as the gateways for Central Asia's wealth.

Organizations such as these represent attempts to further national goals through the use of collective action that correspond to these goals. If these organizations were created to form conflicting blocs, we would expect regional organizations to easily be able to form standing armies and pursue aggressive common policies. Yet, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the Arab League can barely come up with acceptable communiqués at the end of their usually chaotic meetings, much less come up with common policies that would threaten Western civilization. Such intra-civilization strife proves that the nation-state is no where near its demise.

Thus we return to our original puzzle: if the clash of civilizations in inevitable, why does intra-civilization conflict and inter-civilization cooperation persist. The answer lies in the fact that societies, as whole, still identify themselves with their nation-state and, as such, national goals and aspirations remain paramount. It is difficult to forge a common identity across a civilization, when so many different forces pull societies in different directions.

Huntington's ideas are not based upon delusions, however. A clash exists in the world, although not necessarily between civilizations. We might more aptly call it a "Clash of Ideologies", for we see striking commonalities between ideologies that cross national boundaries. Religious intolerance, for example, is not a product of the East or West. Rather it a phenomena prevalent in all societies, from David Kouresh to Osama bin Ladin.

Racism has affected every civilization. Greed and corruption appear in all societies. Discrimination against women is common to all civilizations, in one form or another. Democratic movements are present everywhere. It might be true that religious bigots, for example, might be in the ascendancy in certain civilizations.

The challenge is to realize that a threat emanating from a different civilization is not a threat that arises out of the civilization itself and does not represent an intention to promote a clash between civilizations. Rather, the "Clash of Ideologies" represents a chance for democratic movements across civilizations to stamp out religious extremism, discrimination, and violence worldwide.

Salman J. Borhani is a graduate student at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy at Seton Hall in South Orange, New Jersey. 

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By Salman J. Borhani



Book of the day

The Clash of Civilizations
The remaking of world order
by Samuel P. Huntington

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