The Precarious Concept of the "Other"
Samuel Huntington's clash of civilizations theory predicts that future global clashes will be caused by cultural and religious tensions rather then ideological or economical ones. Samuel Huntington, who further developed the concept that was initially brought into play by Bernard Lewis, states that "the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural."
According to the now-retired Harvard professor, the biggest clash appears to be between the Muslim civilization and the Western one. This view is problematic for various reasons.
Civilization cannot be captured in a snapshot
First, it presents us with an oversimplified conception of what constitutes a civilization. The theory assumes a monolithic and clearly defined Islamic civilization. It considers civilization as a stagnant entity that does not evolve due to internal and external interactions.
Second, the theory attaches too much weight to the concept of culture as a determinant of identity and therefore possible conflict.
Culture is ever-changing as a result of internal interactions among its individuals and mixing with other cultures. This is especially true in a world where information and transportation technologies bring us much closer, simultaneously enabling global cultural fusion as well as internal cultural diffusion. Cultural fusion occurs as the world becomes more flat and diffusion occurs as cultures become more fragmented as a result of globalization and rising socioeconomic divides. A civilization cannot be captured in a snapshot, for it is ever evolving and changing.
For example Islam, or more precisely its cultural manifestations, differs from one region to another and even within the same region. Islam in Pakistan is different than Islam in Egypt, which is different from that in China. Additionally, Islam in Upper Egypt is different than in suburban Cairo.
Which one of those can be said to represent the "Islamic civilization"? If you were to ask respondents from those different areas, what they think defines "Islamic civilization" you will get different answers to the point of differing on fundamental issues.
In reality, there is no clear-cut monolithic cultural or political identity representing Islamic civilization or any other contemporary civilization. In a time of fragmented cultures as well as fusion between different cultures, it becomes impossible to draw borders and point at which characteristics are supposed to represent a certain civilization.
Civilization as an overarching identity
Huntington claims that it would serve us better to use the cultural lens to view current conflicts, because in our times, those cultural considerations will trump the more traditional sub-notions of national, political and economic ones.
Huntington's conception of civilization as an overarching identity which includes sub-identities under it is not sufficient to support his conclusions. 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." The problem is that the looser the definition used, the less relevant it becomes as a distinguishing variable.
It is true that one could feel loosely connected to a person because they are from the "same civilization." The problem is that what Huntington is asking us to believe is that if push comes to shove this identification would override my more narrow identifications, such as with my fellow countrymen and even what I may perceive to be my own economic interest (tied to my country's security and economical interest).
The hierarchy of identifications
What Huntington does not do though, is provide us with any rationale to explain why one would be more inclined to use such a frame, and why culture would override more traditional concerns.
His theory attempts to reprioritize indicators of possible action by placing the wider notion of civilization ahead of the more traditional and narrower concerns about security and economics and make them the most relevant variable in how humans identify themselves and interests. But the theory does not provide us with any logical reason to accept this reprioritization. There is instead ample reason to believe that the reverse is indeed the more logical conclusion.
Humans will determine their hierarchy of identification by their perception of commonalities. That means that the more you have in common with a group the more likely you would identify with them in your hierarchy of identifications.
Since you have more in common with your countrymen, you will identify with them more than you would identify with your fellow "member of civilization". That means that the broader category of civilization will be the least relevant indicator of my possible actions, compared to narrower identifications and issues such as nationalism, ethnic divides, economic class, regional identities within countries, and ideological beliefs about perennial issues such as economic rights, gender questions, and so on.
If people will always have more in common on a sub-identity level (national, racial) than more generalized identities (culture, civilization) then those identities will always trump the one associated with civilization.
Huntington is asking us to believe that those national and economic interests are less central than this loose conception of civilization he offers. He does so by trying to downplay the weight of those issues in determining identity. But in reality as may be shown by both the above analysis as well as a sober assessment of history and current tensions and conflicts (Iraq, Darfur, Iran etc) political and economic considerations are a better indication of conflict. The clash lens only leads us to see a pattern where there is not one.
Creating the clash
The theory moves us away from a framework of analysis which supposes rationality and where others could be understood in familiar terms. It also diverts our attention from what are the shared fundamental concerns of all states, namely, strategic, economic and national interest. This common platform of understanding is swept away and that is a recipe for misunderstanding the "other".
What is dangerous about the theory is that it is self fulfilling. Believers in the "clash" are bound to act in a hostile manner toward the perceived "other," which will essentially create the clash. Like some sort of spell, the more we echo it the more likely it will materialize. The theory only provides ammunition to extremists on both sides who will precipitate conflict rather than constructive dialogue. It encourages us to seek out our differences rather than our similarities.
Perhaps the real clash is between those who believe in the inevitability of dialogue and those who profess and act upon this notion of clash of civilizations. The sides in this clash are determined not by religion, culture, or civilization, but by moderation on one side and extremism on the other.
© Sherif Hemdy 2006
Sherif Hemdy is a program associate with the Stanley Foundation.