by James Graham
Published: May, 2004
By simplifying the world Huntington's theory ignores culture's inclination to be fast changing and multi-dimensional (Herzfeld 1997:116). Most Western states are now multi or bi-cultural and becoming more so. They are thus potentially part of multiple civilizations, a situation he brushes over by designating religion as the deciding factor. A secular Arab immigrant living in an Arab community in England is just one example where this designation is inappropriate. Indeed situated in a highly religious country with a significant number of Christian fundamentalists he states confidently that the world is becoming un-secularised. His evidence to backup this claim is circumstantial a common fault with most of his supporting evidence and thus is as best highly tenuous.
Like many sweeping theories Huntington's suffers from being too vague to address many specific issues. His anecdotal approach is simply not robust enough to account for the explanations and arguments he presents (Fox 2002:423). A systematic quantitative analysis conducted by Jonathon Fox for the period 1989-2002 concluded that the exact opposite of what Huntington predicted actually occurred (Fox 2002:425). Not only did Fox find that civilizational conflicts were less common than noncivilizational conflicts but the end of the Cold War had no significant effect on the ratio between the two (Fox 2002:426). Traditional methods like the level of discrimination in a society and the characteristics of a regime proved more useful in analysing ethnic conflict than Huntington's Clash of civilizations. Most damning of all was the finding that where civilizational conflict did occur it was more likely to be between groups that were culturally similar (Fox 2002:429), that is within the same civilization and not between them. These findings directly contradict Huntington's theory.
The danger of the Clash of Civilization thesis is presented by the term "clash of civilizations" which is intuitively understandable. This has ensured the theory has been used to increase the fear in the West of an Islamic movement perceived as increasingly powerful and anti-Western. It is this fantasy that has provided much of the rationale for trying to limit and control the expansion of the Islam and Confucian civilizations of which the war on terror is but the latest and most extreme example. These policies were advocated by Huntingdon in the article to reduce the threat specific civilizations were perceived to hold (Huntington 1993:47). A reasonable argument can thus be made that this article and the storm of interest it created, generated a self-fulfilling prophecy. The power to make real what one merely theorises is immensely dangerous. When that theory is based on flawed and circumstantial evidence it is disastrous.
The clash of civilizations thesis while original and persuasive distorted reality. Its many flaws have been exposed by events since its publication. The theory has however forced people to examine more seriously non-Western cultures. Unfortunately the conclusions many have drawn from these examinations have been the wrong ones as they were conducted from the starting premise of a 'clash of civilizations.' Such is the power of a well written and persuasive article to distort individual's perception of culture and conflict.
Fox, Jonathon, Ethnic minorities and the clash of civilizations: A quantitative analysis of Huntington's thesis. British Journal of Political Science, 32(3):415-435.
Herzfeld, Michael, 1997. Anthropology and the politics of significance. Social Analysis, 4(3):107-138.
Huntington, Samuel, 1993. The clash of civilizations. Foreign Affairs, 72(3):22-49.