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Marcia DeSanctis

Marcia DeSanctis

Posted December 31, 2008 | 09:51 AM (EST)

Revisiting the "Clash of Civilizations"


This week, big minds are mourning the passing of the great Harvard historian Samuel Huntington, who died December 27 at the age of 81. Among the terms he added to the lexicon, academic and otherwise is "clash of civilizations."

This thesis has resonated deeply, if unconsciously, into the American psyche. In the summer of 1993, four months after the first attack on the World Trade Center, Huntington published a paper in Foreign Affairs called, "The Clash of Civilizations?" The question mark was key, and did not carry over to the book that was released five years later in 1998, this time one month before Osama Bin Laden's second fatwa against the west and Israel. Huntington theorized that, with the end of the Cold War and the removal of ideology as a source of conflict, it would be cultural and religious differences that would now propel history. So it was not the end of history after all, as Francis Fukuyama suggested, but rather the next stage in the evolution of global conflict.

Of the eight dominant civilizations that would challenge the West, it would be a collision with Islam's tectonic plate that Huntington predicted would be the premier challenge in the new world order. Whether he has turned out to be prophetic, correct, simplistic or wrong remains to this day the subject of vigorous debate. Surely after 9/11, the concept of a 'clash of civilizations' was the only way to explain what was so horrifically, irrationally unexplainable

And so his death has caused us to revisit this theory. It is seven years later, the eve of the Obama presidency, which will work to redress eight years of Anti-Americanism based largely upon two wars in Islamic lands. At this moment, relations between India and Pakistan are at fever pitch following the attacks in Mumbai by Islamic extremists. Last month, hundreds more died in Christian/Moslem clashes in Nigeria. And then there's Gaza. These conflicts makes one wonder, in light of Huntington, if these local hotspots are symptoms of a wide civilizational clash with Islam, or isolated regional conflicts full-stop, disengaged from the wider ongoing global dynamic.

Islam's "bloody borders" that Huntington famously pointed out -- referring not only to countries like Iran and Iraq fighting each other, but to intra-state conflict such as the one in Sudan, was based on the number of clashes involving Muslims over a broad geographical range. The Islamic world, like the Christian world, lacks one core state -- it flows from Bosnia to Bali, Khartoum to Marrakesh. And within it we have many allies and friends, among them Jordan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, and we depend on all of them -- for trade, counterterrorism, and oil. There may be what Huntington called a "youth bulge" in many Islamic countries, leading to rejection of core Western values, and formation of groups that self-define in opposition to them. But it is hard to conclude that this signifies a unified bloc, however much these groups may be ramping up their cultural identities. Cultural differences alone preclude such a generalization. Democratic forces struggle away in Iran and Afghanistan.

But the fringe can dictate more than they deserve. Terrorism has no mitigating factors. When a group unites and radicalizes, and seeks to counter western influence through violence, the headlines they garner only reinforce the fear that the differences are irreconcilable and that our civilizations are actually incompatible. In addition, carrying on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have, in a sense, made Huntington's thesis self-fulfilling, rendering it and its author both visionary. After all, 9/11 took place before the Afghan or Iraq wars, and much is learned every day about how the conflicts have bred more terrorism.

The concept of a new world order might actually mean disorder, chaos and unpredictability on a global scale. But doomed forevermore to clash? Let's hope not. The prospect is exhausting and hopeless. It does leave room for leadership and diplomacy. But the theory is as controversial, relevant and provocative as is was 16 years ago. Nevertheless, it almost makes you nostalgic for socialist ideology and a few nuclear warheads pointed our way. It was all so much simpler.