June/July/Aug 2009

Clash Warfare

How Samuel Huntington’s big idea got misapplied in the Middle East.

John L. Esposito

When Samuel Huntington died late last year, obituary notices and memorial appreciations noted that the former Harvard political scientist was among the most influential thinkers of the late twentieth century. Huntington served as a mentor to a generation of scholars—but unlike them, he also served as an adviser to Washington policymakers. And his most enduring legacy will be the argument known informally as the Huntington thesis: the idea that global conflict stems from the competing cultural identities of seven or eight “civilizations.” This idea gained cachet after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which dramatically pointed up the encounter between Muslim and Western civilizations that Huntington had stressed as a key emerging conflict.

In the 1993 Foreign Affairs article that first sketched the argument, Huntington argued that cultural and religious differences were supplanting the struggle for ideological dominance that had characterized conflict in the cold-war era. In his subsequent book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), he sounded a more urgent note, arguing that such cultural-cum-religious rivalries had emerged as the biggest threat to world peace. Western dominance and “universal” ideas, according to Huntington, were going to be challenged by new rivals, in particular Muslim and Chinese ones. The September 11 attacks narrowed his focus further: In a December 2001 Newsweek piece, he declared that “The Age of Muslim Wars” had officially begun, presaging intensified battle between Islam and the West.

To be sure, the thrust of Huntington’s argument seemed to find confirmation in all sorts of post-cold-war conflicts. Nationalist movements and tribal, religious, and ethnic identity loomed large in trouble spots ranging from Somalia and Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, and many Central Asian Republics. At the same time, non‑Western civilizations (more precisely, countries such as China and India) have indeed emerged as significant international players. In key respects, though, Huntington dangerously oversimplified the encounter. His positing of “the West” as if it were a monolithic formation missed the mark: “The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense,” he wrote in The Clash of Civilizations. “It is the West, a different civilization, whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.”

This kind of reasoning—a version of identity politics tailored to the international order—flattens cultural and historical forces into a template that distorts the true nature of the societies and religious traditions that Huntington was trying to interpret. In laying out a grand new theory of global conflict, he failed to appreciate the significant diversity that existed not only among but also between and within the countries and societies he grouped under the rubric of a given civilization—be it Islamic, Western, or Chinese.

One needn’t look deep into the history of great-power conflicts to see that the civilizations we tend to view as metaphysical givens are anything but studies in cultural and political unity. World Wars I and II, which pitted Germany against much of Europe and America, are sobering—and blood-soaked—testimony to the fragility of Western civilization. Meanwhile, recent conflicts within the Islamic world form a litany of objections to the idea of an Islamic civilization organized around any strong central idea. A partial such chronology would include the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–88, the divisions within the Muslim world over the Gulf War of 1990–91, and the conflicts between Muslim countries in the war’s aftermath, on through such contemporary problems as Sunni-Shia tensions in today’s Iraq and growing fundamentalist violence in Pakistan.

More misleading still was Huntington’s portrayal of Islamic belief itself as a threat: The key challenge for the West, he insisted, “is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” There is in fact no civilization that could be called Islam: That term refers more properly and specifically to the religion of Islam, one component among many that shape Muslim or Islamic civilization and politics.

An irony of the rhetoric Huntington helped to legitimize is that as Western strategists range themselves against a one-note caricature of Islam, most Muslims are gravitating toward a position that does not see the West as monolithic. Moreover, anti-American sentiment among Islamic societies is primarily motivated not by religion and culture but by opposition to American foreign policy—a trend driven home most recently by the Gallup World Poll of 2005–2007. Muslim respondents took dim views of how Tony Blair and George Bush had shaped their respective diplomatic agendas but took far more benign views of Western powers such as France and Germany that dissented from those policies. For example, while 74 percent of Egyptians had unfavorable views of the United States and 69 percent said the same about Britain, only 21 percent felt unfavorably toward France. These policy disagreements become especially sharp when we compare Muslims’ perceptions of the United States with their views of its neighbor to the north, Canada—i.e., America without the foreign policy. Sixty-six percent of Kuwaitis in the 2006 survey reported unfavorable views of the United States, while just 3 percent assented to unfavorable descriptions of Canada.

Such sentiments stand in vivid contrast to Huntington’s conclusion that “Islam’s borders are bloody, and so are its innards.” That view explicitly and simplistically attributes bloodshed to the religion of Islam—rather than to the actions of a minority of Muslim terrorists whose primary grievances are political.

After September 11, the clash of civilizations became part of a now-notorious set of Manichaean depictions of the forces arrayed in the “war on terror,” routinely described in presidential addresses and editorial pages as a war between the civilized world and terrorists who “hate” Western democracy, capitalism, and freedom or as an existential struggle against “evil” and “the merchants of death.” America’s international pursuit of its broad-based war on terror, as well as the political rhetoric of the Bush administration—which spoke of the struggle as a “crusade” and initially dubbed the invasion of Afghanistan “Operation Infinite Justice,” in a direct affront to Muslim believers, for whom only God can embody such a trait unto infinity—convinced many Muslims that the war was indeed against them and their religion.

If one turns away from Huntington’s polarized vision of cross-civilizational distrust, the Western-Muslim encounter, while undeniably fraught, shows no inevitable drift into irrepressible conflict. My own research, based on extensive polling data and almost fifty thousand interviews conducted in more than thirty-five Muslim nations, shows that despite widespread anti-American and anti-British sentiment, Muslims around the world in fact admire much about the West. Indeed, when we asked our respondents what they valued most in Western societies, they replied by endorsing several of the characteristics that analysts such as Huntington had imagined they resented: technology, expertise and knowledge, and freedoms and values associated with democratic governance. Among the hopes for the future cited, economic security was a leading issue—but so was an eagerness “to have better relationships with the West.”

That could be a tall order, so far as the United States is concerned. Significant percentages of Muslims around the world have not believed the US is serious about democracy in their given region, accusing the West of a double standard in its failure to spread democracy and human rights. More than 65 percent of Jordanians and Iranians believed that America will not allow people in their region to fashion their own political future the way they see fit and without direct US influence.

In reality, we live in an increasingly postcivilizational age, where networked and independent economic communities readily trump old nationalist divisions of blood and soil. The civilizational school of conflict, meanwhile, tends to exaggerate the significance of localized clashes—be they in urban France, occupied Iraq, Gaza, or Pakistan—so that they appear to form a single front in a global confrontation over Olympian-scale ideas of how societies behave and believe.

In order to scale back talk of a clash of civilizations, Barack Obama’s administration must remain focused on dispassionate approaches to key diplomatic issues: America’s occupation of Muslim lands, its support for unpopular repressive governments, its often uncritical support for Israel. It will take the truly universal values associated with fulfilling our actual responsibilities to the world to bring them to resolution—an achievement that can only win greater admiration from the Muslim world.

John L. Esposito is University Professor and professor of religion and international affairs at Georgetown University.