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Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations is an extremely provocative—and controversial—work of cultural and political theory. First delivered as a lecture in 1992 and later published as a book in 1996, The Clash of Civilizations proposes a model of the modern world not as a collection of sovereign nations, but as an assortment of widely spread cultures vying for dominance. In Huntington's view, cultural identity holds far more importance in the geopolitical sphere than national allegiance or citizenship. The author uses this framework to argue that modern conflicts—those after the end of the Cold War, a period of military escalation between the United States and the Soviet Union, in 1989—will be "clashes of cultures" instead of clashes of states. Instead of using national borders to define political entities, Huntington views the world through loosely defined cultural borders, and he stresses the importance of cultural identity in a world where leaders and monarchs aren't the only ones with a say in government. Huntington's study has received attention for its prediction of the rise of religious extremism in certain parts of the world, and how this religiously and culturally based revolution of thought has had a lasting impact on world politics and contemporary conflicts.
Huntington formulated his hypothesis in The Clash of Civilizations in response to another theory—fashioned by his former student. Francis Fukuyama studied with Huntington at Harvard University and later theorized that humanity had reached the "end of history"—an era that marked the victory and dominance of Western culture and practices across the world. Huntington's concept of the "clash of civilizations," which would grow and persist in coming decades, was a direct response to Fukuyama. Huntington posited that the new trajectory of history would stem from the perception of Western dominance, as outlined by Fukuyama, and the struggle of other cultures to rebel against it.
The Clash of Civilizations was published in 1996, several years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. After these attacks, Huntington's thesis was reexamined by political theorists, since Huntington had specifically addressed the rise of extremism in the name of Islam as a catalyst for future conflicts across the world. Many believed that such acts of terrorism "proved Huntington right" with regard to his overarching theory. Other scholars saw the invocation of The Clash of Civilizations as exploitative of the tragedy, or as an excuse for military intervention against the Middle East. Hans Koechler, President of the International Progress Organization, which encourages international and intercultural diplomacy, stated in a lecture that:
The tragic events of September 11, 2001 have suddenly brought the Islamic civilization to the focus of the Western world's attention — in a way that fits into the kind of the enemy stereotype created by Samuel Huntington's ... "The Clash of Civilizations." Unfortunately, the recent developments have been exploited for the sake of a "cultural crusade" against Islam and for the creation of a new geostrategic design according to which the West and its dominating power, the United States, has the right, even duty, to "pacify" the Muslim world according to Western standards of humanity and secularism.
Huntington's claims regarding the inevitability of conflict between different cultures received a great amount of backlash within the scholarly community. The public intellectual Edward Said has been one of the most outspoken critics of Huntington's theory, and he discussed the shortcomings and potential dangers of The Clash of Civilizations in a 2001 article entitled "The Clash of Ignorance." The article, published in The Nation, criticized Huntington's labeling of various cultures and focus on the differences between them, as contributions to global tensions rather than explanations. Said stated:
"The Clash of Civilizations" thesis is a gimmick like "The War of the Worlds," better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.
During the Vietnam War (1955–75), Huntington was frequently asked for advice by the U.S. government due to his background in political science. Huntington believed that in order to combat Vietnamese communism—which advocated rural agrarianism, or the return to a farm-based lifestyle and economy—the best course of action was "forced urbanization," or making movement to cities a necessity. The way he proposed this be done was extremely controversial and detrimental to the Vietnamese landscape, as well as rural populations: carpet bombing, or widespread bombing to cause the devastation of an area, of the Vietnamese countryside. Huntington justified this stance by claiming:
The Maoist-inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American-sponsored urban revolution.
Huntington also came under fire for comments relating to the state of apartheid—or legally enforced racial segregation—in South Africa during the late 20th century. Huntington's 1968 study entitled Political Order in Changing Societies focused on the effects of apartheid in the country and how those affected by it perceived their social standings. Despite the racial disparity in South Africa under apartheid, Huntington controversially described South Africa as a "satisfied state" under those policies—a statement that earned him a great deal of criticism within the academic community.
Beyond his authorship of The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington's prestige in the field of political theory has earned him positions advising governments across the globe. From 1966–69, Huntington served on the Council of Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group. Although this council's aim was to bring the Vietnam War to an end, it was in this position that Huntington advised for controversial bombings in Southeast Asia.
Huntington also served under President Jimmy Carter as the White House Coordinator of Security Planning for the National Security Council, under President Ronald Reagan on the Commission on Integrated Long-Term Strategy, and under President Bill Clinton on the Commission on Protecting and Reducing Government Secrecy. Huntington's advisory positions outside the United States included work as a consultant to Brazilian military forces during the 1970s and—despite his controversial comments regarding South African apartheid—an advisory position focused on reforming apartheid in the country during the 1980s.
Huntington wasn't the first to use the phrase clash of civilizations. Although the saying developed over time, stemming from the notion of clashes between cultures prevalent during the 1800s, the phrase was popularized by French existentialist author Albert Camus. Camus is most famous for his fictional novels, such as The Stranger (1942), but he also wrote extensively on politics and international affairs. In a 1946 essay entitled "Neither Victims nor Executioners," Camus wrote about the developing tension between the United States and Soviet Russia immediately following World War II (1939–45), as well as the state of European colonies in Africa and Asia at the time. His predictions seem quite similar to Huntington's theory, as he claims:
The clash of empires is already close to taking a back seat to the clash of civilizations. Indeed, colonized civilizations from the four corners of the earth are making their voices heard. Ten or fifty years from now, the challenge will be to the preeminence of Western civilization.
Huntington's success in political counsel led him to publish a major political news periodical in 1970, the journal Foreign Policy. Huntington cofounded the periodical with his colleague Warren Demian Manshel to present important information on international affairs in a way that would be accessible to a readership outside the immediate field. The founders described their journal as "serious but not scholarly, lively but not glib, and critical without being negative."
Common criticisms of Huntington's hypotheses presented in The Clash of Civilizations stem from his assumption that Western civilization is truly the preeminent culture on Earth, and his division of world powers into cultural blocks. The scholar Amartya Sen noted that the very concept of a unified "Western civilization," based on democratic government, ignored centuries of history in which this wasn't the case. Sen explained:
To read in this a historical commitment of the West—over the millennia—to democracy, and then to contrast it with non-Western traditions (treating each as monolithic) would be a great mistake.
The public intellectual Noam Chomsky harshly criticized The Clash of Civilizations for presenting an excuse for Western powers to use preemptive military intervention under the guise of preventing conflicts after the Cold War (1947–91). Chomsky explained:
The reasons for the atrocities were domestically based power interests, but the Cold War gave an excuse ... After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the pretext is gone. The policies remain the same.
Before either Huntington or Camus used the phrase clash of civilizations, the term appeared in a little-known travel guide. Young Islam on Trek: A Study in the Clash of Civilizations was written by Protestant missionary Basil Mathews in 1926, and it reads as half travel book, half political commentary. Mathews's book is extremely culturally insensitive, as he describes the Middle East as backward and Islam as a fanatical religion. One particularly troubling passage reads:
How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism (Islam) lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy.