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Clash of Civilizations

By:
Valentine M. Moghadam
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Clash of Civilizations

In a 1993 article in Foreign Affairs and then in a 1996 book entitled The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, the Harvard-based political scientist Samuel Huntington argued that the post–Cold War world order would be characterized by competition and divisions across civilizations, with cultural differences replacing the ideological fault lines of the Cold War era. Although states would remain the central actors in world politics, alliances would be dictated largely by civilization politics. The most important dividing line separates Western societies from the other six civilizations Huntington identifies, an idea referred to by Huntingtonʾs critics as “the West and the Rest.” Huntington and like-minded scholars emphasize in particular the value differences between the West and the Islamic world.

According to Huntington, Western cultural invasion and political domination has prompted resentment and heightened attachment to non-Western cultures in other parts of the world. At the same time, the declining relative economic and demographic power of the West has brought growing political challenges to Western hegemony on the part of rising states representing rival civilizations. In response to these circumstances, the West should strengthen and unify its own civilization against possible internal or external challenges to its fundamental values and interests. Instead of further Western intervention, which can only exacerbate resentments or challenges, efforts should be directed toward the maintenance of a stable balance of power across civilizations.

The civilizations identified by Huntington are the West (Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand); Latin America; the Slavic-Orthodox world of Russia, the Ukraine, and portions of the Balkans; the Sinic or Confucian world (China, Japan, Korea); the Islamic world; Hindu civilization; and sub-Saharan Africa.

Interestingly, Huntington distinguishes modernization and Westernization; non-Western cultures can modernize in ways distinct from Europe and North America, he argues. But in contrast to classic modernization theorists or contemporary world culture theorists, Huntington argues that modernization does not lead to convergence and cooperation but rather to divergence and competition—hence the “clash of civilizations.” Another claim is that the power of the West has peaked and is being challenged by other civilizations. The Islamic world in particular is growing in strength due to its demographic surge. However, unlike the architects of the Project for the New American Century in and around the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush, Huntington counsels not foreign adventures and interventions—and even less so the coercive export of electoral democracy—but rather unity within Western civilization toward the strengthening of its own cultural values and political institutions.

Huntingtonʾs essentially culturalist view of international relations has inspired many scholars, especially those curious about cultural and political developments in the Islamic world. Some have identified the major fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations concerning democracy, while others note that surveys show Muslim societies to be largely in favor of a democratic polity. Survey-based research has pointed to a democratic deficit in the Middle East as compared with other parts of the Muslim world. The “true clash of civilizations” between Muslims and Westerners, the political scientists Robert Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue, lies in attitudes towards sex and gender. Results from the World Values Survey may show that Muslims want democracy, but Muslims and Westerners are a world apart when it comes to attitudes toward divorce, abortion, gender equality, and gay rights—which may not bode well for democracy's future, especially in the Middle East, they assert.

Critics have questioned the validity of Huntingtonʾs definition of civilizations as well as his emphasis on essential cultural values. For example, Latin America was colonized and settled by Europeans and shares many of the values of the West. It is unclear why Japan and China are placed in the same civilization. The grouping of the highly differentiated Sub-Saharan Africa into one civilization appears arbitrary. Huntington seems oblivious to cultural cross-fertilizations; he also attaches excessive weight to cultural differences rather than to inequalities of economic and political power in a hierarchical world-system. Scholars of Muslim societies have criticized the clash of civilizations thesis for erroneously constructing a unitary and homogeneous Islamic world; as Vartan Gregorian has argued, the world of Islam should be regarded as a mosaic and not a monolith. John Voll, John Esposito, and Ray Takeyh, among other scholars; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi of Iran; and former Iranian president Mohamed Khatami have contested Huntingtonʾs claim that Islam is incompatible with democratic values. They note efforts in the Muslim world to develop and legitimize democratic concepts through reinterpretation of Islamic texts and traditions, and to engage in parliamentary government. Others have stressed the emergence of dynamic womenʾs movements in the Muslim world; some of these movements take as their cultural and political point of departure the global womenʾs rights agenda as defined by the United Nations, while others engage in a woman-centered reinterpretation of Islamic texts and early history to legitimize gender equality.

See also DEMOCRACY; DEMOCRATIZATION; EBADI, SHIRIN; KHATAMI, MOHAMED; MODERNIZATION AND DEVELOPMENT; WOMEN AND ISLAM; and WOMENʾS MOVEMENTS.

Bibliography

  • Gregorian, Vartan. Islam: A Mosaic, Not a Monolith. Washington, D.C., 2003.
  • Hunter, Shireen T., and Huma Malik, eds.Modernization, Democracy, and Islam. Westport, Conn., 2005.
  • Inglehart, Ronald, and Pippa Norris. “The True Clash of Civilizations.”Foreign Policy135 (March–April 2003): 63–70.
  • Moghadam, Valentine M.“Islamic Feminism and its Discontents: Towards a Resolution of the Debate.”Signs 27, no. 4 (Summer 2002): 1135–1171.
  • Saliba, Therese, Carolyn Allen, and Judith Howard, eds.Gender, Politics, and Islam. Chicago, 2002.
  • Skidmore, David. “Huntingtonʾs Clash Revisited.”Journal of World-Systems Research4, no. 2 (Fall 1998): 180–88.
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