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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The “Clash of Civilizations” Thesis Is Still Ignorant Nonsense

Mentally arranging the world into homogeneous “civilizations” makes us oblivious to the world’s complexity as well as to our shared humanity with those considered mysterious Others.

“In 2005, Maj. Daniel Lovett, a field artillery officer with the Tennessee National Guard, reported for pre-deployment training at Camp Shelby, a sprawling base in southern Mississippi that dated to World War I. During cultural awareness class, the instructor opened the PowerPoint presentation by saying, “All right, when you get to Iraq.” Lovett interrupted to say his unit was headed to the other war, but the instructor responded: ‘Oh, Iraq, Afghanistan. It’s the same thing.’

— Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers 

In the New York Times, opinion columnist Ross Douthat has made the case for reviving one of the worst ideas ever to come out of American political science: the “clash of civilizations” thesis promoted by the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington. In 1993,1 Huntington put forward his claims

“It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Huntington said that divisions between the “First World,” “Second World,” and “Third World” were a relic of the Cold War and “no longer relevant.” Instead, countries should be grouped “not in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development but rather in terms of their culture and civilization.” The world was divided into distinctive cultures, and these cultures were so different that they would inevitably come into severe conflict. 

Huntington divided the world up into civilizations as follows: 

This was a fairly odd way of understanding the world. All sub-Saharan Africans are lumped together as “African civilization,” except for Muslim-majority areas, which are Islamic rather than African. “Japan” is a civilization, although both North Korea and South Korea are part of the same civilization, “Sinic.” Being “Orthodox” separates Russia from the “West,” and Lithuania is in a different civilization from Ukraine, but Finland and Italy are part of the same civilization. The eastern half of New Guinea is in the West while the western half is not. Spanish-speaking Catholic-majority Spain is West, while Spanish-speaking Catholic-majority Mexico is not part of Western civilization, and instead belongs with Brazil as part of Latin American civilization. 

If you look at the map and think these divisions make sense, which you might, it is because what you are mostly seeing here is a map of prejudices. This map indeed shows how a lot of people think of the world, especially in America, and if you asked the average American to divide up the “civilizations” (or you could say “races”) of the world, this is probably roughly what they would produce, and it measures the extent to which we perceive differences. “Africans” are a homogeneous lump, and North Africans don’t count as Africans. Afghanistan and Iraq are all kind of part of the same thing, Islam. 

Edward Said, the Palestinian scholar famous for his work exposing Orientalism, pointed out in a blistering demolition of Huntington’s idea that the whole Civilizations notion erased all of the differences among people in these areas, differences that often meant far more to the people themselves than their “shared” civilization. Labels like “Islam” and “the West,” Said said, “mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality that won’t be pigeonholed or strapped down as easily as all that.” Huntington wanted to jettison class analysis for “cultural difference” but Said believed that “it is better to think in terms of powerful and powerless communities, the secular politics of reason and ignorance, and universal principles of justice and injustice, than to wander off in search of vast abstractions that may give momentary satisfaction but little self-knowledge or informed analysis.” Jeffrey Haynes of London Metropolitan University concludes likewise in a retrospective evaluation of the thesis that “anyone who takes seriously the idea of a world divided into seven or eight major civilizations lacks capacity to have any possible understanding of our fascinating mosaic of a world filled with myriad ideas, norms, beliefs and conceptions of how the world is.” 

Indeed, Huntington’s concept was in vogue after 9/11, his book becoming a bestseller after the attacks. Many commentators echoed the idea that “The West” was at war with “Islam.” This was a disastrously erroneous interpretation of what had happened. Al-Qaeda was a small criminal gang that had originated in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region; it adhered to a fringe ideology. But seeing  these countries and Iraq as “Islamic” meant it made sense to lump together Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. U.S. policymakers were also completely ignorant of the sectarian divides in Iraq. Indeed, many Muslims were outraged by the Huntington thesis. In 2001, Johns Hopkins political scientist Fouad Ajami commented that “for Huntington to say that there is an Islamic civilization, he has to impose an unbelievable uniformity on the world of Islam, all the way from Morocco in the west to Indonesia.” Ahmed M. Abozaid, in Contemporary Arab Affairs, straightforwardly concludes that “Huntington’s propositions were biased and politically prejudiced against non-Western cultural, ethical, and religious societies.” (An entire book of Asian responses to Huntington was published in 1997.) Huntington acknowledged that there were differences within civilizations, of course (in fact, he explicitly advocated that the West should “exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states”). But by saying that the most important thing about all Muslim countries is that they are Muslim countries, and that we should fundamentally define people in accordance with his schema, he encouraged two-dimensional thinking about the world. 

Huntington insisted he was only describing rather than advocating the “clash of civilizations.” But he advocated that Westerners act as if it was true, saying that we should “limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states … moderate the reduction of Western military capabilities, and maintain military superiority in East and Southwest Asia.” The more people believe his theory and act as if it is true, the more it becomes true, because the “Western” countries may well develop a shared identity and wage war against “Islam.” Islamic studies professor Akbar Ahmed said that when he went to Morocco and Pakistan after Huntington’s theory became popular, people he met there “were saying the West wants a war with Islam. I would say, how do you come to this conclusion? And they would say, the leading Harvard professor wants a war with Islam. … It was becoming dangerously self-fulfilling.” 

Noam Chomsky commented dismissively on the theory, saying that after the Cold War “everybody is flailing around for some paradigm, some big idea you can use to control people,” and with Soviet communism gone, Islam was a useful bogeyman. (Chomsky also noted that the theory allowed the United States to conveniently ignore its friendliness with the Islamic fundamentalist government of Saudi Arabia.) Pakistani political scientist Memoona Sajjad contends that

Huntington shares Orientalism’s fundamental perceptions of what it characterizes as the ‘Other’, who traditionally happens to be the Arab-Muslim subject of analysis. … The real agenda underlying the thesis presented by Huntington is perpetuating Western dominance and hegemony on the globe after the Communist enemy had been vanquished, through the creation of a new enemy and the generation of fear and hatred against it in the public mind. 

 Now that the threat of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremist groups on  United States soil has receded—along withthe disturbing post-9/11 war fever—one might think the “clash of civilizations” idea would finally be dead. Alas, it’s back again, thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s attempt to unify Ukraine and Russia (the fierce Ukrainian resistance to this reunification suggests that the people considered part of the same “civilization” do not concur that they are in it.) Douthat, in the New York Times, says it is time to haul the concept out of the ash heap of history and start using it again. He writes that “the Huntington thesis would seem ripe for new attention in the wake of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, the surprisingly unified Western response, the more uncertain reactions from China and India.” He concedes that Huntington got much wrong, but says that “if you want to understand the direction of global politics right now, the Huntington thesis is more relevant than ever.” (Unnecessary emphasis Douthat’s.) Douthat elaborates: 

The last decade, on the other hand, has made Huntington’s predictions of civilizational divergence look much more prescient. It isn’t just that American power has obviously declined relative to our rivals and competitors, or that our post-9/11 efforts to spread Western values by force of arms so often came to grief. The specific divergences between the world’s major powers have also followed, in general ways, the civilizational patterns Huntington sketched out. China’s one-party meritocracy, Putin’s uncrowned czardom, the post-Arab Spring triumph of dictatorship and monarchy over religious populism in the Middle East, the Hindutva populism transforming Indian democracy—these aren’t just all indistinguishable forms of “autocracy,” but culturally distinctive developments that fit well with Huntington’s typology, his assumption that specific civilizational inheritances would manifest themselves as Western power diminishes, as American might recedes. And then, just as tellingly, the region where this recent divergence has been weaker, the post-Cold War wave of democratization more resilient, is Latin America, about which Huntington acknowledged some uncertainty whether it deserved its own civilizational category, or whether it essentially belonged with the United States and Western Europe. (He chose the former; the latter seems more plausible today.)

For a full explanation of the problems with Douthat’s analysis, one can read the reply written by Matthew Yglesias, who notes that “it can be hard to distinguish the Clash of Civilizations hypothesis from the more banal hypothesis that Russia and China are big important countries that don’t like to be bossed around.” The core problem with the “clash of civilizations” theory is that it illuminates very little (what does it have to say about the conflict between China and Taiwan?) but does risk flattening the world in dangerous ways. “Orientalist” type ideas that view other people as so culturally different that they are a mystifying Other are both wrong and deadly. They are wrong because people around the world are, generally speaking, a lot more like ourselves than we realize. They are deadly because they lead to the devaluing of the lives of those outside our perceived civilizational community, because we believe it is that community whose “interests” we should advance. 

Huntington was a nasty piece of work. Perhaps his most famous other writing was The Crisis of Democracy (co-authored with Michel Crozier and Joji Watanuki), in which they memorably argued that the United States suffered from an “excess of democracy” and that the country was going haywire because the population was becoming too involved in governance of the country, and worried about the destabilizing effects of letting marginalized people participate in the system: 

The effective operation of a democratic political system usually requires some measure of apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some individuals and groups. In the past, every democratic society has had a marginal population, of greater or lesser size, which has not actively participated in politics. In itself, this marginality on the part of some groups is inherently undemocratic, but it has also been one of the factors which has enabled democracy to function effectively. Marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks, are now becoming full participants in the political system. Yet the danger of overloading the political system with demands which extend its functions and undermine its authority still remains. Less marginality on the part of some groups thus needs to be replaced by more self-restraint on the part of all groups.

Some ideas are toxic. They damage our thinking and anyone who subscribes to them and acts based on them is more likely to do harm. Notions like “too much democracy” and “clash of civilizations” have been presented as interesting academic theories to be debated, but when taken seriously by those with power, they can be used to justify repression and war. It is unfortunate to see an idea that should have long since been buried make its way to the op-ed pages of The Paper of Record. But many bad ideas refuse to die, because they provide convenient stories to help us make sense of the world. They also help justify prejudices, and add a veneer of scientific respectability to what should be treated as bigotry and ignorance. 

  1. Not, as Douthat says, 1996. 1996 was when a book-length version was published, but by that time Huntington’s theory had already spawned responses. The error is worth noting mainly because Douthat does not seem to have glanced at the vast literature critiquing the idea before writing a newspaper column endorsing it. One of the encouraging tips I give to young writers who lack self-confidence is that however bad they may think their writing is, there is no way it can possibly be worse than the opinion columns printed in the New York Times. 

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