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« A Child's Christmas in Wales | Main | The Particular and the Universal in Human Rights »

December 29, 2008

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Okay, I buy into both yours and Jeremiah's criticisms, but both seem to ignore the most relevant part of the book (and I say this never having actually read it, which is, of course, always dangerous), but what about Arab-Islamism versus the West. What about that?

I agree about his list of "civilizations". In fact, I remember laughing out loud when I ran into his claims about the Sinic and Japanese civilizations, as well as the "Latin American" one comprising everything south of the US border. The Clash of Civilizations struck me as interesting in its main thesis, but seriously wanting in many of the details, which were truly ridiculous. Huntington clearly lacked understanding of Asia, Africa, and "Latin America". I think there may be something to his cultural faultlines claims, but I think he takes this too far, in suggesting that these kinds of conflicts are the most prevalent and the most heated. The cultural factor seems to be one important factor in a number of conflicts, and we should be concerned to discover potentially dangerous cultural faultlines (although it seems to me the most dangerous current ones are pretty much well known), but there are a number of other important factors leading current conflicts too, including political ones as you mention. The India/Pakistan conflict is another good counterexample to Huntington's "Muslim world" civilization thesis. The Islamic vs. Hindu issue is localized to these countries, and muslims other places in the "Muslim world" (whatever that means) aren't particularly committed to Pakistan's cause, of gaining Kashmir (or making it independent, which would surely cause it to fall into Pakistan's sphere of influence more deeply), and the issues between these two countries has to do mainly with "in family" disputes having to do with them having at one time been part of the same entity (British India), with the same administration, colonial problems, etc. This, of course, is why one doesn't generally find Saudi aid (for example) to Pakistani jihadi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. It seems laughable to me to take Pakistan's stress with India and more western countries like Iran and Iraq's (and elements in Saudi Arabia's) stress with the US as an example of flashpoints between the "Muslim world" and two different civilizational entities. They're two different and mostly unrelated conflicts, and to understand both as belonging to a single "Muslim world" is silly. One last point--Huntington made the civilizational distinction between the west (derived from Catholic Europe) and the Orthodox world (derived from Orthodox Europe). He recognizes this distinction within the Christian world, but doesn't recognize large differences within the Muslim world, even (seeming to me) larger than the Catholic/Orthodox distinction ??

Dan,
Huntington's problem is that he overgeneralizes. Yes, there is a political movement that uses a certain reading of Islam to justify terrorist violence. But it is a political movement, not a "civilization." As a political movement, it is smaller and more limited than "civilization" would suggest. As Alex suggests, there are differences within Islam that work against al-Qaeda and other political groups. Not just the Sunni-Shiite difference, but also the national-cultural differences. While there have been some in Indonesia who have supported al-Qaeda, Islam there is not the same as Islam in Saudi Arabia - the political context alone is quite significant.
Also, it is not clear to me that the "West" is a very meaningful analytic category. Just watch the differing reactions to Israel's attack on Gaza...
Ultimately, I don't think politics can be reduced to culture.


The almost inevitable problem with any theorist who seeks to generalize is almost always overgeneralization. Not to defend Huntington, but he is much too easy a target for political scientists. If every Muslim from Indonesia to Jordan has to see the world exactly the same way, then Huntington's thesis will always be easily refutable. The problem is that many who criticize his thesis often refer to other concepts--such as "the Muslim or Arab street" which are essentially the same--i.e. the idea that Muslims or Arabs, for either cultural or political reasons, generally tend to see the world the same way despite geographical or national differences. I agree with Sam that politics cannot be reduced to culture, but I would also suggest that politics are also inevitably influenced by culture.

Huntington's argument is often seen as a justification for belligerent and interventionist policies toward the Muslim world. The reality is exactly the opposite. He saw Western efforts to promote their values/culture in the Muslim world as imperialism and opposed them for that reason. He never argued that Western culture was superior to other cultures; only that these cultures were different. He opposed the Iraq war and democracy promotion in general.

Sam was also right about not reducing his long career to clash of civilizations (far from his best or most important work). In addition to Political Order, Soldier and the State is still the standard book in civil military relations. His work on democratization and the American political system was also quite important. Add it all up and I find it hard to argue against the idea that he was the most influential political scientist of the last fifty years. Not necessarily right, but it is true that one always had to engage his arguments.

One final note. I will always fondly remember Samuel Huntington for a Monday afternoon in 1996. I was a fellow at the Olin Institute and I had to deliver a paper to a group of scholars who enjoyed nothing more than ripping young scholars to shreds. One particularly vicious fellow started in, but Sam said that I was correct in my general line of argument and the rest of the discussion was quite pleasnt. I survived the afternoon and I seriously doubt that would have been the case without his timely intervention.

In memory of a relatively, comparatively honest spearbearer of the Empire...
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* The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p.51.

* Hypocrisy, double standards, and "but nots" are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle —— The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, p.184.

I entirely agree with Professor Crane's critique of Huntington's exclusion of Japan from the Sinic culture. At its base, Japanese culture is Chinese-derived in terms of language, philosophy and world view, broadly defined.

The clash of civilizations is, of course, an exceedingly interesting concept, which wonderfully questions the robustness of Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis.

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