Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ is still upsetting the complacent

2 October 2013

10:53 AM

2 October 2013

10:53 AM

It is twenty years since Samuel Huntington’s essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations?’ was first published in Foreign Affairs. On Monday night I took part in a discussion on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves about the article (and the resulting book) which turned oddly nasty.

I have always been a qualified admirer of Huntington’s most famous work (‘qualified’ because like most people who have read the book I admire its range and grasp while disagreeing with certain of its conclusions). But broadly admire it or not, it appears to be a difficult work to discuss. This is largely because it suffers the double-bind of being misunderstood by people who have not read it. Nine times out of ten when people refer to Huntington they suggest that Huntington thought it inevitable that civilizations would clash or, more absurdly, that he actively urged civilisations to do so. Such people have not properly read what they are trying to talk about.

But there is another reason why some people get enraged by Huntington’s thesis, which is that it is clear-headed and reveals certain truths some people would rather not consider. Nothing more disturbs a mind muddled by impoverished ideology than a dash of clear thinking. Such thinking is, after all, potentially lethal to them. If it were to catch on it might end their careers.

I found myself reflecting on this after Monday night’s programme. For after a thoughtful contribution from Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs, I found myself in a studio discussion with a person who appeared so viscerally enraged by Huntington’s thesis that she seemed stripped of all manners and reason. Her name was Maria Misra and she was billed as a lecturer and fellow in modern history at Keble College Oxford. All I can say is that the standard of history fellowships at Keble College has declined steeply of late.

Perhaps Ms Misra is always a rude and unhappy person. But on this occasion she seemed annoyed at even having to consider Huntington’s work. It was a bizarre manner for an academic to adopt. Why should an academic appear so impatient at having to discuss what is at the very least an interesting and highly influential thesis by a deceased author?

To the extent that she had a point, Ms Misra’s main one was deeply basic: it was that civilizations are not ‘homogenous’ but on the contrary are highly varied within. I conceded this repeatedly and pointed out that Huntington spends much of his book pointing out the same. But it was when the discussion turned to religion that Misra’s sand-throwing agenda became most obvious. I pointed out that religion is — as Huntington says — a considerable driving force in world events.

Here is what Ms Misra had to say in reply:

‘Insofar as cultural conflicts emerge, from my knowledge of global history they’re often much more around language than they are around religion…In places like, well, in the Ukraine in the 1990’s, in India in the 19th and 20th centuries, among the Uighurs in China. I suppose to a casual observer these can look like conflicts which are configured by religion but on closer inspection they’re often configured more by language’. 

If the subject under discussion were not so serious I would have burst out laughing. For this reply suggests a total illiteracy about global events. Saying that cultural conflicts are mainly a ‘language’ issue is the sort of thing a cub ‘deconstructionist’ might say to try to distract attention from the fact they don’t know what they are talking about. But it does absolutely nothing to help understand or explain the forces which propel groups like al-Shabaab, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups worldwide. In fact it obfuscates an issue that is in essence really quite straight-forward.

As I left the studio I was left wondering two things. Firstly what those parents who re-mortgage their houses to send their children to university would think about their children being ‘educated’ by a mind as addled as Ms Misra’s. And secondly, I suppose I felt a surge of admiration for Huntington. After all, when a piece of writing can provoke such rage two decades after publication and several years after the author’s death, it suggests the work might contain that rarest of things: the raw nerve of unwanted truth.

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