Samuel Huntington, RIP

He pointed out a geopolitical factor that remains politically incorrect to this day

“In this new world,” Samuel Phillips Huntington wrote in his 1996 book,The Clash of Civlizations and the Remaking of World Order, “local politics is the politics of ethnicity; global politics is the politics of civilizations. The rivalry of superpowers is replaced by the clash of civilizations.” Arguing that future conflicts will be sparked off by cultural factors rather than economics or ideology, he wrote that “the most dangerous cultural conflicts are those along the faultlines between civilizations.”

From the time Professor Huntington’s essay was published in 1993, it became fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject this uncomfortable thesis. But that should hardly be surprising: it is still fashionable, politically correct or both, to reject the thesis of balance of powers, millennia after it was first articulated.

Professor Huntington was onto something when he held that “that cultural identities, antagonisms and affiliations will not only play a role, but play a major role in relations between states.” India, in his book, was the core state of what he described as the “Hindu” civilisation: a choice of words which caused many to reflexively reject his hypothesis. Yet shorn of the famously incorrect interpretation of the word “Hindu” as a religion in the Semitic mould, there is much to recommend his thesis.

Here’s an excerpt from a 2007 interview:

NPQ | Your colleague Amartya Sen at Harvard criticizes your civilizational thesis, saying that “identity is not destiny” and that each individual can construct and reconstruct chosen identities. He argues that the clash-of-civilizations theory suggests a “miniaturization of human beings” into “unique and choiceless” identities that fit into“boxes of civilization.” What is your perspective on citizens who have multiple identities?

Huntington | I think that statement by Amartya Sen is totally wrong. I never argued that, and I realize that people have multiple identities. What I argue in my book, as I indicated earlier, is that the basis of association and antagonism among countries has changed over time. In the coming decades, questions of identity, meaning cultural heritage, language and religion, will play a central role in politics. I first elaborated this idea over 10 years ago, and much of what I said has been validated during that time.

NPQ | How do people with multiple identities negotiate that?

Huntington | They work out accommodations, and that’s been done for the past two or three centuries, at least. When you have increased migration of peoples and ethnic and religious minorities, you develop a set of rules and language the larger society can accept and the minority community can accept.

The larger society has to recognize some degree of autonomy for the minority: the right to practice their own religion and way of life and to some extent their language. Many of the most difficult questions concerning the role of ethnic minorities centers on language. To what extent are they educated in their own language or in the national language? To what extent does the society formally or informally become a country of two national languages? Or is only one language used in the public proceedings, courts, legislatures, executive branch and politics? These, as we know, can become very tricky issues. [Amina R Chaudary/NPQ]

In other words, the rest of the world—especially the “core-states” of the Islamic world and also the European Union—has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century. The Indian model is by no means perfect. It might not even be considered satisfactory by many. But it remains among the better ones that can negotiate in a world where there is an unprecedented churning of peoples, languages, cultures and identities. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

Samuel Huntington passed away on December 24th, on Martha’s Vineyard, aged 81. Even before we finished reading all his books.

18 thoughts on “Samuel Huntington, RIP”

  1. In saying, “core-states” of the Islamic world has to go through a process that India went through in the twentieth century”, you are pretty much calling for a revolution there. Out of question…atleast as of now.

  2. There was huge backlash from the international community to this thesis, but I saw (and have seen) very few rebuttals from the Indian community. A few, like Amartya Sen, were vocal, but their discussions seemed short. They weren’t fleshed out the way other “civilizations” talked about it.

    Do you have any links to Indian discussions on the subject?

  3. Islamic “civilization” has extended its lease on life with oil. As soon as Mankind moves beyond oil, then Islamic “civilization” will once again fall back into the doldrums, as articulated by historian Bernard Lewis in his famous book, “What Went Wrong With Islam”

    Islam’s anti-modernism in thought condemns it to stagnation and deterioration. The only revolutions they recently achieved in the past few decades were through oil nationalization and through the Afghan War with its Kalashnikov culture. Other than that, they haven’t come out with anything new for themselves.

  4. Interestingly, this is a point echoed also by Ramachandra Guha in his book “India after Gandhi”. Guha points to the failed states in India’s neighbourhood (Erstwhile East Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) where the origin of the conflict was the insistence on one language. As early as the fifties, members of the Sri Lankan parliament had cautioned: “One language, two countries”.

    The Indian model of ‘many languages, one country’ has withstood the test of time, and, is seemingly the chosen path of the EU for the 21st century.

  5. Was it Huntington or some other author who described the borders between islamic and other civilizations as the “ring of fire”?

  6. I recall reading critiques of the thesis in EPW a long time ago. Not to mention college canteen discussions at a certain university in New Delhi.

  7. I think it was Bernard Lewis who made the profoundly obvious observation that islam has “bloody borders”.

    Unable to find a source for the “ring of fire” quib, though.

  8. Well said Nitin. Amartya Sen apparent response to Huntington is silly, to put it mildly. One just has to look at Marxism and ideological battles and real wars that it engendered over a century to see the shallowness of Sen’s response. The biggest proponent of Huntington thesis are the Islamists and Jihadis – entire side of the clash. Whether the other side likes it or not, apparently it’ll happen.

    Islamic terrorism in India is one exhibit.

    Just based on that exhibit, I think it’s too soon to pat oneself on the back. Most edifice of post-independence secularism in India is based on falsehood and bashing of majority religion (languages differences within a civilization is a non-issue). The matter is not settle yet. It may yet get worst before it gets better.

    Sud, it was Huntington. He has a world map in his book depicting the bloody borders.

  9. You’ll think my statement is pompous but I don’t find Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis original at all. It states the obvious. One reason for its popularity is that feeling threatened by it — because of its intrinsic truth and because it runs counter to the Marxist thesis that all conflict is rooted in economics — leftwingers expended much energy in debunking and demonizing it.

    But there always was a clash of civilizations in the world, even if this clash meant that one civilization subjugated or prevailed over another. Today’s clash stands in sharper focus because civilizations today face — or insist on facing — each other as equals.

    I read Huntington’s original essay years ago, but neither the book based on it nor any of his other books.

  10. A fundamental flaw in Huntington’s thesis is to conflate religion with civilization. Religion is conservative and strives to sustain ideas, long after they have been discredited as irrational. As such, it’s the antithesis of civilization. Ideas of liberty, democracy, equality before law, and secularism – the very hallmarks of civilization – had to battle and defeat religion, almost always Christianity, at an enormous cost to life and property.

    Islamic societies, mired in their antiquated seventh century ideas, however, have managed to survive civilization. Where else can one witness the decapitation of women for daring to get an education?

  11. Oldtimer –
    Well said. If Huntington had given his thesis to the British 150 years ago, they would said, “Well, duh!”

    RF –
    I respectully disagree with your idea of “civilizaton”. You just made up a definition and debunked it. That’s a logical fallacy known as a “red herring”. Broadly speaking, civilization is where there is a large degree of government, technology, and the arts. Religions, such as Christianity eventually lost out to secular culture, but religions such as Hinduism and Islam are most certainly broad, cultural, and civilizational.

    Just think about it. Indian arts up till now revolved almost completely around religion. All of our famous authors, poets, architecture, painting, etc. The same with Islam. The words “Khuda” and “Bhagwan” mean the same thing, but they are used specifically by followers of one religion or the other. Why?

  12. While civilization has many meanings and interpretations in common and academic usage, one of them is: “refinement of thought, manners, or taste”. As Raymond Williams wrote:

    In one way the new sense of civilization, from 1C18, is a specific combination of the ideas of a process and an achieved condition. It has behind it the general spirit of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on secular and progressive human self-development. Civilization expressed in this sense of historical process, but also celebrated the associated sense of modernity: an achieved condition of refinement and order.
    — Raymond Williams. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, 1976:48

    This view of civilization as signifying progress, advancement of knowledge, and decline of barbarity and irrationality, is shared by many — Boswell, Coleridge, Mill… Huntington may not have used civilization in this sense, but I most certainly did not make up this definition as a strawman (btw, that’s a better word than “red herring” in this context) to shoot it down later.

    But, hey, what the hell, as in Alice in Wonderland,

    ‘But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.
    ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
    ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master – that’s all.’

    All I can say is that I stand by what I wrote about Islam as a stubborn bulwark against civilization.

  13. The atmosphere of rejection that greeted Professor Huntington’s thesis in academic & intellectual India missed the grand opportunity of elaborating how clashes could be managed in a civilised manner.

    I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head, and it applies not just to India, but to many other countries and civilizations.

  14. xyz,
    A friendly suggestion: please take a few remedial courses on concepts such as statics, dynamics, process, equilibrium, etc., before you rubbish Boswell, Coleridge, Mill, and of course RF 🙂

  15. It’s been a while that I read COS. But I do agree with RF that in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran, it’s the Islamists who want to conflate religion with civilization. Also w.r.t the above statement about “Christianity losing to secular culture”, I would rather say the opposite; that secular culture triumphed over Christianity, at least to a significant extent.

  16. Thanks for the link. Just read it frm there. Seems like a chaotic viewpoint. The effect of control and leadership can lead civilizations or idealogies or nation-states or sub nation regions to realign in a different way towards or away from a conflict.

Comments are closed.