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The “clash of civilizations” is a thesis that guides contemporary social science research in a comparative and global perspective. It is also a concept frequently used in political and public discourse, especially regarding the relationship between the “West” and Islam. This entry is intended to provide readers with an understanding of the origins and meaning of the clash of civilizations, selected research pertinent to this thesis, and a critical examination of this thesis and research.
Although historian Bernard Lewis had used the term earlier, the political scientist Samuel P. Huntington popularized the “clash of civilizations” in a highly influential 1993 article in the journal Foreign Affairs and in a bestselling book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). In these works, Huntington puts forth the clash of civilizations thesis in an attempt to explain the causes, character, and consequences of divisions among people and between states after the collapse of Eastern European Communism in the late twentieth century. The thesis combines historical insights with contemporary developments, such as the increasing importance of religion and the rise of religious fundamentalism. Huntington writes, “the most important distinctions among people [today] are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural” (1996, p. 21). “The most important groupings of states are no longer the three blocs of the Cold War,” Huntington further asserts, “but rather the world’s seven or eight civilizations” (1996, p. 21). These civilizations contain all of the elements of culture, such as language, history, identity, customs, institutions, and religion, but the clash of civilizations thesis holds that religion is the major fault line. Accordingly, the world’s people and states are classified into the following civilizations, largely on the basis of their religious traditions: Sinic (Chinese), Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western (Christian), Latin American, and “possibly,” African. As evidence in support of this thesis, Huntington points in his 1993 article to fighting among (Western Christian) Croats, (Muslim) Bosnians, and (Orthodox) Serbs in the former Yugoslavia, U.S. bombing of Baghdad, and the subsequent negative Muslim reaction. Furthermore, Huntington predicts, “the next world war, if there is one, will be a war between civilizations” (1993, p. 39). The most dangerous civilizational conflicts, from Huntington’s perspective, will arise from Western arrogance, Muslim intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness.
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks, the global “war on terror,” and the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, social scientists increasingly turned their attention to Huntington’s claims of an Islamic-Western clash of civilizations. The main controversy centers on whether religious traditions, such as Islam, are impediments to democracy. In fact, Muslim countries (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan) are more likely than Western countries (e.g., the United States, most of the countries in the European Union, and Australia) to have authoritarian regimes in which citizens have little or no say in government. From Huntington’s perspective (1996), this is because Western Christianity emphasizes democratic pluralism, separation of religion and state, rule of law, and individual rights to a greater extent than Islam: Islamic tenets hold that God rules the universe; there is no separation of religion and state in Islam; Islamic law reflects God’s, not humans’, desire; and Muslims are treated as unitary, without regard to any social divisions. However, Huntington (1993) recognizes that the West attempts to impose its liberal-democratic values on other civilizations through its control of international governmental organizations, such as the United Nations.
Social scientists have challenged the general propositions of the clash of civilizations thesis, including the perception that Islam and democracy are incompatible. To begin, the thesis ignores variation within civilizations, as people may identify with their nation, race/ethnicity, or even their religious denomination or sect to a greater extent than they identify with their civilization. More specifically, social scientists point out that there is nothing inherently antidemocratic about Islam. To the contrary, Mansoor Moaddel notes a correspondence between concepts in Islamic scripture and democratic political arrangements: “Such concepts as shura (consultative body), ijma (consensus), and masliha (unity) pointed to an affinity between Islam and democracy” (2002, p. 365). Still other social scientists have collected survey data from people in Muslim countries and found that their values are not as monolithic as the clash of civilizations thesis suggests, except on issues regarding secularism. People in Muslim countries also hold evaluations of democracy that are similar to those of their counterparts in Western countries. Yet, people in Muslim countries are more likely to favor religious political leaders and are less supportive of gender equality and homosexuality than people in Western countries (Inglehart and Norris 2003; Norris and Inglehart 2004), a finding seemingly supporting the clash of civilizations thesis.
While it is clear that there are institutional and value differences between countries, including between countries that form Islamic and Western civilizations, it is unclear if these differences are due to the nature of religious traditions. An alternative explanation that Huntington rejects is that these differences may instead be the consequence of countries’ different levels of “modernization” and economic development. Economic development is positively related to the institutionalization of democracy and a political culture emphasizing democratic values (Geddes 1999; Norris and Inglehart 2004). From this perspective, it thus makes sense that Western countries, which tend to be substantially more wealthy than countries in the Islamic or African civilizations, are more likely to be democratic.
In sum, social science research indicates that some of the patterns that the clash of civilizations thesis posits are real. Although contemporary events might seem to lend further credence to this thesis, there is limited systematic evidence on the extent to which civilizations clash with one another. Finally, social scientists are divided on whether these patterns and conflicts are due to religious traditions, economic development, or other factors.
- Geddes, Barbara. 1999. What Do We Know about Democratization after Twenty Years? Annual Review of Political Science 2: 115–144.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1993. The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs 72 (3): 22–49.
- Huntington, Samuel P. 1996. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Inglehart, Ronald, and Pippa Norris. 2003. Rising Tide: Gender Equality and Cultural Change around the World. Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Moaddel, Mansoor. 2002. The Study of Islamic Culture and Politics: An Overview and Assessment. Annual Review of Sociology 28: 359–386.
- Norris, Pippa, and Ronald Inglehart. 2004. Sacred and Secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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