December 27, 2008

Samuel Huntington, 1927–2008

... In Eurasia the great historic fault lines between civilizations are once more aflame. This is particularly true along the boundaries of the crescent-shaped Islamic bloc of nations from the bulge of Africa to central Asia. Violence also occurs between Muslims, on the one hand, and Orthodox Serbs in the Balkans, Jews in Israel, Hindus in India, Buddhists in Burma and Catholics in the Philippines. Islam has bloody borders.

— Samuel Huntington, "Clash of Civiliztions", Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993.

Samuel Huntington is no longer with us. Goodbye Mr. Huntington, you'll be missed.

I disagree with many of Samuel Huntington's ideas, but the above quote is not one of them. I'd have preferred a more apt title for the article, though: "Clash of Civilizations and Islam".

  1. Do you not consider Islam to be a civilization, as Huntington believed it was?

  2. James,

    No, I don't consider Islam to be a civilization, nor do I any other religion.

    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?

  3. Well, I agree with you that religions are not civilizations.

    Huntington, of course, was careful to distinguish the two, arguing in "Clash" that civilizations are the largest cultural groupings in the world, and that religion is the single most important factor in identifying those groupings.

    Thus he wrote about "Islamic civilization," as distinct from Islam as a religion.

    (This is, of course, very different from your definition of civilization, which is also a common use of the word. It's the difference between civilization in the sense of "civilized," and in the sense of "Western civilization" or "Chinese civilization.")

    So let me pose my question more precisely, if less elegantly:

    Do you not consider what Huntington calls Islamic civilization to be a civilization?

    Or is there another reason why you would have preferred the title "Clash of Civilizations and Islam"? I don't believe Huntington's book focused on Islam as a religion enough to otherwise justify such prominence in the title.

  4. James,

    I do define "civilization" in the sense of "civilized", as you point out. And in that sense, "Islamic civilization" is, well, an oxymoron. hence my suggested modification of the title of Huntington's article.

    About Huntington's definition of civilization, I am skeptical about his declaration that religion is the most important factor in identifying civilizational groups. I cannot say with confidence that Christian ideals are the most influential in Western civilization today, can you? Why the label Western, why not Christian? I believe the same applies to Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, and Shinto in their respective regions of predominance.

    You have initiated an interesting discussion, and I'll have more to say on this subject in my forthcoming posts. Let's keep in touch.

  5. Hi

    I stumbled across this article when researching whether the 'War on Terror' is a manifestation of a 'Clash of Civilisations' and I was intrigued as to why you don't think Islam is compatible with civilisation as you know it.

    Many people use examples of an apparent disregard for Women's rights, Human Rights in general such as freedom to worship etc. I disagree (I am slightly biased seeing as I am Muslim) but the example you cite are in states where there has been an ultra-conservative reinterpretation of Islamic texts (many people use the term Orthodox but that suggests their interpretation is correct, which is not the case).

    I believe that Islam does allow female's an education, and their right to choose whom they get married to, the right to not cover their face if they want to etc. The Qur'an also has a small chapter explaining to Muslims that people should be free to practise whatever religion they want to the same way Muslims are free to do the same. Ideas of liberty and equality before the law are also guaranteed as well as democracy and secularism to an extent.

    This is an interesting topic but I also feel that Huntington's thesis is a monster of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If everyone starts to believe it as unquestionable fact (as many are starting to do), we could unleash this monster and sleepwalk into an apocalyptic war.

  6. Shafiq:
    Please read my post, The Etymology of Terrorism. In general, I find the position that everything stated in the books of religion - Quran, in this particular case - is true if interpreted correctly, untenable.

    The problem usually is that these writings are inconsistent - what is written in one paragraph contradicting what is written elsewhere. With the caveat that my understanding of Quran is second-hand, I must say that if the chapter on women (Chapter 4), is read in its entirety, it's unmistakeably misogynistic. We can quibble about the specifics, but honestly, I cannot accept that it's progressive. Not even close!

    Contrary to folk wisdom, these books of religion are most likely collections of ideas written and rewritten by many, none of whom is infallible. Because it is contended that they are words of non-existent gods, and therefore absolute truth, they are frozen at the time they were written. If peer reviewed today, few, if any of these books, would pass the muster.

    No religion could claim credit for knowledge and progress - Islam, in particular, because of its uncommon rigidity and the means it advocates for forcing itself on evryone - and hence it's the antithesis of civilization.


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