A Clash of Civilizations?

Almost 10 years ago, Samuel Huntington published one of the most influential articles of the post-Cold War era. “The clash of civilizations” thesis asserted that broad-based cultural differences – especially between the Islamic world and the West – would define geopolitical competition after the demise of the Soviet Union. The events of last week predictability bring reconsiderations of Huntington’s grand thesis.

While the Osama bin Ladins of the world have sought to generate a clash of civilizations, most have not supported this idea. In many respects, the most difficult conflicts since 1991 have been within states and not between them. Even in the realm of international relations, states have hardly acted in concert as civilizational blocs. Here Exhibit A is the sharp, sustained discord over the 2003 decision to invade Iraq; NATO members were deeply divided in the UN Security Council and beyond. Within the “Islamic civilization,” too, significant divides exist along regional and sectarian lines.

Even so, the “film” Muslim Innocence has sparked intense, sometimes violent protests across most of the Islamic world. Key countries – Sunni majority and Shiite majority – have witnessed protests. These include: Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Indonesia. The geographic scope, and the rapid spread of these protests is indicative of a strong sense of pan-Islamic identity that many Muslims share. Samuel Huntington was not completely shooting from the hip on the idea of an “Islamic civilization.”

That is not to say that the former Harvard professor’s grand thesis has sprung back to life. No, what is arguably most important is the reality of illiberal democracy in many of these majority Muslim countries. Indeed, it is possible to have some level of political competition and accountability without broad-based civil liberties. In recent days, the restrictive views on freedom of speech and religion have been on full display. Though it is uncomfortable, liberal democracies defend the right of fringe groups to make outrageous statements. It is not at all clear that the Arab spring revolutions (or other democratic transitions in the Islamic world) are headed towards liberal democracy. Even if this true, this does not amount to a geopolitical clash of civilizations.

*** Did you like what you read here? You might be interested in the new book by this blog’s author, Failed States: Realities, Risks, and Responses.

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