Katie Pace

Katie Pace
Said’s Response to Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”
Edward Said’s primary problem with Huntington’s article, “The Clash of
Civilizations”, is Huntington’s simplified treatment of the world’s civilizations.
Huntington defines a civilization as a “cultural entity” of which “the composition and
boundaries” change. He admits that “civilizations are dynamic; they rise and fall; they
divide and merge”. Yet, throughout his article, Huntington treats civilizations as static
entities with easily delineated boundaries and easily defined characteristics.
Huntington first fault is his simplified division of the world’s civilizations into
eight groups, ignoring the subtleties and intricacies of civilizations. Are Bosnian
Muslims Slavic-Orthodox or Islamic? Are Roman Catholic Croatians Slavic-Orthodox or
Western? Why is South America, conquered and populated by Western Europeans, not
part of the Western civilization? Furthermore, if lines of conflict are determined by
different civilizations, how does Huntington account for warring among members of the
same civilizations throughout the world, from Eastern Europe to Africa the Middle East?
As Said says in his paper, “The Clash of Ignorance”, a great deal of demagogy and
downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or
Huntington’s second fault is his one-sided approach to globalization. Huntington
argues that interaction between different civilizations increases awareness of both cultural
differences and similarities, yet he emphasizes only the negative result of this awareness,
“animosity”. Said prefers to emphasize the rich exchanges result from interaction.
Throughout history, civilizations have engaged in material and cultural commerce. By the
eighth or ninth centuries AD, a vast trading network connected Africa, the Middles East,
India, China and the Mediterranean region. Mathematicians, scientists, astronomers,
philosophers and artists engaged in intellectual exchanges for centuries. By the sixteenth
century, the Ottoman Empire had extended their rule into Northern Africa, all of
Southern Europe and as far north as Hungary. As Said wrote, “the West drew on the
humanism, science, philosophy, sociology and historiography of Islam.” This exchange is
not a phenomenon of the West and Islam. It has occurred throughout the world, and its
effects have not been, as Huntington seems to argue, solely increased awareness of
differences. Instead, interactions of different peoples merged and changed civilizations
in ways that made them impossible to easily separate and label.
Today’s globalization is only increasing this exchange, and animosity is not the
necessary result. Greater understanding and acceptance of differences is as plausible a
consequence. So too is increased homogenization. Ideally, instead of homogenization,
peoples would incorporate elements of other civilizations into their own while
maintaining their diversity. This would not be a new occurrence, as history is the story of
a continuous blending of cultures. This is not to say that globalization will eliminate
conflict, but it is important to consider more than one consequence of increased contact
between cultures.
Huntington also maintains that globalization is separating people from their local
and national identities, and religion is filling the vacuum. Might a separation from local
boundaries not entail an increased global connection and the further blurring of already
blurry cultural fault lines? Huntington says, “A civilization is the highest cultural
grouping of people…the broadest level of identification with which [a person] identifies”.
Because identities change, so do civilizations; yet, Huntington doesn’t address the many
effects of weakening traditional identities on civilizations. Instead, he simplifies the
results of globalization into “a revival of religion”.
Huntington’s discussion of religion is as basic as his discussion of civilizations.
We are entering a period of strife between Islam and Christianity, he claims. Said attacks
Huntington’s use of “unedifying labels like Islam and the West” and of his “unilateral
decision made to draw lines in the sand, to undertake crusades, to oppose their evil with
our good”. Such labels draw awareness to our differences and prevent us from reflecting
on the “interconnectedness of innumerable lives” and the diversity that exists within
religions. The Middles East is as heterogeneous a region as the Christian world. Said’s
reference to Eqbal Ahmad of Pakistan’s weekly, Dawn, is only one example of the
diversity of Muslim beliefs and practices. Ahmad attacks religious fundamentalism as
“concerned with power, not with the soul…theirs is a very limited and time-bound
political agenda”. Ahmad emphasizes that generalized labels of Islam make it impossible
“to recognize the Islamic—religion, society, culture, history or politics—as lived and
experienced by Muslims throughout the ages.” He gives the meaning of the word jihad
as an example. Today, the Western world interprets jihad as a holy war, the armed
struggle against the non-Muslim world for the purpose of protecting and spreading the
Muslim religion. However, jihad can refer to an individual’s inner struggle to follow
Mohamed’s path or to religious and political protest within a Muslim nation.
Huntington presents numerous convincing arguments to support his belief that
today’s conflicts are determined by civilizations and no longer by ideologies or
economics. He cites examples of religious fighting, the “kin-country syndrome”,
increased economical regionalism, and an Islamic-Confucian military connection.
Regardless of the validity of his points, Said attacks Huntington’s explanation of current
international affairs as “the West versus the rest”. The West is experiencing a period of
military and economic dominance, and many weaker and poorer nations do resent
western hegemony. But to present Western interests as always incompatible with the
interests of the rest of the world, to place the West in a state of perpetual disagreement
with the non-West, is to condemn the West and Islam to a future devoid of mutual
understanding and compromise. Huntington writes, “Western concepts differ
fundamentally from those prevalent in other civilizations”. He ignores both any parallels
between the West and the rest of the world and the fundamental differences between
other civilizations that would inhibit the formation of what he portrays as a worldwide
collation of diverse peoples against the West.
Huntington concludes his article with a discussion of the West’s long-term goals.
He claims that non-Western nations’ “economic and military strength relative to the West
will increase” as these nations modernize. Consequently, the West will have to
“accommodate these non-Western modern civilizations whose values and interests differ
significantly from those of the West” by developing “an understanding of the basic
religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations and the ways in
which people in those civilizations see their interests”. Said would agree with
Huntington’s opinion that civilizations “will have to learn to coexist with others”, and he
would agree that mutual understanding between civilizations is essential to harmonious
coexistence. However, he would argue that Huntington’s approach to international
affairs makes this understanding impossible. His generalized labels and portrayal of the
West as a superpower now on the defensive against the rest of the world is, according to
Said, “better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical understanding of the
bewildering interdependence of our time”.