The Clash of Civilizations revisited

Samuel P. Huntington’s oft-pilloried work, “The Clash of Civilizations”, has long lost its original academic potency. However it has growing leverage at the grass-roots level where the clash has been reinterpreted to justify growing islamophobia
Carlo Ungaro
24 August 2010

A decade and a half ago Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” made a considerable impact on Western public opinion, but was soon relegated to an all-purpose catch-phrase, with the result that the message itself became confused and, to a certain extent, discredited. At a grass-roots level, however, the concept has taken on a rather disturbing aspect in the form of growing, seemingly irreversible Islamophobia.

The impact of Huntington’s book appeared to reside more in the title than in the content, and the term itself was more often than not trivialised and misused by those who had not read the original work.

Many famed pundits and intellectuals, perhaps in the name of “political correctness”, took to attacking the concept and comparing it unfavourably to the much more optimistic future promised by Fukuyama (“The End of History”): some – and I trust that the irony of this will not be lost – indicated the “friendship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia as a sure sign that the Clash of Civilizations would not occur.

The events of September 11th 2001 radically changed the general perspective, with the “War on Terror” monopolizing the attention, while the “Clash of Civilizations” was seldom brought up if not in a bellicose, truculent tone very far indeed from the letter and the spirit of the original text.

I had a taste of this early in 2002, talking to a Northern European Diplomat from whom I heard, for the first time, that we – i.e. “The West” – should not only recognize but actually welcome the existence of the “Clash of Civilizations” (he actually used the term) and prepare for a war of annihilation against Islam, in which, he assured me, “hundreds of millions” of Hindus and Buddhists would be on our side and help defeat the enemy.

At the time, I dismissed these ideas as merely the delirious rant from a slightly tipsy older colleague, and thus much too far-fetched to be taken seriously.

Since then, however, events both in Europe and in the United States have been indicating the existence of an ingrained and deepening hostility to Islam. Some episodes should have sounded a warning but they seemed the work of small, isolated, extremist minorities, and irreconcilable with the spirit of tolerance which was thought to reign in Western democracies.

Such episodes and events, however, have recently shown an alarming cumulative effect and Islamophobia is gaining ground, more often than not abetted by those very political institutions which should normally guard against such potentially dangerous developments.

A perplexing dichotomy seems to have emerged. On the one hand, in most countries, the political and cultural leadership seem intent to show that current military struggles, though they oppose the Western Powers to Islamic organizations, are in no way directed against Islam. Concurrently, however, and with growing vigour and ever shriller language, in the same countries grass-roots movements are growing which portray Islam as a philosophy of violence and a traditional and dangerous enemy of Western civilisation.

At times, this wave of hostility has caught political leaders off guard, as happened recently in Switzerland when a referendum banned the construction of minarets. Often, however, more populist political leaders seem rather inclined to seize upon this prime example of generalised fear and to increase tensions through statements and actions which many consider irresponsible.

Geert Wilders, in the Netherlands is the first example which springs to mind. His popular success is all the more surprising in that it takes place in a country generally known for its tolerance of foreign ideals and religions. He is also spreading the message on an international level.

In Italy, in much of the “Northern League’s” territory, one of the political slogans is “White and Christian”. Requests by Muslim communities (there are over a million Muslims in Italy) for Mosques are met with refusal, sometimes expressed with civility, most often with violent hostility and sarcasm (“All you people need to pray is a mat!”). Times have really changed since the Rome Mosque – the largest in Europe – was inaugurated by the Foreign Minister, Susanna Agnelli.

Even in the United States, where the concept of religious freedom has always constituted one of the mainstays, the polemic around the Ground Zero Mosque has brought to light widespread hostility, throughout the country, to the opening of new Mosques. President Barak Obama is again being “accused” of being a Muslim, although being a Muslim is not a crime, and a leader’s religious beliefs should not have that great an impact in a democratic context.


Huntington depicted a situation which, in his view,  had to be taken into consideration  for a valid analysis of  international political developments. Perhaps the case was overstated, for even the Iranian president Khatami was on record stating that he did not believe in the inevitability of such a clash. At present, it is disturbing to note that concept is becoming a battle-cry, used to inflame western opinion by giving an historical and philosophical justification to the   budding and growing islamophobia visible in the U.S. and in so many European societies. The “Clash”, from a situation to be feared and neutralised, seems to be evolving into a desirable development, as  envisaged, many years ago, by my tipsy colleague.


In over a quarter of a century spent in Muslim countries, I have come across anti-American and anti-Western feelings, especially after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but, even in recent years, I have not noted a basic widespread revulsion against Christianity and its Faithful, comparable to the growing, often irrational and misinformed animosity of western public opinion against Islam.

These tendencies must therefore not be underestimated, and need to be addressed rationally and comprehensively. Otherwise they could end up fomenting a similar, mirror image, hostility to Christianity in a number of Muslim countries. The “Clash of Civilizations” could then become a reality.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData