25 Years of the „Clash of Civilizations“

Samuel Huntington. Picture: flickr, thierry ehrmann, CC BY 2.0. https://bit.ly/2WhYTSx

Europe’s ongoing Muslim immigration debate through the prism of Samuel Huntington’s Theory

“Clash of Civilizations” – Theory

Ever since the publication of Samuel Huntington’s article “The Clash of Civilizations?” in the Journal of Foreign Affairs in 1993, it has stirred considerable debate. Fast-forward twenty-five years later to today, Europe is struggling with issues regarding migration, adequate integration policies and terrorism. Notably, the discourse is focused on the immigration of Muslims and the political issues arising at national and European levels (e.g. Islamic dress codes, or polygamy). Political parties with strong anti-immigration, and specifically anti-Muslim immigration programs, keep gaining considerable support. The popular debates, and notably the views voiced by prominent political figures throughout Europe, have indicated that there seems to be a consensus that Islam is a distinct culture in conflict with European values. Nevertheless, there is no consensus on how best to address the issues and proposals range from strict to liberal immigration and citizenship laws, from prohibiting to tolerating Islamic practices and from policies of discouraging to encouraging assimilation or integration.

Prima facie, this seems to support Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” theory, which suggests that cultural identities will play a major role in future conflicts. The application of Huntington’s theory on the ongoing debates and the rising problems would trace them back to “different civilizations,” or rather culture/ religion. In that sense, he argues that civilizations are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition, and most importantly, religion and is convinced that Western and Islamic civilizations are in conflict with each other. In addition, he also believes that the increasing contact between Western and Muslim populations will stimulate the sense of their own respective identities and the differences on both sides.

Civilizations vs. Cultures

Huntington’s theory has been widely critiqued, particularly with regard to its simplistic nature, which deliberately ignores the great diversity of cultural norms and strands within different cultural groups. Furthermore, the use of the word “civilization” in itself carries the connotation of hierarchy and a value judgement. In that sense, it is very hard to disassociate from dangerous ideologies of the 20th century. Therefore, the use of the word “civilizations” has been widely avoided by anthropologists, who prefer the term “cultures.” It appears that nowadays “culture,” as a concept, has taken over as the dominant frame of reference to explain conflicts between groups as well as social inequalities, and is not regarded as equally stigmatizing as racial argumentations. Whereas “race” was associated with the superiority of some human groups over others, culture was seen as an anti-racist term that promoted a positive celebration of the differences. However, by merely replacing the term “race” with “culture,” one fails to address the term’s inherent issues of hierarchy and essentialism. Consequently, the problems continue and become particularly apparent within the narrative of cultural relativism and liberal multicultural approaches regarding education and policymaking.

Still, the term “culture” often remains unchallenged and is almost universally used to refer to different human groups. While discrimination based on race or culture may differ in their form and appearance, they are similar in their structure. Namely, a group of people getting stigmatized on the basis of associated negative stereotypes and static ascribed features. Ethnic or cultural stereotypes are simplified and standardized perceptions of a group commonly held by people. Notably, it is not the ascribed „race“ or „culture“ in itself, which makes stigmatization possible, but the belief that these features mark people as inferior. However, it should be noted that “positive” stereotypes, though often regarded as harmless, may also promote antiquated and harmful beliefs towards members of a cultural group, thus, also contributing detrimental to an egalitarian social perception.

One could argue that “Western” and “Islamic” cultures are based upon conceptually different value systems and historical experiences. Yet, this does not necessarily mean that they are in conflict. Neither does the existence of a conflict between the philosophies and value systems of the two cultural realms necessarily entail violence. However, the dominant popular discourse and the negative portrayal of Muslim images in the media oftentimes depict Islam with political and anti-Western sentiments, thus, exposing Muslims to discrimination and stereotyping. These seemingly simple explanations of “good vs. evil”, in the sense of “the clash of civilizations”, or theories that claim 

Islam’s general incompatibility with the modern world, fuel the debates more than they are helping to find a solution.

A ”Clash of Civilizations” within Europe?

Having said that, is Merkel right then, when she says that Islam is a part of Germany, alongside Christianity and Judaism? According to Huntington’s theory, Islam has always been seen in a binary opposition as the “other.” However, his paradigm has been criticized for ignoring the vast historical evidences, which demonstrate that contacts between different civilizations have not always led to clashes and that the inter-relationship were far more complex than first meets the eye. Nevertheless, Muslim immigration to Europe made Islam an integral part of Europe, which is the status quo that European anti-immigration parties, whose support is continuously growing, are fighting against. After Angela Merkel, the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and the British Premier David Cameron declared multiculturalism a “failure,” there are still questions regarding the possibility, or even the desire, of integration that are hugely complex and difficult, with a wide range of factors to be considered in the equation.

Notably, this question relates to a broader, sensitive discussion within Europe concerning the role of religion in general. For example, is Christianity still part of the modern European identity of today? The answer is highly debated, as was seen in the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Lautsi v. Italy (03.11.2009 – 30814/06) that banned crucifixes in Italian classrooms after ruling them in violation to the human right to freedom of conscience under the European Convention on Human Rights – however, reversing this ruling on appeal. While European countries like Austria, Serbia or Greece are more deeply rooted in their Christian identities, in France, for example, the conflict with Muslim immigrants stems not from a Christian identity and historical rivalries, but rather from the French constitutional principle of secularism or laicity. In this sense, there is a widespread acknowledgment that the cultural differences between European host populations and Muslim immigrants are an important factor in their inter-relationship and co-responsible for the rise of conflicts.

Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization”-theory is still very popular today and can be applied on the present conflict within Europe. While his thesis gathered a lot of scholarly criticism, it has also attracted an enormous amount of attention in the public sphere, due to its simplicity in dividing the world into determinable civilizations characterized by deep-essential differences, which are so fundamental that the communities in question are inevitably opposed to one another. And even Huntington’s sharpest academic critics have failed to provide a coherent alternative to his thesis.  

Thus, despite the limitations of Huntington’s theory and its geopolitical scale, it is still useful to identify the sources of friction in an issue of increasing political importance. Culture matters, and the success or failure of attempts to integrate or assimilate Muslims into European societies will still be judged in large parts by how “European” they become. Nevertheless, it can be argued that in the postmodern age and its intrinsic fluidity, individuals can no longer avoid multiple and overlapping identities: Hence, one can be both, a devoted Muslim and a loyal citizen of a non-Muslim country. Additionally, Islam’s inherent capacity to adapt, invent and reinvent its traditions cannot be underestimated. 


But what now? Are we now, twenty-five years after the publication of Huntington’s article, facing a European “clash of civilizations”? What the currently ongoing debate shows is that dangerous rhetorics are being nourished every day, populist movements against refugees and migrants are continuously growing and the growing fear of terrorist attacks seems to convince the masses that Islam is an inherently violent religion. However, we gain nothing by pressing Islam into a monolithic, violent bloc in accordance with Huntington’s narrative of “The West vs The Rest,” and we can be seriously misled if we assume that differences inevitably mean hostility. Life, and politics, are not that simple.

Race-based imperialism was the most destructive concept of the twentieth century, and one can only hope that the cultural and religious differences perceived through the concept of the “Clash of Civilizations”-theory do not become its counterpart in the twenty-first century. However, I would like to conclude by arguing in the words of James Kurth, “that the real clash of civilizations, the one most pregnant with significance, will not be between the West and the rest, but one that is that is already underway within […]. It is, in short, a clash between Western and post-Western civilizations.” (Kurth, The Real Clash, The National Interest No. 37/ 1994)

About the author

Maghy Saad is a graduate student at the University of Graz pursuing Master degrees in Law, Global Studies and Religious Studies. She studied abroad at the American University of Cairo where she expanded her education with specific regard to the MENA region. Previously, she was an intern at the UN Information Center in Cairo, and worked as a legal assistant at a Law firm, notably on issues of immigration and the right to asylum. She currently works as a research assistant at the Institute for Public Law and Political Science in Graz, and is also part of the projects “Law, Islam and Diversity” and “Migration, Integration and Law.”