The 'Clash of Civilizations' and American Intervention in the Middle East

In his article "The Clash of Civilizations," Samuel Huntington's thesis is that global politics has entered a new phase. According to Huntington, previous phases of global conflict were dominated by princes, nation states, and ideologies, respectively. All of these conflicts were within Western civilization. However, with the end of the Cold War, Huntington argues, non-Western civilizations "join the West as movers and shapers of history." Conflict in this new phase of world politics, according to Huntington, will center on clashes between civilizations, which he defines as "the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." This thesis relates directly to Western relations with Islamic civilization in the Middle East.

Huntington offers many persuasive arguments to defend his thesis. Differences between civilizations, he says, are basic and fundamental. For example, differences in political ideology can be resolved; this is not often the case regarding differences in religion and culture, two important characteristics that differentiate civilizations. This argument helps explain America's problems installing democracy in Iraq. Western civilization emphasizes secularism and political democracy. Many Muslims, however, do not believe in separation of church and state and want to live under Islamic law. We can view this conflict, therefore, as one between civilizations.

Globalization intensifies this problem because it has decreased the world's size. In a small world, differences are more visible. As the world modernizes, many communities begin to lose their local identities, and religious fundamentalism steps in to fill the void. Religious fundamentalism unites people across national boundaries, and this is particularly evident with Arabs in the Islamic world, who often see American interventions in the Middle East as attacks on Islam itself instead of attacks on a single state.

As further proof that civilizations are clashing, Huntington cites economic regionalism. He argues that "economic regionalism may succeed only when it is rooted in a common civilization." The Economic Cooperation Organization, which includes non-Arab Muslim countries like Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, provides an example. These nations joined together largely because the believed that the European Community would not accept them. Other regional economic organizations such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central American Common Market prove that countries with similar cultures are more likely to succeed in economic cooperation.

Huntington argues persuasively that conflict on the "fault line" of Western and Islamic civilizations has occurred for 1,300 years. He defends this assertion by citing Muslim intrusions into Europe in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Crusades, and a host of other historical conflicts between the West and Islam. This conflict, he says, will worsen. As proof, he cites the fact that many Arabs were proud of Saddam Hussein for fighting the West in the Gulf War and were angered and humiliated by the American military presence in the Middle East after the war.

"Kin-country syndrome," Huntington's term for civilizations uniting across national boundaries, helps prove his thesis. During the Gulf War, as mentioned above, many Arabs cheered Saddam Hussein. Despite a strong rivalry between Iraq and Iran, Iran's religious leader encouraged Muslims to pursue a Holy War against the West. By 1993, domestic pressure had forced all of the coalition's Islamic nations, with the exception of Kuwait, to bow out.

Huntington supports his thesis by citing Muslim accusations of a Western "double standard." Muslims throughout the Islamic world criticize the West for not intervening to protect Bosnian Muslims from Serbs and for failing to punish Israel for violating U.N. resolutions. He argues that this proves his thesis because, when civilizations are in conflict, double standards should be expected. It should come as no surprise that the West utilized force against Iraq but fails to force its kin countries to behave.

This article helps explain America's lack of success in Iraq. America's occupation has failed because American leaders have failed to understand the fact that fundamental differences between civilizations exist. Islamic civilization and Western civilization differ drastically in their views on the relationship between church and state, men and women, freedom, and authority. In his conclusion, Huntington calls for Western leaders to "develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations…" American Iraqi policy has largely ignored this advice, and continuing the occupation and/or invading Iran could provoke a catastrophic clash of civilizations that would kill thousands. To avert this, America must withdraw from the Middle East and allow Arab governments to run their own affairs.

Work Cited

Huntington, Samuel. "The Clash of Civilizations" Foreign Affairs 72.3 (Summer 1993): 22–49.

October 14, 2004