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A Very Dangerous Trap: Clash of Cultures

by Thomas Assheuer Thursday, Mar. 02, 2006 at 1:51 PM

Huntington warns against waging the battle against terror on the minefield of culture.. Islam may not be combatted, only the crime perpetrated in its name.


“Clash of Cultures.” 13 years ago Samuel P. Huntington seemingly found the key to explaining the worldwide political situation with this thesis. Does it help us today?

By Thomas Assheuer

[This article published in: DIE ZEIT, 2/9/2006 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Initially the title had a question mark: “The Clash of Civilizations?” In the summer of 1993, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an essay with this title in the Foreign Affairs journal. With one blow, the respected researcher became famous in a wide public. The Harvard professor seemed to have found the key to explaining the worldwide political situation. In the 21st century, he claimed, the old conflict of states will be displaced by the “clash of cultures.” While his colleague Francis Fukuyama joyfully proclaimed the “end of history” and the bloodless triumph of the market economy and liberalism, Huntington bathed world events in the gloomy flickering light of conflict, struggle and war. In the future, seven or eight civilizations will clash in the global arena – Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hinduist, Slavic-orthodox, Latin American and perhaps African civilizations. These large entities are radically separated from each other by language, history and religion, deeply incompatible and America’s enemies, “the rest against the West.”

The echo to Huntington’s thesis was overwhelming but divided. Many celebrated him as an American Oswald Spengler who sends out his apocalyptic riders and tears the US hegemon out of its hedonist slumber. Others saw in him an ideological party whip who forged America’s claim to world rule in stone with his floundering theory of culture. Huntington himself would not be put off and made a thick book out of his cold thesis. In the German translation, “Kampf der Kulturen,” there are no question marks.

The work had an effect. After every Islamic attack, after the New York massacre, the public asked whether Huntington was right and whether the “clash of cultures” was beginning. Strangely enough, the combative scholar does not want to confirm his initial suspicion. In the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, he sees “the attack of vulgar barbarians on the civilized society of the whole world,” not a clash of cultures. Huntington forcefully warned about the Iraq war because this would evoke a spirit that the West would not quickly get rid of. “That kind of attack would lead to a very different kind of war. It would bring large parts of the population and the governments into the Moslem world who now support the international coalition against terror.”

Why the sudden reserve, the fear of the sorcerer’s apprentice before the magic formula? Perhaps Huntington has become wiser in the meantime than some who triumphantly appeal to him. He seems to have understood that religion is often only a mask camouflaging the brutal conflicts over acknowledgment and distribution. Perhaps Huntington even realizes that fundamentalism is an entirely modern phenomenon that first arose with colonialization. The Islamic killers do not come from the Middle Ages or from a totally foreign and incomprehensible culture. They come from the middle of the modern world society, which horrifies us most deeply.

The phrase “clash of cultures” is a very dangerous trap. Orienting political conduct according to this cliché leads to the horror it conjures. Thus the formula of the “clash of cultures” would be a self-fulfilling diagnosis. In the meantime, Huntington warns against waging the battle against terror on the minefields of culture, for example as a struggle of good against evil, light against darkness. He is right. Islam may not be combated, only the crime perpetrated in its name. Anything else would only spur hatred, confirm stereotypes, cement arrogance and advance the spiral of violence on all sides. With its culturalization, the conflict takes the worst possible turn, also for Huntington. “The goal of Osama bin Laden is to make a terrorist organization against the civilized society out of this war, a clash of cultures between Islam and the West. It would be a disaster if he succeeds.”

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