Thursday, August 17, 2006


Samuel Huntington developed the thesis that “[C]ulture and cultural identities, which at the broadest level are civilizational identities, are shaping the patterns of cohesion, disintegration, and conflict in the post-Cold War world.” “Of all the objective elements which define civilizations,” he says, “the more important usually is religion. … [P]eople who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other …” (p. 20, 42, in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order (1996).

As far as I know, most scholars in the West have scorned Huntington’s thesis.

But in the Muslim world the notion is taken very seriously. Hafiz Saeed, founder of the Islamist group in Pakistan, Lashkar-i Taiba, has said, “We believe in Huntington’s clash of civilizations, and our jihad will continue until Islam becomes the dominant religion.” (Quoted in Hassan Abbas (2005) Pakistan’s Drift into Extremism, p 212). And the President of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has recently said that Middle East hostilities involving Israel “will radicalize the Muslim world, even those of us who are moderate today. From there, it will be just one step away to that ultimate nightmare: a clash of civilizations.” (Quoted by Scott Atran, “Is Hamas Ready to Deal?” The New York Times, August 17, 2006).

That Huntington’s notion is ignored or scouted in the West but embraced in the Muslim world, says much about the two cultural worlds. If we want to understand others we must begin by listening. What does it mean that one of the most violent Islamist groups in the world “believes in Huntington’s clash of civilizations”? Or that the President of the largest Muslim country in the world believes we could be “one step away” from “the ultimate nightmare: a clash of civilizations”?

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