Play it again, Sam

World Economic Forum

Like him or loathe him, the late Samuel Huntington was one of the towering figures in political science and international relations. Even those who disagreed with his ideas were forced to engage with them. He helped shape a number of key debates about areas as diverse as civil-military relations, political order, institutional development and the spread of democracy.

But if there is one ‘big idea’ for which he is likely to be remembered more than any other it is the now infamous claim that the future was going to be defined by a looming ‘clash of civilisations’.

Nearly everyone found something to object to in this thesis. It consequently managed to enrage fellow political scientists, anthropologists, sociologists and historians among others. Even some people who had actually read the book were miffed.

But when the world is confronted with the spectre of an increasingly well-organised military force that is apparently motivated by the belief that is fulfilling a unique, divinely ordained historical mission then perhaps we need to look again at Huntington’s thesis. Is the rise of Islamic State and radical Islam more generally the thin end of a civilisational wedge with which there will be no negotiating?

It’s worth remembering that Huntington thought that there were a number of different possible meanings of ‘civilisation’. But the key point is that they were seen as a source of cultural identity that endured over time, providing a framework of beliefs and practices that distinguished one society from another.

So far, so uncontroversial, one might have thought – but not so. Among the many criticisms that were levelled at Huntington was the claim that his demarcation of possible civilisations was inaccurate, too generalised, possibly racist and failed to take account of the variety of identities within individual countries.

There’s plainly something in all of these arguments, but the question that emerges in light of recent events is whether we have thrown the politically incorrect baby out with the civilisational bathwater. In other words, are there at least some parts of the world where there is a fundamental clash of values that can be understood in these sorts of very broad-brush terms?

One of the reasons Huntington’s thesis makes many uncomfortable is that being ‘civilized’ can often mean something specific, Western and condescending. And yet intolerant, theocratic, patriarchal rule that sanctions the brutal slaughter of others who happen to see the world slightly differently looks pretty uncivilised to me.

Call me part of a self-satisfied global bourgeoisie if you like, but there’s something to be said for the toleration of individual difference, especially when it’s enshrined in law.

Whether we want to describe the differences between Islamic State and other forms of political and social organisation in civilisational terms is in some ways beside the point. However we describe the people who make up IS, for example, the reality is that there is no basis for negotiation or compromise with people who think they are on a mission from God.

Troublingly, even where religious beliefs are not the principal or immediate motivating force for action, they can effectively demarcate political communities. The unresolved conflict between Israelis and their Palestinian neighbours is plainly not just about religious differences, but such sources of identity and community are not irrelevant either.

There are many reasons to take exception with Huntington’s ideas, no doubt, and yet he was certainly right about one thing. The end point of what people still like to refer to as globalisation has not been a seamless melding of global cultures into one increasingly cosmopolitan common core, much less a ubiquitous Western form of modernity.

On the contrary, differences persist and are being actively championed, and not just by the radical IS jihadis.

The differences between China and the US remain significant, even if they are not as profound as Huntington thought, perhaps. The fact that China has embraced capitalism should not be underestimated when trying to make sense of how that country – dare one say, civilisation – is likely to develop in the future.

But it is noteworthy that China’s leaders and people – just like their counterparts in the US – think that their country has particular attributes and qualities that give it a unique historical mission. Even our own prime minster is not above talking about the significance of the ‘Anglosphere’ as the cultural cement that ties us to the US and Britain.

Whether such ideas merit serious academic scrutiny is not relevant. If ideas about identity, purpose and power can be mobilised by political elites to suit their particular purposes, history suggests they probably will be.

In this regard, IS is an especially virulent manifestation of something that has long plagued humanity and which shows no sign of disappearing. Perhaps Huntington wasn’t entirely wrong after all.