The Impossibility of the Clash of Civilizations in a Globalized World

John O. Voll

Someone who speaks about the “impossibility of the clash of civilizations” sounds like a person who does not read the news. The world is filled with clashes and significant conflicts. The problem arises when one asks about the nature of those conflicts. While tensions exist, they are not clashes between civilizations. If significant conflicts are incorrectly identified, finding paths to their resolution is difficult if not impossible. Misdiagnosis can make things worse. The profound conflicts at the beginning of the twenty-first century must be understood in the context of the globalized realities of this century, rather than being viewed through outdated concepts of previous centuries.

“Civilizations,” as defined by Samuel Huntington in his famous article in 1993 and in most world history textbooks of the time, no longer exist. This old definition described “civilizations” as large cultural units of identity that were distinct from one another. In Huntington’s words in 1993: “Arabs, Chinese, and Westerners, however, are not part of any broader cultural entity. They constitute civilizations. A civilization is thus the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” These civilizations might interact but they remained separate entities that could, and frequently did, “clash.”

Such cleanly distinct units of identity no longer exist. Even before the contemporary dynamics of globalization, the boundaries of these supposedly separate units were transcended by the major religious traditions. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism were multi-civilizational in profound ways. In the current world, many important entities have identities that are not tied to any one civilization. A recent issue of The Economist (7-13 April 2007) highlights the new structure of corporations as “Globalisation’s offspring.” New structures involve “globally integrated enterprise” with firms shaping strategy and operations “as a single global entity.” Trends in popular culture, major criminal activities like the drugs and arms trade, and humanitarian networks are generally not restricted by the boundaries of so-called “civilizations.”

The diversity of identities underlying many of the most violent conflicts of our times does not rest on “civilizational” differences. The bloody conflicts in Ireland, Sri Lanka, and East Timor, for example, were and are not clashes between groups from different civilizations. The core of the most violent clashes in Iraq is sectarian and regional-ethnic differences, not differences that are defined by the boundaries of two civilizations. Christian-Muslim clashes in Nigeria are misunderstood (and unresolvable) if they are viewed as somehow being part of the battle between “Islamic civilization” and “Western civilization.”

Profound clashes of culture and life visions are a part of the major conflicts of our time. Some analysts expand the “clash of civilizations” interpretation and see the major clashes as involving clashes between “modernity” and forces opposed to “modernity.” This approach provides a way of going beyond the limits of the analysis based on ideas of the “clash of civilization.” However, this approach also needs to be expanded to include the current conditions of the globalized world.

“Modernity” was viewed, fifty years ago, as a unitary identification. It was believed that as world societies “modernized,” they would become increasingly alike. However, as modernity became global, different forms of “modern” societies developed. The result was the emergence of what S. N. Eisenstadt has called “multiple modernities.” By the beginning of the twenty-first century, every society – anyplace on the globe – has been transformed in some significant ways by modernity, that is, they have become “modernized.” Competition among different modes of modernity and efforts to define a distinctive modernity for specific societies are part of the foundation of the major conflicts visible around the world today.

The great conflicts of our time are not clashes of civilizations, they are clashes and competitions between different modes of modernity: “a clash of modernities,” not “a clash of civilizations.”

The war in Iraq is an important case since it is probably the most visible clash in the contemporary world. There was a conflict between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the United States. However, Saddam was not a major Islamic leader. His ideological tradition is the tradition of the Ba’th Party. The Ba’th Party began as a radical socialist movement in Syria and the Levant. Its visions and programs were based on the need for a radical and revolutionary transformation of Arab (not Muslim) society. The Party and its leaders were products of the modernization process and were not part of the conservative or “traditional” opposition to modernity. It would be legitimate to call Saddam one of “modernity’s gifts to the Arab world.”

Saddam’s mode of modernity is in a long tradition of authoritarian modernity. Since the eighteenth century, as modernity developed in Western countries, two competing styles of modernity emerged. One emphasized individualism and democratic popular participation, while the other emphasized the importance of communal identity (ranging from nationalism to authoritarian communism) and centralized- efficient authority. The clash between these two visions is at least part of the conflict involved in the two World Wars of the twentieth century and in the Cold War.

The clash continues as states and societies work to control the threats presented by violent extremists and terrorists. Part of the debate is whether authoritarian suppression utilizing the modern technologies of control can defeat violent extremists or if the long term solution is to give strength to the democratic-participatory mode of democracy. Recent terrorist attacks in Algeria emphasize the immediacy of these issues. Craig Smith in the New York Times- “Week in Review” (15 April 2007) defined the debate clearly in its Algerian context as “a debate over whether the military rescued Algeria from the establishment of an Iranian-like theocracy [when the military intervened in 1992 and stopped democratic elections that might have brought an Islamist party to power] or whether the repression only hardened an impulse that would have dissipated in democracy’s tempering bath.” In this clash, all sides represent different forms of modernity and are part of the local cultural identity. It is not a clash of civilizations.

In the profound and global conflict, the concept of the “clash of civilizations” is not only conceptually no longer viable, it is dangerously misleading. If the battle against Muslim extremists and terrorists is viewed as a part of the “clash of civilizations” between “Islam” and “the West,” it means that the many Muslims who are part of the movements of democratic modernity are ignored and probably alienated. It means that the advocates of democratic modernity are weakened by self-imposed conceptualizations of clashing identities.

John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.