Samuel Huntington has died, though it took a few days for the news to reach the media. Huntington, a Harvard professor of political science, was the author of The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. When someone dies, the custom is to praise him. I’d like to honor custom, but Huntington’s most famous book was a pernicious work that has seems to have served as ideological underpinning for America’s failed foreign policy under George W. Bush.
Soon after 9/11, when everyone was talking Huntington, I wrote a riff on the book and my concern that it would create unneeded battle lines. I’m sorry to say that my worries were justified. Here’s part of what I wrote then:
…as some ideas do, this one seeped into popular culture, ready to be quoted when the need arose even by people who couldn’t quite recall the source. September 11 created the need. Say “civilization,” and instead of a battle against an invisible enemy with an opaque ideology, you have a war of the West against Islam. The problem is that Huntington’s thesis is intellectually fuzzy, factually incorrect – and likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
…Huntington defined a civilization as a “cultural entity” – “the broadest level of cultural identity people have, short of that which distinguishes humans from other species.” Since “culture” itself is a slippery concept, so is “civilization.” A civilization, he said, is defined by common language (though the only civilization on his list with a common tongue is Japanese), a common history (though Indonesians hardly share a history with Iranians) and most importantly, by religion (though he places Catholic Italians in one civilization and Catholic Argentinians in another).
The lines between religions, Huntington asserted, are sharper than those between nations… In fact, we live in an era of unparalleled religious mixing. Charismatic Catholics copy Pentecostal Protestants and speak in tongues. Islamic preachers of the End cite the New Testament. New Age Jews borrow from Buddhist meditation. The liberals of sundry faiths often find it easier to speak to each other than to the conservatives of their own religions.
…[Huntington] described fundamentalism as a force uniting civilizations from within and sharpening the borders between them. Yet the divisions between fundamentalists, mainstream believers, and secularists slice through America itself, Islamic countries, Hindu India and the Jewish state, and opposition to fundamentalism creates a common cause across the supposed borders of civilizations.
For the West, Huntington sometimes substituted “Western Christianity.” That erased the differences between Catholics and Protestants, and required ignoring the protracted agony of Northern Ireland. His passing references to Jews and Israel appeared to place them in the West. Perhaps Judaism is an honorary Protestant denomination.
In the real world, Jews identify with the West precisely to the extent that it excludes religion and history as conditions for full membership in society… We can happily sign on the Bill of Rights. We cannot identify with Western history as a package deal; that history includes Nazism, the Inquisition and the Crusades. When George W. Bush refers to America’s current war effort as a “crusade,” he reminds us to be queasy about Western civilization. In Jewish historical memory, “crusade” means the same thing as “jihad,” and neither is healthy for us.
…Defining today’s conflict as the West against Islam satisfies the desire for a large, easily identified enemy. Yet framing this battle as a clash of civilizations invites every Muslim from Morocco to Indonesia to take the side of the men who crashed the planes. It labels every Muslim who opposes fundamentalists, every Muslim leader willing to work with the U.S., as a traitor. It risks turning a misconception into a political fact.