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Planet of the Arabs

by shergald Thu Jan 7th, 2010 at 11:16:10 AM EST

Professor Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations, the most god-awful piece of historical research ever published, would likely derive confirmation from this video, a caricature of his theory about a pending clash between Islam and the West, which is today still promulgated by American and pro-Israel Neoconservatives. It is only a small step from Islam to Arabs.

But it is an even smaller step from Arabs to Islamophobia, the new bigotry.

I know why I don't accept Huntingdon's thesis. But I'm interested to know why you and others don't.  What, specifically, in Huntingdon's argument do you find incorrect or wrong, or is it simply that you don't like the moral implications or general flavor of it?
by santiago on Fri Jan 8th, 2010 at 02:50:46 PM EST
I have three basic issues with Huntington's ideas, in declining order of importance:

  1. The notion that there is such a thing as the Islamic civilisation. The reality is that there is a smattering of countries in which some flavour of Islam is the more or less dominant (or at least the majority) religion. But there is no serious attempt to forge a unified geopolitical power bloc (the last attempt at unifying the "Islamic" world was, ironically, the secular Pan-Arabist ideology of Nasser and his friends).

  2. The implication that there is a "Christian civilisation." Again, what actually exists is a smattering of countries in which (some flavour of) Christianity is the dominant (or at least majority) religion. But while they are indeed politically unified, under the American hegemony, they are hardly unified in their Christian identity. (Also, they aren't even that unified - last time I checked, Russian Orthodox Christians were also Christians.)

  3. The assertion that there is a causal connection between Christianity and secularism/pluralism. This is prima facie nonsense, as anybody who has spent five seconds watching Faux News can attest.

  4. The notion that the purported "Islamic civilisation" is fundamentally hostile to the purported "Christian civilisation." If those two civilisations actually existed, and if they were actually fundamentally hostile towards each other, we should see the people (if not necessarily the leadership) of - say - Turkey and Kurdistan display a greater hostility towards Italy and Austria than towards each other.

  5. The risk that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we act upon it.

  6. The fact that it is used to justify neocolonial and imperial adventures that are contrary to the best interests of European civilisation and most European citizens.

Disclaimer: I have not studied Huntington's ideas in any great depth, so what I critique is mostly the Conventional Wisdom's interpretation of them. OTOH, unlike Adam Smith and J.S. Mill (both of whom were safely dead by the time people started (seriously) abusing their works), this defence can only go so far, since he didn't really do anything much to dispel these perceptions.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Fri Jan 8th, 2010 at 04:21:02 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I have read the Clash of Civilizations closely and several times, and none of those things you list are claimed by Huntington, rather they are, as you say, the conventional wisdom interpretation of them. I even wrote an essay on your point number 6, and what Huntington would have thought about Western behaviour since he published his book, and especially the invasion of Iraq, based on the recomendations listed in page 312:

To preserve Western civilization in the face of declining Western power, it is in the interest of the United States and European countries: [...] and, most important, to recognize that Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world.

Huntington is badly minsunderstood by many people, especially leftists, who read the book like the devil reads the bible, if they even read the book at all. Huntington is a great scholar, not only because of his most famous book, but by his vast production as early as the 50's and 60's, on issues as diverse as modernization theory and the relations between the civilian and military authorities.

Further, he has written one of the greatest quotes ever, which I often ponder: The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion, but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact, non-Westerners never do.

Not to mention: In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous . . . Imperialism is the necessary logical consequence of universalism.


Hypocrisy, double standards, and "but nots" are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle.

Read the book, not because everything in it is necessarily right, but because it is certainly interesting and brilliant: an intellectual tour de force.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Fri Jan 8th, 2010 at 10:11:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, I take a quite fundamental issue with this part:

To preserve Western civilization in the face of declining Western power, it is in the interest of the United States and European countries:

Inasmuch as I don't see any WesternTM civilisation as such.

Also, the presumption that European and American interests are coterminous is rather strained. European interests dictate closer cooperation with Russia and the Southern Mediterranean. The Americans have no particular strategic interest in a Europe that deals with Russia without consulting our erstwhile allies in Washington. And the US certainly doesn't have any interest in a unified Mediterranean basin.

- Jake

Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate.

by JakeS (JangoSierra 'at' gmail 'dot' com) on Sat Jan 9th, 2010 at 01:18:08 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Huntington hardly says all of the interests of the US and Europe are the same, but some certainly are. Huntington also mentions that closer coperation with Russia is important, and clearly advises against meddling in Russias backyard, like the color revolutions.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.
by Starvid on Sat Jan 9th, 2010 at 12:12:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]

Most of the argument in the pages that followed relied on a vague notion of something Huntington called "civilization identity" and "the interactions among seven or eight [sic] major civilizations," of which the conflict between two of them, Islam and the West, gets the lion's share of his attention. In this belligerent kind of thought, he relies heavily on a 1990 article by the veteran Orientalist Bernard Lewis, whose ideological colors are manifest in its title, "The Roots of Muslim Rage." In both articles, the personification of enormous entities called "the West" and "Islam" is recklessly affirmed, as if hugely complicated matters like identity and culture existed in a cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly, with one always more virtuous pugilist getting the upper hand over his adversary. Certainly neither Huntington nor Lewis has much time to spare for the internal dynamics and plurality of every civilization, or for the fact that the major contest in most modern cultures concerns the definition or interpretation of each culture, or for the unattractive possibility that a great deal of demagogy and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilization. No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.


In another critique only now remembered, Huntington was cited for using statistical claims that Islam is inherently violent, a conclusion derived from hostilities that occurred within periSoviet Union states to the south that became independent on the Soviet Union's dissolution. It seems that he never bothered to look at other eras or centuries where data were available about Islamic societies that showed the oppositve, passivism.

by shergald on Sat Jan 9th, 2010 at 01:04:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Islam, or other religions or civilzations, have changed and developed over time, and it's hardly relevant to look at the christendom 1000 years ago, Islam in the 8th century or Kara-Khitai to get some kind of leads on how christians, muslims and buddhists behave today.

No, the West is the West, and Islam Islam.
Huntington writes extensively on the internal dynamics of his civilizations, especially on the sunni/shia-split.

Read his book instead of reading books about his book.

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Sat Jan 9th, 2010 at 05:28:26 PM EST
[ Parent ]

This split has been around a long time. Sorry I can't find the link to an article about more recent times, 19th and 20th centuries, for example.

by shergald on Sat Jan 9th, 2010 at 05:59:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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