The Clash of Civilizations

The Clash of Civilizations Reexamining the Threat of Islam Post 9/11

Throughout his text, Huntington dismisses a multicultural view of the world. He believes that embracing multiculturalism would threaten the identity of the United States as a Western civilization. In the years after his text was published, scholars like Edward Said have responded to Huntington by going into greater detail about the ways in which he misunderstands multiculturalism. Said, a public intellectual who primarily studied literature and culture, wrote a particularly well-known and scathing review of Huntington’s text. Said is best known for coining the term “Orientalism,” which refers to the process of Westerners simplifying the East to an “other”—a place different from their own civilization and thus defined primarily by its stereotypes. Said’s pushback against Huntington is rooted, in many ways, in his defense of “Eastern” civilizations that are often stereotyped or generalized in this way.

Said’s article “The Clash of Ignorance?” was published in 2001 as a refutation of Huntington. He points to many ways in which Huntington’s argument falls short of reality. In particular, he criticizes Huntington’s text because “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.” To Said, Huntington’s attempt to provide a broad explanation for civilizational trends and the workings of global politics after the Cold War is reductive. He makes reference to “the West” and “Islam” in much the same way that those who perpetuate Orientalism did; he sets these two up as fundamentally different, with Islam acting as an “Other” in the minds of Westerners. Moreover, he presents a world so simplified and boiled down to generalities that Said dismisses it as “cartoonlike.” This sharp denunciation is typical of many critics who respond to Huntington’s argument in defense of multiculturalism. To them, Huntington’s argument feeds into harmful stereotypes.

Said also brings the events of 9/11 into his response. His article was published towards the end of 2001, the year of the attacks, and is thus able to respond to Huntington’s ideas from a post-9/11 perspective. Said points out that 9/11 has been regarded as “proof” of Huntington’s thesis regarding the dangers Islam poses to the West. He argues that this represents a failure to see the attacks for what they are: “the capture of big ideas…by a tiny band of crazed fanatics for criminal purposes.” This reference to the specific dangers posed by individual terrorists as opposed to an idea of the general danger posed by Islam as a whole is typical of multicultural arguments that push back against Huntington’s thesis. Scholars like Said point to the dangers of pitting civilization against civilization, especially after such a horrific act of violence; inciting fear of the “Other” can only lead to conflict and alienation. Instead, Said proposes a more nuanced view that accepts the complicated interrelation of cultures and does not presume to separate them neatly into different boxes.

In 2011, David Brooks published an article that provided a more updated response to Huntington. He echoes many of Said’s criticisms, and adds more information from recent events to support a refutation of Huntington’s hypotheses. Brooks does acknowledge that some of Huntington’s predictions came true. However, he argues that Huntington committed the Fundamental Attribution Error, meaning “he ascribed to traits qualities that are actually determined by context.” In other words, he falsely assumed that all of Islam was a threat to the West because, in recent circumstances, particular Muslim terrorists had harmed the United States. According to Brooks, Huntington confuses correlation for causation; because recent conflicts happen to have involved Islamic values versus Western ones for a variety of reasons, he concludes that Islam and the West are fundamentally opposed. Like Said, Brooks emphasizes that it does not make sense to pit all of Islam against all of the West. We must instead consider terrorist attacks as individual instances, and understand acts of terrorism in their full context.

When analyzing Huntington’s argument, it is important to keep its historical context in mind. However, it is also helpful to consider more recent responses to the text, which have reacted to the predictions and hypotheses Huntington put forth. With a text as controversial as The Clash of Civilizations, these multiple perspectives on the validity of the argument should be taken into consideration.