Critics, students, and commentators provided different reactions to Huntington’s argument regarding the clash of civilizations. However, the most interesting reaction concerns the way he developed the idea of civilization. It seems as if he wanted to simplify the definition of civilization in the context of religious beliefs. It is an interesting idea because it does not require a historian or anthropologist to realize that a civilization is a complex cultural and sociological concept.
In addition, this concept is also made up of elements beyond the scope of religion. However, Huntington did not make the mistake of implying that people should see civilizations only through a religious context because he simply wanted his readers to see the critical importance of religion in shaping the said civilizations. Huntington was correct in saying that religion is the critical factor in shaping civilizations.
Huntington Defines Civilization
Huntington tried to explain the source of conflicts that people hear and see in newspaper headlines, television news, and social media. In the process, he realized that these conflicts were no longer the byproducts of the traditional root causes of wars and acts of violence. Huntington had to find another explanation because the standard reasoning involving national states and political ideologies is no longer a valid response in determining the sources of conflicts in the present age.
One can argue that Huntington had to consider the other factors at play in 21st century wars. He had to consider language, place of origin, and cultural characteristics of the terrorists. As a result, he had to come up with the idea of the clash of civilizations. Nevertheless, it did not take long before commentators started to complain about the negative impact of the oversimplification process.
Huntington’s Oversimplification; Leaving out Key Elements
In order to make his theory an acceptable world view, Huntington had to simplify the grouping of different nations into a selected list of categories. He did not acknowledge how he tried to simplify the grouping because he clarified that it was the highest cultural grouping possible. He went on to say that these civilizations were shaped into its present form as the result of religious movements.
It is hard to defend Huntington’s position from critics because they attack using a technical definition of civilization. In fact, Huntington acknowledged the issue in the beginning when he wrote the following, “It is defined both by common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” (Huntington 24).
However, writing a few lines about the other elements of civilization did not satisfy the critic’s desire to see a detailed description, so that one critic had to clarify the other elements when she made a counterargument and wrote the following, “the people of the world can be classified according to many other partitions: nationalities, locations, classes, social status, languages, politics, and many others (Sen 1). Critics like Sen were correct in warning about the potential problems that may arise if there is no way to clarify Huntington’s explanation as to the root cause of conflicts.
It is important to point out the implications created by Huntington’s oversimplified definition of the said term, especially when it comes to religious extremism. It is imperative to take a closer look at the consequences that may arise if a particular religion gets an unfair treatment due to the actions of a few members. Amartya Sen’s conclusion regarding the use of a framework characterized by a “single-dimensional categorization of human beings” was right on target (1). Lumping together a Muslim extremist with a law-abiding Muslim is not the best thing to do. Categorizing violent people with peace-loving men and bringing them together under one civilization is not the best course of action.
Huntington’s definition becomes more problematic the moment he complicates it with the idea he called the clash of civilization. In other words, there was an implied idea that the so-called Christian civilization of the West is in conflict with the Muslim civilization of the Arab world, even if the majority of the people living in the said regions are not in favor of using violence in resolving cultural or religious conflicts.
Criticism on Huntington’s Definition of Civilization
Amartya Sen’s warning about the danger of oversimplification struck a chord. However, a closer look at Huntington’s argument reveals a different insight in the way he utilized religion as a powerful force influencing the establishment of civilizations all over the planet. In other words, understanding Huntington’s idea as a mere oversimplification of civilization on the basis of religion was not the author’s intended purpose.
Huntington’s objective was not to force his readers to see civilizations characterized by Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam. He was not implying for instance that the Western civilization was a Judeo-Christian civilization. He simply stated the idea that due to economic and socio-political problems, nation-states are finding it difficult to hold on to “longstanding social identities” (Huntington 26). The author remarked that the vacuum created by weak states is being filled by religious movements. It is in this context wherein Huntington insisted on the predominance of religion. Therefore, one can also argue that from this point of view, Huntington was correct in saying that religion was the most important aspect in the shaping of civilizations.
At first glance, it seems as if Huntington was guilty of oversimplifying the definition of civilization. As a consequence, commentaries were written criticizing the negative impact of the said world view. Amartya Sen’s provided an excellent criticism, especially with regards to the problematic issue of lumping together religious people with religious fanatics.
However, a closer examination of Huntington’s position reveals no attempt at simplifying the definition in the context of religious beliefs. His intention was to point out the critical role of religion in the formation of civilizations. Huntington was correct in highlighting religion as the critical aspect in the formation of civilizations, especially when it comes to global conflicts due to differences in the way people perceive God and fellow human beings. Huntington created a persuasive argument when he pointed out how religious movements became powerful forces in shaping new identities.
Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, pp. 22-49.
Sen, Amartya. What Clash of Civilizations? Slate.com, 2006.