Edward’s Said Response to S. P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”1

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Suzanne M. Yountchi

January 29, 2002

GOV 379: Henry

Short Paper #1: p.

Edward’s Said Response to S.P. Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”1
Samuel Huntington’s article, “The Clash of Civilizations” published in 1993, sparked controversy in the discourse of international relations. In light of the publication and the reactions in countered, nothing would “clash” like the ideas of Edward Said and Samuel Huntington. If Said and Huntington were to meet each other in a bar, the notion of being a fly on the wall would be invaluable. Not to say that a “bar fight” would start right then and there, but Said’s response to Huntington would be somewhat inflamed, as he is one who cannot believe that Huntington had the audacity to “…make ‘civilizations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history….(Said, p. 1). In other words, Said would argue that while Huntington aimed to illustrate the importance of identity in theorizing how nations will interact, so not to “black box” the state as theories falling in the realist and liberal paradigms so often do, he inadvertently did just that by drawing the fault lines and dividing the global village into clashing tribes, being too quick to give labels to nation groups, and blaming only looking at Western imperialism as a point to place blame, instead of looking at how our histories overlap.

In sum, Said would argue that Huntington wants to see the stage of global politics as “black and white”, when in reality, the world is nothing but a huge hue of gray.2

First, Said would argue that while it is important to include culture and identity in the toolbox needed to construct the lens for viewing and analyzing the nature of globalization and interactions in the new world order, Huntington has taken this argument to the extreme. He emphasizes the importance of identity to such an extent, that he takes away the gray area, and paints today’s issues as black and white. When he claims that “…the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations” (p.1) he pits cultural groups against each other. He sees the glass as half empty, instead of half full, ignoring the notion that “the cultural sphere” in itself indicates a stage where various political and ideological ideas are permitted to interact with each other. When we, as scholars, discuss the way that actors interact on the global stage, we do in fact aim to form a sort of generalization, and dub it a theory. Huntington however, goes to far and oversimplifies the global village when discussing the nature of civilizations. For example, Fouad Ajami notes how Huntington divides these whole and in tact civilizations while ignoring the fact that trenches run across civilizations and individuals. “Huntington marks out where one civilization ends and the wilderness of ‘the other’ begins (p. 26-7).

Furthermore, Huntington argues that as the world is becoming a “smaller place” the differences in civilizations are being noticed (p.4). These differences then, are viewed in a negative light, and hence instigate the inevitable “clash”. Said would not hesitate to imply that Huntington completely ignores that as both cultural groups and individuals discover these differences can actually raise the understanding and thus respect for the counter cultural group. Huntington ignores the notion that an increased concern for mankind can overcome the cultural tensions. Thus, Huntington has not only drawn the “fault lines” between cultural groups much too dark, thick, and basically in the wrong places, he was also too hasty in determining the reasons to draw them. For example, as Ajami observes that the power of the Huntington has exaggerated the power of the “traditionalist” he gives the example that “[t]he phenomenon we have dubbed Islamic Fundamentalism is less a sign of resurgence than of panic and bewilderment and guilt that the border with “the other” has been crossed” (p. 28). In other words, Huntington is exaggerating basic concepts in order to make his point clear. He basically took his notion too far.

What Huntington is doing is creating a problem of unedifying labels like Islam and the West: They mislead and confuse the mind which is trying to make sense of disorderly reality…”(Said, 2). For example, Ajami notes in his criticism of Huntington’s “Kin Country Syndrome” that he “bought” Saddam’s explanation for the Gulf War. Where the fight in the Gulf was a bid for primacy met by an imperial expedition that laid it to waste. So, the stranger is coming to check the kinsmen. In a nutshell, as Ajami illustrates, “[t]he world of Islam divides and sub divides” (p.33-34). Again, Huntington was too quick in drawing his lines between the civilizations and didn’t “read between the lines” close enough.

Said would however agree with Huntington that Western values are sometimes mistaken as universal and that Western imperialism did play an important role in making them universal. But with the onslaught of globalization, values deemed as “West” becomes the “best” and forced onto the “rest”. However, he would have to disagree with the notion that this is because of the “superpower” character of the United States or that the spread of Western values is attributed to an unrivaled Western military power (p. 16). Said would explain that the apparent emerging universal values are rooted in an overlapping history that turns out overlapping characteristics and identities.

It is only appropriate to conclude with the subject of prescriptions. Said would disagree with Huntington’s notion of what he sees as in the interest of the West in “short term” (p. 24-5). His short-term plan only reinforces Western imperialism. We should instead note instead how our histories are intertwined and that a separation of cultures is not valid. Furthermore, Huntington says that our goal should be to cultivate the vestiges of imperialism still imbedded in the American Culture (p. 25). Said would agree with this notion, that we should instead bring these aspects to the forefront and analyze them, instead of blaming them for our troubles.

1 Sources include: S.P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations? The Debate” Foreign Affairs, New York,, 1996. p. 1-35. and Edward Said, “The Clash of Ignorance” The Nation, Oct. 22, 2001, p. 1-4.

2 Said, like any good bar patron, sensing that he is getting hot under the collar, would bring in his good friend Fouad Ajami to help support his arguments and make sure that he didn’t pick up a chair and throw it Huntington.

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