Answering Islam - A Christian-Muslim dialog

“Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’”

By Jacob Thomas

هل أخطا هانتينجتون في صراع الحضارات؟

On Sunday, 20 March, 2011, the online Arabic daily Elaph posted an article by an Arab columnist with the headline, “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’” (*) Here is my translation of his interesting comments on Huntington’s thesis:

Samuel Huntington, professor of Political Science at Harvard University, published in 1993 an article, entitled ‘Clash of Civilizations?,’ in the journal Foreign Affairs. He put forth the theory that future wars would not be of an ideological nature as they have been in the past, between Capitalism and Communism, and before that, between Liberalism and Democracy, on one side, and Nazism and Fascism on the other. He claimed that clashes in the future would be based on civilizational and religious grounds.

Huntington pointed specifically to Muslims who would be clashing with the West, unlike the followers of other civilizations such as Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. His proof was that Muslims are basically antagonistic to the concept of nationalism. Their traditions are antithetical to the very basis of Western democratic ideals, such as individual freedom to even choose unbelief or change one’s religion and allow for the separation of religion from politics which would lead to the protection of minorities from the tyranny of the majority.[1]

Huntington’s article caused a great deal of controversy, especially after his thesis was expanded into a book, where the question mark was eliminated from its title. The book was considered an extremely polemical work filled with a spirit of hatred, and calling for religious wars. The author was charged with using two different standards of measurement, by singling out Muslims as the only enemies of freedom and of democratic values. But now, in the light of the various Intifadas taking place in the Arab world, it is time to ‘re-examine Huntington’s Clashes.’

For example, the New York Times published on 3 March 2011 ‘Huntington’s Clash Revisited’ by Op-Ed Columnist, David Brooks, who wrote: ‘Huntington argued that people in Arab lands are intrinsically not nationalistic. He argued that they do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West.’  (Source)

The commentator in the article on Elaph continued:

In fact, David Brook’s critique was not justified. After all, it was not Huntington who invented the primacy of the Islamic Umma over the individual nation. During the last few decades, it has been the source of animosity between Arab nationalists and Islamists, with the latter emphasizing the primacy of the Umma. When the Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood declared that he would prefer Egypt to be governed by a Muslim from any other country, rather than by a non-Muslim Egyptian, he was not expressing a merely personal opinion, but that of the majority of Egyptians. The same attitude explains the antagonism toward personal freedom, and democracy as the way of the Kuffar (infidels). Recently, a poll taken in Egypt showed that 41% of the population did not believe that democracy was the best system of government; and 84% were in favor of killing a Murtad (apostate).

And when Brooks writes, ‘But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty,’ he was not contradicting Huntington, since the latter had not denied the existence of those inhabiting portions of Arab and Muslim societies who yearned for freedom; Huntington was referring to the majority. Now who can make the claim that the majority of those partaking in the demonstrations actually believed in freedom and democracy, in the universally accepted meaning of these terms? For example, the disciples of Sheikh al-Qaradawi did not allow the young man, Wael Ghanem, to speak at Tahrir Square, since they did not subscribe to our concept of freedom. The followers of Al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) who belatedly showed their support for the revolution do not believe in a democracy that might bring a woman or a Christian to the position of head of state. Neither would they accept any legislation passed by parliament, unless it had first been approved by ‘Majles al-Fuqaha’ (Assembly of Sharia Experts). They posted all this about their program on the Internet. Therefore, was Huntington wrong, or was he right?

In fact, it would be far more important and useful if Arabs would reconsider and take to heart those points where Huntington was absolutely right in his diagnosis of Arab ills. I refer to those factors that caused Arabs to be quite different from all other civilizations, thus delaying for decades their uprisings in the cause of freedom and democracy!

Finally, we should not forget the dangers that may lead to the ‘stealing of the revolution.’ We must insist that several sections of society that truly adhere to principles of freedom, are represented on the committees that have been organized to preserve the benefits of the revolution, and to get them translated into facts of life. Otherwise, the condition of the Arab masses that participated recently in their Intifadas would be no better than that of the Egyptian young man, Wael Ghanem, whose dreams of freedom vanished when the Guardians of Sheikh al-Qaradawi intervened and silenced him at Cairo’s Tahrir Square.


The Arab intellectual who posted “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’” did not agree with David Brooks’ analysis and critique that “Huntington argued that people in Arab lands are intrinsically not nationalistic .... they do not hunger for pluralism and democracy in the way these things are understood in the West.”

The New York Times’ op-ed did not address the fact that several Arabic-language articles that appeared in March and early April, 2011, pointed to those ‘constants’ still afflicting the Arab-Muslim world: Islam’s worldview still dominates the outlook of the vast majorities of the common people, and progress in the cause of personal freedom, and all that stems from it has not yet been achieved.


It is very encouraging that Arab intellectuals are interacting with the late Professor Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis, now almost 20 years old; especially that it appeared on the daily online Elaph, the most widely-read newspaper in the Arab world. The author was fully aware of the great needs of the Arab world, namely to face realistically the challenges of our globalized world. Taking on a New York Times opinion writer was refreshing in its candor and insight. After all, the author actually has personal experience of Arab culture and belief first hand.

I was impressed with the Arab writer’s defense of Huntington’s thesis, as it dealt with Islam’s animosity toward all other civilizations. While not minimizing the sudden changes in the political climate emerging in Tunisia and Egypt, since the beginning of 2011, he reminded Mr. Brooks that fundamentally, not much has changed in the Muslim mind. One has only to study certain manifestations of that mind, to realize that Huntington’s thesis has not been disproved by the ascertainable facts on the ground. There are some great dangers that could nullify the hopes entertained by the “Revolution of 25 January” as one article claimed on Elaph’s website, dated 3 April, 20001: Realistic Fears Regarding an Unfinished Egyptian Revolution مخاوف مشروعة على ثورة مصرية لم تكتمل It ended with these ominous words: “There are several enigmas that surround the political life in Egypt. It is high time that the military authorities, who are now in control of political life in the country, to alleviate the fears of the people, by quickly responding to the demands of the ‘thawra’ (revolution) regarding the eliminations of all the vestiges of the corrupt Mubarak regime.” Within a few hours after the posting of the article, nine comments came from Egyptians who seconded the drift of the report, and pleaded with the authorities not to delay the implementation of the demands put forth by the young men and women who had demonstrated at Tahrir Square.

The most heartening and positive part of the article “Was Huntington Wrong in his ‘Clash of Civilizations?’” was the author’s statement “In fact, it would be far more important and useful if Arabs would reconsider and take to heart those points where Huntington was absolutely right in his diagnosis of their ills. I refer to those factors that caused Arabs to be quite different from all other civilizations, thus delaying for decades their uprisings in the cause of freedom and democracy, such as the animosity of Islam toward all other worldviews has been a major stumbling-block in keeping Muslims from catching up with the rest of the world.”

How true and apropos! It was not prejudice that made this Arab intellectual to say plainly that there were “factors that caused Arabs to be quite different from all other civilizations.” Among such factors one could quote these words from that elderly British sage and historian, Bernard Lewis, in an interview published in the Wall Street Journal, on 2 April, 2011 (*). He began by stating:

“My own feeling is that the greatest defect of Islam and the main reason they fell behind the West is the treatment of women,” he says. He makes the powerful point that repressive homes pave the way for repressive governments. “Think of a child that grows up in a Muslim household where the mother has no rights, where she is downtrodden and subservient. That’s preparation for a life of despotism and subservience. It prepares the way for an authoritarian society,” he says.

Then he proceeded to mention his fears about the future in Egypt:

Egypt is a more complicated case, Mr. Lewis says. Already the young, liberal protesters who led the revolution in Tahrir Square are being pushed aside by the military-Muslim Brotherhood complex. Hasty elections, which could come as soon as September, might sweep the Muslim Brotherhood into power. That would be “a very dangerous situation,” he warns. “We should have no illusions about the Muslim Brotherhood, who they are and what they want.”

And yet Western commentators seem determined to harbor such illusions. Take their treatment of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi. The highly popular, charismatic cleric has said that Hitler “managed to put [the Jews] in their place” and that the Holocaust “was divine punishment for them.”

Yet following a sermon Sheikh Qaradawi delivered to more than a million in Cairo following Mubarak’s ouster, New York Times reporter David D. Kirkpatrick wrote that the cleric “struck themes of democracy and pluralism, long hallmarks of his writing and preaching.” Mr. Kirkpatrick added: “Scholars who have studied his work say Sheik Qaradawi has long argued that Islamic law supports the idea of a pluralistic, multiparty, civil democracy.” (bold italics emphasis mine)

In closing, I would suggest that Mr. Brooks would do better to re-visit his own thoughts about Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations,” and reflect seriously on what certain Arab intellectuals think about the Harvard professor’s diagnosis of Islam’s problems with the rest of mankind. He might also put on his reading list, Professor Lewis’ forthcoming book, “The End of Modern History in the Middle East” (HOOVER INST PRESS PUBLICATION), to be published in May, 2011.

[1] The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, By Samuel P. Huntington. Published in 1996, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY 10020

Samuel Huntington’s emphasis on the unique nature of Islamic civilization, being at its core imperialistic; not only in its fusion of religion and politics, but in its expansionist motif or impulse, that of achieving world dominance, is explained in Chapter 10: From Transition Wars to Fault Line Wars

In all these places, [reference is to Middle East and Africa] the relations between Muslims and peoples of other civilizations --- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist, Jewish --- have been generally antagonistic; most of these relations have been violent at some point in the past; many have been violent in the 1990s. Wherever one looks at the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. The question naturally rises as to whether this pattern of late- twentieth-century conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim groups is equally true of relations between groups from other civilizations. In fact, it is not. Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world’s population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilization. The evidence is overwhelming. (P. 256)