Samuel Huntington was one of America's greatest political scientists. In 1993, he published a sensational essay in Foreign Affairs called The Clash Of Civilisations? The essay, which became a book, argued that the post-Cold War world would be marked by civilisational conflict.
Human beings, Huntington wrote, are divided along cultural lines - Western, Islamic, Hindu and so on. There is no universal civilisation. Instead, there are these cultural blocks, each within its own distinct set of values.
The Islamic civilisation, he wrote, is the most troublesome. People in the Arab world do not share the general suppositions of the Western world. Their primary attachment is to their religion, not to their nation-state. Their culture is inhospitable to certain liberal
ideals, such as pluralism, individualism and democracy.
Huntington correctly foresaw that the Arab strongman regimes were fragile and were threatened by the masses of unemployed young men. He thought these regimes could fall, but he did not believe that the nations would modernise in a Western direction.
Amid the tumult of regime change, the rebels would selectively borrow tools from the West, but their borrowing would be refracted through their own beliefs. They would follow their own trajectory and not become more Western.
The Muslim world has bloody borders, he continued. There are wars and tensions where the Muslim world comes into conflict with other civilisations. Even if decrepit regimes fell, he suggested, there would still be a fundamental clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. The Western nations would do well to keep their distance from Muslim affairs. The more the two civilisations intermingle, the worse the tensions will be.
Huntington's thesis set off a furious debate. But with the historic changes sweeping through the Arab world, it's illuminating to go back and read his argument today.
In retrospect, I'd say that Huntington committed the Fundamental Attribution Error. That is, he ascribed to traits qualities that are actually determined by context.
He 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. But it now appears as though they were simply living in circumstances that did not allow that patriotism or those spiritual hungers to come to the surface.
It now appears that people in these nations, like people in all nations, have multiple authentic selves. In some circumstances, one set of identities manifests itself, but when those circumstances change, other equally authentic identities and desires get activated.
For most of the past few decades, people in Arab nations were living under regimes that rule by fear. In these circumstances, most people shared the conspiracy mongering and the political passivity that these regimes encouraged. But when the fear lessened, and the opportunity for change arose, different aspirations were energised. Over the past weeks, we've seen Arab people ferociously attached to their national identities. We've seen them willing to risk their lives for pluralism, openness and democracy.
I'd say Huntington was also wrong in the way he defined culture.
In some ways, each of us is like every person on Earth; in some ways, each of us is like the members of our culture and group; and, in some ways, each of us is unique. Huntington minimised the power of universal political values and exaggerated the influence of distinct cultural values. It's easy to see why he did this. He was arguing against global elites who sometimes refuse to acknowledge the power of culture at all.
But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.
Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.
Finally, I'd say Huntington misunderstood the nature of historical change. In his book, he describes transformations that move along linear, projectable trajectories. But that's not how things work in times of tumult.
Instead, one person moves a step. Then the next person moves a step. Pretty soon, millions are caught up in a contagion, activating passions they had but dimly perceived just weeks before. They get swept up in momentums that have no central authority and that, nonetheless, exercise a sweeping influence on those caught up in their tides.
I write all this not to denigrate the great Huntington. He may still be proved right. The Arab world may modernise on its own separate path. But his mistakes illuminate useful truths: that all people share certain aspirations and that history is wide open. The tumult of events can transform the traits and qualities that seemed, even to great experts, etched in stone.
New York Times
Hunger for liberty
Huntington minimised the power of universal political values and exaggerated the influence of distinct cultural values... But it seems clear that many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.