Language is powerful. It is often the case that the words one uses to describe or frame an event are more important than the event itself. The examples of this reality abound in our present day. Maybe word choice has never been so provocative as it was when Professor Samuel Huntington penned his seminal essay “The Clash of Civilizations” in 1993. It has spawned countless critiques, both in favor and against, and continues to feature prominently in most discussions of contemporary global politics, especially as they relate to the Muslim world. The essay was intended to present a perspective on international relations that considers the role of culture and religion as a source of cooperation or conflict. For better or worse, the essay became much more than a perspective.
Recently, Islamica Magazine had a chance to ask Professor Huntington about his famous thesis, how it relates to present day politics and whether or not he feels his ideas have been “hijacked” for purposes he did not intend. In this sense, Muslims may feel a sort of kinship with Huntington – how it feels to be misunderstood.
It is worth pointing out that 9/11 could have been a launching pad for Huntington. For many, his thesis of a global clash was confirmed. Lesser academics, like Bernard Lewis, would have exploited the event for personal celebrity so as to sell the same book over and over again. In contrast, Huntington never exploited 9/11. In fact he would be the first to recognize that Pakistan’s cooperation with the US invasion of Afghanistan in the following months was an exception to his central thesis.
As much as the phrase “clash of civilizations” has become a flashpoint for the manipulation of rising tensions between two global communities, the ideas behind it have been forgotten. Huntington does not believe in a monolithic Muslim world, nor does he believe in a monolithic Western world. He does not claim any expertise in Islam. He is a political realist who sees the possibility for cooperation while recognizing the fault lines of conflict. What he is really saying is that religion will matter in the 21st century, so lets deal with it.
Instead of adding to the endless critique of his essay, it is was our hope that a conversation with Professor Huntington would serve to clarify his intentions behind the thesis, and at the same time expose the ideologues who use it for personal or political agendas. When the interviewer, Amina Chaudary, first approached Professor Huntington about the idea of an interview with a Muslim magazine, she recounted that he was rather reluctant and somewhat skeptical. However, by the end of the interview Huntington was genuinely appreciative that he was given an opportunity to clarify his ideas to the Muslim community, a community where he felt unfairly misrepresented. Sound familiar?
When asked: what is one thing about you that most people would be surprised to know, he answered, “Well I guess that a lot of people tend to think I’m a dogmatic ideologue, which I’m not.”
In other words, if we really wanted to know what he meant by writing the “Clash,” all we had to do was ask.
Firas Ahmad is senior editor of Islamica Magazine.