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In the early 1990s, the condition of the world was more desirable than ever. The Cold War concluded and the forces of liberal democracy and free market capitalism had prevailed over communism. Intellectuals did not hesitate to bourgeon visions of optimistic forecasts about the future, such as Francis Fukuyama’s daring claim that the world was on the verge of “the end of history,” where liberal democracy would prevail as the supreme ideology indefinitely. Amid this enthusiasm came an ominous warning from Samuel Huntington.
Huntington’s thesis was simple: conflict in the post-Cold War order would chiefly occur along cultural lines, primarily focusing on religion. Huntington speculated that the West would find itself pitted against Sinic, Orthodox, and Islamic civilizations, and that “the fundamental source of conflict in this new world [would] not be primarily ideological or economic,” (Huntington) a fact that contains strong merit today. Therefore, I argue that there is, indeed, a “clash of civilizations” (COC) in the post-Cold War age.
This essay will begin by defining civilization, subsequently present examples to support the argument, and lastly provide a counter argument and conclusion.
Huntington defined a civilization as “the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity… defined by language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and self-identification of the people” (Huntington). He saw a strong correlation between culture and religion, with religion playing the most vital role in bonding a group together within a civilization. Religion is central because society and government is structured by it, and it shapes values at the most fundamental level.
Each civilization is hermetically sealed with a traditional set of values and beliefs that exist within it. For instance, Islam maintains a shared religion, language, and ethnicity to form a strong identity. Also, as people define their identity in ethnic and religious terms, they are likely to adapt an “us vs. them” position between those from a different civilization; hence, resulting in a clash because of major tectonic conflicts. Because of this, conflicts tend to predominantly fall along cultural lines between different civilizations (Sakwa).
Firstly, the most noteworthy example of a COC is the rise of Islamic extremism, which has been the champion security concern for the West. Recently, Islamic gunmen attacked the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo over a sardonic cartoon of Prophet Mohammed, leaving 12 people dead because of a religious-related avenge (Cassidy).
Anger and unrest over the cartoon has spread throughout the Islamic world against the West; hundreds of protestors in Gaza tried to overrun a French cultural center and rioters in Niger burned numerous buildings and killed 10. At times like this, there is a propensity to view things in Manichean terms, and to believe, as Huntington postulated, that the event was the result of a COC, with the division of the West on one side and the “Islam[ic] bloody borders” (Huntington) on the other.
Next, ISIS has brutally suppressed any cultural outlets that do not fit within its strict interpretation of Sharia. ISIS’s culture war has taken even more extreme dimensions: in 2015, the group executed 13 teenage boys for watching soccer because it violated Sharia law (Steinbuch). Obviously, there is a strong religious element in ISIS’s behavior.
Nonetheless, ISIS extremism might be the most eye-catching element of COC but hardly the only one. The violent zealotry occurring in Nigeria amidst the transformation of the country’s politics is evidence of a COC. The driving force of Boko Haram is religion, with Islam violently questioning Western values. In Nigeria, Boko Haram (whose name translates into “Western education is forbidden”) has killed thousands of people and kidnapped hundreds of schoolgirls. Targeting schoolgirls shows that the group is largely motivated by culture and religion rather than politics. Even Buddhists, long renowned for their pacifism, have been slaughtering Muslims by the hundreds in Myanmar and Sri Lanka for not adhering to like-minded religious practices.
Like the Islamic world, the Sinic civilization believes itself to be superior to the West, seeking to challenge the West for global influence. Perhaps the largest COC is occurring between the United States and China. China has modernized without Westernizing, creating tensions with the western values and cultures of the United States. China’s resistance to Western supremacy stems from its Confucian values, which emphasize the importance of hierarchy, authority, consensus, and the state’s dominion over society, which clash with American beliefs of liberty, equality, democracy, and individualism. The chasm between the two makes a Western-style political structure incompatible with Chinese civilizational traditions. As a result, the relationship between the two civilizations has become increasingly confrontational, especially as China’s economic and military power expands to pursue a role as a global hegemon.
Moreover, a COC exists between Muslims and the Han Chinese in Xinjian. Most Uighurs are Muslim and Islam is an important part of their life and identity. Their language is related to Turkish, and they regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. Recently, major development projects have brought prosperity to Xinjiang’s big cities, attracting young and technically qualified Han Chinese from eastern provinces. While the situation is complex, many say that ethnic tensions caused by cultural factors are the root of the recent violence.
The Uighurs and the Han are in constant conflict because the central Chinese government is also often accused of suppressing the expression of Uighur cultural and religious identity. Such means include banning Muslim government officials from fasting during Ramadan and limiting the number of religious activities; therefore, Uighurs fear the erosion of local identity by the Han Chinese. China has reportedly embarked on an aggressive “Sinification” campaign to recast various “foreign” religions to reflect the regime’s priorities and unique culture. Yet, ongoing efforts of Sinification of Islam will likely only intensify deep ethnic-religious faultiness in modern China, such as the 2013 showing of terror when several Uighurs-using an SUV- ploughed through visitors at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
Thus, the recent incidents in Xinjiang emphasize cultural clashes. Restrictions on Islamic religious practices incite anger among Muslims elsewhere as well. Muslims in Turkey often condemn China’s authoritarian measures over the Uighur population. Even the Iranians, who are close allies to the Chinese, often express criticism against China over heavy-handed policies conducted in Uighur-populated areas (Ramani). The Xinjian question will remain a black mark on China with regards to its conduct of Muslim-populated cities, which could erupt a potentially wider COC conflict between the Sinic and the Islamic civilizations.
Across the pond, the current situation in Ukraine is an example of COC between Orthodoxy and the West. The mostly Orthodox east of Ukraine and the mostly pro-Western west side of the country have inevitable conflict with each other. Moreover, a deeper religious situation exists in Ukraine, where the stand-off between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Constantinople have reached new heights. This situation is currently taking place after the events of 2014 when a largely pro-Western demonstration forced the largely pro-Eastern government out of power, replacing it with a pro-Western coup government. In the Donbass and other eastern parts of Ukraine, nationalists are bitterly resisting the coup-government in Kiev’s ongoing attempt to join NATO and the EU. Accordingly, the clash is culturally-motivated between two groups of people fighting over what identity and what civilization they want to identify Ukraine with.
In a separate but related point, the predominantly Orthodox Armenia and mostly Muslim Azerbaijan declared war over Nagorno-Karabakh, and both sides received outside support from patrons within their civilizational categories: the Turks backed their religious and cultural brethren in Azerbaijan, and the Russians came to the aid of their Orthodox comrades in Armenia. This is explained by Huntington’s “kin-country syndrome,” where one state that is in a war with another in a different civilization rallies up support within their own civilization (Huntington, 15). This can be seen gradually emerging in the post-Cold War conflicts in the Persian Gulf, the Caucasus, and Bosnia. Each involved some elements of civilizational rallying and may provide a foretaste of future COC.
What’s more, statistics point to an accretion in religious conflicts. A study by the Pew Foundation found that countries with an extensive level of religious hostilities reached a six-year high in 2012 (“Global”). In that same period, religious terrorism rose from merely 9 percent of countries to 20 percent (“Global”). Overall, the report found that 40 percent of countries have some form of religious conflict or discrimination. These countries include China, India, and Russia and account for 76 percent of the world’s population (“Global”).
A COC between the West and Islam is a staggering figure: in a mere 17 years since the 9/11 attacks, practically every major Western city has suffered some sort of Islamic attack (Marche). New York City, Washington, D.C., London, Paris, Amsterdam, Glasgow, Boston, and Ottawa have tasted the bitter brew of jihad. Granted, there is a high probability that strolling through the greatest centers of Western civilization, citizens can now expect Islam-inspired mass shootings, bombings, stabbings, hostage-takings, hijackings, and vehicular manslaughters- all of which since the start of the new millennium, have taken place on Western streets.
On the other hand, tremendous diversity within the Islamic world serves as an important counterargument to Huntington’s theory. Islam is a faith with more than 1.3 billion followers around the world (Lipka). They live under kings and presidents, prime ministers and caliphs, and in many cases, they have less in common with each other than they do with their non-Muslim counterparts. One could argue that countries such as Tunisia, Malaysia, and Turkey have more in common with the West than with Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Another rebuttal of the COC is that it assumes, for example, there is a single, unified “West” and a single, unified “Islam,” however, the distinctions and variations within both worlds are myriad. George W. Bush was ardent to emphasize that not all Muslims were to blame for 9/11, and fought two wars to try and bring democracy to the Middle East, viewing it as an ideological war rather than a cultural war.
However, after the initial “war on terror,” it is precisely the idea of a COC that Islamists embrace because it frames the conflict as one against all of Islam and its culture, not just the jihadists (Hirsh). The kin-country syndrome also serves as evidence that all countries within the Islamic civilization will gather to protect their identity and cultural values. In 2016, the COC claim was vindicated because the ideas that the West would find repugnant permeate across the Muslim world making the spread of western liberalism difficult. For example, in Afghanistan, roughly 70% of Muslims find honor killing acceptable (“Worlds”), which is quite the contrary of Western ideals. Spreading democracy, then, to Muslim countries is impossible because of cultural inconsistencies and the “war on terror” has very much been a cultural conflict.
In conclusion, taking the evidence together, it must be concluded that post-Cold War clashes are culturally-driven: the ongoing Western conflict with the Islamic world, clashes in Ukraine, and the Sinic battles with the Western/Islamic world all prove that there is a COC. Undoubtedly, these clashes occur around Huntington’s prescribed fault lines. What are the current ongoing conflicts in the world? The Council of Foreign Relations lists Islamist Militancy in Russia, Destabilization of Mali, and the violence in Myanmar, to name a few.
There is a pattern: they involve Muslim groups in conflict with non-Muslims. Religious elements contribute significantly to the intensity and longevity of the conflicts (Holt). The current and future policy problems? Uncontrollable African and Middle Eastern mass migration to Europe, mostly though North Africa’s coastline. Where is the migration causing a rift? Between the conservative and Orthodox Eastern and Central Europe and the comparatively more socially liberal Western and Northern Europe.
These observations exhibit that a COC is very much alive in the post-Cold War period. Why are cultural and religious groups fighting so much? Globalization. Our world has become vastly interconnected, bringing various groups into contact through trade, immigration, and travel where previously these groups were hardly aware of each other. Rather than focus on common ground, they tend to highlight the differences between one another, especially when they have fundamentally different ideas values, ultimately resulting in a COC. With an eventful and volatile 2018 behind us (almost) and an unpredictable 2019 ahead, President Trump anticipates that America’s political and intellectual battles support that a COC exists and points to modern conflicts. In fact, higher profile for religion in international relations has manifested because of growing COC conflicts, including an increasing presence at the United Nations.
The UN itself instituted a new entity in 2005: The Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), whose name was a direct riposte to Huntington’s argument about the inevitability of civilizations clashing in the post-Cold war world (Haynes). The UNOAC prioritizes building “cross-cultural relations between diverse nations and communities” (UNOAC). This showcases the need for different civilizations to work assiduously to achieve improved inter-civilizational dialogue and engage in bridge building to replace the modern confrontation rhetoric of an overbearing COC.
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