The Clash Within Civilisations Is More Important Than Between Them

Samuel Huntington’s bizarre thesis that the world was divided into irreducible identities based on “civilisations” received a boost after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, these superficial differences hide far more than they reveal.

As the Wagner Group marched towards Moscow, it was striking that not one American or European newspaper spoke of the January 6, 2021 attacks by pro-Trump rioters on Washington DC in the same breath. If Vladimir Putin’s rule has been threatened by the action of a mercenary captain, American leadership was rocked when its elected members of Congress had to flee for their lives. The fact that the principal instigator is a former US President and is the presumptive leading opposition candidate for next year’s elections highlights that the instability is far from over. 

No comparison is perfect, and there are multiple differences between the US and Russia, but these striking actions demonstrate that one of the principal vectors of conflict is the clash within civilisations, not between them. 

Samuel Huntington’s bizarre thesis that the world was divided into irreducible identities based on “civilisations” received a boost after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Huntington had predicted that Ukraine, as a “cleft” country, divided by civilisational differences between its eastern and western parts, would be a key flashpoint. With China, a “civilisational state”, and Russia being presented as one side of the conflict, and NATO being on the other, Huntington’s hypothesis seems almost prophetic.

Unfortunately, these superficial differences hide far more than they reveal. It is striking that the biggest apologists of Putin’s actions have come from the self-described defenders of the US’s “White Christian civilisation”. This runs the range from people like Tucker Carlson, recently fired from Fox News, to Trump stating that Putin’s moves were “genius”, and what a smart man the Russian leader was.  

Within NATO states themselves, the starkest differences are between two eastern European states that border Ukraine: Poland and Hungary. Poland’s leadership has accused the EU of cowardice, singling out Germany in its vehement attacks about appeasing Putin. On the other hand, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban (also beloved of Fox News), has said Putin’s aims were “reasonable”, and has done everything except give outright support to Russia. 

Once we zoom out of the war in Ukraine, the cleavages within Huntington’s “civilisations” become even more evident. The People’s Republic of China, one of the key actors in the conflict, has recently crushed the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and is threatening Taiwan, as well as Vietnam, both of which Huntington put squarely as part of the Sinic civilisational sphere. The conflicts across the Muslim world, which Huntington lumped together as one “civilisation”, totally ignoring the differences between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Syria, as well as a number of other major cleavages – both of denomination as well as strategic vision. Israel, which Huntington classified as a “lone civilisation”, but also part of “Western civilisation”, is seeing months of protests within the Jewish majority, its deepest ever cleavage, with the governing coalition portraying it as a civilisational battle against the judiciary. Last year, Germany saw the arrest of leaders of the Reichsburger movement. They were plotting a coup – based, of course, on the idea of civilisational conflict with the current state. And, of course, here in India, the great civilisational battle that the Sangh parivar is engaged with has – as its principal threat – the vision of Nehru, as well as – in reality – Ambedkar’s social vision, and Gandhi’s push for tolerance.

To a certain degree, a reading of the world as defined by civilisational borders is one of the principal reasons for some of these conflicts. Putin’s speech in which he delegitimised Ukraine as a sovereign state rested primarily on this argument. China’s claims on Taiwan are similarly based on the idea of one “civilisational state”, One China, under the mandate of heaven. The multiple conflicts between Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria rested – in part – on Erdogan’s expansionist claims of Turkey’s leadership of a neo-Ottoman “Muslim civilisation”. 

Lastly, it is important not to forget that Huntington worked as an adviser to the apartheid regime in South Africa. In the end, that regime, sustained on a belief that different cultures should be separated and were separate civilisations that would be in conflict with each other, fell. There were many reasons for its demise, but maybe one of the most important was that there is no such thing as irreducible civilisational difference unless we make war in its name. It is only by maligning and killing each other in the name of “different civilisations” that we erect borders of blood. Seeing Ukraine as a civilisational fight between the “East and the West” helps us understand nothing, and obscures the fact that the real fight remains about liberty, democracy, decency, and equal rights. These are endangered across “civilisations”, and yet every human being has a claim to them.

Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.