Global Context (International): The Clash of Civilizations

This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions in particular. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Here’s a tip: If you care anything at all about global issues, and you haven’t read Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, put it on your wish list at it and read it. In this controversial and highly influential text on contemporary global politics, Huntington manages to raise the important questions of post-Cold War international affairs and to make a robust attempt at answering those same questions.

The Clash of Civilizations is a thinly veiled attack on Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Fukuyama’s thesis is that the end of the Cold War signaled the rise of “a form of society that satisfied its deepest and most fundamental longings.” All of the really big questions will have been settled; hence there will be no further progress in principles and institutions. For him, Western values would triumph. In particular, democratic capitalism would have no competitor; it would be the final form of society. Even religious ideologies would not overturn this. Fukuyama’s is a Hegelian view of history, utopian and at times wildly optimistic. (It does, however, have some dark strains, such as his focus on the Nietzschean concept of The Last Man.)

Huntington, by way of contrast, argues that there will be no world-wide embrace of democratic capitalism and Western values. Instead, there will be increasingly deep-seated conflict between the world’s various civilizations and that furthermore the West will be at a distinct disadvantage. For him, religion and culture matter. Indeed, civilizations and their cultures will cause fights that make past controversies look like trivial spats.

Huntington’s thesis is that the most basic units of the global political order are not superpowers, alliances, or nation states, but civilizations. And these civilizations are pulling apart from one another rather than coming together. In an earlier article, Huntington put it like this: “Conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant global form of conflict; international relations, historically a game played out within Western civilization, will increasingly be de-Westernized and become a game in which non-Western civilization are actors and not simply objects.” And again: “What ultimately counts for people is not political ideology or economic interest. Faith and family, blood and belief, are what people identify with and what they will fight and die for.

For Huntington, the primary reason that civilizations will clash is that the differences among civilizations are “basic” types of differences-they are differentiated not merely by contemporary political theory or governments but by such things as history, language, culture, and religion. These differences are not likely to disappear and they will be exacerbated by the fact that the world is becoming increasingly hyper-connected.

Islam, China, and the West will likely be the most important players. “[The] most dangerous clashes of the future,” writes Huntington, are “likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic assertiveness. The world resents the fact that the West sets the rules of the game for the rest of the world, and furthermore that the rules of the game are decidedly in favor of the West. The bad news for the West is that it will no longer be able to enforce its ambitions as well as it has in the past. Chinese civilization is on the rise and will continue to grow. It will be an economic, political and military power. Islamic civilization is full of young people who resent the West: “The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” This conflict is not likely to decline and, as Huntington reminds us, “Islam has bloody borders.

What is Huntington’s prescription? He advises that the United States stop trying to set the agenda for the globe, and stick with leading its own sphere of influence-Western civilization. Precisely because the United States has neglected its own culture, it is rotting from the inside out. Over and against the multiculturalists, the USA must preserve and defend its own culture while fostering greater unity between Europe, North America and Latin America.

There are many criticisms of Huntington’s thesis. Fouad Ajami has argued that the global situation is more messy than Huntington allows: “Huntingdon has found his civilizations whole and intact, watertight under an eternal sky….For [me], civilizations have always seemed messy creatures.” Jeane Kirkpatrick has argued that Huntington’s classification of seven or eight civilizations is questionable. Several critics have argued that nation states are more important than civilizations. Ajami, for example, argues that he “misses the slyness of states, the unsentimental and cold-blooded nature of so much of what they do as they pick their way through chaos….States are written off, their place given over to clashing civilizations.” Liu Binyan and others have countered Huntington by arguing that we should interact and gain consensus, seeking to merge civilization and break the present vicious cycles.

Yet another criticism is that this book underestimates the tenacity of the secular modern project, and its ability to overcome civilizational differences. But a stronger criticism, and the more relevant one for this essay, is that Huntington underestimates the power of religion to cross over civilizational boundaries. Much attention has been paid to Islam’s advances in the Western world (mostly through immigration and birth rate) but only now is the world beginning to pay attention to the fact that Christianity is a truly global phenomenon. As Andrew Bacevich puts it, Christianity is an intercivilizational phenomenon. Not only does it transcend culture, but “In the end, to listen to the believers among us, it will transcend history itself.

Perhaps the strongest criticism relates to Huntington’s assumptions about history. While he rightly rejects Fukuyama’s Hegelian method and utopian aspirations, Huntington himself fares no better by rejecting all “universal” history and leaving himself with only the particulars. For those of us who are believers, there is a master narrative that interprets for us the universal and the particulars. In four plot moves-Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation-we learn in broad stroke form both the direction in which history is moving (the universal) and the framework for interpreting the particulars. God through Christ is redeeming for himself a people and one day will restore even creation itself. Moreover, the people he redeems for himself will consist of worshipers from among every tribe, tongue, people, and nation-a phenomenon that transcends not only cultures and civilizations, but even history itself.

The Clash of Civilizations is strongly recommended for those who are interested in international affairs. In spite of the fact that we do not share some of Huntington’s presuppositions or conclusions, this book is worth reading because of (1) its towering stature among texts in global affairs at the turn of the century, (2) its ability to raise significant questions about the world in which we live, and (3) its inability to answer some of those same questions precisely because it is not informed by the master narrative provided by the Scriptures.

Book: The Clash of Civilizations (1996)
Author: Samuel P. Huntington
Region: Global
Length: 367 pp.
Difficulty: Intermediate Advanced

Global Context Series (South Asia): Freedom at Midnight

Editor’s Note: This series of posts deals with the global context in its historical, social, cultural, political, economic, demographic, and religious dimensions. We will provide book notices, book reviews, and brief essays on these topics. We hope that you will find this series helpful as you live and bear witness in an increasingly complex and hyper-connected world.

Book: Freedom at Midnight
Region: South Asia
Countries: India & Pakistan
Length: 572 pages
Difficulty: Intermediate

At the stroke of midnight on August 15, 1947, India was set free from British rule and at the same time was partitioned into the two autonomous nations of India and Pakistan. In Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre deliver a fast-paced and intimate account of these events, focused on India’s last British viceroy Louis Mountbatten and India’s spiritual leader Mahatma Ghandi, but laced with stories about the Muslim leader Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Hindu statesman Jawaharlal Nehru, and other major players.

The authors view this series of events as the greatest and most complex “divorce” in history. In the first chapter, the authors write, What should have been Britain’s finest hour in India seemed destined to become a nightmare of unsurpassed horror. She had conquered and ruled India with what was, by the colonial standard, relatively little bloodshed. Her leaving threatened to produce an explosion of violence that would dwarf in scale and magnitude anything she had experienced in three and a half centuries there.

This divorce, and the ensuing bloodbath, would center on the ages-old rivalry between India’s Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs. The leaders of India’s 100 million Moslems now demanded that Britain destroy the unity she had so painstakingly created and give them an Islamic state of their own. The cost of denying them their state, they warned, would be the bloodiest civil war in Asian history. Just as determined to resist their demands were the leaders of the Congress Party, representing most of India’s 300 million Hindus. To them, the division of the subcontinent would be a mutilation of their historic homeland, an act almost sacrilegious in its nature. Britain was trapped between these two apparently irreconcilable demands.

In response to the demands of Jinnah and the Muslim league, Britain decided to partition India so that Muslims would have their own country. However, this concession did not allow them to circumvent a bloody civil war. When the clock struck midnight on August 15, the people of India celebrated independence, but their euphoria was shattered when Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs killed one another until the streets ran red with their blood. In the face of some of the most appalling massacres in human history (leaving several hundred thousand dead), the authors show the efforts of Gandhi, the Mountbattens, Nehru, and others, to restore some semblance of peace and order. Gandhi, in the last great act of his life before being assassinated by a group of Hindu radicals, embarked upon “fasts to death,” and was able to bring some peace to the isolated spots where he could be present personally. But ironically, it was the British, Indian, and Pakistani armies that had to be brought in to maintain order.

The authors manage to leaven the gruesome historical account with lively and sometimes humorous character portraits of the major characters. For example, early in the third chapter, we learn of Gandhi’s half-naked visit to the King of England: He had walked off his steamer in his loincloth and carrying his bamboo stave. Behind him there were no aides-de-camp, no servants, only a handful of disciples and a goat, who tottered down the gangplank right after Gandhi….To the awe and astonishment of a watching British nation, Mahatma Ghandi walked into Buckingham Palace to take tea with the King-Emperor dressed in a loincloth and sandals….Later, when questioned on the appropriateness of his apparel, Ghandi replied with a smile, ‘The King was wearing enough for both of us.’ We learn of Gandhi’s daily life-of his vow to observe one day of silence each week to preserve vocal cords, of his daily prayer meetings and reading of the Bhagavad Gita, of his “fasts unto death” as a means of nonviolent resistance, of his habit of having a saltwater enema once a day, and so forth.

This brings us to the major flaw in the authors’ account. From early on in the story, it is clear that Gandhi is the hero of Collins’ and Lapierre’s account, while “religious antagonism” is the adversary. The authors see Gandhi, with his prayer meetings, fasting, and non-violent protests, as the Messiah of India, the solution to India’s (and perhaps the world’s) problems. Indeed, the final chapter, chronicling Gandhi’s death, is entitled, “The Second Crucifixion.”

The authors certainly are correct that religious antagonism is a bad thing, and they are right that Gandhi lived a more peaceful life and is a better character, than the other characters in this narrative. However, they fail to see the more central problem-the evil lurking in the souls of all humanity, and a man like Gandhi cannot himself be the remedy for such evil. Such an evil is deep and powerful and can be broken only by God Himself. While the authors speak of India’s partitioning as the great divorce, we know that the greater divorce happened at the Fall, that the Adversary of adversaries is Satan himself, and the true Messiah is Jesus Christ, who came to take away the sins of the world and who will one day bring a new heavens and a new earth, where there will be no more war. It is through Him, and through Him alone, that our world will see peace.

Further, Freedom at Midnight is not accurate at all points and the authors sometimes make novel or unique assertions without providing references. Nonetheless the book is very helpful. The reader receives a broad-brush overview of one of the most important years in world history as well as a picture of South Asia’s (1) mind-boggling diversity, including 15 official languages and 845 dialects; (2) the pervasive folk spirituality of its people; (3) the deep and abiding inter-religious conflict; (4) the abiding effects of colonial rule; and (5) intimate and illuminating portraits of several of South Asia’s most influential and enduring online

Global Context Series (Preface)

Global Context Series (Preface)

One of the most striking memories of my childhood is the Prisoner Bulletin that my parents received several times per year during the last years before the fall of the Soviet Union. In this bulletin, which was written by Russian believers, we were made aware of the faithful but persecuted underground church, of pastors and believers dragged from their homes and thrown into prison and killed, of people whose lives were vastly different from my own.

My father would read the bulletin to us (mom, my brother and two sisters) and we would pray for these men and women who loved the same Lord. But we didn’t stop there; we prayed for the countless millions in the USSR, and in the USA, and around the world, who had little or no access to the gospel because they had never seen a Bible, a Christian, or a church. In short, my parents taught me that, in addition to studying God’s Word, we ought to study God’s world.

There are many ways to get to know the people of God’s world: travel to another land, invite an international student to your home, open your eyes to those who live in our neighborhoods, etc. Another significant way is to read books that make us aware of our global context.

Over the coming months and years, I will be posting book notices and book reviews under the heading, “Global Context Series.” I will be reviewing books that usually can be found easily at Barnes & Noble or on Usually they are the type of books that will be found in the current affairs, history, or new release sections of the bookstore. Many of them are New York Times Bestsellers and should be fairly accessible to any interested reader.

The books that I list will not necessarily be the best books available on a particular subject, but they will be among the best books that I have read on that subject. I will try to tell you a little bit about the author, the style of the book, its readability, and of course a little bit about its content. I hope that you will find this series helpful. I hope you will enjoy the books, and will find them to be a stimulus to love God as you learn about, and learn to love, the people in God’s world.