The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Civilizations accommodate similar values in different combinations

The publication by the American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, of a provocative article in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, followed by a book in 1996 gave wide currency to the thesis of the clash of civilizations. There was nothing very profound or original in the Huntington thesis, but its appearance was timely. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and real and imaginary fears about the extremism, fundamentalism and terrorism widespread in the Islamic world were beginning to be expressed by the American establishment and growing sections of the American public. The thesis was essentially about the clash between Western and Islamic values, but it was dressed, rather thinly at that, in the language of pervasive and ineluctable clashes between civilizations having different origins and different destinations.

My impression is that the thesis about the clash of civilizations has been coldly received in Europe. Roman Herzog, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, spoke repeatedly against it, and a collection of his speeches with comments by some others was published in 1999 under the title, Preventing the Clash of Civilizations. At a panel discussion in Gütersloh in Germany in 1997 at which I was present, the former prime minister of the Netherlands, Ruud Lubbers, attacked the Huntington thesis strongly and, by Dutch standards, intemperately. Yet, Mr Huntington will have reason to be happy because there are strong echoes of his thesis in the current Bush doctrine relating to Iraq, Syria and other Islamic countries.

As every anthropologist knows, the concept of civilization is a difficult and ambiguous one, containing many snares and pitfalls. A few years ago, when Huntington gave a talk at the Delhi School of Economics, I put it to him that, as an anthropologist, I found the concept of civilization a difficult one, and asked him what his concept of it was. I was not the only one in the audience who concluded from his response that he had not given much thought to the idea. Nothing is easier than to talk about the clash of civilizations if you do not have a clear concept of civilization.

A civilization is at the very least a distinct configuration of ideas, beliefs and values. Undoubtedly, the configurations differ from one civilization to another. But these differences must be seen in their proper perspective. Firstly, difference is not the same thing as incompatibility. Secondly, there are differences in ideas, beliefs and values not only between civilizations but also within each civilization; there is no civilization that does not embody a plurality of values, or is free from antinomies, by which I mean conflicts, oppositions and tensions among those values. And thirdly, differences in ideas, beliefs and values must be distinguished from conflicts of interest; conflicts of interest are often particularly acute when groups compete to secure not different ends but the same ones.

The boundaries of civilizations, compared to those of nation states, are porous. Even in ancient and medieval times, human populations as well as ideas, beliefs and values flowed across the boundaries of civilizations. These flows have increased to such an extent in the last two hundred years that it would be appropriate to say that the modern world is marked by the interpenetration of civilizations. This does not mean that all civilizations are becoming alike. Differences among them continue to exist, but old forms of differentiation are displaced by new ones. The long-term trend of change in human society and culture is towards differentiation rather than homogenization.

To be sure there are ideologues in every civilization — in America, in the Islamic world, in India, and elsewhere — who would like to maintain closure of the boundaries of their own civilization. They argue that this is necessary in the interest of unity, harmony and balance: the intrusion of alien elements into a civilization, they say, is bound to upset its balance. But a civilization whose constituent elements are in perfect balance with each other is a dead civilization and not a living one. And a civilization that cannot accommodate a variety of traditions, seeking to maintain a jealous hold on only one single tradition, can hardly be called a civilization.

The tangled nature of the internal and external relations within and between civilizations is nicely brought out by the sharp differences in sentiment, perception and opinion between the French and the Germans on the one hand and the Americans on the other over the American invasion of Iraq. Obviously there are differences of political interest and strategy between the two sides, but each side is also accusing the other of deep and inherent moral flaws. It is not so uncommon to explain, or explain away, differences of political interest by reverting to ineluctable historical and cultural differences.

Books and articles are being written on anti-Europeanism in America and anti-Americanism in Europe. In this round of the culture wars it is the Americans who appear to have taken the initiative, but when it comes to culture, the French know how to give back as good as they get. A recent commentator has noted the “paroxysms of sneering Europhobia in the US media”. The sneer is about the duplicity, hypocrisy and cowardice of the Europeans, and in particular the French, as against the manly virtues of the Americans: as the catch phrase has it, “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus”. The French intellectual, who is nothing if not supercilious, might say that this is not a clash of civilizations, but a clash between civilization on one side of the Atlantic and its absence on the other.

The diatribes across the Atlantic have brought out certain interesting contrasts of cultural orientation as well as certain interesting reversals of contrast. The Americans are today riding the high horse of militarism whereas there is a genuine current of pacifism running through contemporary German society. But this contrast between American bellicosity and German pacifism is an almost exact reversal of the contrast between Germany and the United States of America one may have noted between, say, 1871 and 1941.

There have also been important shifts in patterns of inequality and attitudes to it on the two sides of the Atlantic. There is more equality and greater concern over inequality in France and Germany than in the US today. This would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and theorist of democracy who had argued in the first half of the 19th century that the advance of equality was providential and that in that advance America would lead the way and Europe would follow. America still wants to lead the way, but not, it would appear, in the advance of equality.

It is not my argument that the divergence between Europe and America will continue indefinitely along the course it has taken now. There will be divergence and re-convergence, and then perhaps divergence again. All great civilizations recognize, acknowledge and accommodate the same basic and fundamental human values, but in very different combinations. Moreover, these combinations are in a perpetual process of change. That is why one has to approach with the utmost caution pronouncements on the clash of civilizations, whether between Islam and the West or between the US and France.

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