Sound thinking: Samuel Huntington’s prescience regarding the relationship of the Islamic world to the West

I’ve finally – Sydney rents be damned – moved into a place which is large enough to allow me to take all my books, magazines and papers out of storage and display them in seven-foot bookcases.

As well as allowing me to have my collection all in one place, and to have easy access to my books as and when I need them, the change allows me to go through the collection and cull what I don’t need. So I’m in the process of gathering up the ‘low-hanging fruit’, browsing through it and making the binary decision to keep or cull.

One of the items which I looked through recently was an old copy of the Banca di Roma’s English-language periodical review of economic conditions in Italy [yes, lower case] for the period, wait for it, September-December 1998. I must have picked it up from one of the occasional culls that the Treasury library does/did of its periodical collection, as there is a pen-written message on the cover ‘Mr Wheeler (3rd floor), which, from memory, referred to some middle-management functionary who used to work in Treasury’s International Economy Branch back in the day.

Why I have kept this periodical for so long I have no idea. But I’m glad that I did, because the last item in it is a speech given by Harvard professor and global-scale big-thinker Samuel Huntington to some function that the Banca had hosted that year. Titled ‘Europe’s prospects in the new scenario of civilizations’ (which sounds like a direct translation of something which would have been more elegant in the original Italian), Huntington’s speech contains some quite prescient forecasts for relations between the Islamic world and the West, with the West referring to the Catholic-Protestant industrial democracies of Western Europe and North America.

I’ll quote it at length, to give you some idea of the power of Huntington’s thought:

The dominant characteristic of world politics today is its reconfiguration along cultural and civilizational lines. The most important distinctions among peoples today are not ideoogical [sic – I suspect the transcriber was not a native speaker of English], political, or economic. They are cultural. The world is in the midst of a global identity crisis. Everywhere peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans face. Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. This development has several implications …

Second, a significant shift is underway in the relative power of civilizations and their core states. The West has been the overwhelmingly dominant civilization for centuries and it will remain so well into the next century. Nonetheless major forces are at work producing changes in relative power. These include the demographic stagnation and economic slowdown of the West, on the one hand, and the economic growth of East Asian societies and the demographic dynamism of Islamic societies on the other.

Third, in this new world the relations between states from different civilizations will normally be distant and cool and often highly antagonistic. While ad hoc coalitions may exist at times across civilization boundaries, intercivilizational relations are more likely to be described by such terms as competitive coexistence, cold war, and cold peace. The most important axis in world politics will be the relations between the West and the rest, as the West attempts to impose its values and culture on other societies despite its declining ability to do so.

In this new world, the principal sources of conflict and hence of political instability will be the Resurgence of Islam and the rise of China. The relations of the West with these challenger civilizations, Islam and China, are likely to be particularly difficult and antagonistic. The potentially most dangerous form of violent conflct [sic – I know for a fact that auto-correct was available in 1998 – what the hell?] would be core state wars between the major states of different civilizations, and the most likely core state war would be one between the United States and China.

Fourth, conflict among ethnic groups is obviously pervasive. Ethnic conflict only becomes a threat to world peace, however, when it involves groups from different civilizations …

These fault line wars are not randomly distributed. They are far more likely to involve Muslims fighting non-Muslims than anyone else. Muslims are twenty percent of the world’s population, but they are participants in seventy-five percent of the violent conflicts currently going on in the world …

What are the implications of these emerging scenarios of civilizations for the European Union? …

Second, Europe’s relations with the Muslim societies to its south. I am aware that there has been some tendency in this country to promote the concept of a Mediterranean identity and to encourage greater unity and cooperation among the countries bordering the Mediterranean. I do not oppose this, but I think it has little basis in reality … The Mediterranean is a geographical, not a social, political, or cultural entity. Throughout history it has been the crossroads of cultures and civilizations which have interacted with each other at times peacefully and often violently.

In the thirteenth century the Spanish invented the term, la guerra fria, or cold war, to describe their relations with their Muslim neighbors. That term is relevant to the relations between Europe and Islam today. Several factors are responsible for these cold war-like relations. First, the Islamic Resurgence has given Muslims renewed confident in the distinctive character and worth of their civilization and values and encouraged them to challenge those of Europe and the West. Second, the West’s simultaneous efforts to universalize its values and institutions, to maintain its military and economic superiority, and to intervene in conflicts in the Muslim world generate intense resentments among Muslims. Third, the collapse of communism has removed a common enemy of Europe and Islam. Fourth, the increasing contact between and intermingling of Muslims and Europeans stimulate in each a new sense of their own identity and how it differs from that of the other. Interaction and intermingling also exacerbate differences over the rights of the members of civilization [sic]. Fifth, population growth has generated large number of unemployed and disaffected young people who become recruits to Islamist causes, challenge the political establishment in their countries, exert pressure on neighbouring societies, and migrate to Europe.

This demographic factor is of central importance in the relations between Islam and Europe. Muslim populations are growing at a rate ten times that of Western European peoples. This development is fundamentally changing the religious balance in the world. It has, for instance, been estimated that while Muslims constituted 18% of the world’s population in 1980, they will be over 20% in 2000 and 30% by 2025, outnumbering Christians. Overwhelming evidence shows that a society often becomes deeply disturbed, when youth, that is, people 15-24 years old, approximate 20% of the total. Young people are the protagonists of protest, instability, reform and revolution. In the 1970s and 1980s the proportion of youth in many Muslim societies rose dramatically, often exceeding the twenty percent mark. In the other Muslim countries this point will be reached in the early twenty-first century. The people in this age cohort will be overwhelmingly urban and will overwhelmingly have at least a secondary education. This combination of size and social mobilization has significant political consequences. This generation has provided the recruits for Islamist organizations, political movements, and terrorist groups.

Larger populations need more resources, and hence people from societies with dense and/or rapidly growing populations tend to push outward, occupy territory, and exert pressure on other less demographically dynamic peoples. Population pressure combined with economic stagnation promotes Muslim migration to European and other non-Muslim societies, elevating immigration as an issue in those societies. The juxtaposition of a rapidly growing people of one culture and a slowly growing or stagnant people of another generates pressure for economic and/or political adjustments and also stimulates violence …

For the immediate future, the overall relations between Europe and Islam are likely to remain in a cold war phase. In the longer term, the Muslim demographic surge will run its course. In Iran this surge, which peaked in the 1970s leading to the revolution of 1979, has now weakened and so also have the dynamics and appeal of that revolution. In due course, as Muslim populations age the Islamist fire will subside in North Africa, the Balkans, the Levant and elsewhere. So also will the pressure of Muslim immigrants on European societies. When these things happen the way will be open to a more congenial coexistence between Islam and Europe …

To sum up, the emerging scenario of civilizations places three major items on Europe’s agenda: co-existence, containment, cooperation. First, Europe needs to recognize and accept the line distinguishing Western civilization form Orthodoxy and develop the policies and institutions for sustained co-existence with Russia and the other Orthodox countries. Second, Europe needs to develop the policies and institutions to contain the threats of militancy, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and migration fueled by the demographic dynamism of Islam and to attempt to channel the cultural and political resurgence of Islam into more moderate and constructive directions. Finally, Europe must work with America to develop more effective means of cooperation between the two branches of Western civilization. Intensified cooperation between Europe and America is essential to the preservation and vitality of Western values and institutions within the West and to the maintenance of Western influence outside the West in the multipolar and multicivilizational world of the 21st century.

There you go: Islamic terrorist attacks against people in Western capitals (including Sydney), mass migration from failed Muslim states to Western countries, antagonism from Muslim populations towards the West and its people – all current events, all foreseen by Huntington seventeen years ago.

Note the references to problems between China and the United States. Note also this passage regarding Ukraine:

The central issue in Europe’s relations with the Orthodox world concerns membership in the European Union and NATO. What additional countries should be admitted to either or both of these institutions? A civilizational approach provides a clear and compelling answer … Expansion of NATO and EU membership obviously can take place only over an extended period of time and only with extensive consultations and negotiations with the Russians. The Russians should be reassured, however, that while a civilizational definition of Europe legitimates inclusion in Western institutions of the countries I have mentioned [he mentioned Poland, Hungary, Czech, Slovenia, the Baltic states, Slovakia and Croatia], it also precludes inclusion of other countries further to the east, such as Ukraine, which are much more important to Russia.

So Huntington also foresees the current tragic problems arising from the West’s seeking to incorporate Ukraine into its multinational institutions. However we should note that Ukraine is something of a special case, being combined of two geographical-demographic halves, the western having strong historical and cultural ties to Europe, the eastern having strong historical, cultural and linguistic ties to Russia. So Ukraine’s case is not so straightforward. Nevertheless, using Huntington’s insights, and with knowledge of Ukraine’s geo-strategic position on Russia’s south-eastern flank, it’s possible to see why Russia is fighting so hard to keep Ukraine within its orbit.

Samuel Huntington – well done, and thankyou.


About Stebbing Heuer

A person interested in exploring human perception, reasoning, judgement and deciding, and in promoting clear, effective thinking and the making of good decisions.
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