Hackneyed “Clash of Civilizations”

October 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

As long as I have studied the Middle East (which is coming up on 5 years now) Samuel Huntington’s legacy has been inescapable. I have, on so many occasions, engaged in arguments (personal, professional and academic) that are centered around his basic premise of a clash of civilizations between what he calls the West and the Islamic civilization. I can’t even remember how many papers I have written or people I have tried to confront about the shortcomings of this “seminal” work.

 

Here, Lisa Wedeen puts my thoughts in a pithy and succinct manner –

 

“This understanding of culture as a specific group’s primordial values or traits is untenable empirically. It ignores the historical conditions and relevant power relationships that give rise to political phenomena such as “democratization,” ethnic conflicts, and contemporary radical Islamicist movements. The group traits version of culture, moreover, rides roughshod over the diversity of views and the experiences of contention within the group or groups under study. In the case of Huntington’s depiction of the Middle East, for ex- ample, such claims of sedimented essences have led scholars of culture to pass over such now obviously urgent matters as the contemporary nature of Islamicist movements, the causes of their recent emergence, and the ways in which communities of argument exist over what makes a Muslim a Muslim, what Islam means, and what, if any, its political role should be. Treating culture as a set of traits that purportedly distinguish one group from another also neglects the terrains of solidarity and fluidity that exist among groups, the ways in which political communities of various sorts have depended on the cross-fertilization of ideas and practices. In short, by ignoring historical processes and specific relations of political power, the treatment of culture in political science has downplayed the heterogeneous ways in which people experience the social order within and among groups, while exaggerating the commonality, constancy, and permanence of intragroup beliefs and values.”

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Wedeen, L. 2002. “Conceptualizing Culture: Possibilities for Political Science,” American Political Science Review.

 

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