8 March 2011

North Africa: will it prove or disprove the Clash of Civilizations?

Kovács and Kováts are preparing for the extraordinary European Council this Friday and think that the current events in North Africa may put the most popular political theory of the last decade to the test. No, not the end of history, although we are great fans of Fukuyama, but the more enduring and controversial idea by the late Harvard professor, Samuel P. Huntington. (Here is a critical and here a rather positive obituary of him, showing a totally different picture of the same person.)

Most of us remember or even read his highly influential article (Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993) followed by a book (1996, this time without the question mark). His arguments were complex, but boiled down in political memory to one thing: “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Huntington has estimated that Arab demographic explosion and Islam will make North Africa and the Middle East the greatest source of global conflict for the next generations. “Islam's borders are bloody and so are its innards. The fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

The emotions surrounding this subject were visible when a debate has erupted during the last few days by a Nicholas D Kristof article in the New York Times. (Kristof is by no means an extremist, he had written some great columns on the revolutions in North Africa.)

Reading the above, it is no surprise that after 9/11 Huntington has gained a celebrity status with many commentators, which lasts until today. (Being an expert himself, he later regretted some of his predictions, as self-fulfilling – Kováts remembers having read this somewhere, but can’t find the source now. If you can help us, please comment!) But many have criticized his simplistic taxonomy and lack of attention to internal divisions within Islam and socioeconomic factors.

The developments in North Africa in the coming months and years will put Huntington’s theory to the test again and we hope it will fail this test. As Kristof wrote: “In Egypt and Bahrain in recent weeks, I’ve been humbled by the lionhearted men and women I’ve seen defying tear gas or bullets for freedom that we take for granted.”

The stakes are high. János Martonyi, Minister for Foreign Affairs predicted in his article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (Saturday, 05/03) that the future of the world and Europe depends to a large extent on the economic, social and political system chosen for themselves by the more than 1 billion Muslims.

How should the EU react to all this? The EU’s strengths lie not in crisis management operation (although it does make efforts) or military interventions, but in policy making. First reactions involved coordination of evacuation and humanitarian assistance. But beyond this urgent and immediate “fire-fighting”, we need to find answers primarily in energy, migration, development, trade, foreign policy and more. This is what the EU, Hungarian Presidency included, should jointly deliver.

In order to do this, first we need to revisit our own approach. Many demand actions from the EU that is not in its power. And many of these demands for action are contradictory to each other. As János Martonyi puts it in his FAZ article, fears and hopes, need for stability and longing for change, interests and values clash with each other when we look at revolutions. The risks are obviously there, but the main question is whether we believe that there are universal human rights even if the cultural context may be different. This should shape our messages to the people of North Africa.

Considering the conflicting demands from the public, defining our policy approach will be a rather complex task. As Huntington puts it in another of his very controversial remarks: “Hypocrisy, double standards, and "but nots" are the price of universalist pretensions. Democracy is promoted, but not if it brings Islamic fundamentalists to power; nonproliferation is preached for Iran and Iraq, but not for Israel; free trade is the elixir of economic growth, but not for agriculture; human rights are an issue for China, but not with Saudi Arabia; aggression against oil-owning Kuwaitis is massively repulsed, but not against non-oil-owning Bosnians. Double standards in practice are the unavoidable price of universal standards of principle.”


  1. I personally prefer Konrad Lorenz's vision which says that great steps in human civilisation are made in the interaction of great cultures. See The Waning of Humaneness, his last book, published 3-4 years before Huntington's article.

  2. Hey,My great uncle fought with the 93rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, 6th Battalion Anti-tank Regiment and was killed in Tunisia in 1943 in the Battle for North Africa. It's hard for my grandfather to watch this episode as he came home after his service. I'm so glad there are documentaries such as this.Thank you so much!!!
    Africa Lifestyle