From the clash of civilizations to the clash of religions

Samuel Huntington's book, The clash of civilizations, seems to have become alpha and omega in attempting to explain international problems, especially since September 11, 2001, and even more so in the relationship between "the West" and "Islam". This is where we begin to discern a slide towards a shock that would be between two religions, and that wouldn't be new ... Yet from Huntington's thinking (and goals), to the very concept of civilization and the issues it poses today, everything is much more complex, of course. A complexity which, as we will see, is precisely the main victim of these concepts. For that, it will be necessary to pass Huntington.

Huntington misunderstood?

A professor of political science, Huntington is not a historian and is already an important element. His work is taken from an article for the journal Foreign Affairs and partly intended to educate the US State Department on how the world will turn out after the fall of the USSR in the early 1990s. We are not going to analyze the book as a whole here, but to re-examine some of his concepts mainly to show that he was partly caricatured.

His vision is closer to that of his colleague Fukuyama, equally famous author The end of history and the last man, which prophesied the victory of democracy and liberalism following the fall of the Soviet ogre ... Huntington relies on a model of which civilizations are the basis : the world is made up of these, which are great wholes in space and in history; they are not political, but cultural and religious groups. It announces a resurgence of religious identities. His world is eight main civilizations :

- West: Western Europe, United States, Australia and New Zealand

- the Orthodox world: mainly Russia

- the Islamic world

- the Hindu world

- the Latin American world

- the Chinese world

- the Japanese world

- the Buddhist world

He adds, but having a little trouble defining it, an African world (sub-Saharan). We will notice that religion does not seem to be the main factor, and that it does not mention a Jewish world. He does not describe these civilizations, does not characterize them but wants to show that the conflicts which will break out will be between civilizations among them, mainly between their flagship states. However, he opposes the idea of ​​a universal civilization, even if some values ​​can be shared. He then announces, more precisely, that these conflicts will mainly concern two civilizations threatening the West: Islam (without a flagship state) and China. The first would have its demographic weight for it, the second its economic weight, and the danger would be exacerbated by the West's mania for intervening abroad (Huntington is very critical on this point).

This risk is also due to the decline of the West, and this is why at the end of his book he advocates for a new model which,he rejects by putting them back to back multiculturalism and monoculturalism, should bring the West back to its identity, not just Christian.

Braudel's influence and "the house full of objects"

Samuel Huntington develops a culturalist and essentialist vision, where civilization has a birth and its own characteristics which lock it in on itself. We see here an open reference to Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), as also with Guaino the pen of Sarkozy (and his famous speech on "African man not entered in history", but also an allusion to the clash of civilizations in a speech of the presidential campaign ). Huntington does not hide it. Braudel’s good book is Grammar of civilizations, which dates from 1987 (therefore posthumous, but which includes courses dating from the 60s) but is regularly reissued and again recently. The great French historian defines civilization according to several criteria : a geographical area, demography, mode of production, state structures and culture; this concept aims to bring together cultures and societies, on the idea of ​​a "House full of things". There is thus consistency in space and time: civilization (or culture) is the "total of this repertoire" (the objects of the house and the house itself). This vision, as we know, has been very popular with historians, first of all because it contrasted with history with an overly event-driven Marxist tendency, and above all because it reduced the multiple and the complex through global explanations. Civilization even became a character, the subject of sentences ! But this idea is increasingly questioned because it builds schematic and closed sets, and abolishes dialectics.

History ignored and the slide towards the "clash of religions"

As has been said, Huntington is not a historian but, worse, "He ignores history", because of the permanence it lends to these monolithic civilizations. However, these civilizations are constantly evolving, and they can intersect, which Huntington rejects who believes that the possible shock. This, then, is the most critical of the American researcher. On the other hand, it is reductive to confine Huntington to a vision that only heralds a clash between two religions, Islam and Christendom.

Indeed, on this subject, the influence comes from elsewhere. For the United States (and today beyond), we owe it to Bernard lewis ; this American historian of British origin specializes in the Islamic world, and in particular the Ottoman. But he is also close to the American neoconservatives and to the Israeli right ... In 1964, he published an article in which he evoked the concept of “clash of civilizations”, of which we can even say that he was the inventor (in its contemporary conception in any case) ; and 25 years later, he takes up this same concept in The roots of Muslim anger, article written following attacks against American interests in 1979 and 1989; this is the clash between Islam and the West, defined as Judeo-Christian. According to Lewis, the conflict between these two religions (if we combine Judaism and Christianity) has been going on forever, in fact since the emergence of Islam in the 7th century and its conquest of part of the Mediterranean.

This representation is however older still: we can go back to 18th century Europe, which considers itself rich in the knowledge of the world, in the face of a decadent Islam. But we can go further back, if we rely on the historian's thesis Henri pirenne (Mahomet and Charlemagne, 1937) which dates the fracture in the Mediterranean to the time of Muslim conquests (it will be contradicted by Maurice Lombard in Islam in its first greatness, 1966).

It is a vision that is still very much shared today. We can for example cite the work edited by E. Brenner, The lost territories of the Republic, a reference of the Stasi commission (assembled following the case of the Islamic veil). Brenner affirms that France must "be careful not to lose her soul", and that this confrontation is old, that it "sedimented in the consciousness of the people".

"From the class struggle to the clash of religions"

However, this vision based on civilization should not be reduced solely to "Western" thinkers (you should put quotes every time you use this kind of term ^^), because the jihadists, for example, but also the other "civilizations" often have this same point of view. So, Ben Laden, shortly after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon declared to agree with the theses of Huntington! The conflict would be centered on religions and would be eternal, encompassing everything else, from terrorist attacks to anti-Semitic attacks in the streets, etc.

The simplicity and effectiveness of these concepts (more on this later) have appealed to others, notably some historians, and even more publishers. Since September 11, we have seen a number of books, both "historical" and political, based on this idea of ​​clash between civilizations and especially religions. Let us quote for example, the book of J.P. Roux, A clash of religions: the long war between Islam and Christianity (622-2007), published in 2007. At least that’s clear! According to the author, the conflict has been ongoing since 622, and the religious reference is the only one that is enough for him ; he takes for example the Reconquista, which he considers to be the conflict "of one confession against another". It completely sets aside the context of an expansion of the West which can be explained with demographics, economic growth, political ambitions, etc. It is a vision close to that of Huntington's, reduced to religion alone, at the cost of manipulation and simplification.

Today it has become a real dogma for many authors and historians, whereas a few years ago it was the relations of production that interested: we therefore went from "the class struggle to the clash of religions" (F. Micheau).

The Wars of Religion and the Rise of Civilization

Obviously, the wars of religion did exist and still exist. They take place in a context where religious pluralism is unsustainable, but for mostly social and economic reasons, and in a limited space. Even if one cannot deny the effectiveness of religious discourse, it is not cultures or civilizations that go to war, but political entities ; for example, one can consider that Islamism is "a political party", with an ideal not necessarily religious.

We must also dwell on the feeling of superiority of western civilization (even if it does not have a monopoly on this complex), and especially on the concept of Civilization. This derives from the word civitas, and we must refer to Erasmus (died in 1536), which thereby defines the codes of civility, "the fact of leaving a primitive situation" to go towards progress and civility. Europe has taken note of a struggle between Islam and Christianity at this time (the Renaissance and the "Turkish peril") and it declares itself the holder of Civilization. We can thus cite Bonaparte who, on the eve of the conquest of Egypt (1798), claimed "Bring Civilization to Egypt". At the end of his book, it is Huntington who gives a definition of Civilization, which would be a complex mixture of high morality, good standard of living and ... high religious level! A definition broader than that of Western civilization, which Huntington does not see as universal precisely.

Here, we see the link with another current debate, source of ever stronger tensions: the growing hostility of the countries of Islam and Asia towards a West which would see its values ​​as universal, values ​​thus perceived as manifestations of its imperialism ... then arises the problem of the existence of universal values (human rights, women's rights, freedom of conscience, etc.) or not, and danger of cultural relativism

Simple, effective ... and dangerous concepts

The last example of the success of these concepts is of course the controversy over the work of Sylvain Gouguenheim, Aristotle at Mont Saint-Michel, which we have already discussed. To sum up, the controversial thesis of the medievalist makes in a comparativism which turns to the advantage of Europe, a vision frozen in antagonisms by cultural identities with language and religion, where the Koran and the Bible establish the very essence of civilizations. Only the Greco-Christian civilization would be open to Knowledge ...

Must therefore take a critical look at these concepts : too simplistic, they lead to reductive clichés, but are effective and dangerous formulas which are easily mobilized. We see it every day, both in the media and among politicians, all the problems seem to be explained under the prism "civilizational" and religious, putting aside so many other elements such as social, economic, demographic, etc. It is obviously much easier to mobilize and especially to manipulate the masses by unifying concepts like religion and simple to "understand". The enemy today is therefore complexity, and with it science and knowledge.

Article inspired by a conference by Françoise Micheau, professor of medieval Islam at Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Read (reissues)

- articles on The Greeks, the Arabs and us (read in particular the article "Making and undoing the history of civilizations" by B. Dufal p 317-358), and on the Gouguenheim affair.

- S. HUNTINGTON, The clash of civilizations, Odile Jacob, 2007.

- F. FUKUYAMA, The End of History and the Last Man, Flammarion, 2008.

- F. BRAUDEL, Grammaire des civilizations, Flammarion, 2008.

- B. LEWIS, Islam in crisis, Gallimard, 2003.

- H. PIRENNE, Mahomet and Charlemagne, PUF, 2005.

- M. LOMBARD, Islam in its First Greatness, Flammarion, 1994.

- J.P. ROUX, A clash of religions: the long war between Islam and Christendom (622-2007), Fayard, 2007.

- E. BRENNER (dir), The lost territories of the Republic, Thousand and One Nights, 2004.

- L. DE COCK, F. MADELINE, N. OFFENSTADT, S. WAHNICH (dir), How Nicolas Sarkozy writes the history of France, Agone, 2008.

Video: Noam Chomsky on The Clash of Civilizations (January 2022).