August 22, 2019

The Clash of Civilizations and the Plight of Christians

This autumn marks the 20th anniversary of Samuel Huntington’s perceptive essay ‘The Clash of Civilizations’. Arguing that in Europe the ‘Velvet curtain of culture has replaced the Iron Curtain of ideology’, Huntington went on to predict that the future driving force for international conflict would be culture and religion, rather than geopolitics or economics. For example, the conflict along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations was likely to become more virulent and, ‘from the bulge of Africa to central Asia’, we could expect continued battles between Muslims and neighbours: ‘Islam has bloody borders.’


The essay, and book that followed, were treated with derision from many of the intellectual elite. Fouad Ajami was one of the first to insist that Huntington had ‘underestimated the tenacity of modernity and secularism’ in places where previously absent. This expanding mindset would ultimately prove stronger and act as a preventative force against civilizational conflict. Yet just eight years later, the optimism of these critics was put to the test as the ‘power of modernity’ idea was dealt a sharp blow by the carnage of 9/11.

There are problems, of course, with Huntington’s thesis. What defines a ‘civilization’ is unclear; its contours are fuzzy. Some civilizations are vast – ‘Western civilization’ envelopes countries and whole continents. Others – Japanese – are marked by a single entity. Some civilizations, like the Islamic, are religiously defined, with Arab, Malay, or Turkic subdivisions; others, like China, have old religious undertones and changing. And although civilizations have certainly clashed over the last twenty years, almost as many clashes have occurred within them. The death toll in the conflict between Sunni and Shia in Syria gives testimony to the fact that a single religion may have its own fault lines.

This week Catholic writer, John L Allen offers another perspective.[1] He quotes the International Society for Human Rights, a secular organization based in Frankfurt, who claim that 80 per cent of all acts of religious conflict have been actually directed at Christians. According to the Study of Global Christianity at Wenham, Massachusetts, this translates to an average of 100,000 Christians killed each year for the past decade. Huntington was right in that many of these are Christians who have suffered at the hands of Muslim militia. But he was also wrong in identifying Christianity simply as a subset of Western civilization. Christianity is a global movement of 2.3 billion adherents. The Christians who have been maimed, raped and mutilated are not those in North America or Europe, targeted by competing ‘civilizations’ but are indigenous in those civilizations themselves, sometimes speaking the same language and eating the same food, or as members of ethnic and cultural minorities.

Over the last twenty years two thirds of the Christian population of Iraq has gone: exiled, or killed. The Pew Forum suggests that from 2006 and 2010, Christians faced persecution in 139 nations. Allen cites recent examples from Pakistan, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Burma, and Korea to reinforce this point. But he insists that this is not ‘limited to a clash of civilizations between Christianity and Islam.’ Hindu radicals were responsible for 500 deaths and 50,000 homeless among Christians in Orissa.  The 300,000 Christians who disappeared from North Korea, feared dead, were persecuted for refusing to join the cult around founder Kim 1l Sung. Allen’s conclusion is ‘in truth, Christians face a bewildering variety of threats, with no single enemy.’

The debate over Huntington will continue, but a much more urgent need is to address the human rights violations and anti-Christian persecution across the world; vehement opposition to it has to be on the agenda of all civilizations.




[1] ‘The War on Christians’ The Spectator Oct 5th