Civilization Identity Prompts Continuation, not Initiation

In his seminal publication “Clash of the Civilizations?” Samuel P. Huntington offers an explanation for why conflict between groups occurs on both a micro as well as a macro level. Noting that nation-states are no longer the classification by which groups of people identify themselves, Huntington argues that future conflicts will take place between civilizations, which he defines as “the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species” (Huntington 1993, 24). 

Huntington’s civilizational perspective has made its way into discussions that attempt to determine the cause of civil conflicts in recently war-torn countries. However, his thesis lacks an explanation for the exact conversion from cultural animosities to organization violence (Lecture, Class 21). With time, his argument has become a backdrop against which various scholars have argued that other structural or institutional factors explain this link between cultural tension and organized violence.  

In this paper, I argue that Huntington’s central argument that civilizational differences naturally predispose different cultural groups to experience bloody conflict is flawed: civil war comes about as a result of a series of methodical decisions taken by the political elites of a state, who benefit from demonizing other groups in the society, be it through either rhetoric or through actual institutional design. However, this should not lead us to disregard Huntington’s civilizational perspective altogether. The civilizational outlook is important to consider because it provides these elites a salient tool with which to galvanize their support base, and even to prolong the conflict. 

In their cross-national study looking at 127 civil wars between the years 1945 and 1999, Fearon and Laitin run regression models in an attempt to isolate the factors that precipitate civil conflict (Fearon and Laitin 2003). Contrary to what Huntington would have projected, they find that more ethnically diverse states were not more likely in any given year to experience civil war, which meant that the supposedly irreconcilable cultural divisions between groups did not naturally give way to organized conflict (Fearon and Laitin 2003, 75). Further, the authors find that not only are there plenty of civil wars which are not related to ethnicity, even those that fit the category of an ethnic war had underlying causes other than ethnic or nationalist (Fearon and Laitin 2003, 83). If ethnic wars in particular were not driven by hostile ethnic or nationalist identities coming to a head, Huntington’s thesis does not hold. 

However, Fearon and Laitin quickly dismiss the cultural and social motivations of various insurgent groups, which could in fact reveal cleavages between ethnically homogenous versus ethnically diverse states. On that same note, Fearon and Laitin do not take special care with the levels of ethnic marginalization in the states where civil conflict occurred. This could mean that in countries with great ethnic diversity, the authors might not have accounted for whether minorities in those countries were treated justly in the political system.  

In their piece, “Why do Ethnic Groups Rebel?”, authors Cederman, Wimmer, and Min argue that the state plays quite an active role in bringing about civil conflict in diverse states through institutional designs that intentionally exclude or disenfranchise groups (Cederman, Wimmer, and Min 2010). The authors argue that in fact greater exclusion of representatives of an ethnic group, as well as history of conflict between ethnic groups who have for a while been vying for political power will increase the odds of civil war (Cederman, Wimmer, and Min 2010, 88). 

In this paper, it becomes clear why although Huntington’s main thesis that the mere presence of different groups in a society will not inevitably lead to civil war was misguided, ethnic diversity still plays a factor in intra-state conflicts. For the political elites of an ethnically diverse state who wish to keep power for themselves, galvanizing the masses using the appeal of a nation as an imagined community can gain them more support as they seek to exclude others, especially if they are unable or unwilling to gain legitimacy in other ways (Cederman, Wimmer, and Min 2010, 94). Even as we cannot fully accept Huntington’s thesis that cultural differences on their own can automatically prompt conflict between groups, we also cannot fully discard the power of imagined identity, especially as it is propagated by a self-serving political class. Through imagination, civilizational identities become real, and are as lethal and therefore important as Huntington predicted. 

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