The Editorials of E. Desiderius

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Why Amartya Sen Is Wrong On The Clash of Civilizations

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In a Slate piece adopted from his new book, Harvard Professor Amartya Sen claims that one of the key problems with Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilization” is that it focuses solely on a religious identity and ignores the multitude of other identities that an individual has and takes up. Further, the boundaries between Huntington’s civilizations are fuzzy and fluid; and never mind the theory ignores the multitude of internal strife within civilizations. However, Sen’s presentation and treatment of Huntington is an unfortunate straw man.

Huntington does not claim that religious identity is the sole basis for distinguishing between the civilizations, though at first glance the civilizational lines he draws are indeed based along religious lines. But Huntington does not posit that it is religious identity which makes for a clash between civilization, but rather culture. Indeed, religion and religious values play an enormous role in culture, but not the only part. In short, yes, Huntington’s “Western Civilization” is drawn out of Christendom. But the West is also the result of Caesar crossing the Rubicon, Augustus, Plato and Socrates, Galileo, the Battle of Tours, the Magna Carta, Darwin, Martin Luther and the Reformation, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, and so forth. Civilizational experience, and thus values and beliefs, arises out of all strands of cultural experience, whether it be Christianity and religious experience or The Origin of Species and Candide.

Sen’s point that Westerners to tend to view Islam through a prism by classifying them as “The Islamic World” has merit. It is a simplification to ignore the other identities that each and every individual human being has. However, one could make that case that any social science or humanistic academic field ignores and reduces the wide variety of distinction and individuality that arises between unique human beings, in order to formulate a general working academic theory. Political science, to formulate a general order of things must break down all the factors at work in a state, into a workable model. Simplification is simply required to formulate any sort of general theory. And humanities, unlike pure logic, have long recognized that there is the possibility of a deviant variable: an exception that does not break the rule. Thus, we as academics and journalists are allowed to form working models and thermos of the way the world works, without disregarding our entire theory based on outliers and deviants. Essentially, sometimes it is okay to simply the world, as Huntington does.

Further, he claims that the civilizational lines are irrationally drawn, and ignore the wide variety of dissent and conflict within civilizations, and gives some examples of internal divisions: race, social class, gender, language, nationalities. However, this too is a mute point. Sen is saying that the world cannot be grouped into trans-national blocs of people that have similar cultural experiences and worldviews. However, at the same time, he is affirming that sub-national groups like racial groups or class-based groups can band together and create a movement of dissent, change or protest within a larger group. Essentially -- People with similar goals and outlooks will band together for common cause. If sub-national groups with similar interests can unite together, why is it an outrageous idea that larger groups with very similar cultural interests that transcend the nation-state will join in their own common interest? African-Americans in the United States opposed the national policies of the government and some worked to bring about social change, but during all of the major wars the United States faced: both World Wars, Vietnam, and Korea, droves of them still served their country. They put aside a dissenting identity and embraced a wider identity that still fit with their overall worldview.

Thus, of course there is dissent within what is though of as the Islamic Civilization, in Huntington’s terms. Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Persians, Turks, men, women, radicals, moderates, liberals, clergy, etc. However, when a larger, greater threat or conflict appears, they will unite and react as a block. Sunnis and Shiites were united in their denouncing of the Danish cartoons, as were Jordanians and Iraqis, just as Europeans stood in solidarity with their Dane counterparts in defense of free speech.

Sen’s argument essentially amounts to what is a typical undergraduate-equse statement of “The world is a complicated place.” Indeed, the world is a complex place. But in trying to formulate working models and effective theories, simplification and classification certainly have their place. Huntington’s theory is by no means perfect. But is is a way of understanding and addressing the world’s events and problems. It is a theory that has attempted, and somewhat successfully predicted, the slow, but graduation transition of the world from national and ideological identities into transnational and cultural ones. Sen’s quick dismissal of Huntington is cosmopolitanism at its worst: a surrender to the idea that the world is too complex to attempt to be understood and that it is useless to endeavor to formulate theories and predictions on a wide scope. Shame on him.

-E. Desiderius

Relevant Articles:
Slate: Amartya Sen - What Clash of Civilizations?

Posted by George Gordon | Thursday, March 30, 2006 | E-mail this post

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