Book cover from 2003 for The Clash of Civilizations by Huntington

A summary of The Clash of Civilizations

The ‘clash of civilizations’ is a term originally applied by Bernard Lewis (1990) in an article published in the September 1990 issue of The Atlantic. Lewis’ article was titled ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’ and as the title suggests, Lewis’ article offered a critique of Islam in a historical context. According to Lewis, “It [Islam] inspired a great civilization in which others besides Muslims lived creative and useful lives and which, by its achievement, enriched the whole world” (p. 17). However Lewis cautions that Islam, “like other religions, has also known periods when it inspired in some of its followers a mood of hatred and violence. It is our misfortune that part, though by no means all or even most, of the Muslim world is now going through such a period, and that much, though again not all, of that hatred is directed against us. (pp. 17-18).” By ‘us’ Lewis was referring to the Western World – hence his later warning of a ‘clash’ between the two civilizations: The West and ‘Islam’. The purpose of this article is to briefly summarize the clash of civilizations as interpreted by Bernard Lewis and Samuel P. Huntington.

Significantly, Lewis (1990) wrote the above article over a decade before 9/11. Moreover Lewis’ reference to a cultural ‘clash’ is vague to the extent that the conflict was limited to one between ‘Islam’ and ‘The West’. Specifically, Lewis cautioned that a cultural clash between Western Civilization and the Islamic Civilization was a probable outcome for the near future. Lewis’ reference to ‘the clash of civilizations’ appeared in his article’s concluding remarks in the following context:

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival” (Lewis 1990 p. 26).

Arguably Lewis (1990) deserves credit for introducing the phrase ‘clash of civilizations’ into our vernacular. Samuel P. Huntington, on the other hand, is worthy of recognition for popularizing the phrase while similarly introducing ‘the clash’ in the form of a global political paradigm. Whereby Lewis's clash was one between The West and 'Islam', Huntington's clash offered a realist model for interpreting global politics in the twenty-first century.

Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ argument is based on the premise that a traditional global political paradigm was to replace the political order of the Cold War era. In fact, Huntington was merely returning to the system of political order which has dominated human political relations. The Cold War political system was actually the phenomenon (Huntington 2003 pp. 40-55). According to Huntington, "The Cold War division of humanity is over. The more fundamental divisions of humanity in terms of ethnicity, religions, and civilizations remain and spawn new conflicts" (Huntington 2003 pp. 66-67). The Cold War political paradigm consisted of three general groups: those aligned with Moscow; those aligned with the Western bloc of liberal democracies, and; the non-aligned nation-states often referred to as the ‘Third World’. Huntington’s argument first appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs in 1993 in two parts 1993[a][b]. Three years later, in 1996, Huntington elaborated on the articles by publishing a book, The Clash of Civilizations: and the Remaking of World Order. For Huntington the ‘clash of civilizations’ was the paradigm of global political order which was in the process of replacing the Cold War system as a consequence of the Fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Soviet influence. Instead of aligning with nation-states based on political-economic ideology (as was customary during the Cold War era), Huntington argued that nation-states and communities in the twenty-first century were to align based on cultural identity. Huntington’s main premise was that culture and subsequently cultural identity were to become the pressure points of conflict in this post-Cold War ear; whereas during the Cold War era tension and conflict was arguably a product of political-economic ideology.

Huntington’s ‘clash’ argument has not only received plenty of criticism – it has also been disastrously misinterpreted. For instance, the influential academic Edward Said (2001) argued that Huntington’s argument was “belligerent” and that Huntington’s clash premise, “relied on a vague notion of something Huntington called ‘civilization identity’”. In response to these accusations two points must be made clear. First of all Huntington (1996) argued against the notion of Western governments instigating violent conflict between civilizations and suggested policymakers familiarize themselves with the civilizational paradigm in order to acquire a more concise understanding of other cultures thereby recognizing the 'multicivilizational' world (Huntington 2003 pp. 36-39). Secondly, Huntington’s concept of ‘civilizations’ is by no means of his own design and ‘civilizational identity’ is only a ‘vague’ concept to the ill-informed. In fact, Huntington (1996) is absolutely not the first scholar to apply ‘civilizations’ as a worldview of human social and cultural organization. Historian Carrol Quigley (1979) applied a rational, scientific approach to historical analysis by offering a theory as to how civilizations flourish and how they disintegrate. Although Quigley’s historical work is not well known, Huntington (2003) in fact acknowledges the benefits Quigley’s historical analysis brought to the study of civilizations (Huntington 2003 pp. 302-305), in addition to Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, and Arnold Toynbee, to name a few scholars of civilizations reference by Huntington (2003).

The purpose of this article has been to summarize the ‘clash of civilizations’ political theory by depicting ‘the clash’ respectively, through of work of both Lewis and Huntington. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with ‘the clash’ argument, it is important to avoid any of the misconception(s) offered against Huntington (2003). As Huntington (2003) argued, "This 'realist' picture of the world is a useful starting point for analyzing international affairs an explains much state behaviour. [Nation] States are and will remain the dominant entities in world affairs" (p. 34). However, Huntington (2003) emphasizes that, "In the post-Cold War world, [Nation] states increasingly define their interests in civilizational terms" (p. 34). The argument that Huntington's clash theory is belligerent, has been refuted in this article. Instead of arguing for clash of civilizations, Huntington is merely describing that a clash of civilizations is evident within the global political order. When the ‘clash of civilizations’ premise is criticized, quite often the critiques depict ‘the clash’ as a formula for Western hegemony. In response to this critique: Lewis and Huntington’s theories disagree. In particular, Huntington (2003) wrote extensively on the transition of The West as a consequence of the multicivilizational world order whereby The West must learn to cooperate in a world of multiple civilizations. Therefore the 'clash of civilizations' must be understood as a paradigm of global political order – rather than a xenophobic mantra for neo-Western imperialism. In the end, the clash of civilizations simply provides a realist model for understanding global political relations in the twenty-first century based on historical precedence and is more-so a justified observation of global human relations, than it is a theory of political science.


Huntington, SP 1993[a], 'The clash of civilizations?' Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 5, pp. 22-49.

Huntington, SP 1993[b], 'If not civilizations, what? Paradigms of the Post-Cold War World', Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, pp. 186-194.

Huntington, SP 2003, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order, Simon & Schuster, New York: NY, USA.

Lewis, B 1990, “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, Policy, Summer 2001-2002, pp. 17-26.

Said, EW 2001, ‘The clash of ignorance’, The Nation, 4 October, available at: