When ‘culture clash’ gets in the way

A quarter century after the notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ became a popular view of the world, the exceptions point a different way.

A man arranges bread at the shop of a bakery in Tunis, Tunisia, Dec. 1.

This fall marked the 25th anniversary of a famous lecture by Samuel Huntington. The late Harvard University professor predicted that world events would revolve around a “clash” of cultures and religions, or “civilizations,” rather than ideas. His view still holds some sway. China, the biggest player in East Asia’s culture, along with Russia, the biggest in the Orthodox world, are indeed vying for influence with the Christian West, which fears meddling by both giants. Meanwhile, the Islamic world is challenging all.

The problem with this theory and its bold categories – other than distilling trends down to a phrase like “clash of civilizations” – is that there are too many exceptions. And ideas still do matter, as they did during the cold war. With new technologies, ideas travel more easily across borders. Distinct cultures, such as those in Africa and Latin America, are evolving faster than ever.

The theory has even provoked some “cultures,” such as in China, to claim they now offer ideas with universal value that are not peculiar to a particular people.

The many exceptions to Huntington’s theory offer the most compelling counterpoint.

Ukraine, long part of the Orthodox Christian culture, has moved far out of Russia’s orbit and toward Europe ever since a 2014 revolution. Taiwan’s flourishing democracy since the 1990s defies the notion that a Sinic culture prefers autocrats. The rise to power of a Hindu nationalist party in India has pushed that “culture” to open itself to the world like never before and to align with other democracies.

In Islamic countries, the big exception is Tunisia. The North African country was not only the spark for a wave of anti-dictator protests in 2011 called the Arab Spring – which overthrew the notion of Arab passivity to freedom and equality – but it is now a model to those same Arab countries in sustaining a new democracy.

Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, after an initial popularity in elections, has wisely conceded the need for secular rule. Women now have more rights. Past atrocities are being exposed. People are even more demanding of an end to corruption.

On Dec. 17, Tunisia will celebrate the seventh anniversary of its uprising against a dictator. The mood may be somber, however, as the country has yet to solve high youth unemployment and other economic woes. Tunisia has been a source of thousands of Islamic State fighters.

But such practical problems should not diminish Tunisia’s shift in identity since 2011, or its defiance against being pegged as a set “culture” clashing inevitably with other cultures.

According to Rached Ghannouchi, the intellectual leader of the Islamist party, Tunisia’s democracy has succeeded so far by building partnerships across cultural and political divides, abandoning ideas that would exclude others by their categories.

In other words, the more countries can reduce clashes within their societies through respectful, peaceful means, the less likely the world at large will be seen simply as a clash of separate civilizations.

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