The clash of civilizations: whose idea?

In Samuel Huntington’s famous 1993 article, “The Clash of Civilizations?” (yes, it had a question mark), he wrote that “on both sides the interaction between Islam and the West is seen as a clash of civilizations.” Then he brought this supporting quotation from Bernard Lewis:

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.

In a footnote, Huntington located this quotation in Lewis’s article “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in 1990.

The quoting of Lewis by Huntington led to the widespread conclusion that it was Lewis who came up with “the clash of civilizations,” and who seeded Huntington with the idea. So when Lewis died in 2018, many obituaries gave him credit (or blame) for inspiring Huntington. 

But this turns out to be trickier than it seems.

  • First, it’s quite possible, even likely, that Lewis borrowed “clash of civilizations” from someone else.
  • Second, Lewis wasn’t altogether happy with the way Huntington recycled “clash of civilizations,” and hesitated to endorse it. This may have been due, in part, to the criticism of Huntington made by Fouad Ajami.
  • Third, by “clash of civilizations,” Lewis meant something both less and more than Huntington’s “clash.”

I explore all this in a webinar for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an association founded by Lewis and Ajami. View my full presentation below.