Was Samuel P Huntington wrong? In more ways than we already know? Are most wars in our times within— rather than between— civilisations? His famous thesis, forcefully articulated in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996), has already been debated, criticised, and refuted several times over. Yet, in some form or another, it persists. But is it in need of a severe overhaul?
What, furthermore, are the implications of shifting the focus from inter-civilisational wars to intra-civilisational clashes? In the context of India, this has been a question that has fascinated me for nearly a decade, with the exacerbation of India’s history and culture wars. I refer to these in my recent book on Jawaharlal Nehru University as “India’s uncivil wars”.
My line of argument, especially in the international sphere, follows in the wake of scholars such as Mary Kaldor, Riva Kastoryano, and Olivier Roy, among others. But simply looking outside the box of theory and academics may also compel us to modify, inflect, or even reverse Huntington’s thesis that most wars in our times are not between civilisations, but within them. What is more, these “fault-line wars,” as Huntington called them towards the end of his book, are not “communal conflicts between states or groups from different civilizations,” but internal conflicts within the same civilisation.
Let us consider the ongoing war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war is much more complex and multifaceted than what a simplistic “civilisational analysis” can afford us. Ukraine and Russia, with their deep historical, cultural, and linguistic ties, are not two distinct or separate civilisations, but rather members of one Russo-Slavic ecumene. The war between them is thus not a clash of civilisations in Huntington’s sense but an intra-civilisational struggle. Of course, one might argue that this war is part of an actual clash of civilisations, going back to the Cold War, between the West and the Soviet Union. What is therefore unfolding is not even an intra-civilisational battle, but a proxy war between the West and Russia, with Ukraine acting on behalf of the former.
The Russian-speaking population in Ukraine, particularly in the eastern regions, has distinct cultural, historical, and economic ties with Russia. But, historically and culturally, Ukrainians have not been overtly opposed to this. Rather, accepting the unequal power relations between their much more powerful neighbours and themselves, they have resorted to bilingualism and biculturalism to cope and survive. The systematic de-Russification of Ukraine is thus one of the causes of the present crisis. But the real determinants of war are hardly cultural or, to reinvoke Huntington, civilisational. They derive much more from the broader geopolitical dynamics at play, namely the ongoing conflict between NATO and Russia. From its own point of view, Russia is resisting its encirclement, disempowerment, and dismemberment by NATO.
It is therefore important to recognise how Ukraine has become a crossroads state, where Eastern Slavic, Polish, and Western European influences converge, compete, and clash, along with the economic, linguistic, and ethnic factions and interests that they represent. To what extent, then, is the war both the struggle for self-determination and the assertion of a distinct Ukrainian identity within the Russo-Slavic civilisation and an actual, even if proxy, war between civilisations?
Let us now consider another theatre of recurring conflict. In the Middle East, where Islam dominates, wars have been fought not only between Israel and various Arab nations but between and within Arab states themselves. The civil wars in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen are examples. Or earlier, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. What about the Iran- Iraq war, both countries Islamic in their religious, cultural, and civilisational orientation, with large, overlapping Shia populations? Again, we might consider these clashes intra, rather than trans or inter-civilisational. Arguably, none of them can be reduced to clashes between Islam and the West, or between two distinct civilisational entities.
Simply looking outside the box of theory and academics may also compel us to modify, inflect, or even reverse Huntington’s thesis that most wars in our times are not between civilisations but within
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Moving over to Western civilisation itself, it too seems to be embroiled in a war within. Internally divided and fractured as never before rather than at war with its civilisational Others. One notable example of this internal strife is the rise of populist movements and the polarisation of political discourse within Western nations. The shrill and divisive rhetoric that splits the public sphere seems to spell the end of free societies as we know them. Instead, social and virtual bullying, cancel culture, and wokeism dominate. These forces and movements, often infiltrated by “enemy” civilisations, capitalise on economic anxieties, cultural shifts, and identity politics, exploiting divisions within society. The emergence of these tendencies highlights deep-seated societal fissures, economic disparities, and the erosion of trust in established political institutions.
Globalisation, immigration, multiculturalism, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, and similar movements have fuelled intense debates and conflicts in Western societies. Disagreements over these contentious topics have exposed ideological, social, and economic fault lines, revealing deep fractures between differing visions of national identity, cultural heritage, and social values. The resulting tensions and confrontations reflect an internal struggle for defining the future trajectory of Western civilisation. These challenges have been deepened by media and information technology. The rise of social media and digital platforms has led to the spread of disinformation, echo chambers, and the fragmentation of public discourse, with frustrated individuals retreating into their ideological bubbles and engaging in confrontations rather than constructive dialogue.
Closer home, the ongoing hostilities between India and Pakistan might serve as another example of an intra-civilisational clash. Divided by religion, these two nations nevertheless share historical, cultural, and linguistic ties, rooted in the larger Indic civilisation. Can the wars between India and Pakistan thus be neatly classified as between two separate religions and civilisations? Or do they, more typically, exemplify an intra-civilisational conflict along religious fault lines? The latter, indeed, has been the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) line and may serve as the basis of Akhand Bharat or undivided India, even if by another name.
The Partition itself, from such a standpoint, was driven primarily by political considerations, stemming from greed for pelf and power, rather than religious or civilisational considerations. The failure of the two-nation—from the sense of this column—the two-civilisational theory—was not only borne out by the separation of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, but also from the present ethnic and social unrest in the latter. Despite the quest for separate nation-states based on religious identity, as in the Khalistan movement, who can deny a common history of traditions, societal practices, and philosophical and spiritual orientations that all the communities of our subcontinent share?
Even the simmering conflict over Kashmir is rooted in political disputes, territorial claims, and diverging national aspirations, rather than in religious or civilisational differences alone. No wonder, “Naya Kashmir”, all set to host a G20 meeting, is showing how the religious radicalisation of the past can be weaned away and replaced by a developmental agenda. Its immense strategic, symbolic, and emotional significance for both sides notwithstanding, the origins of the conflict over Kashmir lie in political complexities, historical grievances, and power struggles rather than a fundamental clash between separate civilisations. Any hope for lasting peace between India and Pakistan, thus, rests on the recognition of civilisational commonality.
In conclusion, it seems clear that the hot wars of our times, whether in Ukraine, Middle East, or closer home, defy the clash of civilisational narrative. Rather, they are complex battles within the same cultural and religious framework, driven by regional, political, and social complications that cannot be reduced to civilisational boundaries. But here is where civilisational adversaries or foes can easily exploit and widen the cracks and fault lines within civilisations. Perhaps, this has been our tragedy in the subcontinent. We might argue that “breaking India” forces still operate, interfere, and weaponise these weaknesses.
Of course, it is essential to recognise that civilisations are not monolithic entities. They are dynamic and multifaceted, comprising diverse languages, cultures, ideologies, and religious and ethnic identities. To recognise that differences should not turn into zones of assault or disintegration is a strategic challenge to strong nations. Lest a hostile civilisation or state interfere or exploit them to our detriment.
Our ongoing border skirmishes with China are an example. To that extent, Huntington was not entirely wrong. The clash of civilisations is part of a much broader pattern of conflict which often does not result in an actual or all-out war. Instead, it is reinserted within civilizations as a form of hybrid warfare, weakening them from within rather than being defeated from the outside. More dangerously, such a clash between civilisations is actually manifest in hot, rather than cold flashes of bloodshed and internal haemorrhaging as in Dantewada. When it comes to the future of war, it is this clash within civilisations that we need to become more wary of.
About The Author
Makarand R Paranjape is professor of English at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Views are personal.
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