Salvo 01.05.2024 20 minutes

Generational Change and The Clash of Civilizations

The hands of a child with a globe in his hands. Ecology and globalization concept

Critiquing Samuel Huntington’s famous thesis in 2024.

“So long as Islam remains Islam (which it will),” writes Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, “and the West remains the West (which is more dubious), this fundamental conflict between two great civilizations and ways of life will continue to define their relations in the future even as it has defined them for the past fourteen centuries.”

The October 7 attacks on Israel by Hamas and the sympathetic response to it in many Western cities and college campuses might seem to have validated his prophecies. A substantial part of the West does appear to have changed—along generational lines at that. A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll conducted shortly after the attacks found that roughly half of American voters under 35 believe that the 10/7 attacks were “justified in the light of Palestinian grievances.” In contrast, nearly 90 percent of voters over the age of 55 disagree.

Generational differences are key to understanding how well Huntington’s ideas of civilizational conflict (or even his basic premise about civilizational divisions) explain today’s world, particularly the split within the West in its attitude toward Islam and Judaism in light of the present conflict, as well as some broader trends such as the growing solidarity between Hindus and Jews in relation to Islam.

Civilization, Civilizations, and Generations

Huntington holds that “human history is the history of civilizations,” which are marked by longevity; “[v]irtually all the major civilizations of the world in the twentieth century either have existed for a millennium, or, as with Latin America, are the immediate offspring of a long-lived civilization.” He classifies the world into the following civilizations: Sinic, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Orthodox, Western, Latin American, and “possibly” African. He also identifies the centrality of religion to civilizations.

Huntington’s main interpretation from this scheme is that the West and Islam have been in conflict for several hundred years. Even if the basis for global conflicts shifted briefly during the Cold War from civilizational to ideological lines, civilizations have since returned to their roots through a selective process of modernization without Westernization. Conflict between the West and the Sinic and Islamic civilizations is therefore a real and imminent possibility.

He concludes with a complex map of possible emerging global alignments in which a singular, “more conflictual” relationship will exist between the West and Islam, and the West and China, and a double “more conflictual” and “less conflictual” relationship for the West with India, Japan, and Russia.

The Clash of Civilizations was met with qualified appreciation for its “conservative multiculturalism” as well as strident criticism. Edward Said, for example, compared the “clash of civilizations” argument to a “cartoonlike world where Popeye and Bluto bash each other mercilessly.”

My position on Huntington and his critics is that a clash of caricatures does not help enrich our understanding of the past, present, or possible future of the world. In my classes on media, terrorism, and war in the early 2000s, I often discussed Huntington’s essay in contrast to Gandhian ideals of universalism, religious harmony, and non-violence. It was my belief that Huntington failed to recognize non-Western forms of universalism, and incorrectly considered the rejection of Western universalism by non-Western cultures as a cause for inevitable conflict. However, in Huntington’s defense, one might argue that he allows for the possibility of a less conflictual world based on the idea of a shared sense of common morality, a sense of “Civilization,” in the singular.

“Does the vacuousness of Western universalism and the reality of global culture diversity lead inevitably and irrevocably to moral and cultural relativism?” he asks, and goes on to say the answer is “yes and no.”  Huntington believes that “human beings in virtually all societies share certain basic values such as murder is evil,” and that “minimal moral concepts of truth and justice” can be found universally. In this sense, Huntington allows for the possibility that human beings are not inexorably divided by differences. Although, as Ferdinand Braudel notes, the word “Humanity” has replaced the word “Civilization” in this kind of usage, Huntington retains the same sensibility with his “Civilization.”

Huntington’s position may be summarized, in contrast to how his critics see it, as an effort to find a balanced, if imperfect, perspective on how both conflict and coexistence mark human history. A strong sense of “us and them” in history is a reality for him, but so is a common denominator of basic morality, particularly around issues with gravity and consequence like murder. At least that was the consensus, across generations, back in the 1990s when Huntington was writing these words.

Today, even if all civilizations share such a common sense of morality, it may not be true across generations, at least, in the case of the West. To return to the Harvard CAPS/Harris poll cited earlier, the age cohorts in which about half the participants believed that the Hamas attacks on Israelis were “justified in the light of Palestinian grievances” also indicated that they were aware of the cruel details of the torture and massacre of Israeli civilians, including children, women, and elders. They called it a “genocide” but still “justified.” Even “murder” is not seen as a universal moral taboo.

Millennials and Gen Z youth appear to have a different understanding of not necessarily the Israel-Palestine issue alone, but also of questions of morality around the torture and murder of civilians. These findings suggest that Huntington’s assumption that murder offers a universal moral line in the sand cannot be taken for granted.

This generational split in the American public suggests that a large portion of younger Americans qualify acts of murder based on their understanding of identity and claims of grievance. In an oppressor/oppressed binary of the sort that has been normalized across some national and civilizational lines, they view Israel as Western or white and Palestine as its racial and colonial victim.

It is therefore clear that divisions in the world today are not simply between Islam and the West as Huntington’s civilizational view proposes, or between a progressive Left and populist Right as more recent works argue, but also between generations. These divisions are experiential, social, and cultural and are related to profound changes in communication technology as research by psychologist Jean Twenge (2023) indicates.

It would be difficult to speak of the “West” (or any other Huntington-defined “civilization”) as a monolith when those generational cohorts that came of age with the Internet and the smart phone are growing up with a profoundly different cultural experience than their elders did a few decades ago at similar stages of their lives.

Generational Demography in the Contemporary Global Context

“Young people,” Huntington writes, “are the protagonists of protest, instability, reform, and revolution.” He notes that the Protestant Reformation, the Democratic Revolution, the rise of fascism in the 1920s, and the protest culture of the sixties all coincided with a “demographic bulge of teenagers and people in their twenties.” He is especially concerned about demographics in Muslim countries. He says that the “proportion of youth (that is, those fifteen to twenty-four years of age) in major Muslim countries rose significantly and began to exceed 20 percent of the total population” through the seventies and eighties, coinciding with what he calls the “Islamic Resurgence.”

Given the current global distribution of generations, across “civilizations,” how might we evaluate Huntington’s concerns? Does the presence of a large population of youth inevitably cause revolutions?

At the moment (2023), according to ILO data, one in five, or about 20 percent of the world population, is between 18 and 25 years of age. In the United States, the youth population (18 to 34) is about 76 million (or 22 percent). In China, about 350 million people lie between the ages of 18 and 34. India has an even more pronounced demographic bulge. ILO statistics say that 66 percent of India’s population, or 808 million people, are under the age of 35, and almost 40 percent of India’s population is between 13 and 35 (India’s official definition of its “youth”).

Several demographic bulges appear to exist in the world today. However, the experiences of members of today’s younger generations in different contexts have not all been the same. In the nineties, Asian youth showed signs of “rebelling in” to global capitalism rather than “rebelling out” as Western youth in previous generations typically did. In India, youth are optimistic compared to the West, and a sense of civilizational renewal through modernization is afoot. In China, reports suggest that while there has been a return to ancestral identity after the revolutions of the mid-twentieth century, there is also a sense of being a “last generation” pervading young adults’ views of the future. In the United States, about half the youth appear to have rejected a sense of their identity as the “West,” or at least view it as an oppressive construct that deserves Hamas-style “decolonization.” And across Western countries, there is a sense of transnational solidarity that seems to be free of national or civilizational identities. In Islamic countries, the picture likely varies from one context to another, say, from concerns about the trauma (and subsequent indoctrination) of children in Gaza, to more optimistic and culturally hybrid outlooks among young Muslims in Indonesia or India.

Civilizations, Religions, and Intergenerational Continuity

Huntington pays close attention to religion as a basis for civilizational identity and possible conflict, although his classificatory scheme might seem a bit arbitrary. He views Islam as one large civilization, based on religion. However, he divides the Christian world into as many as three categories; the West, Orthodox, and Latin America (and possibly parts of Africa). He sees Japan, China, and India as civilizations also along religious lines.

Given his focus on religion as an important source of civilizational identity, Huntington also shares his reasons for not recognizing Judaism as a civilization. On the basis of population size, “Judaism is clearly not a major civilization,” for Huntington. Following Toynbee, he calls Judaism an “arrested civilization.” He acknowledges that “with the creation of Israel, Jews have all the objective accoutrements of a civilization,” but in terms of “subjective identification…Jews living in other cultures have distributed themselves along a continuum stretching from total identification with Judaism and Israel to nominal Judaism and full identification with the civilization within which they reside.” 

Recent events in the Middle East, and the global upsurge of antisemitism from non-Muslims and Muslims in many Western cities, might suggest that Huntington’s subsumption of Judaism within “the West” may warrant reconsideration. Speaking of religion in a universal sense is commonplace, but it also leads to a lack of clarity. We might do well to recognize that followers of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism might have a different understanding of themselves from members of other traditions, not only as civilizations or communities in space (in relation to say, non-Muslims, non-Christians, and non-Jews), but also as intergenerational continuities, in time.

As Eviatar Zerubavel writes, time, in cultural terms, is something that ought to be understood not just as an objective metric, but also as a cultural and social category, and most of all, a story. A sense of linear and finite time, marked by Creation and Apocalypse, characterizes the Judeo-Islamic-Christian faith system. Hindus, Buddhists, and others may perceive time to be more long-flowing and cyclical. One view of time is associated with a view of a lifetime as a singular event, another view is associated with an idea that a lifetime is only one of many that a living being takes until moksha, or nirvana, is attained. Furthermore, the cyclical view of time in Asian traditions may also take a more generational form, with rituals linking ancestors and descendants functioning as an essential foundation for intergenerational continuity.

These two views of time also have implications not just for personal beliefs and practices, but also for collective affairs and politics. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims, for example, might adopt their policies, including wars, on the basis of their faith in religiously ordained or predicted historical events. Indigenous and polytheistic traditions, on the other hand, might view history and global events as less important than local traditions, festivals, and ceremonies (but also show a stronger sense of attachment to ancestrally remembered sacred geographies than the monotheistic faiths, as seen for example in multiple claims made by Hindus in India to rebuild temples destroyed long ago by Islamic forces).

As Vine Deloria writes in his seminal God is Red, before the idea of History in what he calls the “Near Eastern Religion” sense entered America, native people spoke mostly only of the past, passed on parent to child, generation to generation, through simple phrases like “it was a long time ago” or “the way I heard it.” A similar contrast between “history” and the “past” is also proposed by S.N. Balagangadhara in his essay, “What Do Indians Need, a History or the Past?

Vertical Continuity / Horizontal Disruption

Cultures exist not only through intergenerational continuity, but also through their responses to challenges to that continuity. Ferdinand Braudel writes that “every civilization worthy of its name has rejected something” and often, what the adult generations reject are attempts to break the intergenerational continuity in their cultures by foreign forces. In this context, it would be useful to recognize such attempts as a form of “horizontal disruption.” During the period of European colonialism, the work of European missionaries to convert the children of natives to Christianity, or into adopting European values at the very least, could be seen in such a manner. In the present context, communication technology could also be seen as a major instrument in global rivalries aimed at horizontal disruptions to intergenerational flows.

For examples, American critics have blamed the influence of TikTok videos and algorithms for the recent trend of popular support for Palestine and antipathy towards Israel and Jews in America. The current cohort of high school students consumes news mostly from TikTok, they say, where pro-Palestinian hashtags have outranked pro-Israeli hashtags.

There are also reports of a new TikTok trend among American youth regarding their celebration of Osama bin Laden’s “Letter to America.” Some experts argue that TikTok is not to blame, and support for Hamas and bin Laden is possibly quite organically arising in young American minds. However, another area of concern in the matter of horizontal disruption has been noted in the case of American colleges. 

A recent study by the National Contagion Research Institute (NCRI) at Rutgers University claims that American universities which received funding from certain countries critical of Israel like Qatar showed sharp increases in antisemitic incidents on campus following the October 7 attacks.

In the West, it might be safe to say that intergenerational continuity has been under strain in broader terms as well. To take one important indicator of intergenerational continuity, religious identification, we find a drop from about 90 percent in 2003 to 66 percent in 2016 among Americans (Twenge). Short of outright conquests and mass conversions, this decline might well prove to be one of the most significant breaks in intergenerational, cultural, and, one might even say, “civilizational” continuity. The cohort of children born between 1995 and 2010 and raised in this period also happen to constitute the largest segment of the U.S. population to be raised by non-religious parents than ever before. As Jean Twenge further notes, President Obama in his 2009 inaugural address recognized “non-believers” for the first time alongside Christians (and Muslims, Hindus, and other communities in the United States).

One might say that with such a sharp break in intergenerational continuity, the current generation of youth in America are perhaps less invested in a sense of the past as it was felt or passed on by their immediate ancestors’ experiences, much less the History that their parents and grandparents learned in schools about Western civilization and the Judeo-Christian tradition; “1619” is perhaps a more important milestone for them than “1776.”

In Asia, there are several broad forms of intergenerational continuity being negotiated. In India, particularly among Hindus, the traditional sense of the “past” as experienced and expressed through the passing on of ritual observances from one generation to the other exists alongside a modern, nationalistic sense of history with its attendant ideas about progress, secularism, and modernization. This is frequently a politically confrontational relationship, particularly for the Bharatiya Janata Party or B.J.P., the ruling “Hindu Nationalist” political party, as it works with different constituencies and aspirations.

Urban Anglophone Indian youth identify with global cosmopolitan “tribes” and reject a sense of Hindu identity for a secular one. The larger mass of small town and vernacular-modern youth identify with an idea of Hindu civilizational renewal. This group is sometimes further divided by observers into “Traditionalists,” who see ancestral traditions and their continuity as sacred, and pro-B.J.P. modernizers who call themselves the “RW” or “Right Wing.” For the “RW,” the perceived threat might be to their sense of national sovereignty, whereas for the traditionalists the threat is perceived to be from the Indian secular state’s intrusion into their temples and their children’s education.

In China, there is a strong renewal of national and civilizational identity after intergenerational continuity was sharply broken during the Cultural Revolution. While cultural policies about attitudes to the past might have since changed, the pervasive role of the State in managing social and cultural life-flows might make for a different future trajectory than, say, Hindu India, where local deities, festivals, and traditions pass on more organically, despite occasional efforts by the secular state to ban them or to “reform” Hinduism.

China is invested in ensuring its sovereignty over intergenerational continuity, as seen by its concerns about celebrity culture and perceived threats to traditional gender roles by androgynous pop culture trends. China is an emerging world power, but a large population of youth that does not see a cultural urge to procreate suggests a degree of both pessimism and cultural loss. What China gains in “horizontal” power globally it might perhaps pay in terms of “vertical” existence.

The case of intergenerational continuity in the Islamic countries, and among large Islamic populations in countries like India, offers perhaps the strongest example of intergenerational cultural reproduction through institutional dominance. While the presence of “ex-Muslims” and critics of fundamentalist Islam such as anti-hijab protestors in Iran show that the rejection of intergenerational continuity might take place sometimes despite great risks, the enduring influence of institutional mechanisms to ensure continuity in the faith must be acknowledged. As historian Venkat Dhulipala observes in his study of the creation of Pakistan, the demand for partition by the leaders of the Muslim League came from an acute sense of Islam’s history in the world, and a desire to return to it after British colonialism had ended. One of the strongest arguments made by the Muslim League for Partition had to do with the secular vision of Hindu-Muslim harmony that Gandhi had proposed for schoolchildren after Independence. The Muslim League rejected Gandhi’s idea and demanded sovereignty not only over land, but also over Muslim intergenerational continuity.

Sino-Islamo-Western and Hindu-Judeo-Western Memory Blocs

Huntington’s framework was useful in alerting us to the enduring power of intergenerational cultural continuities in history, even if it was less attentive to the role of horizontal disruptions in breaking such continuities. Whether civilizations clash or thrive together, whether they survive or simply disappear into some other culture, depends on how different generations feel about their past, present, and future. This is not to suggest that intergenerational continuity is a universal ideal that will refute Huntington’s gloomy prognosis. The rapid generational reproduction of imperialist, expansionist ideologies will have a bearing on global power relations. How these conflicts might emerge and play out though will certainly be more complex than those predicted by Huntington. A possible global perspective based on the idea of intergenerational continuity is the emergence of two global cultural-memory blocs, the Sino-Islamo-(mostly younger) Western and the Hindu-Judeo-(mostly older) Western.

These blocs are emerging, I believe, as a result of different levels of social investments in the value of intergenerational continuity in Asia and the West. Islamic countries, China, and to some extent India all maintain some sovereignty over education and media. The West appears to have not found an answer to its crisis of horizontal disruption which has entered the vacuum left by the decline of churches and civic associations. A cohort of post-Christian parents raising a generation of children perhaps two generations removed from Christianity has led to a sharp rift along generational lines in how even issues like mass murder and justice are perceived. Universities funded by foreign countries and children and teens consumed by foreign tools of cultural manipulation suggests a breakdown in the West’s intergenerational sovereignty. Whether a return to some form of cultural Christianity, or an older idea still of an ancestral Western tradition, will restore a sense of continuity remains to be seen.

At the moment, there is also a convergence of views between Western youth and Muslims. Both groups see the West as colonial, racist, and predatory-capitalist, and see a promise of global solidarity and resistance to capitalism in Muslim movements.

The other configuration that seems to be forming, although with less cohesion and global influence, is what I would call an “Hindu-Judeo-(mostly older) West.”

The “Judeo-Western” bond is of course an old and well-recognized one. However, the “Hindu-Judeo” bond is a new, emerging one. India has gravitated toward Israel in recent years. This relationship manifests mainly in defense and business, but there is also a deeper civilizational empathy that Indians, and particularly Hindus, seem to feel for Jews and for Israel. Some part of this empathy might be because of a sense of shared danger from Islamic extremism. Another part might come from the fact that Jewish and Hindu American diasporas have tended to prosper in Western countries, and have also faced some resentment for allegedly possessing “White Adjacent” privilege. But from the perspective of intergenerational continuity, the understanding between Jews and Hindus might also lie in a sense of respect for each other for having maintained their traditions over several centuries despite periods of duress and coercion.

Seen in generational terms, Hindus and Jews carry the pride, and perhaps the burden, of having the longest enduring multigenerational cultural continuity in comparison to other groups or nations. The Judaic and Hindu civilizations are the only two cultures that do not carry a break with the past, or a sense of a break with the past, in comparably recent times. Muslim cultural memory has a strong sense of the past as divided into the time before and after Islam around the notion of jahiliya (ignorance or barbarism). Christianity, and the modern secular West, also have a sense of the past as divided into sharply different periods before and after the birth of their faith-founders (or the conversion of their ancestors). While China might not have such a fault-line in its ancient memory, it has gone through similar purges as the other monotheisms in breaking with its past in the twentieth century. Hinduism, like the smaller number of indigenous and polytheistic traditions still alive around the world, sees the past as infinite and beyond modern notions of history.

Such a long view of the past perhaps enables a long view into the future, or at least a sense of optimism that what one needs to do in one’s lifetime is simply what their forefathers did. There is no grand narrative from religion, party, or state to circumscribe a telos into one’s intergenerational location between ancestors and descendants. On the other hand, a short view of the past is one that sees a need to break perpetually with it through the destruction of monuments, statues, libraries, temples, goddesses, gods, and “Dead White Males.”

What we are witnessing today is neither a clash of civilizations as some on the Right say nor a universal march of progress and social justice as the Left believes. Instead, what is happening might be a coalescing of seemingly disparate and even once-antagonistic civilizations along experiences of intergenerational continuity, memory, and responses to disruptions to the same.

The West is generationally, culturally, and politically divided on which way it will go. A long, ancestrally-anchored view of itself inspired by the Hindu-Judeo-West model of multigenerational memory might help it restore intergenerational vision even as the Sino-Islamo-West of revolutionary fervor and generational denunciations erodes both its sense of the past and its optimism toward the future.

The conflicts of the present are not just those of ideology, territory, or faith but also arise from how cultures deal with the pressing, inexorable question of our place in time. Civilization, in the singular, will be defined most harmoniously in my view by whichever civilization or cluster of civilizations teaches its younger generations to stop hating the past.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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