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Samuel P. Huntington Revisited - Cultural Conflicts Are Not Leading to a 'Clash of Civilizations'

The Bertelsmann Stiftung's new study shows that unlike Huntington's prophecy, cultural conflicts are not an indication of a 'clash of civilizations' but rather a domestic phenomenon

Two hands intertwined

Samuel P. Huntington's 'clash of civilizations' has evolved into a winged word. However, why do cultural conflicts between certain groups in a country or between states only occur occasionally? The Bertelsmann Stiftung breaks new ground as it contributes to the scientific debate. It combines data collected by researchers at the University of Heidelberg on all global conflicts since 1945 and the researchers' assessment of the conflict's causes and intensities in order to approach the issue of cultural conflicts.

"In this new world, the most pervasive, important, and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities." According to Samuel P. Huntington, the post-Cold War world order was destined to evolve into a 'clash of civilizations'. The Bertelsmann Stiftung's study approaches Huntington's predictions in a differentiated way. Unlike Huntington, the study does not assume that culture serves as a driver of future international tensions. It rather defines cultural conflicts as domestic, international or transnational conflicts in which participating actors make use of language, religion or historical contexts as a basis for the conflict. Culture has an escalating effect on conflicts and makes them more prone to violence.

Moreover, the study contrasts with Huntington's observation that the end of the Cold War was almost instantly followed by an outbreak of cultural conflicts. These types of conflicts have already played a significant role during the entire period under observation (1945-2007). Since the mid-1980s, the number of cultural conflicts has exceeded the number of non-cultural conflicts for the first time. However, since the end of the Cold War the number of conflicts that has culture as a subject has indeed increased. This is also rooted in the fact that modern means of communication have become extremely important. They explain why Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed were able to instigate an outcry in large parts of the Islamic world.

It is important to stress that the study does not suggest that cultural factors are "master variables" that solely explain the occurence of conflicts. Oftentimes, non-cultural factors play a more decisive role than cultural ones. The "youth bulge", a large share of young men in relation to the given population, is one example. When a youth bulge is accompanied by a strong lingustic fragmentation, the risk of a domestic conflict turns out to be extremly high. Yet, the study contrasts with the assumption that there is a linear link between religious fragmentation and a proneness to conflict. It is rather religious fragmentation on a medium scale in combination with demographic factors such as the youth bulge that are able to fuel conflicts.

Although the study brings out that cultural conflicts are particularly prone to violence, one of the authors, Prof Aurel Croissant, stresses that this fact should not lead to the hasty conclusion that cultural conflicts usually give rise to excessive violence. "Relative to the number of potential conflicts, the number of actual violent conflicts is minuscule."


About the study:
The study was jointly carried out by the Bertelsmann Stiftung and the University of Heidelberg's Institute for Political Science under the direction of Prof Aurel Croissant and Prof Uwe Wagschal. It is based on information drawn from the CONIS database, which quantifies global conflicts since 1945. The study's findings are intended to help promote a more target-oriented cultural dialogue among the globe's diverse cultures.

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