Faultlines in Europe - Clash of Civilizations?

a) How do Huntington and Ignatieff differ in the way they view the divisive role of culture and civilization in securing/preventing unity?; b) Which political faultlines have emerged in the debates on genocide and/or multiculturalism particularly regarding memory and/or tolerance?; c) What problems does this present for any notion of ‘European citizenship’?



In face of increasing globalization, intertwined economic relations and cross-cultural political cooperation, Samuel P. Huntington and Michael Ignatieff have focused on the challenges on identity in two diverging publications. In his world-famous work “The clash of civilizations”, Huntington (1993) holds that in the future world, conflicts among nation-states will recede while the “great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural” (p.22), namely between “civilizations”. A civilization, according to Huntington can be defined as the highest level of “cultural entity” (p. 23), subsuming a variety of cultural groups on local, regional, national or supranational level and uniting them under distinct common facets of “language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of the people” (p. 24). Consequently, Huntington sees the faultlines of the globalized world between eight major global civilizations: “Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization” (p. 25). The “clash of civilizations” can thus essentially be reduced to the clash of cultural identities which try to assert themselves against one another. It can be reduced to the clash of groups of citizens searching for common factors of reference such as lieux de mémoires, shared history or common values and trying to define themselves against the picture of an exterior, an “other” civilization.

Following Huntington’s argument, there are several reasons why the future will see an increased clash between the global cultural entities. Firstly, Huntington asserts that civilizations have nurtured their different cultures over such a long period of history that rigid cultural differences with a long life-expectancy have emerged. Secondly, he holds that the world is becoming a global village: its inhabitants are faced with increased economic, political and social interrelations among each other. These put the citizens’ identity into danger and force them to constantly assert themselves. To prevent the erosion and disappearance of their identity in the globalized world, the citizens are forced to turn back to established history and long-grown tradition, protecting these cultural assets against the mingling with other civilizations. This behavior in turn leads to an increased polarization of civilizations on the global stage. Huntington (1993) asserts that the “importance of regional economic blocs [i.e. intra-civilization trade] is likely to continue to increase in the future” (p. 27). The countries of one civilization will thus try to promote trade amongst each other in order to gain an economic advantage over the other civilizations. The clash of civilization, according to Huntington, will therefore not only be fought on the political and cultural, but also on the economic level.


Michael Ignatieff sees the challenge to identity on a completely different level than Huntington. While Huntington regards the global civilizations as the most important source of identification for the citizens, for Ignatieff the local sphere is more important. In his view, the problem of civilizations is their “inauthenticity” (p. 56). In other words, Ignatieff’s civilization is not an immutable cultural framework which would serve as a steadfast reference value for identity; it can develop and take new forms. Rather than being an unchangeable skin around the body, Ignatieff depicts civilization as a “mask, constantly repainted” (p. 56).

Instead of the clash of civilizations, Ignatieff holds that the main tool in the search for identity may be the distinction from the immediate neighbors. Freud called this behavior the “narcissism of minor differences” (Freud in Ignatieff, 1999, p. 48). Narcissism is the love of one’s own identity, the unchallenged existence of one’s character. For Huntington, identity is under a threat from rivaling civilizations. However, in application of Ignatieff’s thought, the identity of a local cultural group may be so distanced from a different civilization that there is no direct threat of erosion. Instead, the immediate neighbor may pose a bigger threat, because he claims the right to almost the same cultural assets and thereby distorts the lines between the cultures: “(T)he smaller these differences may seem to outsiders, the larger they may loom in insiders’ mutual self-definitions” (p. 50). The dividing lines are necessary for the formulation of one’s own identity; according to Said, identity is essentially formed by opposition against an exterior “other” (Said in Mikkeli, 1998, p. 230-1). Consequently, according to Ignatieff, conflicts between neighbors may arise more easily and become more violent than inter-civilization conflicts: “brothers can hate each other more passionately than strangers can” (p. 47). The need to protect one’s identity against the impure culture of the neighbor has led to the idea of social cleansing. Due to the “narcissism of minor differences”, the German Jews were driven out of their home country. For the same reason, the Serbian government killed 7,000 Muslim Bosnians in the massacre of Srebrenica.



The “narcissism of minor differences” is an example for a European faultline in the debate of multiculturalism. It highlights the crucial importance of mutual comprehension, recognition, empathy and tolerance. Will Kymlicka defines multiculturalism as


a normative model which holds that states should not only uphold the familiar set of common civil, political and social rights of citizenship that are protected in all constitutional liberal democracies, but also adopt various group-specific rights or policies that are intended to recognize and accommodate the distinctive identities and aspirations of ethnocultural groups (Kymlicka in Vink, 2008, January).


Kymlicka here refers to the case of ethnocultural minority groups living in European societies. The Netherlands are an especially good example to examine multiculturalism and the faultlines shaping the debate, because the established multicultural society clashes with an increased anti-multicultural discourse by Dutch politicians. According to Bauböck (2004), minority groups may claim religious diversity, language protection or territorial autonomy. The majority group will henceforth try to limit the claims for autonomy and demand the adhesion to the values and cultural features of the host country. In the Netherlands, the groups have long existed in parallel, in a structure of “pillars” without interconnections (Vink, 2008, January). However, in recent history a group of populist right-wing politicians and filmmakers has increasingly voiced the call for assimilation. The reason for their attitude is the perceived threat to Dutch identity through the influx of immigrants with a different cultural background.

In order to make the conflicting groups cooperate, a first way may be the common acceptance of tolerance. Rene Gabriels proposes a mutual process of understanding in two respects: Firstly the majority group should grant the permission of difference to the minority group, if this one in turn acknowledges its own inferior position. Secondly, both groups should “adopt a stance of reciprocal recognition, respecting each other as moral and political equals” (Gabriels, 2008, January). A second step, as advanced by Bauböck and mentioned by Huntington and Ignatieff, may be the attempt to assess minority groups by the values within their own culture. This approach can foster a better understanding of one another, because it is based on the conception of mutual empathy and allows every group to maintain their identity. Huntington and Ignatieff consequently propose a higher degree of information, which may permit to see the other culture from an inside perspective. “If [the citizen] had access to a public discourse – a newspaper, radio, television broadcast, political speech – that addressed him as a rational individual, he might have a chance of becoming one himself” (Ignatieff, 1999, p. 71).

If enhanced by information, the rapprochement of citizens from different cultural origins in Europe may gradually create a new kind of European citizen. However, as mentioned above, the obstacles to the eventual emergence of this citizen are numerous. The first obstacle is based on the assumption that cultural identities have to assert themselves against concurring identities. The constant challenge puts the citizen in the position of a victim. As argued by Thomas Meyer (2007), there is a danger that nationalist politicians might exploit the citizen’s quest for identity and “use the cultural factor as a resource for . . . the justification of authoritarianism and the denial of human rights” (p. 63). While nationalist politicians can easily construct a national identity by drawing up a phantom menace from outside, an inclusive European citizenship is harder to attain because it has to welcome cultural differences in order to function. Another obstacle, following Vink’s argument, is the lack of a sufficient international framework to promote the idea of European citizenship (2008, January). In other words, the identification with European lieux de mémoires and the Brussels institutions does not offer a convincing alternative to the affiliation with religion, local or regional sphere. If “Europe” were to have a more clearly defined character, there could be an increased European identity. A first step in the sharpening of the European character, as presented by the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer in his speech at the Humboldt University (Fischer, 2000), may be the debate about the finalité of Europe. As soon as it is clear who belongs to the European “insiders” and who belongs to the “outsiders”, a European identity and the feeling of citizenship can develop with greater ease. However, as soon as the borders have been drawn, care has to be taken in order to continue the process of tolerance and rapprochement within Europe. Otherwise, the “narcissism of minor differences” may turn into a fully-fledged problem among European cultural groups as well.




Bauböck, R. (2004). Multiculturalism, in Harrington, A., Marshall, B. / Müller, H. P. (eds.) Routledge Encylopedia of Social Theory.


Fischer, J. (2000). From Confederacy to Federation – Thoughts on the finality of European Integration. Retrieved March 3, 2008 from http://www.jeanmonnetprogram.org/papers/00/joschka_fischer_en.rtf.


Gabriels, R. (2008, January). Conceiving of difference: Is blood thicker than water? Lecture presented at Maastricht University, Maastricht.


Huntington, S. (1993). The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs, Volume 72, No. 3, pp. 22-49


Ignatieff, M. (1999). The Narcissism of Minor Difference in The Warrior’s Honor – Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience, New York: Metropolitan Books.


Mikkeli, H. (1998). Europe as an Idea and an Identity. Basingstoke and London: Macmillan Press.


Vink, M. (2008, January). The Rise and Fall of Multiculturalism - Conceptual and Comparative Perspectives. Lecture presented at Maastricht University, Maastricht.