Edward Saïd: The Myth of The Clash of Civilizations

“The more insistent we are on the separation of the cultures, the more inaccurate we are about ourselves and about others.”










In response to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, Edward Saïd gave a lecture called The Myth of the “Clash of Civilizations” in which I find ideas I consider fundamental. This lecture, like the documentary On Orientalism, has been distributed by the Media Education Foundation  where the transcript is available in pdf.

The critiques against Huntington’s essay and ideas are more than severe. They express an aching anxiety towards a mentality that has been in expansion both in international policy and a in mainstream media. Moreover, critique is the scenario of ideas about culture and culture education that are of central importance.

It seems to me that unless we emphasize and maximize a spirit of cooperation and humanistic exchange, and here I don’t speak simply of uninformed delight or amateurish enthusiasm for the exotic but rather a profound existential commitment and labor on behalf of the other. Unless we do that, we are going to end up superficially and stridently banging the drum for our culture in opposition to all the others.


I think the first thing, and I think this is where education is terribly important, and probably one of the reasons why the conservative movement, not just here, but in most countries of the world, has something very important in common, and that is, the constantly accented cry about tradition. We should go back to our tradition, we should learn our languages, we should concentrate on our books, and our culture. That sort of thing. And I think that’s bankrupt. I mean, I think all systems of education alas are still deeply, sometimes unconsciously, nationalistic. So I think we have to de-nationalize education and realize, and make it possible for people to understand that we live in a very complex and mixed world in which you can’t separate cultures and civilizations from each other but, in fact, history ought to be taught as the exchange and of course the clash of civilization.

It doesn’t seem difficult or even necessary, at first, to comment on the reasons to include this lecture among the resources of this project. Now, commenting about the lecture itself is a whole different thing. I believe some of what Saïd exposes here are crucial ideas that can support the idea of the need for more available, numerous and flexible curricula to build and encourage intercultural sensitivity and awareness. It is of particular interest, I think, the stress he makes on the idea of culture, the danger of lazy labeling, and the importance to understand that understanding how cultures work and interact is in fact… difficult to understand.

To theorists of that sort, civilization identity is a stable and undisturbed thing, like a room full of furniture at the back of your house. This is extremely far from the truth, not just in the Islamic world but throughout the entire surface of the globe. To emphasize the differences between cultures is completely to ignore the literally unending debate about defining the culture or civilization within those civilizations including western ones.


No culture is understandable without some sense of this ever-present source of creative provocation from the unofficial to the official. To disregard the sense of restlessness in the West, in Islam, in Confucianism within each culture and to assume that there’s complete homogeneity between culture and identity, is to miss what is vital and fertile in culture.


Too much attention paid to managing and clarifying the clash of cultures obliterates something else, the fact of a great and often silent exchange and dialogue between them. What culture today, whether Japanese, Arab, European, Korean, Chinese, Indian, has not had long intimate and extraordinarily rich contacts with other cultures? There is no exception to this exchange at all. Much the same is true of literature where readers for example of Garcia Marquez, Naguib Mahfuz, Kenzaburo Oe exist far beyond the national or cultural boundaries imposed by language and nation. In my own field of comparative literature, there’s a commitment to the relationships between literatures as to their reconciliation and harmony despite the existence of powerful ideological and national barriers between them. And this sort of cooperative collective enterprise is what one misses in the proclaimers of an undying clash between cultures.

Also, Saïd underlines how the idea of the separation of cultures can make way for dominant groups to take advantage of incomplete, and even mean, representations of Others:

Within each civilizational camp we will notice that there are official representatives of that culture who make themselves into its mouthpiece. Who assign themselves the role of articulating ‘our’ or for that matter ‘their’ essence. This always requires compression, reduction, exaggeration. So in the first and most immediate level then, statements about what ‘our’ culture is, civilization is, or ought to be, necessarily involves a contest over the definition.

That’s why I think it’s more accurate to say that the period that we’re living in is not the clash of civilizations but the clash of definitions. Anyone who has the slightest understanding of how cultures really work, knows that defining the culture, saying what is for members of that culture, is always a major and even in undemocratic societies, an ongoing contest. There are conical authorities to be selected, regularly revised, debated, selected, dismissed. There are ideas of good and evil, belonging or not belonging, hierarchies of values to be specified, discussed, and re-discussed. Each culture moreover defines its enemies, what stands beyond it and threatens it, an other to be despised and fought against.

I wanted to quote some parts of the lecture, but as you see, my notes became extensive. Now, since the idea of sharing material in this blog is that of  brainstorming publicly and collectively, I’ll calm down with the quotations and wait for more ideas and more comments. There will be time and occasion to discuss how and when to use Said’s work to reflect and teach about the complexity of exchanges and the dangers of capitalizing on cultural differences. To wrap up, an idea around one of the things that make so complex this concept of ‘culture’ that we think we know:

…cultures are not the same. There is an official culture, a culture of priests, academics, and the state. It provides definitions of patriotism, loyalty, boundaries and what I’ve called belonging. It is this official culture that speaks in the name of the whole. But it’s also true, and this is completely missing from the Clash of Civilization argument as we hear it in Huntington, in addition to the mainstream or official culture, there are dissenting or alternative, unorthodox, heterodox, strands that contain many antiauthoritarian themes in them that are in competition with the official culture. These can be called the counter-culture, an ensemble of practices associated with various kinds of outsiders, the poor, immigrants, artistic Bohemians, workers, rebels, artists. From the counter-culture comes the critique of authority and attacks on what is official and orthodox.

Here’s the whole lecture, which has been also made available on YouTube.


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