Samuel P. Huntington's famous thesis entitled "The Clash of Civilizations" published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993 attracted a great deal of attention – as in George F. Kennan's article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" after World War II and especially during the Cold War period – while it was harshly criticized for its relation to the U.S.'s imperial foreign policies. In his thesis, Huntington suggested that the clash of civilizations, which oppose each other with respect to history, religion and culture, would be inevitable. According to him, the world is separated into nine civilizations: Western, Islamic, Latin American, African, Chinese, Hindu, Orthodox, Buddhist and Japanese, but Huntington argued that the most inevitable clash would always exist between the two civilizations spreading across the world, Western and Islamic, by making a distinction between them, which the German political theorist Carl Schmitt portrayed as "friend-foe."Where does Huntington's "inevitable clash" between the two giant civilizations stem from? In other words, why do the two systems contradict each other today in almost all current humanitarian and political problems, such as the refugee crisis, around the world?
There are too many academic methods or publications to analyze, but today in this article, I want to find an answer by comparing the two prominent intellectuals of the two sides, Ibn Khaldun and Montesquieu.
Ibn Khaldun and Montesquieu, the greatest scholars of the Islamic and Western civilizations, both worked on similar matters such as the foundation of states and political theories. They both deeply influenced their civilizations with their ideas and even shaped the two sides' viewpoints on today's problems. Due to their similarity, prominent Austrian historian Joseph von Hammer even described Ibn Khaldun as the "Montesquieu of Arabs" after he first read Ibn Khaldun's masterpiece, "Muqaddimah." However, it should be said that Hammer's description is an orientalist one and historically mistaken.
It is true that Ibn Khaldun is not as well known as the French intellectual Montesquieu in the Western world; thus, this is why Hammer and others have used such a metaphor. If we really need to make such a description in any case, that would definitely be the "Ibn Khaldun of the Westerners or French" for Montesquieu. Rather than simply placing intellectuals in competition or claiming "my thinker is better," analyzing the arguments of the two would be more rational and beneficial for all.
To speak briefly about their biographies and arguments, the Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun was born in today's Tunisia in 1332 AD – almost 400 years before Montesquieu was born in Gironde, France. He is well known for his piece "Muqaddimah" (meaning introduction), which he wrote for his history book called "al-Iber," which he intended to write but couldn't complete.
While Ibn Khaldun argued about many subjects concerning the world and people in "Muqaddimah," Montesquieu did the same in his masterpiece, "The Spirit of Laws." However, to find an answer to Huntington's thesis, I will focus on their way of defining the state and its affects behind the establishment of the modern states of the Islamic and Western civilizations.
According to Ibn Khaldun, just like people, states have a life span and continue for three generations, and he acknowledges the existence of certain obligatory causal ties in nature, and indicates that these ties are what are called the Law. According to him, the cause of this situation is the preference of God to make laws according to a system that the human being is accustomed to. This is called "sunnatullah." But this law and obligation that is witnessed in nature does not mean that God is also subject to it. In other words, God may not allow the sun to rise tomorrow.
The French thinker argues that all creatures in the world have their own law and people are the living things that have the intelligence and ability to change these laws, dissenting from Ibn Khaldun's understanding. In other words, Montesquieu claims that the law is not universal and invariant, but that it changes from time to time because it is the product of societies of different structures. In "The Spirit of Laws," the French scholar describes the emergence of states as the result of clashes between people and accordingly sees political and societal life as a pragmatic tool.
Ibn Khaldun had defined hundreds of years ago state and politics as factors to reach mutual interest. That is the most significant difference to focus on for today's problems. Although the two followed different methods and ways to describe the state, both related the emergence of it to the principle of determinism, and it is safe to say Ibn Khaldun pioneered the idea before the French intellectual in this matter.For instance, even today, the constitutional organs of the states of Islamic civilization have been established with the understanding of "organizational" state by Ibn Khaldun, while for example, it is seen in the U.S. in the Constitution in 1787 that its authors made a strict separation between the legislative, the executive and the judicial, adopting the "Newtonian mentality" as stated in Montesquieu's "The Spirit of Laws."
However, that is not the actual difference that led to the clash between the two civilizations. What has been triggering the clash is the two civilizations' understanding of the purpose of politics. It is apparent that Western states are far more pragmatic than Islamic ones. One of the reasons for this difference is the difference between Ibn Khaldun and Montesquieu. According to Montesquieu, the formation of political institutions resembles those of Descartes and Newton's explanations of the mechanical system of matter that has made Western civilization even more pragmatic. Western countries (can) do anything to solve their problems just for their favor but nothing else even if they predict the solution will lead to destruction or catastrophe for others. That's why, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya and the refuges crisis and so on are getting worse and more complex day by day.
On the other hand, the institutional or constitutional structures of countries in Islamic civilization haven't been formed based on pragmatism. Since, according to the understanding of Ibn Khaldun, "whatever the power is, it will surely end someday," and it is just a factor to reach mutual but not only their own interests.
Today, it can be observed that Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis proves itself with contemporary problems, e.g. civil and imperial wars, the refuge crisis, Islamophobia, xenophobia and so on. Unfortunately, Montesquieu, the great thinker who is the architect of the constitutional institutions of Western civilization, knew Ibn Khaldun and his "Muqaddimah" well, but chose a different way to define the purpose of the state and politics – and here we are. Regarding the fact that civilizations are influenced and sometimes directed by their intellectuals, the difference between Montesquieu and Ibn Khaldun gives us a clear and simple answer to help us understand the actions taken and policies followed by the modern states of the two civilizations.
* Ph.D. student in Constitutional Law at Istanbul Şehir University