Huntington's Clash of Civilizations in Yugoslavia

By Fiona S. Ong
2011, Vol. 3 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

While Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations presents a compelling argument for the events that happened in the former Yugoslavia, the main argument that was set forth by him using religion as the sole cause of the conflicts in the region–in what he regards as ‘fault line’ wars–is erroneous. He has clearly dismissed nationalism as a legitimate cause. Although nationalism is not the single cause of the incidents in Yugoslavia, it was a large part of the reason for the unrest in the Yugoslav state which led to its eventual dissolution. The mechanisms of nationalism enabled political elites to mobilize ideology for conflict (Bieber, 1999, p.3).

For Huntington, a civilization is the foremost cultural grouping of people and the level in which people relate themselves with (Huntington, 1993, pg.3). Religion plays the most important part in bonding a group together in a civilization. Sweeping generalizations of peoples and nations are not conducive to his argument of a clash between civilizations for the mere fact that in his groupings of civilizations, no civilization is actually entirely and exclusively homogenous. No civilization is monolithic and he has failed to recognize this as such; nation-states in civilizations may have similar cultures and customs but they may not only have different political ideologies and governmental structures, but also may have different social structures.

In the former Yugoslavia, Huntington concluded that there is a cultural fault line running through the republic itself, which separated the Christian Croats and Slovenes  (Huntington, 1993, pg.10) from the rest of Yugoslavia, which were Orthodox Christians, and Muslims. He goes on to say that religious fundamentalism has more sway over ideology and fault line wars, which are based on religion, has been the most extended and violent ones. However, religion did have, in part, a role in the rise of nationalism.

Defining the wars in the area as ‘fault line’ wars is simply fallible. There is no doubt that there have been numerous conflicts between the states, but the main mechanism in these wars is usually ethnic nationalism. Hence, the use of religion as the basis of civilizations in the Yugoslav conflict is false. While Huntington groups the civilizations in the area by religion, he does not take into account the common cultural characteristics the people of Yugoslavia share. Religion did break up the region into separate entities, which led to differences in language, territory and the questioning of ancestry (Bieber, 1999, p.5), but it was not the main cause. Ethnicity, and religion as well, were rallying points used by the political elites to mobilize nationalist ideas.

Huntington believes that ‘civilization consciousness’ will amplify differences between cultures and this is one of the reasons as to why fault line wars happen. As the movement of people (and usually with it, capital) becomes more free, conflicts usually do not happen, as there is too much at stake to do so, politically and economically. However, there is not much difference in the former Yugoslav states other than religion. They share the same language, a common past, and similar customs. Huntington defined a civilization as a group of people having “common objective elements, such as language, history, religion, customs, institutions, and by the subjective self-identification of people” (Huntington, 1993, pg.3). In the Yugoslav-era, everyone was referred to as a Yugoslav. Hence, Huntington’s amplification of the role of religion in creating the civilizations in his thesis was inaccurate. Even as they all were practicing different religions, intermarriage rates were high, especially in Bosnia. This shows that awareness of differences does not necessarily lead to conflict. The whole idea of a single Yugoslav state was why they got together: to assert political and economic independence in Europe, and more importantly, a creation of a unitary, single South Slavic state. The Yugoslav ideal fell apart not because of Huntington’s so-called ‘cultural fault lines’, but because of the rise of nationalism and specifically, nationalism that is rooted in ethnicity.

The combination of ethnicity, religion and nationalism was something that the ruling elite used in the form of ethnic nationalism as an instrument to rally the people and to maintain, as well as strengthen their hold on power. To further their individual or ideological interests, those who were in power were manipulating the inherent attachment of people to a specific identity (whether it be to a state or ethnicity, or in this case, both); the frequent changes in borders, territory and governance in former Yugoslavia has created a cloudy political atmosphere that was prime for the nationalist agenda to spread. This was in large a reason why, in the period leading up to the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Serbia did not wish for Yugoslavia to break up; they wanted all Serbs to be united in a single state. This exact mentality also led to the conflict in Bosnia between the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Serbs, which control about half of the territory in Bosnia (Republika Srpska). In addition to that, civil nationalism could not flourish as the Yugoslav model itself subverted political unity in states as it weakened, which led to the rise of ethnic nationalism as propagated by the leaders of individual states.

Huntington thinks that fault line wars have the potential to escalate into major world wars. This is because of what he calls the ‘kin-country syndrome’, where one state that is in a war with another in a different civilization rallies up support within their own civilization (Huntington, 1993, pg.15). Because of this, fault line wars risk the chance to grow into bigger wars between the major states of civilizations. However, kin rallying did not happen in the former Yugoslavia during the 1992 Bosnian war and there was no clear defined support for Kosovo when it seceded in 2008. Most Albanian Kosovars are Muslim, yet not all countries in Huntington’s Islamic civilization support Kosovo’s independence. ‘Kin’ support does not naturally occur in the political atmosphere and states only support causes that are convenient to them; national interest is still the highest priority (Ajami, 1993, p.9). In the case of Bosnia, Huntington claims that the Islamic civilization is inherently faulty and prone to outbreaks of conflict because there is a lack of a centralized core state. Even so, his thesis does not explain Western (American & NATO) intervention in negotiations to end the war.

In spite of all the arguments against Huntington’s thesis above, he does have legitimate points throughout his thesis. While most of his ideas, on the surface, could be applied to the events and the eventual incidents that would happen to the Yugoslav state, his classifications, criteria and reasoning in attempting to answer and predict future wars is simply to broad to be applied to Yugoslavia. Again, such rigid civilizations simply cannot exist in Huntington’s terms especially when the movement of people and capital started to pick up.

His assessment of Yugoslavia as the point in Europe where the cultural fault lines between three civilizations–Western, Slavic Orthodox and Islam–passes through and will create conflict was justifiable in a superficial context. However, he has explicitly disregarded nationalism as one of the causes of the numerous conflicts in the region and accused Islam of being prone to conflicts and destabilizing. In this case, because of numerous fallacies in Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations when examined in depth, it cannot be used to explain the events that happened in Yugoslavia.


Ajami, Fouad. "The Summoning." The Clash of Civilizations: The Debate (2010): 33-44.

Bieber, Florian. "The Conflict in Yugoslavia as a "Fault Line" War? Balkanologie. 3. 1 (1999), 33-48,

Huntington, Samuel. "The Clash of Civilizations?." The Clash of Civilizations: The Debate (2010): 1-32

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