594) "Narcissism Of Minor Differences" Nurturing The "Clash Of Civilizations"

Türkkaya Ataöv
Professor of International Relatioins, University of Ankara (Turkey)

Paper presented at the International Roundtable "Civilizations - Conflict or Dialogue?" at the University of Innsbruck (Austria), 8 June 1998


Although prediction and control are not the distinguishing marks of the study of world affairs, there have been attempts to relate causes and effects in that discipline as well. The end of the Cold War has led to several predictions, understandably, a few of which have become the focus of fervent discussion. Some of the arguments, with prophetic pretensions, sound, nevertheless, like new paradigms, mere modifications of the Cold War model, or as foreign policy tools to protect a particular hegemony and the culture it represents. . .

It may be reasoned, on the other hand, that at least some of the traditional animosities would reemerge with the downfall of the former symbols of the Cold War. Whatever their new identities, groups will hold fast to them, especially under conditions of stress. Moreover, the differences between groups, no matter how minute some of them may be, will be exaggerated to look grandiose. The diversities and the incompatibilities will meet the "need to have enemies" as well as friends.

In terms of preoccupation with the enemy, two basic kinds of relationship may be discerned. One type of affinity encompasses the perception that the group, having unconsciously projected its own unwanted traits onto the enemy, resembles the enemy. Secondly, in spite of that resemblance, the group wants to keep its distance from that adversary. Furthermore, the group tends to find new ways, when necessary, to maintain and even to widen this distance.

Minor differences, which may play a significant role in enmities, are often exaggerated historical wounds handed down from generation to generation. The inability to mourn the hurts, sometimes having little or no relationship to what actually occurred in history, perpetuates the disagreement between opposing groups. This paper accentuates minor differences and the "narcissism" displayed towards those differences that nurture the clash of groups, big or small, whether nations or civilizations.


Theories of "end-ism" began to manifest themselves about a decade ago. Such contemplation related to the end of the Cold War, to speculations on the cessation of wars between liberal states, even to the termination of all armed clashes and, moreover, to the end of history. It may be deemed natural that the end of the Cold War should give birth to pretensions concerning the future.

One of the earliest hypotheses was presented by Francis Fukuyama, who argued that what we might be witnessing was "not just the end of the Cold War … but the end of history … the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western political democracy as the final form of human government."

Samuel P. Huntington, who asserted that the clash of civilizations would replace the Cold War as the central phenomenon of world politics, criticized Fukuyama’s "end-ism" because it "overemphasizes the predictability of history" and "tends to ignore the weakness and irrationality of human nature." His later hypothesis was that the source of conflict in the new phase would "not be primarily ideological or … economic [but] cultural," and that the clash of civilizations would dominate global politics. Having looked in vain for examples to refute him, Huntington insistingly raises the question: "If not civilizations, what?"


The sway of ideological conflict in modern times between capitalism and communism, or between Christianity and Islam, a religion-dominated controversy with ideological inferences, was crucial for many groups in the selection of targets for externalization of feelings. The Great Wall of China and the Berlin Wall, separated from each other in terms of time and distance, were erected to protect the peoples involved. In contrast to such visible walls, the psychological ones, if within individuals, are mainly to protect against what is happening within that person’s psychological structure.

With the breakdown of the ideological fronts in the 1990s, externalization did not end. Instead its more primitive practices got the upper hand. There is a tendency to create and maintain an "us" and a "them" under all circumstances. These two concepts are often interpreted in a more original and crude method. In other words, this change of identity signifies a retreat to the immediate and elementary level. Old and basic enmities tend to supercede other layers such as class divisions.

Members of opposing groups may cooperate or confront each other on account of minor differences as well as actual perils they are facing. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) introduced the idea of "narcissism of minor differences" to help explain externalization. Freud coined the phrase and described it as "the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility." Narcissism of minor differences successfully counters the feelings of fellowship. Freud also referred to the same concept in the context of the international scene. Especially nations related to each other in various ways such as common frontiers have competed and feuded. That eminent psychiatrist from Vienna opened the door, then, to the application of the psychology of minor differences to conflicts between nations.

Our attention was drawn to a preoccupation with small differences long before Freud began to dwell upon it within a scientific frame of reference. As a pessimist believing that all mankind was as bad as it could be, well-known literary author Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) created satirical fiction ridiculing the obsession with minute differences. In his Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirized such obsession when he described "obstinate war for six and thirty moons past" between "the two great empires of Lilliput and Blefuscu" over the correct way of breaking an egg. A bloody war was carried on between the Big-endians and the Small-endians, during which "forty capital ships" were lost, together with "thirty-thousand seamen and soldiers" on one side, the losses of the "enemy … reckoned to be somewhat greater." Even in this early literary masterpiece group members would rather shed blood than abandon their preferences regarding trivial matters.


There are many examples which illustrate externalization due to minor differences. The existence of differences, even past religious wars, among Christians may be considered exemplary in that Christian faith embraces a large number of separate churches, sects, and movements. Although both the Latin and Byzantine Catholics have been influenced by the same towering beliefs, the former cross themselves over the chest from left to right, and the latter from right to left.

Conflicts between the central government and its regions constitute a significant part of Italian politics. The inhabitants of the northern regions, who profess Catholicism and speak Italian like those in the south, are more apt to foster regionalism and are closely integrated in the European Union. The attitudes of those in the south tend to be more in favor of a strong central government, have anti-European Union sentiments, and are more nationalistic as they are distanced from the minority population.

During the Soviet era, the Rumanians in Moldavia (now Moldova) were offended because they had to write their Latin language (Rumanian) in the Cyrillic alphabet. Now, the Russians of Moldova fear that they may have to write their Slavic language in Latin script. Similarly, the Serbs and the Croats use the same language, the former writing in the Cyrillic script and the latter in Latin. One group is Catholic, the other Orthodox. They waged war with each other, showing that even a common language does not prevent enmity. The clash in Northern Ireland was much less violent, but the Catholics painted their doors green and the Protestants blue.

There are two main ethnic and religious groups living in Cyprus: The Christian Orthodox community of Greek-speaking Cypriots and the Muslim Sunni community of Turkish-speaking Cypriots. There are, indeed, major differences. But the Greek and the Turkish Cypriots have similar customs, and are indistinguishable in looks (e.g. color, complexion, height, and attire). Nevertheless, there are small differences that symbolize emotional obstacles preventing cooperation amongst them. Although they both wear the same baggy trousers and shirts in the rural areas, the Greeks have black sashes, the Turks red ones. In the cities, the Greeks smoke tobacco from blue and white packages, the Turks from red and white packages, their respective national colors. Such minute differences become even more important when relations are bad. No Greek wears a red sash, no Turk smokes from a blue package.

The Sunni sect is the larger of the two main branches of Islam, Shi’ism being the other. Although united in some common principles and morals, each has its own sacred tradition. Hence, it is understandable that the harassment of the Shi’a population (14 percent) has increased in predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia since the Iranian Revolution, or that the Shi’a protest against Sunni control is the leading opposition movement against the Al-Khalifa régime in Bahrain. Prospects for peace are still uncertain in Afghanistan even though all fighting forces are Muslims, and predominantly Sunni. While ethnicity plays a divisive role in Afghanistan, Somalia, in addition to Sunni Islam, has an ethnic homogeneity unusual for Africa (97 percent of the population are ethnic Somalis). Armed forces in Somalia systematically killed their brethren and displaced civilians once basic governmental institutions had disappeared in 1991. The conflict among Muslims in Algeria has so far claimed about 50,000 lives.

Trapped by the Iraqi invasion, the citizens of Kuwait, another Arab people who share the same language and religion with their oppressors, and who lived under the same Umayyad, Abbasid, and Ottoman umbrellas, have suffered so much that the massive shock may alter the lives of individual victims and distort the group culture. Data collected through personal interviews in Kuwait reveal the pervasive impact of the Iraqi assault and the trauma it caused. On the other hand, in oil-rich Kuwait, there are a number of difficult civil rights problems, such as the matter of citizenship being limited to male descendants with a male forefather who was a resident in 1921, and the enfranchisement of women. In Mauritania, the Beydan and the Haratin, both Arab Berber groups, which make up 60 percent of the population, still retain master-slave relationships in the rural areas.

There was discrimination not only against Hindus but also against Muslim Bengalis in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, eventually leading to the independence of Bangladesh. Since then, Baluchi insurgence has been a threat to Pakistan’s territorial integrity. The Mohajir (refugees), who came over from India during and following the partition of the sub-continent in 1947 and their children born in Pakistan, feel that they are not accepted as the "sons and daughters" of this Muslim soil, and therefore face discrimination, coercion, and bloodshed. The Ahmedis in Pakistan are also a Muslim sect named after its founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmed, who was proclaimed (1891) to be a new prophet and Mehdi (the "divinely guided" Muslim Messiah), and who preached a doctrine aimed at reconciling Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. The sect members are described by orthodox Muslims as being hostile to Islam.

King Hussein of Jordan ruthlessly suppressed his brethren, the Palestinians, in 1970. The vast majority of these were of 1948 refugee origin. Israel, which has not been able to reconcile the orthodox and secular views on the definition of a Jew, twice invaded southern Lebanon to deal with the PLO, but it was Syria which drove the Palestinians, their ethnical and confessional cousins, from Lebanon. Partly as a reaction to the colonial policies of the French, who used minority differences to their advantage, the Alawis (only 11 percent of the Syrian population) now control the state. The "Harkis," Algerians who fought on the side of the French colonists, about 100,000 of whom are now settled in special camps in southern France, are hated by both their fellow Algerians and their hosts, who frequently behave as racists.

Both Indian Gujarati and Maharashtran women, who are predominantly Hindu but speak different, though related languages, wear saris. The former wear their shoulder section on the right and the latter on the left. A beard and a turban are the marks of the Sikh in India, who are a very small group in the country as a whole (less than 2 percent of the population), but nearly 80 percent of those are concentrated in the agriculturally prosperous state of Punjab, situated on the sensitive border with Pakistan. The Sikh tradition, which emerged from the Hindu world, was founded on a new faith transcending both Hinduism and Islam. The grim reality has been increasing communal violence, the storming of the Amritsar holy shrine, the assassination of India’s Prime Minister by two Sikh bodyguards, and subsequent mob revenge.

The outbreak of communal violence in 1977 between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka attracted world attention. The Tamil United Liberation Front pledged to divide the country into two separate states. The 2.6 million Tamils, about a fifth of the island’s population, form two distinct communities. The 1.4 million indigenous or "Ceylon Tamils" have lived on the island as long as the Buddhist Sinhalese and regard themselves as a separate, predominantly Hindu nation. The 1.2 million plantation workers, known as "Indian Tamils," were brought over from India in the last century.

The peoples of the newly independent republics of former Soviet Central Asia are largely Muslim and Turkic. Nevertheless, there are conflicts among them due to minor differences. Although Kazakh-Russian relations will play the most crucial role for the future of Kazakhstan, ethnic tensions do emerge between the Kazakhs, a Muslim Turkic people, and the Uzbeks and Azaris, who are of the same ethno-religious group. The reason is probably that these two minorities, with their enterprising skills, accrue economic benefits. The Maskhetians, or the "Ahiska Turks," who lived in Georgia along the border with Turkey until 1944 and who were forcefully resettled in Central Asia, were attacked in 1989 by the Uzbeks. The Uzbek minority in Kyrgyzstan, the land of another Turkic people, may demand a redefinition of the common borders with Uzbekistan. Uzbek regions in predominantly Persian and Shi’a Tajikistan may also try to secede. The Uzbeks may also support the annexation of land from Turkmenistan, another Turkic republic.


It is relatively easy to identify major differences, but some emotionally inspired attitudes based on trivialities may be perceived by the contending parties to be just as significant. Differences may look small, but their impact is large. Groups nurture these differences, even create them to better identify themselves. The result is an obsession with the "enemy."

It is usually not only one group but all parties involved that are preoccupied with the adversary in an unconscious as well as a conscious manner, and all opposing groups try to maintain and control the distance between them. The gap may be largely a psychological one and the product of the "narcissism of minor differences." Narcissism is generally regarded as "a personality disorder" discernible in everyday life. It is intertwined not only with "self-esteem and defensive self-enhancement" but also with "fantasies" and "illusions." The issue revolves around "why I love me and how much I’ve suffered."

Psychiatrists inform us that the individual, as a child, forms "good" and "bad" perceptions of objects, preferring to keep the bad ones at a safe distance. We tend to externalize the bad charecteristics in us and to project them onto others. When we later come across them in others, we no longer recognize them as our own. The interaction of neighbors may be a good example. When their relations are pleasant, their desirable parts come to the fore. When disagreements rise, differences get the upper hand, and minor differences are then magnified. Even if there are no minor differences, groups tend to create them.

Groups seem to be obsessed with the enemy, want to preserve the gap between themselves and the others, and do not want to be "contaminated" with arguments or even documentation coming from their adversaries. The enemy is preferably seen within the framework of a stereotyped image. The enemy is also needed to complete one’s own self-definition, which rests on "dual unity." The group keeps its distance from the enemy but also needs its presence. "The need to have enemies" seems to be a psychological reality. Some writers, including Huntington, remind us that enemies have to be created, and they are here to stay.

The Jews of Spain, the ordeal of the Bosnian Muslims, and the lessons of the Oklahoma bombing come to mind in connection with the points made above. The Jews of Spain, who laid no claim to power or land, were either massacred or expelled from the Iberian Peninsula some 500 years ago. Some of them were converted, but the Christians believed that the converted Jews, already held responsible for all evil including natural disasters and epidemics, "polluted" Christianity as well. While conversion would remove the threat to the existence of the "Son of God," it would also bring the Jew into Christianity, thereby threatening the latter’s identity. The converted Jew was not really a Christian but a Jew "in disguise." Thus, persecution continued.

The case of Bosnia was "ancient fuel for a modern inferno." When Serbian leaders launched a bloody war in Bosnia, complicated with aggression, occupation, ethnic cleansing, murder, rape, and forced migration, then made reference to the vindication of their defeat at the Battle of Kosovo (1389), it mattered little whether the cultural memory was factual or mythical, recent or ancient. That battle between the Serbs and the Ottoman Turks has been enshrined in the souls of the former, even the generation of the 1990s. The call for "revenge," in a sense, transforms today’s Bosnians and the Albanians into the Turks of the 14th century.

When the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City caused massive destruction, various "foreign" groups were immediately suspected. The initial interpretations of this event included "hidden" themes of trauma, identity, and perceptions of "us" and "them". The Oklahomans sought to make a clear-cut boundary between themselves and the externalized targets. Such a quickly accepted, ideological explanation, though later proven to be false, rationalized the diversion of violence among Americans themselves.

In these instances and in others, the persistence of the gap between "us" and the "enemy" becomes a buffer, preventing a group’s unwanted traits, which emanate from itself, from reverting back to the group.


The former obsession with communism and the present fear of Oriental cultures such as Islam and/or Confucianism "threatening" a virtuous Christian civilization reflect a siege mentality, which have caused Huntington’s article and book to resonate. His argument that victory will go to the party best adapted for the pursuit of global power prophesies ghastly horrors ahead. His assertions may well be a foreign policy tool to protect the hegemony of the United States. In other words, his view may be a reincarnation of the Cold War paradigms under a new epitaph.

Although Huntington portrays the Persian Gulf War as an example of the conflict between "Islam and the West," there is no single center that represents the Muslim world. In addition to the existence of the Arab, Persian, and the Ottoman Empires of the past, there are now about thirty states, each with overwhelmingly Muslim majorities, such as Algeria, Egypt, Gaza Strip, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bank. None of these are the sole voice of the whole Islamic world. Islamic societies do not necessarily follow the dictates of unalterable tradition. The Saudi régime, which persecutes all "heretics," does not represent the others. Turkey, with an overwhelmingly Muslim population, is secular. Iran supported the United States against the Baghdad régime. Previous Western concerns that the Iranian Revolution could initiate Islamic movements among Muslims everywhere have not materialized. Ethnic, theological, personal, and other factors militate against such an evolution. Perhaps the more a fundamentalist group is isolated, the more it drifts towards radicalism.

Some elements of fundamentalism have non-spiritual aspects, including narcissistic rewards such as fame-seeking. Quite a few tendencies may consciously or unconsciously be used as rationalization for actions that oppose the spirit of religious principles.

Although some militant Islamic groups have committed acts of terrorism, such violence is not the monopoly of the Muslims. The first terrorists of modern history were Russian anarchists, followed by Irish republicans, Armenian revolutionaries, Zionist Jews, Greek Cypriots, and so on. Contemporary acts of terrorism now emanate from almost every country or cultural group. Movements similar to Islamic fundamentalism are also discernible in other religious communities, whether in the form of terrorism or not, in response to a perceived threat to traditional culture and values by modernization and secularism. One is inclined to think that concrete conditions such as stagnant economies, corrupt governments, or group humiliation play a role in the "return to basics," whether by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, or Buddhists.

Confucianism may gradually come back to post-Mao China. The country may neither be described as "Confucian," nor can one expect a civilizational unity that will bring the Confucian world together. The Confucianist culture can hardly overcome the differences in the ideology and the economy of the Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait. Chinese and North Korean sales of arms to Iran and Libya are not a Confucian-Islamic conspiracy but a matter of business and interest. If American arms sales to the conservative Muslim states of the Arab Gulf do not suggest a Christian-Islamic connection, Chinese and North Korean sales should not suggest a Confucian-Islamic connection.

Parallel to the long-term trend away from the state, new international groups may be formed on the basis of cultural commonalties. But cultural differences are one of the leading facilitators of conflicts, and ethnically defined nations may resist incorporation into multi-national civilizational blocs. There are as many, if not more, conflicts within civilizations as conflicts between them, such as the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi and Rwanda, and the Baluchis and the Mohajir in Pakistan.


What has been stated above should not convey that cultural differences are politically meaningless. Friendships and enmities are based on many lines, not only civilizational ones. Circumstances may indeed generate civilizational conflicts if the participants feel that their identities are seriously threatened by outsiders, and if a regional power offers to lead and represent them. One may also talk of a religiously oriented clash of civilizations, but only if a radical interpretation of the global society is accepted by many influential Muslim countries and it becomes the basis of their foreign policies. One might remember, in this connection, that Spain had tried to make Catholicism obligatory for everyone in different epochs of its history. There has been a similar trend in the Islamic entities of Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church has shown a significant revival in Russia and Islam in Central Asia. There has also been an upsurge of Hinduism in India and conservative Jewish groups in Israel.

A violent clash of civilizations may indeed occur if we feed the argument that one or the other civilization must be dominant, and if we continue to fail to eliminate the system of inequality. Although no Western society would willingly allow a minority to have its preferences accepted by the majority, this is what the United States is trying to do globally. With Huntington, as with Arnold J. Toynbee though more clearly stated by the latter, one encounters a bias by which Western ideas such as individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, and the separation of church and state have little resonance in Islamic, Confucian, Japanese, Hindu, Buddhist, or Orthodox cultures.

"Social justice" is not included in Huntington’s "Ten Commandments." It does not play a role in his analysis of international relations. Due to the wealthiest upper one fifth of the world’s population absorbing over 80 percent of world income, the United States is courting conflicts with its visions of dominating world ideology and its striving to apply its own values to global problems. The growing gap that dramatically separates the few rich from the many poor is very evident nationally and worldwide. Especially in Africa, governments facing an immense population growth have difficulty even in trying to maintain the present miserable standard of living. Shrinking resources and a dwindling quality of life give rise to class and ethnic tensions, and religious fundamentalists as well as chauvinist groups take advantage of deteriorating conditions for their own purposes.

Groups have clashed with one another, and so have civilizations, in pursuit of power and wealth, often making use of cultural symbols in order to motivate people to act. Conflicts may well concern the power of states, the desire to impose preferences, the need to control resources, and the inclination to dominate cultures. One may assert that it is not the "Clash of Civilizations," but the "Clash of Capitalism" that is occurring today. Developing capitalism pits the Pacific against the Atlantic, China against the United States. Within this framework, Huntington’s call to return to the Atlantic pond is raised rather late. With the Europeans now striving to benefit from the financial power of Asia, the issue may also be termed as the "easternization of the West."

Although history is full of violent civilizational conflicts, there are perhaps more examples of mutual toleration and accommodation. Civilizations not only clash but also blend. Enriching the human spirit requires the utilization of the best in all civilizations. Now that advances in science and technology are breaking down barriers between states and civilizations, the solutions of some problems within the global framework require comprehensive cooperation.

All cultures contain almost all values. The elite in a particular system, especially an economic one, determine which values should dominate at a given time. Even the United States and Russia have found it possible to reach compromises. The United States has lifted bans on some high-technology sales to China. Apartheid has been destroyed in Namibia and the Republic of South Africa. Israel and Palestine have agreed on a peace process, at least in principle. Bloodshed may even come to an end in Northern Ireland. The task is not to demarcate civilizations but to mold them.

Such a goal can be achieved through civilizational dialogue. Especially the young generation should be taught the difference between a secure, inclusive identity and an exclusive one based on an enemy image. For example, the Ukrainians should define themselves apart from those in opposition to the Russians, or the Armenians themselves adequately irrespective of their past relations with the Turks. One should not ignore minor differences, which may symbolize greater diversities, especially in times of crisis. Third parties, which may be neutral in conflicts (if neutrality is at all feasible), may play the role of a mediator and limit the aggressiveness of competitive groups.

While Huntington regards the globalization of the market economy as a positive development and looks at world conflicts as a cultural-political phenomenon, it should be asserted that the most basic reality of our time is the universality of people’s central concerns. They happen to be the bread-and-butter issues of jobs, wages, health care, education, and security for family members. The concerns bring together men and women, rural and urban inhabitants, believers in all faiths, and people of all lands. These issues cut across countries, continents, religions, and civilizations. Whether Buddhist, Confucian, Christian, or Muslim, people want jobs, stable prices, prevention of crime, peace at home, and peace abroad.

Only within the framework of a dialogue can the basic needs of people be restated. It cannot be argued that one civilization and one alone can respond to such fundamental human needs. Dialogue is the best means for benefiting from both successes and failures. No single culture can claim to have all the answers, but each one may have something to offer in the quest for solutions. Every civilization can make its own contribution to the dialogue..


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