Cheers to The Custodian for an excellent precis. When I've read Huntington in the past I could hardly contain my frustrated ball of galvanized rage, but for the sake of nodegel health....
To his credit, Huntington stepped into the post-Cold War theoretical void, with a readiness to bring the concept of ideology to the realist sphere. However, the idea of an inherent clash between Islam and the West is absurd, simply because Islam itself is complex, and never acts as a bloc of nations. As a general rule, Muslim states disagree with their Western counterparts (and eachother) over economic, social, and political issues, not religious dogma.
To accept civilization as a unit of analysis is to treat the current political tensions between some Muslim and Western governments as permanent, as if they derive from some deep religious reasons that only divine intervention could resolve. This argument has a special resonance among Western conservatives who resist any reconsideration or change of American foreign policy. They are against American "concessions" because they will not affect, according to the realist argument, the ostensible global conflict between the West and those hostile civilizations.
Huntington's selective reading of history supports a paradigm that explains only a limited band of reality spanning from the end of World War 2 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The facts he selects to support his own theories for the period from the fall of the wall into the future are equally limited. Having strategically forgotten the complex cultural politics happening elsewhere during the Cold War he is able to declare a radical shift to the cultural as the driving force of the post-period.
Huntington's thesis is not entirely novel in the annals of Orientalist literature. Indeed, Bernard Lewis made the case for the clash of civilization long before Huntington's article (and later book). The title of the Huntington's book itself presents a methodological problem: It pits "the West" against "Islam." How can a geopolitical notion be analogous to a religion, unless Islam is used to denote, as has been the case in Orientalist usage, a concatenation of geography, Islamic law, religion, and Muslim people. Such political discussion of "Islam" is almost meaningless insofar as the term means different things to different people, and especially as Muslims live under diverse, and often diametrically opposed, conditions and political arrangements, and diasporically. The political situation of the billion Muslims of the world is often reduced to the Iranian case (and now the September 11 case), in order to facilitate the association between Islam and fanaticism and deny a complex web of relationships.
For an excellent rebuke to Huntington see Shirleen T. Hunter (1999)
The Future of Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? Westport, CT: Praeger