Why (Clash of) Civilizations Discourses Just Won’t Go Away? Understanding the Civilizational Politics of Our Times

This is an excerpt from The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ 25 Years On: A Multidisciplinary Appraisal. Download your free copy here

The notion that relations between civilizations are central drivers of international politics has become a key feature of international relations discourses and practices since the end of the Cold War. Some see these relations as marked by conflict and confrontation, most notably in the case of Samuel Huntington’s (1996, 1993) ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theory. Similar ideas, however, can also be found in Bernard Lewis’ (2002) analysis of the malaise afflicting the Muslim world, in the ‘Asian values’ debate (Zakaria and Yew 1994), or in Aleksandr Dugin’s (2014) efforts to situate Russia at the center of an anti-Western and anti-liberal Eurasian civilization. Such narratives are not just confined to the realm of academia, but permeate political discourses around the world. A view of an Islamic civilization attacked and violated by the West has animated Al Qaeda’s rhetoric and given impetus to Daesh’s actions. Conservatives in the United States and Europe have likewise portrayed a West under assault by Islam, whether culturally, demographically, or militarily. Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, for instance, is directly a consequence of these views. Eurasianism is the ideological linchpin of Vladimir Putin’s efforts to construct a Eurasian Economic Union juxtaposed with the European Union.

Against narratives and actions of clash, discourses, initiatives and institutions focused on promoting inter-civilizational dialogue and understanding have similarly flourished since the late 1990s. In the UN context, the year 2001 was designated as the Year of the ‘Dialogue among Civilizations’ on the proposal of then-President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mohammed Khatami. This initiative was followed in 2005 by the launch of the UN Alliance of Civilizations, which has since developed a permanent secretariat in New York. In the last 15 years, UNESCO and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have developed actions and programs on dialogue of civilizations. Similarly, many NGOs and interreligious platforms like, for example, the Sant’Egidio Community International Meetings ‘Peoples and Religions’ and the World Public Forum ‘Dialogue of Civilizations’, have used the idea of dialogue of civilizations as a vision to counter the dangerous possibilities of clashes. Leaders of very different political, cultural and religious orientations like Václav Havel, Ahmet Davutoglu, and Barack Obama have called for the need for more dialogue and understanding across civilizational lines in international relations.

In short, the notion that we live in a world where civilizations compete or cooperate, potentially clash or hopefully dialogue, has taken hold in international politics today. Why? Why have civilizational imaginaries and narratives become part of everyday international discourses, institutions and practices? Why has this turn towards, what we label as, civilizational politics occurred since the end of the Cold War? In other words, why civilizational politics now?

The current literature on civilizations in International Relations (IR) is divided along two dominant perspectives, which we label Primordialist and Critical. Primordialist perspectives, most clearly represented in the writings of Samuel Huntington (1996, 1993), treat civilizations as long-standing, almost-static, essences with clear-cut boundaries and tend towards forms of cultural reductionism. These argue that the crisis of secular ideologies and the process of globalization are intensifying civilizational consciousness and awareness of differences. Critical perspectives, often inspired by the writings of Edward Said (2001; also Said 1978), see civilizations mostly as discourse and tend to privilege a power-based approach. These argue that present-day narratives of civilizational difference are the latest instalment of age-old colonial discourses that seek to divide the West from the Rest and legitimize the former’s exercise of power over the latter. Finding both approaches wanting in explaining the rise of civilizational politics in post-Cold War international relations, we build on the most recent scholarship on civilizational analysis (Arnason 2003; Eisenstadt 2003; Katzenstein 2010a) and advance a third Sociological perspective which aims to avoid both cultural and power reductionism while focusing on their crucial relation.

Primordialist and Critical Approaches to Civilizations

Primordialists have presented civilizations as concrete, macro-cultural entities with long, continuous and distinct histories and boundaries, which profoundly structure the way societies, economies, polities and states within them function in the international system. Primordialists’ views of civilizations are most clearly articulated in the writings of ‘clash of civilizations’ theorists, like Huntington, Lewis or Dugin. It is also recognizable to a lesser extent in the writings on the dialogue of civilizations. Especially when it emphasizes the overwhelming centrality of the religious dimension and the view that mutually exclusive and internally monolithic – but not irremediably antagonistic and irreconcilable – religiously-shaped civilizations exist in the world.[1]

By taking Huntington as our main Primordialist voice, how would this perspective explain the rise of civilizational politics in international relations today? For Primordialists the turn towards civilizational imaginaries and narratives in the post-Cold War is explained along two lines. The first is a sort of ‘ancient hatreds/Cold War freeze’ argument. Civilizations were always there and have always mattered, but we were blinded to this reality by the power of secular ideologies – communism, nationalism, fascism, and liberalism – throughout much of the twentieth century. The century of secular ideologies had temporarily frozen the forces profondes of world history. The end of communism and fascism on the one hand, and the crisis of nationalism and liberalism on the other, have opened our eyes to what are our real and truest identities and our most profound traditions and beliefs, those rooted in civilizational belonging and culture (Huntington 1996, 21–28). The second argument is what can be labeled as the ‘interaction/friction’ argument. The processes of globalization which has taken over the world in the post-Cold War era, has made the world a ‘smaller place’ (Huntington 1993, 25), causing cultures to rub shoulders ever more closely. Increased interactions, and decreased space for autonomy and maneuver, has ended up intensifying our awareness that, rather than being all alike in a global village, we are actually all different across multiple civilizations and share commonalities within the same one.

There are important problems with this ‘back to the future’ scenario Primordialists present. Both arguments laid out above point towards some kind of change happening in the post-Cold War, but under-theorize why this change is conducive to bringing to the fore civilizational imaginaries and narratives beyond stating that civilizations have always been there. Have they, though? Where do we see them? We are certainly not aided by the fact that, as Patrick Thaddeus Jackson (2007, 47) pithily puts it, civilizations have ‘no front office or central bureaucracy’ we can easily turn to or point at. Huntington’s definition of civilizations does not help us either since it is one that emphasizes, paradoxically in terms of his own Primordialist perspective, the subjective rather than objective nature of civilizations. Huntington (1993, 24) tells us that civilizations are the ‘highest cultural grouping’, the largest ‘we’, that people can use to distinguish one another short of what ‘distinguishes humans from other species’. The question then is why do humans need to identify themselves with this particular grouping, after the end of the Cold War? Why aren’t, instead, the even larger ‘we’ of humanity or much narrower local identities drowning out civilizational ones? Why do increased interactions thanks to globalization necessarily accentuate what is different amongst us, rather than what is similar?

While Huntington does gesture to a view of civilizations as constituted by subjective and intersubjective beliefs which evolve over time, he under-theorizes why and how these subjectivities have changed with the end of the Cold War in ways that bring forth the civilizational politics we are witnessing today. In other words, Huntington’s cultural reductionism generates what the most recent sociological scholarship on civilizational analysis calls an ‘identitarian bias’ (Arnason 2003, 4–5), that is an exaggeration of closure and internal unity. As a consequence, a presumed cultural core of civilizations becomes the overwhelming determinant, almost the independent variable, to explain important social, economic and political developments locally and globally. Huntington does not really need to explain the post-Cold War ‘return’ of civilizational politics, exactly because it is conceived of as a return to a centuries-long ‘primordial normality’ that had been interrupted by the ‘exceptional abnormality’ of the short twentieth century of secular ideologies.

The issue here is not to reject a priori an explanatory role for the cultural specificity of civilizations, but to understand the working of cultural patterns in a less deterministic way, avoiding what sometimes are tautological forms of reasoning. For example, take the issue of democracy and its cultural prerequisite: the question should not be about the compatibility or incompatibility of the cultural core of a particular civilization with democracy, a very common framing of the question in recent years in the case of the Islamic civilization. Rather, the question should be framed on the basis of two assumptions. First, the internal differentiation of civilizations some theorists do by talking of civilizational contexts, configurations, constellations, patterns or complexes to indicate a civilization’s internal complexity and dynamism (Katzenstein 2010b, 5). Second, the recognition that civilizational contexts can indeed ‘set the limits to internal cultural diversity or ideological pluralism’ (Arnason 2003, 5). Civilizational contexts generate constraints on the behavior of all actors that operate within this particular cultural frame of reference. But these systemic factors circumscribe a set of possibilities rather than determine specific outputs. In order to explain a particular output – for example the prospects of democracy in a specific Muslim-majority country – a civilizational cultural analysis must be supplemented by an elite-centered analysis of power that makes sense of the struggles (ideological, economic and political) internal to a civilizational context.

Eisenstadt (2003), for example, has shown the centrality of different patterns of dissent, protest and interactions between orthodox and heterodox traditions in understanding civilizational developments. Coming back to our example, the key focus of analysis should be on the relationship between the different competing interpretations of the Islamic legacy and the competition for power of the different groups, constituencies and sectors of societies involved. As a result, the general question of Islam and democracy could be answered by saying that Islam is what Muslims make of it within the constraint of its civilizational legacy. At the heart of this analysis we find the role of elites as initiators of change and carriers of innovative cultural projects as well as crucial mediators between cultural patterns and power relations (Eisenstadt 2003; also Arnason 2003).

Where Huntington leaves us in the dark, Critical approaches pick up. These, in fact, see no concrete reality to civilizations except their (inter)subjective ideological nature. Civilizations are ideologies, or better discourses of power, and that is why – Critical perspectives argue – they are so appealing and widely used. Notably articulated in the writing of Edward Said (2001; also Said 1978) and others (Adib-Moghaddam 2011; Hall and Jackson 2007), Critical approaches deconstruct civilizational invocations and narratives as the manifestation of age-old colonial discourses that seek to divide the West from the Rest, produce and reify inclusionary/exclusionary boundaries, and legitimize the West’s exercise of power over an ‘othered’ and ‘orientalized’ Rest. Even when civilizations are not represented in clash but in dialogue the effect is just as pernicious (Bilgin 2012, see also Sen 2006). That’s because, Critical perspectives insist, civilizational invocations help constitute a new form of false consciousness which problematically reifies singular and mutually exclusive belongings that either, on the one hand, overlook the multiple, fluid, and often hybrid identities we all hold or, on the other hand, mask what are instead more fundamental identities and objective disparities around gender, class, race, or power.

Compelling as it is, this Critical approach runs into a number of problems when it comes to explaining today’s civilizational politics, however. The first problem, we argue, is that Critical scholars overwhelmingly focus on the role played by civilizational invocations in representing others as enemies. As such, they can hardly explain why dialogue of civilizations narratives – a discourse that ‘others’ others as friends and partners instead of enemies (Bettiza 2014a, 10–11) – have had a remarkable success, becoming institutionalized in multiple instances.

The second problem is the emphasis Critical perspectives put on civilizational narratives and imaginaries as discourses of power and hegemony. Such a view runs into trouble when we consider that civilizational belonging and ideas are often invoked in world politics with an anti- and counter-hegemonic spirit instead (Bettiza 2014b, 9). This is partly, for instance, the intent of both Mohammad Khatami as well as Osama Bin Laden who, from very different standpoints nonetheless present Islam and the Muslim world as under assault by Western military and cultural power and in need of defense. Immanuel Wallerstein has been one of the few radical scholars to recognize this paradox. In order to explain the new traction of civilizational politics, he has argued that ‘the concept of civilizations (plural) arose as a defense against the ravages of civilization (singular)’ (Wallerstein 1991, 224). More specifically, in the context of his world-system analysis, civilizational narratives, borrowed from the history of pre-capitalist ancient empires, are meant as identity-boosting devices for the periphery to challenge the cultural liberal hegemony of the core states of the capitalist world system.

Huntington’s own thesis is similarly a direct critique of modern liberal notions that Western culture and ideas, and thus by extension also its liberal economic and political projects, are universal and ought to be applied globally. As Huntington (1996, 184; see also Huntington 1993, 39–41) bluntly argues: ‘What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest’. Indeed, the late Harvard professor does ultimately call for a retrenchment rather than an expansion of Western power and influence internationally (Huntington 1993, 48–49). Our intent here is not to present Huntington as some closeted post-colonial theorist, which he is not. His broad-brush simplifications and cultural determinism are intellectually pernicious, and his portrayal of Islam as having ‘bloody borders’ (Huntington 1993, 35) oozes prejudice and condescension. The point we are making though, is that civilizational discourses should not be read exclusively as constitutive of hegemonic projects, but also as participating in a politics of contestation and counter-hegemony.

Lastly, Critical perspectives have a further important limit. They cannot explain why such processes of ‘othering’ – either as enemies or friends – have, since the end of the Cold War, taken the civilizational discursive form and substance they have. The problem here, we find, is that Critical approaches often neglect the wider, extra-discursive social and cultural forces, which have made civilizational imaginaries and narratives resonate so widely across the world since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in comparison to other categories in international politics today. In other words, we are faced with a power reductionism that is the asymmetrical opposite, but has similar logics, to the cultural reductionism of the Primordialist approach. Critical approaches view culture as easily instrumentalized to suit power interests without accounting for the autonomous role of cultural innovation within civilizational traditions as crucial in creating the ideological field of competition among different elite-groups and, therefore, in shaping local and global power structures. Therefore, we contend that an answer to the question of ‘why civilizational politics now?’ needs to explore and give concrete form to the interplay between cultural patterns and power structures. It is to this exploration – inevitably initial given the limited space – that we now turn.

A Sociological Approach to Civilizations

We suggest a third line of thinking about civilizations, which better helps to explain why we have seen the remarkable and unexpected rise of civilizational politics – the idea that civilizations and their relations matter – in international relations from the 1990s onwards. We label this approach Sociological. Such an approach recognizes that, on the one hand, civilizations are intersubjective phenomena that change and evolve across time; but, on the other, as Peter Katzenstein (2010b, 5) puts it, civilizations should be thought of as ‘loosely coupled, internally differentiated, elite-centred social systems that are integrated into a global context’. Hence they cannot be said (pace Huntington) to have a historically fixed and culturally distinguishable and invariable essence, which separates them along clear-cut boundaries; yet at the same time their cultural legacies, as we have argued before, constrain and produce structural effects on important socio-political developments beyond their discursive function. Therefore, we treat the meaning and interpretation of civilizations seriously. Unlike Critical approaches, which singularly view civilizations as the instantiation of a particular form of hegemonic discourse, we suggest that because civilizational politics is primarily about the crucial relationship between culture and power synthesized by coalitions of cultural and political elites, wider social, cultural and political forces outside of the discursive realm must be integral to explaining why civilizational imaginaries and narratives are gaining growing salience today.

In particular, we argue that civilizational imaginaries and narratives are becoming more prominent today in world politics for three reasons: (1) they are an expression, in more general terms, of novel forms of identity politics that draw upon culture, religion and tradition; (2) they provide novel ‘frames of reference’ at a time when globalization contributes to the deterritorialization of national identities, borders and actor-hood; and (3) they constitute political and intellectual critiques of singular conceptions of modernity and liberal universalizing projects, while acting as sites for the articulation of programs of multiple modernities. We will now expand on these three logics that sustain civilizational politics today.

Civilizations as Expressions of Novel Forms of Identity Politics 

Civilizational imaginaries and discourses are acquiring salience today because they participate in a form of politics that has come to define our late- or post-modern times; that is, ‘identity politics’. This is a politics that does not put the state (like nationalism or fascism), economics (like Marxism, or neo-liberalism), or the individual (like liberalism) first, but identity. Identity politics takes multiple forms. Generally, within more liberal-oriented milieus it focuses on issues of race, gender and sexuality. Within more communitarian-focused approaches, and here where civilizational invocations tend to gain the greatest strength, it focuses on issues of culture, religion and tradition. Drivers of identity politics in the past decades are multiple: globalization and the uncertainties and dislocations this process has brought about; the collapse of universalist ideologies like communism in the wake of the fall of the Berlin wall; and the resurging power and role of religion around the world.

Identity politics expressed through civilizational discourses can take multiple forms. The more pernicious of these are represented by calls for cultural homogeneity, exceptionalism and authoritarianism often put forward by the extreme right, demagogues and populists, or fundamentalist movements. Yet it also can manifest itself in communitarian projects, like those of the dialogue of civilizations, which pose the question of justice in a culturally diverse world and stress the importance of some kind of global multiculturalism based on the recognition, acceptance, and respect of diversity. This is what Charles Taylor (1994) also calls ‘the politics of recognition’. The injustice brought about by the lack of recognition of a ‘thick’ difference and otherness moves attention to the level of identity and introduces a crucial new dimension to politics beyond the understanding of justice as equality (Marxism) or fairness (liberalism). In both cases, civilizational politics is made more prominent by this new philosophical and political centrality that the politics of identity has acquired in a globalized predicament of late/post-modernity where particularism seems to have increasingly stronger normative arguments on its side than universalism.

Civilizations as ‘Frames of Reference’

As scholars who see civilizations either as objective facts or as discourses both concur, civilizations cannot be thought of as actors (Huntington 1996; Hall and Jackson 2007). As Fabio Petito (2011, 767), drawing on Johann Arnason, argues, ‘civilizations, defined in a fundamentally culturalist-religious sense’, are reasserting themselves ‘as strategic frames of reference, not as direct protagonists, of international politics (emphasis in original)’. Civilizations as strategic frames of reference, we suggest, become particularly salient with the end of the Cold War at a moment when globalization contributes to the progressive deterritorialization of national identities, borders and actor-hood. We are living, it is commonly argued, in a world of major and rapid transformations and change (Held 1999), with globalizing processes playing a critical role in dislocating, destabilizing, and pluralizing identities and actors within and beyond the state (Dunn and Goff 2004; Lapid and Kratochwil 1997). Likewise, technological innovations are diffusing power internationally while empowering individuals and non-state actors (Nye 2011, especially Chapter five).

The deterritorialization of identities made possible by globalization produces at the same time apparently contrasting, but arguably mutually reinforcing, outcomes. On the one hand, as Olivier Roy (2010) has highlighted, a hyper-individualization of identity as in the case of new forms of religiosity and conversions where religion is not anymore associated with a specific territorialized culture; on the other, an hyper-collectivization of identity whereby the erosion of territorialized identities is compensated for by the re-politicization of the civilizational identity-marker as macro stabilizer of uncertainty and a sort of order-generating device. Moreover, we are presented today with a bewildering array of agents beyond simply the state that populate the international sphere and participate in important ways in global politics. These range from individuals (bloggers, leakers, entrepreneurs, converts, lone-wolf terrorists, or journalists); to movements and organizations at the civil society level (NGOs, social movements, media outlets, religious institutions, terrorist organizations, or corporations); regional organizations (the European Union (EU), NATO, the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)); and international institutions (the UN or the World Bank).

In this context, civilizational imaginaries help map and order along distinct macro-cultural categories an otherwise dizzying range of actors in world politics. Civilizations as strategic frames of reference thus also function as cognitive and intellectual shortcuts which allow observers and participants in world politics to ascribe not just a particular identity, but also certain values and interests to a complex multiplicity of state and non-state actors in international relations. Following this logic then it is possible to view, despite their diversity, Amnesty International, President Trump and NATO as ‘Western’ and hence promoting Western values and interests; the OIC, Al Qaeda, and President Khatami as constituting multiple voices emanating from the ‘Muslim world’; or Gazprom, Dugin and the Russian Orthodox Church as more or less legitimate representatives of the voices and interests not simply of a state, but of a specific culture or civilization. Put differently, ordering the world along civilizations as frames of reference, shifts attention away from a focus solely on inter-state relations. It stresses instead relations among peoples understood as organized politically along different units – be them states, but also sub-state and supra-state actors – who are nonetheless tied together or differentiated from one another by particular macro-cultural identity markers, which are then in turn used to infer specific interests and behaviors.

Civilizations as Normative Critiques 

Invocations to civilizations and civilizational politics in international relations, as Critical approaches note, do certainly participate in a range of problematic and exclusionary forms of politics and projects. However, as an intellectual project, theories of civilizational clashes, like those exposed by Huntington, and of dialogues, like those put forward by Mohammad Khatami, Fred Dallmayr, and others (Dallmayr 2002; Hobson 2007; Petito 2007) are generally guided by an important anti-hegemonic ethic. Thus invocations to a world constituted by multiple civilizations, are often part of an intellectual undertaking centered on critiquing liberal teleological, universalist, understandings of progress and modernity, and associated liberal political, economic, and normative projects which originate from the West and are fervently exported, promoted or imposed on the rest of the world.

Moreover, as both Eisenstadt (2003) and Arnason (2003) have suggested, civilizational backgrounds and legacies are the necessary conditions to make sense of the different and varied patterns of modernity. In other words, the plurality of civilizations is the precondition for the pluralization of modernity. From this perspective, modernity is seen as a sui generis civilization, not unlike the emergence of the great worldwide religious traditions of Christianity and Islam, consisting, however, of ‘a set of infrastructural innovations that can be adapted to diverse civilizational contexts’ (Arnason 2003, 34). This is crucial as we will miss a fundamental dimension if we do not recognize that civilizational politics is part of the elite-driven ideological political struggle in contemporary Chinese (‘Asian values’, Confucian model, etc…), Indian (Hindutva), Russian (Orthodoxy) politics and in the politics of Muslim-majority countries (Islamisms, Sharia law, etc.). Civilizational politics is also about the re-articulation, reinterpretation or even re-invention of civilizational legacies and their core cultural patterns or orientations into contemporary political programs of modernization.

As Fabio Petito (2015) notes, the turn towards civilizational narratives constitutes in part that revolt against the West that Hedley Bull talked about. In particular, such narratives are seen as constituting the fifth and last stage of this revolt: the struggle for cultural liberation – that follows those for sovereign equality, political independence, racial equality, and economic justice. More recently, Petito (2016) has gone further to suggest that civilizational politics should not be confined only to the realm of post-colonial struggles, but also take place in the context of the rise and emergence of a more multipolar world as countries like Russia, China and India re-assert themselves as major powers.

To sum up, the final reason for the post-Cold War growth of civilizational politics, is that it provides an overarching discourse that connects a range of deeply normative critiques of globalization, modernization, Western hegemony and the liberal order with the articulation of different alternative (multiple) ways to deal with the modern predicament. In the international realm, critiques then differ in important ways, however, when articulated along a clash or dialogue perspective.

Clash theorists, like Huntington, see civilizational diversity and cultural pluralism as incommensurable and thus a perennial source of tensions and conflicts. The best that we can hope for, these theorists argue, is prudence and restraint. Scholars and political leaders advancing a civilizational dialogue perspective, instead, generally value cultural pluralism, they see it as a source of enrichment and a key for building a more peaceful and just, less hegemonic or Western/liberal-centric, international order. What is required to reach such a goal, and to dispel narratives of clash, are intercultural and inter-faith dialogues and initiatives across all levels to foster greater understanding, appreciation and cooperation among actors populating an inescapably diverse international community. Similarly, within each civilizational context the reinterpretation of civilizational legacies into alternative paths to development and modernization is rarely uncontested and uniform and more often assumes rather opposed ideological orientations. Therefore the analysis of the civilizational backgrounds to modernizing processes cannot be only a cultural-historical exercise but it must be also a social analysis of the power dynamics and structures at play.


To conclude, civilizational imaginaries and discourses are a way to understand and practice world politics in the context of a post-Cold War international system marked by: the progressive assertion of culture, tradition and religion as an expression of late/post-modern forms of identity politics; globalization and the deterritorialization of political identities and actorhood; and attempts to resist hegemonic liberal narratives and modernizing projects, while seeking to articulate alternative and multiple modernities.

The new global predicament of identity politics has opened up the space for civilizations to reassert themselves as crucial discursive vectors of contemporary global politics and antagonisms. This requires a highly power-sensitive analysis of the new global ideological patterns, as has been rightly pointed out by Critical approaches to civilizations. Civilizations, however, are also operating beyond this discursive dimension as crucial legacies and cultural orientations in the anti-liberal politics of multiple modernities projects. Here a cultural-based understanding of civilization is a necessary condition to make sense of the divergent, uneven and different paths of development and modernization around the world. Yet, and crucially contra Primordialists, culture alone is not sufficient in identifying social and political outcomes, which are very much influenced by elite-based power struggles and interactions.

Within the limited scope of this paper, the Sociological approach put forward here has thus attempted to outline a way to avoid the limits of both cultural and power reductionisms. It has sought to do so by pointing to the mutually reinforcing relations between civilizations as ideological-strategic frames of reference for global politics and, at the same time, as cultural legacies and orientations for the articulation of programs of alternative modernities. The hope has been to offer some initial analytical tools to better make sense of an international context where civilizational politics are here to stay for the foreseeable future.


[1] This approach can sometimes be found in the texts and declarations of some interreligious and inter-faith platforms.


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