September 3, 2003

The Universality of Islam and the Myth of ?The Clash of Civilizations?


Witnessing Canada’s gradual but nonetheless praiseworthy decision to
stay out of the conflict in Iraq, Muslims throughout Canada breathed a collective
sigh of relief. Reason had triumphed over passion — or so it seemed at the
time. Sifting through a mid-February edition of the Toronto Star, I
came across an immensely troubling front page story (“Avoid clash of civilizations,
Bush is urged”) that alluded to a conflict not between American imperialists
and Middle Eastern dictators or between “civilized” nations and
“barbaric” terrorist states, but a colossal battle between the supposedly
antithetical forces of Islam and the West.

Unfortunately, and as any critical observer of current events would affirm,
it is this very same archaic logic stemming from an imaginative “clash
of civilizations” — and not from the simple perversity of plummeting
an already ravaged nation — that has infiltrated the upper echelons of governments
around the world and shaped opinion on the war. Thus, according to Prime Minister
Chrétien’s February 13, 2003 address at the Chicago Council on
Foreign Relations, the United States must practice restraint and garner international
support for its occupation of Iraq. Why? So as to avoid igniting a cataclysmic
“clash of civilizations” with the Muslim world. But of course, not
solely because it is the right thing to do.

For one to exhume the origins of this draconian thesis, its entry into academic
circles, and eventual manifestation into global politics, it is necessary to
refer to the period immediately following the end of the Cold War. Either honestly
in search for a post-Cold War paradigm for international relations, or simply
bent on justifying exorbitant defence expenditures, Washington-based think-tanks
began formulating a new lens through which the world would henceforth be seen.
Replacing the already disintegrated Soviet Union with Islam and dividing the
world between East and West instead of communism and capitalism, policymakers
and academics paved the way for a new era in global tension and conflict.

In the summer of 1993, Foreign Affairs published a controversial article
entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations?” by Samuel P. Huntington.
“The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics,” hypothesized
Huntington, and the “fault lines between civilizations will be the battle
lines of the future.” In the dialectical battle between “the West
and the Rest,” America would champion the cause of the West, while Islam
would emerge as the principal antithesis – clearly prevailing over the
minor economic threats arising from the already thoroughly westernizing Confucian
states. Bernard Lewis, a celebrated Orientalist historian, was the first to
introduce the supposed dialectic between Islam and the West in “The Roots
of Muslim Rage”, an article published for The Atlantic Monthly
in 1990:

It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending
the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This
is no less than a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but
surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage,
our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially
important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic
but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.

What such scurrilous scholarship tends to omit is the overbearing historical
interdependence between both the Islamic and Western civilizations. Indeed,
both Islam and the West have seen their days of glory as benign empires stretching
from one end of the world to the other; and although the latter currently finds
itself at the zenith of its power, it is clearly in debt to the latter for introducing
to it the rudimentary principles of hygiene, igniting the Renaissance, translating
Greek writings, and developing the fields of science, medicine, engineering,
architecture, and philosophy among other things. To ignore this vast and rich
history is to forego any possibility of peaceful coexistence amongst all peoples
of the world.

Shireen T. Hunter, the director of Islamic Studies at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington and the author of The Future of
Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence?
, concludes
her study on the relationship between Islam and the West on a less draconian
note than her contemporaries. “At the interstate level,” Hunter
asserts, “the most important sources of discord between the Muslim countries
and the West have not been disagreements rooted in civilizational incompatibility.”
“Instead,” she adds, “discord has grown from the efforts of
Muslim governments, including governments that espouse a secular philosophy
and agenda, to increase their margin of independence, to challenge the supremacy
of the West, and to pursue policies contrary to Western interests.”

When Muslims ponder as to why they have become symbolic targets for arbitrary
and wholly unconstitutional arrests, detentions, and deportations in the aftermath
of September 11, they should realize the atmosphere of xenophobia and fear that
outrageous civilizational discourses such as the “clash of civilizations”
generate. With this prevailing logic in mind, modern-day crusaders in Washington
and other Western nations may believe that their unwarranted security-related
concerns and actions are all in defence against the villainous “other”
– in this case, Islam. Indeed, an impending cosmic battle between Islam
and the West gives way to several other damaging and sweeping generalizations
such as “good and bad”, “black and white”, and “with
us or against us”. Muslims must avoid falling into this very same trap
and dedicate their energies to promoting Islam as a way of life compatible universally,
and not as a mere penal code.

In conclusion, it must be stressed that Islam is not a Middle Eastern faith,
and statistics proving that it is the fastest growing religion in North America
would convince anyone willing to argue otherwise. Proponents of the “clash
of civilizations” thesis must contend with and explain this fact among
other cross-cultural phenomena such as the truly oxymoronic transformation of
John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban. According to Edward W. Said, University
Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, “‘The
Clash of Civilizations’ thesis is a gimmick like ‘The War of the
Worlds,’ better for reinforcing defensive self-pride than for critical
understanding of the bewildering interdependence of our time.” It is the
responsibility of Muslims in North America to treat it as such and spread the
universal message of Islam through actions and personal example. Then, perhaps,
our leaders may one day refuse to join imperial wars in fear of sparking a clash
between justice and injustice, not civilizations.

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