The Fraternity of Civilizations: Prospects for Dialogue

The ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis may stand refuted as it very well is, but “refuting the Clash of Civilizations thesis will not stop the Clash of Civilizations concepts being applied to the War on Terror. The issue therefore is not how one can refute it, but how one can challenge its application in the world today.”1 The fallacies at the heart of the Clash of Civilizations thesis need to be brought out, refuted and transcended, and possibilities of seeking common grounds explored. Edward Said warns, “Unless we emphasize and maximize the spirit of humanistic exchange, profound existential commitment and labour on behalf of the ‘Other’, we are going to end up superficially and stridently banging the drum for the superiority of ‘our’ culture in opposition to all others.”2

With all the talk of the Clash of Civilizations, the need for an alternative paradigm which does not use a fallacious abstraction as a justification to extend power and influence is underscored. With the current state of things as they stand, we may be moving towards the clash that Huntington predicted, but the understanding that such a clash is not inevitable, and that it does not have to be so, is extremely important. Such a clash, if approaching, can and must be prevented. There is need for understanding, co operation and dialogue on both sides. Unity and tolerance for each other, respect for cultures or religions that may be different is required. Intellectuals, writers, scholars, academics, the media and political leadership have a very important duty to highlight the grounds for co operation between cultures and civilizations.

This said, however, the imperatives of a successful and effective framework for dialogue between civilizations must first be established, otherwise all attempts to create an alliance between civilizations through dialogue will be little more than chasing an illusory ideal. Dieter Senghaas points out the flawed strategy in contemporary attempts at bringing civilizational representatives to the talking table. He contends that participants in the dialogues sponsored by the West (as in fact all dialogues have been, so far) are not true representatives of the sides to the conflict. Particularly, Muslim representatives in the Dialogue are almost invariably those of the West’s choosing — believers in a ‘moderated’ Islam which does not enjoy any sizeable following in the Muslim world: “On the whole, the Muslim participants are not hard-boiled representatives of Orthodox Islam. They are all the representatives of a ‘modern’ Islam (whatever that means).”3 On the other hand, Senghaas notes, Western participants are rather naive and unaware of the Muslim standpoint, with little to offer. Such a dialogue, as Senghaas terms it, is ‘intellectually exhausted’, leading to a dead end.

Another danger the West needs to guard against for a genuine dialogue between civilizations is the belief in one’s own culture to be essentially unique and exclusive. The West must pull itself out of the Cold War mentality of creating and bloating up enemy images in order to direct an ambitious foreign policy at an adversary — real or imagined. The West should reject attempts at demonization of the enemy and understand that its version of modernity cannot be imposed on the Muslim world. It must allow other communities to develop according to their own orientation and essential values. Besides, the West must engage with authentic, popular representatives of the Muslim world: “An intellectual debate should rather be dealing intensively with the concepts of the democratic representatives of the Islamic world… How do writers, scientists, politicians, the representatives of social and especially religious groups envisage a desirable political constitution for their increasingly complex societies?”4

On both sides of the current divide, voices of conciliation, tolerance and peacemaking need to be empowered over and above the call to isolate and avenge. Religion has a very significant role in the process of reconciliation. A number of religious personalities, scholars, organisations and institutions are engaged in the task of reconciliation, peacemaking and rapproachment through religion. However, their contribution and potential has largely been unacknowledged and unrecognized: “We do not know most of these people, nor do we understand their impact, because we in the West have had a tendency in the modern period to view religion as only the problem in the human relations of civil society, never part of solutions.”5 However, it is also true on the other hand that religion is also misused for generating violence, hatred and conflict. Religion, therefore, has the potential both for peacemaking and conflict resolution as well as violence and conflict. It is the peacemaking and conciliatory role of religion that ought to be highlighted and emphatically asserted, through interpretation of the sources of religion:

At the end of the day, it will come down to interpretation, selection and the hermeneutic direction of religious communities. That, in turn, is deeply tied up with questions of the economic and psychological health of their members, the wounds of history, and the decisions of key leaders to direct their communities’ deepest beliefs, practices and doctrines towards healing and reconciliation or towards hatred and violence.5

This can help create a global civil society based on the sanctity of human rights and the necessity of conflict resolution. However, to truly accord that position and role to religion, it must be learnt that “Religion does not kill. Religion does not rape women, destroy buildings and institutions. Only individuals do those things.”6 This is particularly true for the West to understand in its perception of Islam which has, unfortunately, plummeted sharply after September 11, 2001, bringing the prospects for a clash closer. Instead of viewing violence as an intrinsically ‘Muslim’ phenomenon, the West needs to take responsibility for ill advised policy victimizing Muslims that has raised apprehension and mistrust in the Muslim world.

In his speech at the ‘Dialogue Between Civilizations’, President Khatami spoke of Islam’s role in peacemaking and arbitrating between civilizations:

I should also highlight one of the most important sources that enriched Iranian thought and culture, namely Islam. Islamic spirituality is a global one. Islam has, all through the history, extended a global invitation to all the humanity. The Islamic emphasis on humane quality, and its disdain for such elements as birth and blood, had conquered the hearts of those yearning for justice and freedom…7

Several writers and intellectuals throughout history have recognized the extraordinary potential of Islam as an arbiter between civilizations through its emphasis on equality, justice and brotherhood that goes beyond all distinctions of nationalism, race or creed. According to H.A. R Gibb:

But Islam has a still further service to render to the cause of humanity. It stands after all nearer to the real East than Europe does, and it possesses a magnificent tradition of inter-racial understanding and cooperation. No other society has such a record of success uniting in an equality of status, of opportunity, and of endeavours so many and so various races of mankind … Islam has still the power to reconcile apparently irreconcilable elements of race and tradition. If ever the opposition of the great societies of East and West is to be replaced by cooperation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition. In its hands lies very largely the solution of the problem with which Europe is faced in its relation with East. If they unite, the hope of a peaceful issue is immeasurably enhanced.8

Ample evidence for the aforesaid is present in the sources of Islam. According to Islamic tradition, the Prophet (PBUH), in his Last Sermon made to the entirety of his living followers at that point in time said:

O people! Verily, Allah says, ‘O mankind! We have indeed created you from a single male and a female, and then We made you into nations and tribes so that you may recognize (or identify) each other. Indeed, the most honoured among you in the Sight of Allah is the one who is the most righteous.’(In the light of this verse), no Arab has a superiority over a non Arab, nor does a non Arab have any superiority over an Arab; and a black does not have any superiority over a white, nor is a white superior to a black, except by one thing: righteousness. Remember, all human beings are the sons and daughters of Adam (A.S), and Adam (A.S) was made from dust. Be warned! All (false) claims of blood and of wealth are under my feet.9

The huge stumbling block towards an understanding of Islam as an egalitarian, emancipatory, humanistic tradition in the West is the Orientalist lens with which the West has always viewed Islam. Due to a very flippant, superficial understanding of it, violence in the Muslim world is seen as intrinsic to Islam and Muslim society, while the role and responsibility of the West in provoking militancy through its policies is overlooked. This mindset becomes obvious in the Palestine-Israel conflict, a weeping sore in the modern world which embodies in itself all the prejudice, misunderstanding, hate, mistrust with which human beings have viewed others on the basis of difference in religion or race or country. Karen Armstrong states,

It is not sufficient for us in the West to support or condemn parties to the conflict. We are also involved and must make our own attitudes our prime responsibility… Crusading is not a lost medieval tradition: it has survived in different forms in both Europe and the United States and we must accept that our own views are blinkered and prejudiced. The prophets of Israel, the parents of all three faiths, proclaimed the necessity of creating a new heart and a new soul, which was far more important than external conformity. So too today. External political solutions are not enough. All three of the participants in the struggle must create a different attitude, a new heart and spirit. In the Christian West we must try to make the painful migration from our old aggressions and embark on the long journey towards a new understanding and a new self.10

Overcoming this stumbling block requires acknowledgement of the West’s debt to the Orient and to Islam, and reaching the realization that Islam in fact is central and not extrinsic to Western civilization. In his speech to the Muslim world, U.S President Barack Obama mentioned Europe and America’s debt to Islam:

As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar University — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality.

I know, too, that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’ And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States.11

The West needs to reinterpret history and do away with the narrow, parochial understanding of an exclusively ‘Western’ individualism that its history celebrates. It needs to acknowledge the debt, for only through that will mankind be able to seek the common thread buried beneath the morass of clash and conflict. Effort needs to be made to create the realization in the Western mind, of the historically attested fact that “The Western heritage is not simply Judaeo-Christian, but rather Judaeo-Christian-Islamic. Islam belongs to the same Abrahamic family of religions as Judaism and Christianity, and modern Western civilization has inherited a large part of Islamic intellectual and scientific culture.”12

The task ahead is to overcome the stumbling blocs in order to acquire a balanced world view, through which to strive to reach a middle ground on the basis of a system of sharing, exchange and intercultural communication between civilizations on an egalitarian basis. At the heart of the process is the understanding that we may be different, but we also share our humanity, and must make the most of this shared, indissoluble bond.

This does not mean, however, that personal identities ought to be diluted, distinctions erased, barriers eliminated. That is neither practical nor advisable. What is needed is a delicate balance between civilizational (inclusive of religion, culture and all other identities short of singular humanness) and human identity. Edward Said reiterated the same concept when asked what commonalities can unite the human race:

There are already commonalities that need to be recognized. I do not, however, suggest that differences should be eliminated. Things cannot be flattened out and homogenized. However, the other extreme is that everything is clashing. I think that is a prescription for war, and Huntington says that. The other alternative is coexistence with the preservation of difference. We have to respect and live with our differences. I do not suggest a unified, simplified, reduced culture, but the preservation of differences while learning to coexist in peace.2

The potential and promise of Islam in fostering the ‘fraternity’ or the ‘alliance’ between civilizations is immense, as in fact, Islam has achieved this tremendous undertaking at several high points in its history. Spain under Muslims is an ideal worth emulating. Malaysian Professor Osman Bakar states,

Was not the civilization built in Spain by Muslims, Jews and Christians under the banner of Islam a universal civilization? A number of Jewish and Christian thinkers think so. Max Dimont makes the remarkable claim that the Jewish Golden Age in the medieval period coincided with the Golden Age of Islam, thus implying that what Muslims, Jews and Christians had built together within the Islamic civilization was truly universal in nature. There exists among some European scholars nostalgia for the Andalusian culture and civilization. They wish to return to the universality of Andalusia because post modern Western civilization has become particularistic and exclusionary.13

Despite the essential differences between Islamic and Non Islamic tradition, historically Islam has never had ‘adjustment problems’ or difficulties in creating pluralistic societies where peoples of diverse religious traditions have lived together and prospered. In fact, Islam has a rich pluralistic tradition unsurpassed by any other civilization. It has a vast experience of interaction and alliance with non Muslim communities. Instances of conflict between Muslims and Non Muslims have never been, it must be observed, over ‘civilizational differences’. The idea, therefore, that Islam’s differences in worldview with non Islamic civilizations makes a clash inevitable is falsified by the history of Islam itself. Rather, the history of Islam presents a veritable model of a ‘world civilization’, as stated by Professor Bakar:

Huntington’s view that the idea of the possibility of a universal civilization is exclusively Western conception is not supported by history. It is a historical fact that Islam built the first comprehensive universal civilization in history even if we go by all the modern criteria of universality. Islam was the first civilization to have geographical and cultural borders with all the major contemporary civilizations of the world, and it was Islam that had the most extensive encounter with other civilizations.14

Where, then, does a Clash emerge? It emerges as a corollary to interventionist, adventurist, exploitative policies vis a vis the Muslim world by the ascendant West steeped in the compulsions of its espoused Materialism and Capitalism. The Clash is not inevitable, but it can become possible if such policies are mindlessly and relentlessly pursued by the West and if the Muslim world does not engage in self criticism and undertake a rediscovery of the pristine message of Islam. As long as the West keeps pursuing its ill advised course, insecurity and militant responses will proliferate among the Muslims. In such a case, Muslim opinion leaders will be compelled to rally together their people for strengthening, fortifying and gearing up for the West’s assault on what is most precious to them. Given the insensitivity and superficial grasp of the West over the prevalent mood in the Muslim world, the vicious cycle of hostility will go on. This is exactly the self-destructive path towards the Clash of Civilizations which in the long run will be in the interest of none.

  1. Michael Dunn, ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the War on Terror,’ 49th Parallel, Vol.20 (Winter 2006-2007). []
  2. Remarked by Professor Edward W Said in his 1998 lecture titled “The Myth of the Clash of Civilizations” at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, United States of America. [] []
  3. Senghaas, Dieter, The Clash Within Civilizations, Routledge, London, 2002., p. 105. []
  4. Ibid, p. 107. []
  5. Marc Gopin, “Religion and International Relations at the Crossroads,” International Studies Review, Vol III issue III, Fall 2001. [] []
  6. Stated by Giandomino Picco, quoted in United Nations Year of Dialogue Between Civilizations 2001, Introduction, www.un.org/dialogue []
  7. “Empathy and Compassion,” The Iranian, September 8, 2000. []
  8. H.A.R. Gibb, Whither Islam, London, 1932, p. 379. []
  9. Quoted by Martin Lings, Muhammad (SAW): His Life Based on the Earliest Sources, Vermont, Rochester (USA), Inner Traditions, 2006. []
  10. Karen Armstrong, The Crusades and their Impact on Todays World, New York, Random House, Inc, 2001, p.539. []
  11. ABS-CBN News, Text of Obama’s speech to Muslim world, June 4, 2009. []
  12. Osman Bakar, Islam and Civilizational Dialogue, Kuala Lumpur, University of Malaya, 1997, p.42. []
  13. Ibid, p. 10. []
  14. Ibid. []

Maryam Sakeenah is a student of International Relations based in Pakistan. She is also a high school teacher and freelance writer with a degree in English Literature. She is interested in human rights advocacy and voluntary social work and can be reached at: meem.seen@gmail.com. Read other articles by Maryam.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Taz said on July 27th, 2009 at 9:50am #

    A wonderful article.

  2. bozh said on July 27th, 2009 at 11:28am #

    but islam is structured like an army; just like christianity, mosheism, and judaism.
    in mosheism and judaism only men can be priests. And until very recently, only men were priest in christian churches.
    Jesus self accepted only men for his apostles.

    all of these four ‘religions’ are full of promises, condemnations, intolerance, hatred, anger, etc.
    and neither of the three ‘gods’ speak to each other. True, islam is not as bad as mosheism or judaism, but is also full of vacuities and contradictions.
    tnx

  3. B99 said on July 27th, 2009 at 1:05pm #

    Bozh – Mosheism? Already a step backward from Sakeenah’s message.

  4. Mulga Mumblebrain said on July 27th, 2009 at 5:45pm #

    The impossibility of this vision of global civilizations at peace with each other, and co-operating in facing the truly calamitous ecological disasters that are bearing down on us, coming to pass is, alas, clear. It will founder on two rocks, those of religious and hence civilizational supremacism, and market capitalism.
    While it was marvelous to see the humane and inspired words of Edward Said (is it any wonder the Judeofascists hated him so deeply?)the forces that call the shots in the West think entirely in the opposite manner. For a start, the West is dominated by Judaic money power, extending its reach through business, the media and into politics, which it controls. The Jews that exercise this unprecedented power put Israel first and last, and they dictate Western political attitudes to Islam. It is they and their functionaries, the ‘neo-conservatives’, the editors of the mainstream media, the Rightwing think-tanks and journals, who promulgate the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis, that is aimed as much at China as Islam.
    Of course not all Jews think and act this way. Many Jews work for inter-religious understanding and amity. A majority, I am certain, would prefer to live at peace with their neighbours, but they are dragged along to acquiescence in violence and cruelty by the worst in their tribe. The Judaic power elites, in business, politics, the military and religious fundamentalism, most certainly do not believe in peaceful co-existence.
    In this country, the media, particularly the Murdoch sewer, are relentless in demonising, denigrating and abusing Islam, Arabs and the Palestinians in particular. Public opinion is being driven, remorselessly, towards hatred, fear and contempt for Moslems, and Rightwing Jews, both within the Murdoch structure and as guest opinion writers, lead the way. Similarly with the ABC and the other media empire Fairfax, although Fairfax occasionally allows a well-trained Moslem ( a ‘house Moslem’ in Malcolm X’s parlance) to have a say. These outbreaks of ‘even-handedness’ are always answered, usually the next day, by a Judeofascist yelling abuse, whereas pieces by the Judaic Thought Police are NEVER answered by Islamic or Palestinian rejoinders. Nevertheless this small concession to Islamic opinion is ferociously attacked, in Judeofascist blogs and, no doubt, behind the scenes where power is exercised, as ‘anti-Semitism’ or ‘sympathy for terrorism’.
    The local Zionists bring a steady cavalcade of Islamophobes to the country, with Likudnik hatemongers and fanatic apostates from Islam to the fore. One can only imagine the outrage that would occur if a Moslem organisation brought out David Irving or David Duke or someone of that ilk, but the double-standard, founded, as is everything else in this country, in money-power, is absolute.
    The prospects for inter-civilizational peace are further reduced by the existence of ‘Christian Zionist’ bigotry. Emanating from the brain-damaged wing of Protestantism, principally in the US but spreading its poison throughout the world through determined proselytism, it is intensely antipathetic towards Islam, and fanatically pro-Israel. Not out of any great love of Judaism or Jews, and one suspects that many of these creatures are real, and rank, anti-Semites, but out of an insane and evil desire to see the bloodshed in the Near and Middle East rise until it provokes the final battle between Good (which they risibly see themselves as representing) and Evil. In that battle the Jews are actually eviscerated, incinerated and pulverised along with the rest of us.
    Need one observe that the alliance between Judeofascism and ‘End-times’ Christian Zionism is a marriage made in Hell? When you consider the observations of many, including Uri Avnery in Israel, that these Messianic, Armaggedonist tendencies are coming to dominate the military and intelligence elites, both in Israel and the US, through the infiltration of religious fundamentalist fanatics, and, as a result, the Israelis, as evidenced in Gaza, are becoming even more brutal, more indifferent (if it was possible!) to the fate of their victims, then we ought to face facts. A depraved and debased quasi-religious Crusade is being waged against Islam, where, as the millions of deaths so far attest, Islamic life is regarded as completely worthless.
    When Gorbachev said he would do the US a favour and ‘take away its enemy’, I began to realise what a disaster he would be. Not that he had much choice. He faced a regime just as crazed, just as dominated by Apocalyptisists and End-Timers as any since-probably even more deranged than the Bush rabble. Surrendering in the Cold War saved the world, I’m pretty sure, from nuclear war. But it allowed the US the freedom to dominate the entire planet, the national project, of its hereditary ruling elites, at least, since 1776. That enabled the US and Israel to put the Zionist Plan for the Middle East, of Oded Yinon, echoed by Netanyahu et al’s ‘A Clean Break etc’, into operation. That as we know, but thanks to the Judaic controlled Western media, the public does not know, envisaged all the Islamic countries of the Middle East split into powerless statelets along sectarian and ethnic lines, the better to ensure Israel’s eternal hegemony, behind which the project for an Eretz Yisrael, cleansed of non-Jews, could proceed. The US, for doing most of Israel’s dirty work, gets to control the region’s hydrocarbons, and thus gets to throttle the Chinese, who, in any case, are the next target in the ‘Clash of Civilizations’.
    Opposed to these daemonic, religiously intoxicated forces of darkness, the voices of human amity and civilizational respect have been drowned out. The capitalist West has other arguments with Islam as well, apart from the inconvenience of geography that placed the hydrocarbons that are the property of the West by dint of civilizational and racial superiority, beneath the sands of the Gulf. Islam stills bans usury, showing how primitive a religion it really is. Where, oh where, would Israel and the West be without usury? Where would Goldman-Sachs be without usury? Where the entire edifice of Western financial chicanery? Where the fortunes of Wall Street and the City? Of course Islam cannot pretend to have reformed, to have ntered the 21st century, until it not only ends its prohibition against usury, but embraces it, as has the West, as the very bedrock of market capitalism.
    In short I see the chances of inter-civilizational friendship and respect as nil, at least on the level of inter-state relations. The fixed attitude of the Western and Israeli elites that they represent the highest stage to which humanity has evolved, that they represent a God-ordained ‘Chosen’ elite of humanity and that their insatiable greed and indifference to the fate of others are virtues, not vices, will never allow it. I suspect the best we can do is to practice friendship towards the humane elements of the West and of Islam, and try and stay out of the way of the zealots and crazies. Maybe Jesus will return, and surprise us all by actually being ‘The Prince of Peace’ after all, and miraculously converting all the hate-filled crazies into apostles of loving kindness for all cultures, all people and all existence.

  5. Maryam Sakeenah said on July 28th, 2009 at 12:27pm #

    Embrace the bleak pessimism, shall we?
    Mulga, your observations are largely true. The fixity of attitudes in the West leaves us with little hope and your comment very clearly exposes the malaise. But then do we let them head us all straight to Armageddon? Or do we hold out against the babel of bigotry and zealotry in defence of justice and humanity with that lone resilient voice? I find the latter a nobler calling. I am glad you chose to conclude with what is in fact the message and the whole point of the article. I would like to re-state it here:
    “I suspect the best we can do is to practice friendship towards the humane elements of the West and of Islam, and try and stay out of the way of the zealots and crazies. ”

    Precisely.
    Peace.