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