The Universality of Islam and the Myth of “The Clash of Civilizations”

By Bilal Hashmi

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.