Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Clash of Civilizations: A Question to Ponder

In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the All-Merciful

At the start of the new millennium two global civilizations appear to be poised in a complex confrontation on various levels of human activity. One is based in Muslim countries and the other in the West, mainly North America and Western Europe. For the sake of simplication we will use the shorthand terms Islam and the West, although they are unsatisfactory and do not express the diversity and complexity of either Islam or the West. The central ideas of both are expressed through the process of globalization and radicalization that swirl and eddy around the world like an atmospheric storm. Commentators are already seeing the confrontation in apocalyptic terms and calling it the last crusade.

It is well to remember that there are over a billion Muslims in the world today. Significantly, over twenty million of them live in the West and are shared about equally between the USA and Europe. There are about fifty Muslim nations, the number having been inflated by the six recently independent former Soviet republics.

In the next decades the planet will continue to shrink at a breathtaking pace because of the rapid technological changes in the media, transport, telecommunications and so on. It is therefore clear that few exercise will be more worthwhile that helping to increase understanding between Islam and the West, with a view to easing the tension between them. Confrontation is neither necessary nor desirable; besides, there is much in common both in ideas and in human societies. It is this which needs to be increasingly explored. We need to be able to see the other and say, "We understand you are different but we also understand your difference."

Despite the many superficial differences, deeper and more permanent values are similar: the respect for knowledge, for justice, for compassion towards the less privileged, for a healthy family life, the need to improve the here and now. The last is significant. Islam, unlike some other religions, does not reject the world. The Muslim ideal balances matters of the world (dunya) with ideas of religion (din); a good Muslim must participate in both. This goes a long way towards explaining the power and popularity of Islam in today’s world.

Although there is a genuine desire in the west to understand Islam, people do have a problem in understanding it, perhaps because of the mutually hostile experiences of the last thousand years. False images and ideas are thus perpetuated. For example, it is an almost unshakeable article of belief in the West that Muslims treat their women badly and that Muslim priests – in the form of mullahs – tyrannise Muslim society. We, Muslims, have to prove that these assumptions are no correct. None the less, Europeans will instinctively refer to their own medieval times, recalling the long and tortuous struggle to free themselves of the church’s domination. Confronting the images they themselves created and imposed on to Muslims, they are really looking at their own history. In order to appreciate Islam, therefore, the West must come to terms with its own past. An exercise like this is crucial not only for building bridges with the alien other, but also for exorcizing the ghosts within.

Muslims complain of being colonized by the West twice over: politically in the last century and then culturally in this one. But Europe also has its memory of Islamic conquest in the first centuries after Islam. Spain and Sicily were under Muslim domination for centuries, and Muslim armies were stopped from conquering France by Charles Martel in the eighth century. Vienna was almost conquered twice, the second attempt being made in the seventeenth century. It is time, then, to stop scoring points against each other and start looking at the new realities and the future.

Only a few decades ago it appeared possible for Islam and the West to be compartmentalized into separate geographical areas; indeed they seemed destined to live on different continents. This is no longer true. By the 1980s we had become aware of how interlinked and interwoven the modern world actually is. Not only are millions of Muslims living in Europe and the USA but there are thousands from the West working in the Muslim countries. Besides, there are large Muslim groups like those in former Yugoslavia, who are European by race, culture and location. Furthermore, scholars and students, diplomats and politicians, economists and entrepreneurs continue to travel to and from between the two. In any case videos, television, fax, the internet and satellite telecommunications ensure that everyone on the planet has access to common ideas and programs; it is no longer possible to isolate one from the other.

Although Western ideologies seem mainly to be rooted in a vision of the world as secular, democratic and ordered by the need to acquire material goods for a satisfactory life, whereas those of Islam are motivated primarily by religious beliefs, the picture in practice is not simple or clear. It is further confused by elements of both philosophies in each camp. Many living in secular material societies openly challenge them; many look back to traditional beliefs and seek answers in religion or ethnicity or the tribal group. Similarly, many of those who live in Muslim societies pay only lip-service to the notions of piety and faith, and often disguise materialist greed with religious rhetoric.

In the Gulf War of 1991 we saw how America’s attempt to maintain global hegemony, to ensure continue supplies of oil so that the high material lifestyles of the West could be maintained, were also a chance to show who was boss or as the American soldiers put it, to ‘kick ass’. For many Arabs who opposed Saddam Hussein and his policies their paradoxical support of Iraq was a gesture of defiance against the West. What began as an unpopular invasion by a larger neighbour ended up with huge processions in Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and even India, supporting Saddam. Somehow, his standing up to the West had tapped deep reservoirs of resentment in many parts of Africa and Asia. Those people who still clung to tradition and religious belief were depressed by world developments for which they blamed the West, in particular the USA, which symbolized the West. Support for Saddam allowed them to express their disgust and anger at forces they felt were enveloping them but which they could not fully comprehend or control. Their support had little to do with the merits of Saddam or his policies – both roundly condemned by the very same Muslims before the war.

Later in the year, many Muslims with funds in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) were financially devastated by its collapse. None the less, throughout the Muslim world there was a perception that the hostile media attacks on the BCCI were motivated by hatred for Muslims. Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa condemning Salman Rushdie, for his The Satanic Verses, to death in 1989 had kept these attacks on the boil. Indeed, Western commentators were freely talking of a ‘criminal culture’.

The confrontation between Islam and the West is widely seen in the Muslim world as a straightforward clash, between greed and the faith, between a way of life that encourages violence and anarchy and one that stresses balance and order. Yet these images are completely reversed in the Western viewpoint, which tends to see Muslims as a source of violence and anarchy threatening a stable and prosperous West. It is truly a topsy-turvy world, but perhaps by simplifying difficult and complex issues we can hope to make some sense of it.

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