Can We Afford a ‘Clash of Civilizations’?

by garrycraigpowell

It’s been a particularly distressing week for anyone who cares about the Middle East and the Muslim World. The attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi was heinous, and along with other attacks on American and other western diplomatic missions, has fuelled the ire of our own fanatics, those lovely people who are always urging that we “bomb them back into the Stone Age.” Most of the people who have died in the violent protests this week have been Muslim and Arab, but that fact–indeed any fact–only goes to ‘prove’ that they are ‘all savages.’ Many Muslims have come forward to apologize, and to declare that this is not their Islam, but to our trigger-happy fanatics, they are only the exception that proves the rule. It’s a very complicated situation, and I may oversimplify, but I’m going to try to give my own analysis here of what’s going on.

First, by all accounts the movie, which I haven’t seen, is dreadful, and was made as propaganda–i.e. with the express intention of provoking hatred and anger (unlike Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which I regard as a genuine work of art whose intention was nothing like that.) It’s natural that devout Muslims would find it offensive–but not natural, of course, that they would decide to kill people because of it–and particularly not that they would kill innocent people, like Ambassador Stevens, who would have despised the film. I suspect that most of the young men taking part in the ‘protests’ belong to Salafist groups and used the film as a pretext for inciting violence, for challenging moderation and tolerance and democracy. They are wrong to think that violence is an acceptable means to achieve the end they wish for–a more religious society. The ends don’t justify the means. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that.

Nevertheless, I wish to suggest that what we are witnessing is not proof of Bernard Lewis’ and others’ claim that we are in the midst of a perennial clash of civilizations. In fact, Reza Aslan’s counter-claim, that what’s going on is really an internecine struggle in the Muslim world, between moderate and extremist factions, is much closer to the truth. In the west we need to understand that a minority of Muslims are religious fanatics–in my view, about the same proportion who are Christian fanatics in the United States–and most of those who are would not resort to violence anyway. So the west needs to be supporting that majority of Muslims who want to live peacefully, not lumping them all together as crazies who need to be punished.

And in a larger sense, we need to realize that we cannot afford tribalism any longer. If the human race is to survive with the 12 billion people projected by mid-century, with greatly increased competition for resources, it’s critical that we put aside our primitive hatreds of one another based on colour, creed, language, and so on. Anyone who has lived in the Middle East, as I have, knows that people there are essentially the same as they are in the west. I don’t mean, obviously, that we share all our customs, beliefs and values; but our fundamental aspirations are the same. Most reasonable people want peace rather than war. They want a safe, healthy, prosperous environment for their children. They want their children to be able to thrive. They love their children and care about their neighbours. The “clash of civilizations” myth is perpetrated by people on both sides who are full of hatred and wish to foment hatred and use it for their own political ends. Let’s not listen to them. We have to be brothers and sisters now. Remember that Mohammed did not hate Christians or Jews–he called them People of the Book. All of the Middle Eastern religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, worship the same god, the god of Abraham. I am not a believer in any of these religions, so I can give a non-partisan view. The differences are far, far smaller than the similiarities. There is no need for fights between brothers.

Here is a minaret, in Nizwa, Oman. Anyone who has heard the almost heartbreaking call of the muezzin knows that it is the voice of a genuine spiritual aspiration – and the genuinely spiritual call for peace and love, not bloodshed.