Clash of Civilizations or Opportunity for Dialogue?

David Smock
U.S. Institute of Peace

Posted Sep 28, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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With regrettable frequency, religion is a factor in international conflict. Rarely is religion the principal cause of conflict, even when the opposing groups, such as Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, are differentiated by religious identities. But religion is nevertheless a contributing factor to conflict in places as widely scattered as Northern Ireland, the Middle East, the Balkans, Sudan, Indonesia, and Kashmir. Hans Kung has asserted that the ?most fanatical and cruelest political struggles are those that have been colored, inspired, and legitimized by religion.?

During the fall of 2001 there unfolded what appeared to be a clear clash of religiously based civilizations. The presumed perpetrators of the events of September 11 declared that the Muslim world was at war with the worlds of Christianity and Judaism. This would appear to be a validation of the Samuel Huntington thesis, first articulated in 1993, that conflict in the post-Cold War era would be characterized by clashes of civilizations. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict in global politics will be cultural and these culture types will be primarily differentiated by religious differences.  These include an Islamic civilization, a Judeo-Christian civilization, Hindu civilization is another, Orthodox Christianity is another, and so on. Huntington contended that of the various potential civilizational clashes, the one most likely to occur was between the Judeo-Christian world and the world of Islam. The challenge for Western policy-makers is to make sure that the West gets stronger and fends off all the others, Islam in particular.

While Huntington generated debate in 1993, now many in high places are convinced that he was right all along. Some of those captivated by this clash of civilizations ideology would have the U.S. moving on to confront or even attack other Muslim countries once the war in Afghanistan is concluded. And the rhetorical diatribes of Osama bin Laden declaring a jihad against Christians and Jews, against America and Israel, have fed this frenzy against Islam in the West.

There are myriad flaws and non-sequiturs in the clash of civilizations ideology. First is the question of how much religion actually shapes culture and politics in various parts of the world. What does it mean to say that the U.S. is a Judeo-Christian country, or what about France and Britain? Is religion really the dominating cultural force in these places? Is Islam the defining cultural force in countries like Turkey and Syria?

Second, enormous differences exist within each religious type. Huntington even admits this by dividing Christian Orthodox civilization off from the rest of the Christian world. Muslim Sufis can be sharply differentiated from wahhabi Muslims. Turkey and Saudi Arabia can hardly be considered soul mates.

Third, the most compelling fallacy is saying that these so-called civilizations stand in opposition to other civilization types given the frequency and number of clashes and conflicts within a particular civilization. Iran and Iraq were engaged in a decade-long war. The clash between Protestant and Catholic Christians in Northern Ireland has been prolonged and bloody, and so on.

Extremists on both sides would like to see a clash of religiously defined civilizations. And the more extremists define conflict in those terms, the more it will turn out to become a true clash of civilizations. There is thus a real danger of this being a self-fulfilling prophecy, a danger that the rest of us must fight against.

Despite the fact that the Clash of Civilizations ideology is seriously flawed, the events of 9/11 and after have made painfully clear the need for improved understanding between Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. Misconceptions and misunderstandings abound. Little effective communication occurs.

Dialogue is essential at various levels. First, there must be dialogue among political leaders from the West and from the Muslim world. Equally important is dialogue among people of faith, among religious leaders, among scholars, and among lay people. The fact that Muslims, Christians, and Jews all consider Abraham to be our spiritual ancestor and progenitor provides a natural basis for dialogue and religious communication. Our sacred texts are also interrelated with each other.

Despite the genuine differences that exist among the three Abrahamic traditions, they all put forward visions of peace.  We need to consider how the enduring virtues of these three great faiths can be used to build a shared community in terms of mutual respect, openness, trust, dignity, and responsibility. These three monotheistic religions need not meet as rivals, but can meet as partners and moral equals in building a shared future. In knowing each other, they can give the best of their traditions and values to creating a genuinely peaceful interfaith community.

Cultural contact between Islam and the West has been marred by historically unequal power relations, leaving the West often arrogant and insensitive and the Muslim world frequently defensive and insecure. But active engagement with one another, through sustained dialogue and interaction, permits each to understand the deeper meanings, associations, and history of the other. Active engagement permits us to understand the authentic, life-affirming expressions of human religiosity in each of the other faiths. Above all, we seek a paradigmatic shift in how we see, understand and relate to one another. Our awareness can and must be expanded beyond existing limitations, as we develop a greater sense of belonging to the family of humankind.

As Thomas Cahill has written, ?Each of the great religions creates, almost from its inception, a colorful spectrum of voices that range from pacifist to terrorist. But each religion, because of its metaphorical ambiguity and intellectual subtlety, holds within it marvelous potential for development and adaptation. This development will be full of zigzags and may sometimes seem as slow as the development of the universe, but it runs?almost inevitably, it seems?from exclusivist militancy to inclusive peace.? 

Religion can be a formidable force for peace and conflict resolution. For this to materialize, we must achieve a more profound understanding of the experiences, values and goals of different faiths. Pushing for greater dialogue among civilizations, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has written, ?First, it is an appropriate and necessary answer to the notion of an inevitable clash of civilizations?Second, it helps us draw on the deeper, ancient roots of cultures and civilizations to find what unites us across all boundaries, and third, and perhaps most important, the dialogue can help us to discern the role of culture and civilization in contemporary conflicts, and so to distinguish propaganda and false history from the real causes of war.?

Interfaith dialogue is often practiced in situations of peace because there are issues even in a peaceful context that can helpfully be addressed. Prejudice by members of one religious community toward another, or religious discrimination toward members of religious minorities can be subjects of dialogue, as can other issues that generate tension, like one religious community proselytizing and seeking converts within another religious community. Even more urgent is interfaith dialogue in situations of armed conflict, particularly when religion is one of the sources of conflict or when those in conflict are differentiated by religious identity.

Interfaith dialogue?s ultimate concern is relationship building between peoples and nations, for it is in trusting relationships that sacredness can truly flourish. Dialogue that engages the deepest values of religious traditions can and often does lead to a more profound level of understanding and trust than simple negotiations, especially to the degree to which dialogue produces shared ethical concerns and collaborative action in the world.

Abdelouahed Belkeiziz, Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference has stated: ?Among the positive peripheral outcrops of the September 11 events, there is the heightened desire of many in the West to learn about Islam and better understand its principles and perspective on life and the universe?.An important occasion has thus presented itself which the Islamic world needs to seize upon, with a view to project their faith and civilization and their objectives and conception of relations with others?.In order to do so, we have to inaugurate between ourselves a positive dialogue not only to overcome the current crisis, which we see as transitory, but also to establish the foundations of dialogue for our future and for the same of posterity. That is why we would want this dialogue to be also a strategic one that takes into account the basic economic as well as the political interests?.?

The International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations has been championed in particular by President Khatami of Iran. The motivation for initiating the dialogue was summarized in the words of the Iranian poet and philosopher Sadi Shirazi hundreds of years ago: ?All human beings are like organs of a body, when one organ is afflicted with pain, others cannot rest in peace.?

Diana Eck of Harvard has asserted, ?One world cannot be built on the foundation of competition and polarization between the superpowers. One world cannot be built on the foundation of science, technology and the media. One world cannot be built on Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Sikh triumphalism. One world cannot be built on the foundation of mutual fear and suspicion. Laying the foundations for one world is the most important task of our time. These foundations are not negotiated statements and agreements. These foundations are, rather, in the stockpiling of trust through dialogue and the creation of relationships that can sustain both agreements and disagreements. Moving forward?in dialogue with those other faiths we will create the foundational relationship of One World. Moving forward alone, we will not.?

Yossi Klein Halevi has described interfaith dialogue as ?the true spiritual adventure of our generation. For the first time, believers can experience something of the inner life of other religions while remaining faithful to their own.?  Rabbi Herbert Bronstein has written, ?There is a profound religious and historic basis to the Jewish view on interfaith dialogue. Jewish belief encompasses a dialectic between an all-embracing humane Universalism and deep commitment to a particular Jewish religious way of life and to the continuity of the Jewish people as a religious people. Between the two—namely, universal humane concern and Jewish particularism ? there is, in the Judaic world view, no contradiction. And, in fact, the ideal Jewish position is integration of the two. On the one hand, the ideal Jew is deeply loyal to his own faith, way of life, and people. There is, at the same time, a firm commitment in Judaism to God’s universal embrace, care, and love for all humanity, the ideal of loving one’s fellow human being as oneself. The Torah teaches that all humanity is created in the image of God. In the Jewish myth of creation, one couple, Adam and Eve, are the parents of all humanity. In this view God speaks to all human beings and all human communities in various ways. All perceive the one God in their own way and take different paths to the service of the ultimate Godhead. Dialogue would therefore be an endeavor to understand, on the deepest level possible, the views and positions of the Other toward the goal of ultimate harmony between all human beings, which is the Judaic affirmation of the Sovereignty of God, harmony, peace, Shalom.?

Based upon his experience in the Balkans, Paul Mojzes has stated ?one could argue that religious leaders are able to find inspiration in their holy scripture and other traditions and writings to work with one another even when the relationship between politicians and the population is strained to the utmost and distrust prevails in society.? He goes on to note that in situations of armed conflict it is a mistake to wait for the conflict to end before interreligious dialogue is initiated. 

There are sections of all three faith communities that are not prepared to engage in dialogue or accept responsibility for the conflicts generated within their own traditions. But all three communities also have members and leaders who cherish the opportunity to become better informed, who welcome the opportunity to hear and feel the pain that each may feel in relation to the other, and who are prepared to collaboratively work toward a more enlightened and peaceful future. And in doing so they recognize that there are serious issues that divide them and that these issues are often as much political as theological.

Interfaith dialogue can be used as an effective tool to advance peacebuilding, but also presents significant challenges in situations of serious conflict. Participants are likely to carry into the process a set of preconceived prejudices and grievances regarding the beliefs and practices of the other religious community in the dialogue. When differences in religious belief and practice generate differences in convictions about how a society should be structured, the potential obstacles to effective dialogue multiply. And when the two religious groups have been on opposite sides of an armed conflict, even when religion has not been the principal basis for conflict, the participants confront a history of hostility, injuries inflicted, varying combinations of anger, hatred, and guilt that seriously compound the complexity of the dialogue process. If the participants are expected to move beyond the past to joint planning for the future, sustained dialogue provides the means by which to arrive at reconciliation, restoration, and peaceful coexistence. 

Dialogue sessions which do not have a clearly defined purpose are almost inevitably doomed to ineffectiveness. Targeted dialogue can take a variety of forms and serve a variety of purposes, including these:
1. High level religious leaders can be convened to speak collectively as advocates for peace. The focus is joint action on behalf of peace. This can be particularly effective in situations where religious divisions are among the sources of societal division and conflict.
2. Elite interfaith bodies can also engage in mediation between combatants to try to reach peace agreements, as was the case with the Interreligious Council of Sierra Leone and a comparable group in Northern Uganda. These efforts are often most effective when they employ religious precepts and rituals in the mediation process.
3. At the other extreme are grassroots efforts which bring participants together across religious divisions to provide a mechanism for cross community dialogue and to nurture the participants into becoming agents of reconciliation. Such fora often provide opportunities for sharing grievances and articulating the suffering of communities in conflict.  These sessions may also identify the peacebuilding resources inherent within each faith tradition. A variation on this approach focuses on transforming relationships among the participants, often with an emphasis on prayer and repentance for sins committed. The admission of guilt by members of one group for past wrongs committed against the other religious group can provide a powerful basis for healing.
4. Another approach is to highlight the theological and scriptural similarities among religious groups in conflict, as well as seeking to ameliorate the hostility that may be engendered by theological differences. A variation on this approach is for groups of different faiths to jointly study the sacred texts of each religion as a means of deepening the understanding that each group has of the beliefs of the other group. Similarly interfaith groups can share their religious rituals to enhance mutual understanding.
5. Dialogue can be organized while conflict is ongoing as a step toward ending the conflict. Or dialogue can be organized in the post-conflict period, as a contribution toward reconciliation.
6. Joint training in conflict resolution techniques have been offered for the past several years in southern Philippines to Muslim imams and Catholic clergy as a means of enhancing dialogue and promoting peace in that conflicted region.
7. Marc Gopin has noted the severe limitations of dialogue that is confined to words and talk. He argues that deeds of reconciliation, particularly shared deeds among enemies, reaching across religious boundaries, are usually much more effective than merely engaging in interreligious conversation. 

Interfaith Dialogue has reduced religious passions in many zones of conflict. Early this year the Archbishop of Canterbury brought together Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders at the highest levels from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Egypt to jointly sign a declaration that advocated a religiously sanctioned ceasefire and denounced all killing of innocent civilians. The Archbishop?s envoy to the Middle East, Canon Andrew White, served as a key mediator to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in April and May of this year.

In May 2002 Muslim and Orthodox Christian leaders in Macedonia agreed to form a council for interreligious collaboration to lessen religious tensions that both arose out of the Macedonian civil war in 2001 and contributed to it. A turning point in their deliberations came when Muslim and Christian leaders realized they had a shared interest in promoting religion in Macedonia. In taking this action, the Macedonians followed the lead of religious leaders in both Bosnia and Kosovo who formed similar interreligious councils. An interfaith council in Northern Uganda has improved ethnic relations in that war-torn region.

But probably more significant over the long term than these examples of high level interfaith dialogue, collaboration, and peacebuilding are the increasing number of dialogue groups that are emerging at local levels in the United States and elsewhere. Mosques are reaching out to churches and synagogues and vice versa. Imams are speaking and even preaching in Christian pulpits. Some conservative elements in all three faith communities strongly condemn these collaborative efforts to promote tolerance and mutual understanding, but these activities are multiplying and should be encouraged.

Probably the most successful efforts at interfaith dialogue focus on the telling of personal and group stories, particularly when members share the pain and suffering that they have experienced at the hands of the other religious group represented in the dialogue. Thus dialogue sessions provide opportunities for sharing grievances and articulating the suffering of each community. And dialogue becomes more transformational when those who have sinned against the other repent and seek forgiveness from the aggrieved party.

But meaningful religious dialogue must go beyond encounter sessions. The justice issues that lie behind conflict must be central to dialogue. Dialogue that contributes to peace must confront the political issues that divide the communities. Dialogue between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims and Christians must address the hurt and anger that each side feels toward the other and the political oppression and vicious attacks that each sees the other inflicting on it. Rarely is conflict between two religious groups simply a matter of theological difference or religious misunderstanding. Politics and power and military aggression are usually deeply intertwined with religious difference.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, has stated, ?Nothing has proved harder in civilization than seeing God or good or dignity in those unlike ourselves. There are surely many ways of arriving at that generosity of spirit, and each faith may need to find its own way. I propose that the truth at the heart of monotheism is that God is greater than religion, that God is only partially comprehended by any one faith?.What would such a faith be like? It would be like being secure in my own home and yet moved by the beauty of a foreign place knowing that while it is not my home, it is still part of the glory of the world that is ours. It would be knowing that we are sentences in the story of our people but that there are other stories, each written by God out of the letters of lives bound together in community. Those who are confident of their faith are not threatened but enlarged by the different faiths of others. In the midst of our multiple insecurities, we need now the confidence to recognize the irreducible, glorious dignity of difference.? 

At no point in the recent past has the stage been set as it is today for what could be a disastrous clash of civilizations. And yet at no point in the recent past has there been a more urgent need and a more propitious opportunity for faith groups to engage each other in meaningful dialogue to promote reconciliation and joint efforts to address the justice issues that allow evil to gain the upper hand.

Originally published on the USIP site and reprinted in The American Muslim with permission.