Muslim Diasporas Can Play a Positive Role in Challenging the “Clash of Civilizations”

Tariq Modood
Director, University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship, University of Bristol.

Posted Aug 25, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Just as the rhetoric associated with Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ was dying down, at least in public, the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, has reasserted the view that the underlying problem for the West is not terrorism or even Islamic fundamentalism, but Islam as a rival and inferior civilization. In contrast, it has been genuinely encouraging that most Western leaders and commentators have publicly stated that the ‘war on terrorism’ is not a war on Muslims. We need, however, to go further and question whether the adjectives ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arab’ are appropriate in the common expressions ‘Islamic/Arab terrorists’. When a fifth of contemporary humanity accepts the terms ‘Islamic’ and ‘Muslim’ as self-descriptions, to use the terms to characterize a limited number of lethal organizations is highly dangerous. Anything that frames the current crisis as war between rival portions of humanity is an act of gross escalation. We have to be careful to cast neither our friends nor our enemies in ethnic, religious or racial terms.

A ‘clash of civilizations’ poses a danger of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy at a time when we are all trying to make sense of an atrocity on such a large scale. The idea of Islam as separate from a Judeo-Christian West is as false as it is influential. Islam, with its faith in the revelations of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, belongs to the same tradition as Christianity and Judaism. It is, in its monotheism, legalism, and communitarianism, not to mention specific rules of life, such as dietary prohibitions, particularly close to Judaism - and in the Crusades of Christendom and at other times, Jews were slaughtered by Christians and their secular descendants and protected by Muslims.

The Jews remember Muslim Spain as a ‘Golden Age.’ Islam, indeed, was a civilization, a superpower, and a genuine geopolitical rival to the West. Traditions were borrowed and learned from each other, whether in relation to scholarship, philosophy and scientific enquiry, or medicine, architecture and technology. The classical learning from Athens and Rome, which was all but lost to Christendom was preserved by the Arabs and came to Europe - like the institution of the university - from Muslims. That Europe came to define its civilization as a renaissance of Greece and Rome and excised the Arab contribution to its foundations and well-being is an example of racist myth-making that has much relevance to today.

If in the Middle Ages, the civilizational current was mainly one way - from Muslims to Christians, in later periods the debt has been paid back. Yet this later epoch of West-Islam relations has been marked not by geopolitics of civilizational superpowers but by a triumphant West.

In terms of power, Muslim civilization collapsed under Western dominance and colonialism and it is a moot point whether it has since been revived or suitably adjusted itself to Western modernity. This collapse led to power relations of domination and powerlessness - a context in which Muslim populations suffer depredations, occupations, ethnic cleansing, and massacres with little action by the civilized world or the international community. And American power and military hardware are often the sources of the destruction and terror, in Afghanistan as in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the creation of Israel as an atonement for the Holocaust and more generally for the historical persecution of the Jews by Europeans, with ongoing Israeli military expansion, has resulted in continuing and deepening injustice against Palestinians and others. Yet there has been no intervention by any international alliance for justice, because, it is widely perceived, of American policy within the region.

My point is not that the attack on Manhattan and the Pentagon is directly linked to Palestine (at the moment, nobody knows), let alone that the violence in one place in any way justifies the other. The point is that our shock and outrage at the murder of the innocents in America must not obscure a wider analysis and a wider sense of humanity.
The murder and terror of civilians as policy does not begin with the acts of 11 September. If we attend to the news carefully, we will be reminded that they occur regularly in a number of places in the world. When some of these have been perpetrated or supported by the West, there emerges a deep sense of double standards. This is a source of grievance, hate and terrorism is perhaps the most important lesson of 11 September, not the division of the world into rival civilizations, civilized and uncivilized, good and evil. This perception has to be addressed seriously if there is to be dialogue across countries, faiths, and cultures, and our foreign and security policies need to reviewed in the light of the new understanding. Our security in the West, no less than that of any other part of the world, depends upon being tough on the causes of terrorism, as well as the terror itself.

The issues reach beyond foreign policy. Over the weekend of 15-16 September, a Muslim storekeeper in Dallas and a Sikh storekeeper (no doubt presumed to be a Muslim on account of his brown skin, turban, and beard) in Arizona City were shot dead in what the police believe may have been racist murders. Groups such as Muslims in the West - encompassing many racial ethnicities - are clearly vulnerable to scapegoating and ‘revenge’ attacks. Their presence in the West, in the present atmosphere, may come to be seen, even by themselves, as alien.

If it is true that what we need today is greater understanding of the dispossessed and the powerless (especially when they seem culturally alien and when they mobilize around their group identities) then their diasporas in the West can also be a critical source of dialogue, understanding, and bridge-building, facilitating communication and understanding in these potentially destabilizing times.

Bridge-building here does not simply mean asking moderate Muslims to join and support the new project against terrorism. It is being asked why there are so few non-repressive governments in Muslims societies - Muslims must be at the forefront, asking these questions and helping to create constructive responses. But we must also ask where are the moderate western governments when moderate Muslims call for international protection and justice in Palestine, Bosnia, Chechnya, and Kashmir or for the easing of sanctions against Iraq. US policy in relation to the Muslim world and many other parts of the world has been far from moderate. Now that a terrible tragedy has happened on American, the US is asking moderate Muslims to get on side. The fundamental question, however, is whether the US recognizes the need to radically review and change its attitude to Muslims.

?? Tariq Modood, MBE is Professor of Sociology, Politics and Public Policy and Director of the University Research Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship at the University of Bristol.

A longer version of this article is published as ‘Within and Between Islam and the West’ in the journal, Global Dialogue (August, 2002).  This shorter version appeared in the Sunday September 30, 2001 edition of The Observer,1442,576697,00.html  This is reprinted with permission of the author.