Accessibility links

Islam and the West - How Wide is the Gap?

The publication of Samuel Huntington's book, The Clash of Civilizations, launched an intense debate over relations between Islam and the West. Are they destined to clash, as Mr. Huntington and his admirers suggest? Or is a peaceful resolution more likely? VOA's Ed Warner reports on some views of the two contending civilizations.

"The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic Fundamentalism, but Islam" writes Samuel Huntington, author of The Clash of Civilizations.

"Everyone who supports America against Islam is an infidel" comments Sheik Hamoud al-Shuaibi, a leading cleric of Saudi Arabia.

These are the voices of clashing civilizations, but how much, in fact, do they clash? Even Mr. Huntington does not expect an imminent duel between the West and Islam. What he offers is food for thought, and it has gone down very well in a period of considerable tension between the west and Islam following the September 11 attack on America.

While President Bush has emphasized the United States is not at war with Islam and attacks on Muslims in America have not been widespread, there is some concern and fear about Islamic intentions.

Every sweeping generalization contains a kernel of truth, says Leon Hadar, a foreign policy analyst for Washington's Cato Institute and a frequent writer on Western-Muslim issues.

At the moment, he says, in the wake of the attack on America, there are signs of one civilization drawing together perhaps in opposition to another. What Mr. Hadar calls a 'northern alliance' has formed among the United States, Europe and Russia to combat terrorism emanating from Muslim countries.

But then think back, he suggests. A short time ago, the United States, Europe and Muslims were allied against Serbia and Russia in the Balkans. Was this also a clash of civilizations, however brief?

Mr. Hadar says more than civilization or culture is involved in such clashes. "In international relations, when there is war, when there is tension, ethnic and religious identity do become more visible, more important," he says. "Certainly, politicians use them to mobilize support for their causes. But the most important factors remain political and economic and based on power considerations."

Western civilization says it seeks peace and security. Fair enough, says Mr. Hadar. The only reply to terrorism is to eliminate it.

But he believes Western nations are also status quo powers that resist any challenge to things as they are. "That is not so much cultural or religious or civilizational," Mr. Hadar says. "It is mostly based on the fact that those players tend to be content with the current economic and political status quo, and other players, including perhaps China, India and some of the Muslims countries in the long run may challenge it."

In turn, says Mr. Hadar, other Muslim nations like Turkey, Malaysia and even Iran may choose to join the west for their own political reasons, and these remain paramount.

Don't make more of these conflicts than you have to, advises Muqtedar Khan, professor of political science at Adrian College in the state of Michigan, where many Muslims live. "Every time there is a crisis in the Middle East that is oil related or land related, we immediately focus on religious issues and start studying Islam," he says. "And all of a sudden all of the books written on Islam are on the best-selling lists in America. And that tends to make even crass, unholy conflicts gain a civilizational dimension."

Islam and the West have been so entwined over the centuries, says Professor Khan, that a struggle between them does not make much sense, especially given today's demographics. "The issue is no more Islam and the west, but Islam in the West. If in 10-15 years, we have 25 million Muslims in America, how is America going to look? Will America be part of the Muslim world?" he asks. "I remember I was writing a paper in which I first said, 'the Muslim world from Morocco to Malaysia.' And then I scratched it out and wrote, 'the Muslim world from Michigan to Malaysia.'"

Professor Khan notes there are more Muslims in the United States than in many Muslim countries, and Christianity is the second largest religion in the Muslim world.

Islam and the West may not be clashing, says Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East Studies at Columbia University, but many people think they are, and that is bad enough.

A particular target of Western perception are so-called Islamists, that is, those who are guided by Islam in politics. "I think there is a serious campaign in some circles in the United States to portray all Islamists as bad Islamists and even basically terrorists," Professor Gerges says. "And this particular segment has been highly powerful and highly vocal in its criticism of any kind of attempt to build bridges to the Muslim world and to engage moderate Islamists."

The campaign against Islamists appears to extend beyond the United States. British Historian Paul Johnson says Muslim states are so out of control that the West must re-occupy them in a revival of colonialism.

Columnist Justin Raimondo writes that a school of thought has arisen that considers Islam basically evil. And some former cold warriors, still lusting for battle, have discovered a new enemy to replace communism. Recalling yet another enemy, they have coined the phrase: "Islamo-fascism."

But it is a profound mistake to link armed militants with mainstream Islamists, says Professor Gerges. "The dominant, most powerful position in the Muslim world today are the mainstream Islamists, and it seems to me it is quite highly dangerous and quite highly suicidal to basically drive the mainstream Islamist movements into the same box as the radical fringe," he says.

This is all the more damaging, says Muqtedar Khan, because Muslims are fighting along side Americans in the war on terrorism. It could not be fought without them. Mr. Khan notes further military cooperation. "If NATO is the military front of the West, then there are 100 million Muslims in NATO. There are 50 million Muslims in Turkey, about 35-40 million in the rest of the NATO countries. So you cannot really says this is Islam versus the West," says Professor Khan.

What passes for the clash of civilizations may actually boil down to policy differences, says Professor Gerges. Muslims the world over object to certain U.S. policies, mainly what they consider the unconditional U.S. support of Israel in its conflict with Palestinians and the sanctions on Iraq that hurt the people, but not Saddam Hussein. "The Palestinian issue is one of the most fundamental political identity issues in Arab politics today," he says. "If you remove this festering wound in Arab-American relations, you are removing almost 85 percent of the negative perceptions between the Arab world and the United States and the larger Western world as well."

Professor Gerges concedes some Muslim extremists would still hate the United States and want to attack it, but their recruitment pool would drastically shrink.

He says it is in America's power to reduce this perceived clash of civilizations. "Is the American foreign policy establishment willing to pay the political cost at home by trying to address and tackle this question decisively and in a very fair and just manner?" he asks. "It seems to be at the end of the day when this particular crisis is over, American foreign policy will have to take into account the deepening sentiment in the Arab and the Muslim world on this particular issue."

Whatever the cost, says Professor Gerges, it is a small price to pay for bringing closer two basically compatible civilizations.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001