Unavoidable Clash of Islam and the West?


Jan 23, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in Newsweek Polska on January 23, 2005.

In theory, there is no clash of civilizations, because there are no unalloyed civilizations. Asian and transatlantic societies harbor differences in values, beliefs and habits among and between themselves. The Muslim world is no less varied. Indonesian Muslims scarcely resemble their Saudi co-religionists, despite their attachment to the same scripture. Indonesian and Malaysian political parties are essentially moderate, while Saudi governance is constrained by an ultra-conservative clerical establishment. Women have far greater rights in Turkey and Qatar than in Yemen. Religion in Syria is not a big factor in domestic law and government policy, but is decisive in Sudan. And, on a bigger scale, Shiite and Sunni Muslims in many places even dispute the authenticity of the others' religious commitment.

And as individuals, Muslims differ from one another by nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic status, and occupation and, of course, gender. At the same time, Muslims partake in the same modernity as does the West. They rely on the same technologies, have been seduced by the same ideologies — socialism, nationalism, capitalism — as have Europeans, are as passionate about the same sports and as preoccupied with “making it” as everyone else. Nor has there been a primordial wall between the Muslim world and the rest of the world's cultures. There is a long, intertwined and occasionally tragic history with the West, during which the one world has penetrated the other–deeply. It was the Muslim academy that preserved classical knowledge in the early Middle Ages and pioneered the medical and astronomical sciences. Today, there are 15 million Muslims living in Europe; at current growth rates, Muslims will constitute about one-fifth of the population in parts of western Europe.

On the other side, European scholars and merchants traveled widely in the Muslim world from the Renaissance onward. Muslims colonized the Iberian peninsula, Sicily and the Balkans, while Europeans carried out murderous crusades and more recently imperial adventures — and long occupations — in Muslim North Africa, the Middle East and southeast Asia. All this suggests that the Muslim world is not a monolithic, wholly other “civilization” necessarily doomed to a “clash of civilizations.”

Could this change? Yes. Dangerous currents, among both Muslims and Westerners, threaten to turn academic chatter about a clash of civilizations into a reality. The most hazardous is “umma-itis,” the growing tendency for younger Muslims to believe they are part of an embattled supranational community — the umma — while deriding more local affiliations. This impulse has, in turn, reinforced Western doubts about the willingness of Muslims living in the West to integrate and respect Western values. Each side now instinctively fits emerging events into its increasingly rigid perception of interests. Thus, from a Muslim perspective, the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by a western coalition is not about strategic stability or democracy in Iraq. It's about oppressing the Muslim nation, just as many Muslims believe the Indians are doing in Kashmir, the Russians in Chechnya, or the Israelis in Palestine. On the other side, jihadist violence and extreme rhetoric is seen not as a response to specific conditions, but as a fundamental flaw within Islam.

Let's start with umma-itis. Islam has always been a key to Muslim identity. But Muslims are now increasingly inclined to stress their religious identity over other affiliations, whether citizenship, tribe or class. This globalization of Muslim identity is helping to fuel a revival of a shared interest in which North Africans are more likely to identify with the struggles of Muslims in Central Asia and European Muslims with conflicts in the Middle East. The extent to which this sense of common victimization gains traction, the more likely it is to feed the perception that there are, in reality, two civilizations in conflict. The sense of shared identity and fate among Muslims is coupled with a Muslim perception that the non-Muslim world is equally undifferentiated — and united against Islam.

This is not just an impression. In polling carried out in June 2003, large majorities in eight of nine Muslim survey groups “completely agreed” or “somewhat agreed” with the statement: “I feel more solidarity these days with Islamic people living around the world.” This was the case for 80% or more of respondents in Indonesia and Pakistan, while at least 70% of those surveyed in Lebanon, Nigeria, and Jordan agreed with the assessment. Pluralities in Kuwait, Morocco, and the Palestinian Authority all reported a deepening of solidarity. This dynamic will only be strengthened by the spread of Internet access and satellite television, technologies that creates the interconnectedness and necessary context for individual Muslims to believe in and subscribe to this “imagined community.” The speed with which mobilizing images of violence against Muslims ricochet around the world is accelerating.

There are real issues. The Arab Middle East has disengaged from the world economy, even as its population continues to grow. Regional unemployment, on average, is about 25 per cent and won't improve for years. Populations are burdened by authoritarian, corrupt governments and inefficient, stifling bureaucracies. Muslims are embroiled in violent conflict from Chechnya to Palestine to Kashmir, while Muslim rulers in the region are seen to be doing nothing but enriching themselves. For years, the only place to register dissent was the mosque. Lamentably, this has transformed the expression of secular grievances into religious ones. The splintering of religious authority, in the meantime, has enabled radicals and self-appointed clerics to control the way scripture is applied to modern day problems as both explanation and prescription. The result is a growing Muslim conviction that they are beleaguered because they and their leaders have broken faith with God's law and that their enemies — America and its western allies — are motivated by the same desires that led the Crusaders to invade Palestine 800 years ago. The need for a renewal of Muslim piety and willingness to fight for the dignity of Islam, through jihad if necessary, has emerged unsurprisingly at the top of the agenda.

This spread of this impulse was not entirely spontaneous. Ruling elites in the Persian Gulf, particularly in Saudi Arabia, that are imbued with a confrontational form of Islam and beholden to a conservative clergy for their political support have funded mosques and madrassas from North America to Central Asia, and sent thousands of likeminded teachers and imams to Muslim communities the world over. And the attacks of September 11th served as an awesome symbol of resistance to angry Muslim youths even as the ensuing war on terrorism confirmed popular perceptions of a Western war against Islam.

The sentiments have long incubated in Europe. Muslims in Western Europe are underrepresented in parliaments, have lower incomes and less schooling than indigenous Europeans and other immigrant groups. Earlier generations of economic migrants, grateful for their escape from awful conditions in the Middle East, North Africa or South Asia accepted these conditions, while focusing on ties to the “old country.” Their grandchildren, however, look at their world through a vastly different lens. They are simultaneously assimilated and alienated; embedded in Europe's culture but separate from its society. In search of an identity, they have been offered participation in an imagined, but compelling, transnational community of Muslims, whose fight is their fight. Ironically, this passion has been fueled by the weakening of separate European national identities spurred by European integration. According to pollsters, large numbers of these young people believe they are Muslims first and European citizens only as a matter of administrative necessity rather than cultural allegiance.

Indigenous Europeans, whose values are generally secular, materialistic and rooted in the Enlightenment tradition (of Locke, or Diderot and Voltaire, depending on which side of the English Channel they are on), increasingly feel that Muslim values don't quite mesh with theirs. Where, they ask, is the Muslim celebration of individual liberty, gender equality and free inquiry? The Madrid bombings of 3/11 crystallized these suspicions.

The fact is that the majority of Europe's Muslims were horrified by the attack and prefer assimilation to isolation. Leading thinkers, like Tariq Ramadan, a professor of Islamic studies and philosophy at the University of Fribourg and grandson of the founder of the worldwide Muslim Brotherhood argue eloquently — and convincingly — that the distinctive values of European Muslims should enhance European culture and make Muslims valuable citizens. His advice to European Muslims is to “Know who you are, who you want to be, and start talking and working with whom you are not. Find common values and build with your fellow citizens a society based on diversity and equality. The very moment you understand that there are no contradictions between being a Muslim and being an American or a European, you enrich your society.”

But the atmosphere of mistrust and grievance is thickening. Ramadan has been refused entry into the United States, where he was supposed to have taken a professorship at a prominent university, because of his alleged ties to militants. And Dutch politics have been poisoned by the murder of Theo Van Gogh, a provocative artist, by a Muslim militant. This crime and its aftermath may yet prove to be a bellwether for Europe and relations between Muslims and non-Muslims on a vastly greater scale. Yet it is still within the power of Europeans and Americans — and their Muslim citizens — to foster a dialogue that as Tariq Ramadan hopes, will enrich rather than destroy.

Steven Simon is Senior Analyst at the Rand Corporation — prestigious American think tank — and co-author of the book “The Age of Sacred Terror” which won the Council on Foreign Relation Award. For several years Mr. Simon worked for the Department of State.

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