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Clash of Civilizations?

Junaid Ahmad
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004
    The fashionable idea amongst some Western “experts” of Islam has been that there is an inherent tendency in Western civilization and Islamic civilization to remain on a permanent collision course. Deriving its Islamophobic venom from such establishment apologists as Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis, this particular worldview gained renewed legitimacy after September 11. The fact that it was Muslims who carried out this attack is taken to be a validation of the “clash of civilizations” thesis. Junaid Ahmad from the Center for Progressive Islam begs to differ.

What underlies much of the discourse on “Islam and the West” is a belief that there are some essential “cultural” characteristics of the two civilizations which are radically at odds with each other. What, in this view, prevents the Muslim world from improving its lot along the lines of the advanced Western industrial nations is the intrinsic anti-democratic, anti-rational, anti-freedom, and misogynist impulses of Islam itself, and therefore of the peoples of this region.

What the Western “experts” conveniently omit from their analyses is any attribution of guilt to the political machinations and economic robbery of the Western powers, at least since the 18th century, when Muslim-ruled India and Egypt began to face their direct wrath and violence. The way that these two centers of Muslim culture and power, in addition to the lands of the Ottoman Empire, were besieged by the West and the subsequent dramatic regression in their socio-economic conditions has been thoroughly documented.

The political experiments of democracy and popular sovereignty were also brutally repressed by Western colonial or semi-colonial rule with interventions in the Muslim countries of Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Any discussion of Islam and the West that does not deal with this history remains flawed and incomplete. Furthermore, any discussion that fails to identify the West’s culpability in perpetuating neo-colonialism and authoritarianism in many countries in the Muslim world (and, of course, much beyond) throughout the 20th century up till today becomes one that is willful and deceitful.

Chris Harman, in his brilliant essay The Prophet and the Proletariat, documents that the, “oil wealth of the Arabian peninsula is in the hands of Western multinationals, which share some of it with a narrow stratum of local rulers while the mass of the population live in poverty. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank still dictate economic programs to countries such as Egypt and Algeria, much as Lord Cromer did when he ran Egypt for its British and French debtors in the 1880s.” One could add to this the continuing US occupation of Iraq and the crucial US support that undemocratic and authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan rely upon to stay in power.

In many ways, Western intellectual commissars’ rhetoric of the incompatibility of Islam with modernity finds its echo in the ravings of Muslim reactionaries and extremists of the Bin Laden type. However, the crucial difference is that whereas the latter groups employ their anti-Western tirades as part of some form of resistance, albeit one that is confused and is unlikely to achieve anything in response to instances of real oppression, the former use their anti-Islamic vitriol in the unashamed service of imperial violence and domination.

Bad Muslims

In its attempt to shore up more support for its imperial crusades, the US government today is pursuing a strategy of clearly demarcating the line between the “good Muslims” and the “bad Muslims.” Since 9/11, Muslims in the United States in particular have been found guilty of being “bad Muslims” until proven innocent by being a “good Muslim.” To gain the credentials of being a “good Muslim,” they are asked not only to publicly reject terrorism, a vague category in which any and all acts of resistance are lumped, but are also required to go the extra mile in providing their uncritical support for the American state.

The US is arduously searching for Muslims who will do its propaganda work in order to earn a spot in the category of “good Muslims.” Washington is looking for Muslims who will sugarcoat American policies in Iraq and Palestine and who will ignore the economics of imperial domination and praise corporate-led globalization. In short, these Muslims are asked to paint a virtuous and benevolent picture of the United States, despite the fact that its actions point to the contrary.

Yoginder Sikand, an analyst of South Asian Islam, describes in his article, “‘Civic, Democratic Islam’: America’s Desperate Search for the ‘Liberal’ Muslim,” the hypocrisy of a United States which has supported the most extreme and fanatical Muslims in the world to counter the growing popularity of secular nationalist and progressive forces, but now is devising a myriad strategies to create an America-friendly, moderate Islam:

    “Today, America’s policy on Islamic movements has turned full circle. In order to counter the radical fringe of Islamism that it had so fervently courted till recently, America is desperately scouting around for ‘liberal’ Muslim allies who can sell an alternate vision and version of Islam that fits into the American scheme of things. This explains the sudden flurry of conferences and publications on ‘liberal Islam’ and the setting up of NGOs in Muslim countries with liberal American financial assistance. The underlying aim of these diverse activities appears to be the same: to promote an understanding of Islam that cheerfully accepts American hegemony, camouflaged as global modernity, as normative and, indeed, ‘normal’. This goal, is, of course, not stated openly. Rather, it is generally clothed in the garb of high-sounding slogans such as ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘liberalism’, and ‘pluralism’.”

Bloodiest month

The US “War on Terror” continues to rely on the unquestioned support of various regimes in the Muslim world. However, these regimes are not rendering this service cost-free. American allies such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have experienced a tremendous upsurge in terrorist acts. In Pakistan, this past May was perhaps the bloodiest of months, with one terrorist attack after another leading to dozens of deaths and hundreds wounded.

In Saudi Arabia, the monarchy has been faced with a growing underground movement that has been attacking Westerners in the country, and presumably has widespread support amongst the population. The notion that Bush’s “War on Terror” has reduced the threat of terror is markedly false, unless we disregard the terror that takes the lives of people outside of the United States. The priority is not to fight and reduce the threat of terrorism; it is the same-old priority of maintaining and enlarging the US elite’s wealth and power by repressing the populations and controlling the resources of the world.

In this climate of imperial domination imposed on the Muslim world, the United States still has the audacity to inform us that it is “paving the way for democracy in the Middle East” by building a “new Iraq.” How this will happen while continuing its occupation and control of that country, despite the utterly meaningless “transfer of sovereignty,” is totally befuddling. M. Shahid Alam, Professor at Northeastern University, provides a concise response to the claim of Western intellectuals that the Muslim world has a “democracy deficit” in his article, “Is There an Islamic Problem”: “The ‘resistance to democracy’ in the Arab world even today does not come from their population. Quite the opposite. It comes from neo-colonial surrogates – brutal military dictatorships and absolutist monarchies – imposed by a United States determined to safeguard oil and Israel.”

At present, when the US has openly declared its strategy of “permanent war” and “full spectrum dominance,” those who propagate the notion of a “clash of civilizations” do so in the service of an aggressive state machinery in need of an excuse for its wars for profit and exploitation. The world of Islam is as diverse as is that of the West, with a multitude of contending forces struggling for differing political and economic interests. The social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein, in my opinion, has correctly stated that the fundamental “clash” of today is not between Islam and the West, but between “those who seek to establish or reestablish a hierarchical world order in which some are privileged and most others not and those who wish to construct a maximally democratic and egalitarian order.”

For the creation of a world wherein justice, freedom, and individual and collective human rights are genuinely upheld and respected, traditions of resistance to injustice and concentrated power from both the Muslim and Western worlds can go a long way in helping us get there.

Junaid S. Ahmad is with the Center for Progressive Islam, Cape Town, South Africa, and is currently studying medicine in Pakistan. He can be reached at: [email protected]