Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1997
Volume 8, Number 2

Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations

John Calvert
Assistant Professor of History

Islam elicits fear and fascination in the collective imagination of the West. It evokes images of veiled and secluded women, holy warriors of the faith, amputated limbs, and the ostentatious wealth of the Gulf "oil shaykhs."

Long-standing perceptions of the Islamic Orient as being "other" than the West have been reinvigorated in recent years by explosive events associated with the contemporary resurgence of Islamism, otherwise known as Islamic fundamentalism. The kidnappings of westerners in Beirut, attacks on western tourists in Egypt and Turkey, and the rise of Palestinian Islamist groups resisting Israeli occupation have all amplified the notion, strong since the time of the Crusades, of an "Islamic threat" to western civilization.

Unfortunately, American policy intellectuals have done little to question the validity of this assumption, and the reasons are not difficult to fathom. The collapse of the Soviet Union as a policy touchstone created a "threat vacuum" which geostrategists were quick to fill with Islamism. In part, the notion of a new "Green Peril," as opposed to the old "Red Menace," was fuelled by events like the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center which appeared to have brought the wrath of the Islamic fundamentalists to the shores of the "Great Satan." But undergirding this alarmism was a U.S. domestic concern to maintain the institutions and military spending that were features of the Cold War era. A 1993 statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff is indicative of the Pentagon's focus on a uniform and undifferentiated Islamist threat in the "Arch of Crisis:"

    "In the Middle East and Southwest Asia radical political Islam and a politically and militarily resurgent Iran threaten regional stability and directly challenge a number of U.S. interests, including access to Gulf oil, political reform, democratic development and settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute."

The fusion of cultural stereotyping and contemporary geostrategy has recently been spelled out by Samuel Huntington whose ideas on the subject of Islam have found wide currency among the East Coast policy community. According to Huntington, Islam (together with the Confucian East) has locked horns with the West in a "clash of civilizations." The stakes are and involve nothing less than the survival of western democracy. It is easy to see why Israeli leaders and the heads of many authoritarian Arab governments are quick to endorse the "clash of civilizations" thesis, for it almost effortlessly delegitimizes the Islamist voices of opposition which currently challenge their policies and/or right to govern.

Conceptually and empirically it is difficult to sustain the idea of a monolithic Islamist "comintern" ranged against the West and its regional allies. For one thing, it promotes a concept of fixed civilizational blocks, each captive to its own reified cultural identity, and ignores the wealth of scholarship detailing the many interconnections which have existed historically among Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the lands of the circum-Mediterranean. Additionally, such a concept cannot make sense of the important alliances which have existed between the U.S. and regional Muslim players such as the Saudis, the Afghan Mujahidin, and the Islamic government of Pakistan. As an analytical tool, the concept of civilization is incapable of adequately explaining the motivations which prompt some Muslims to join movements like the Society of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, the FIS (Front Islamique du Salut) in Algeria, and Amal and Hizb Allah in Lebanon.

In discussing political Islamism we must move beyond the conventional wisdom to examine the local circumstances and historical specificities of individual movements. Studies following this lead suggest that Islamism is less a reflexive response to all things western than a diversely articulated reaction to the failure of the postcolonial states in the Middle East to develop their societies and thereby engender prosperity. Almost uniformly, these states are controlled by small cliques of insiders--Tikriti clansmen in Iraq, Alawites in Syria, party syncophants in Egypt, and entrenched ruling families in the Arabian peninsula--which are widely perceived by their citizenries to be corrupt, self-serving, and politically exclusive. The coercive methods employed by many of these states are seen flatly to contradict basic human rights norms. The economic and social failures of these regimes have delegitimized the various secular, nationalist, socialist, and conservative Islamic political projects to which they have been wed, thus creating an ideological void of which the Islamists have been quick to take advantage. If the Islamists are anti-western, it is due to the long history of western meddling in the Middle East and the financial and military support given by the U.S. to Israel and repressive Arab regimes such as the one currently governing Egypt.

Islamists look to the full implementation of the Shariah law, drawn from the Qur'an and the normative example of the Prophet Muhammad, as the key to the creation of just and progressive Muslim societies free of government corruption, immorality (widely believed by the Islamists to have a western source), and social elitism. In the Islamist perspective, submission to God's higher authority is the only true path to the liberation of man from servitude to man.

If the Islamists generally agree on their ultimate goal, they divide on the question of how to achieve it. A small, vociferous minority among the Islamists favor immediate, violent action. In the style of European social revolutionaries, the cadres of small cult-like groups belonging to groups like Salvation From Hell, Islamic Jihad, and the Armed Islamic Group, believe that surgical strikes aimed at key personnel and institutions within the government constitute the most effective means for bringing about the desired change. It is these radical Islamists who have attained notoriety in the western media.

Far more influential, yet less well known in the West, are moderate Islamist social movement organizations like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Moderate Islamists believe that Islamic education, communal empowerment, and the gradual conversion of hearts and minds are the best way to construct a godly society. Eschewing violence, the chosen weapons of the moderates are the clinics, co-ops, schools, legal-aid societies, and professional associations which they have founded and through which they propagate their message to the general population. In countries where they have been allowed to contest elections, such as Jordan, the Islamists also use the ballot box as a way to make their voices heard. These moderate Islamist organizations, with their masses of university educated, middle class members and supporters, should be attracting our attention for they represent a practical alternative to the existing ruling powers.

One would be justified in questioning the utopian nature and authoritarian character of many Islamist discourses. The treatment of women and minorities in Iran and the Sudan, two states in which the Shariah is to a large degree applied, does not inspire confidence in the ability of Islamism to protect basic rights. Yet there are indications that Islamists, like thinkers and activists working within the Judeo-Christain tradition, are capable of considerable ideological flexibility. Many contemporary Islamist ideologues (Rashid al-Ghannushi of Tunisia's al-Nahda is a good example) evince in their writings a sincere desire to promote the values of political participation and pluralism which they believe have an Islamic provenance, thus maintaining the Islamist requirement for cultural authenticity. Building upon the Qur'anic principle of shura (consultation), they rescue Islamism from charges of despotism by stating the necessity of rulers to consult with the representatives of the people on points of Shariah legislation and to govern on the basis of community consensus.

The arguments put forward by Ghannushi and like-minded writers are complex and deserve more explication than is possible here. They are also not without problems. For instance, in many cases the specific nature and degree of popular participation are only vaguely stated. Nevertheless, these writers represent a trend in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world which points to a distinctively Islamic path to a pluralist democratic society. It is convenient for the West and its friends in the region to dismiss "Islamist liberalism" and to lump its thinkers and activists uncritically with the Islamic fundamentalists known to us from the front pages of our newspapers. The more challenging, but perhaps more fruitful, option would be for the U.S. to encourage governments like Egypt's to engage the Islamist moderates in constructive dialogue and to even allow them a place in the political process. Such a strategy has the potential not only to placate the moderate Islamist opposition, and thus curtail the threat of political revolution, but of also encouraging the development of democratic institutions in countries well-known for their suppression of political opposition and neglect of human rights. The oft-quoted warning that Islamists, moderate or radical, cannot be trusted to play by democratic rules must be seriously considered. But it should not be used as an excuse to further the political fortunes of the one-party states.

The last word goes to John Esposito, Director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding: "We must learn from our past, when fear of a monolithic Soviet threat often blinded us to the diversity of Communism; led to uncritical support for anti-Communist dictatorships; and enabled the "Free World" to tolerate the suppression of legitimate dissent and massive human rights violations by governments that labeled their opponents Communists or socialists."