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The supposed clash of civilisations is really about higher book sales

By Paul White - posted Wednesday, 1 October 2003

The Muslim suicide-bombers are coming. Or are they? Edward Said, the Palestinian thinker who died recently, spent his life exposing the West's failure to engage constructively with the East. As a Palestinian who was also Western-educated, Said was able to view the West's failure with exceptional clarity and objectivity.

Said showed how distorted stereotypes such as "militant Islam" - which the United States especially uses to justify its periodic wars in the developing world - have convinced millions that the countries that use them are hostile to their way of life.

Last week also, Indonesia's President, Megawati Soekarnoputri, and the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, warned us of the costs of this failure. Blundering into countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq with all guns blazing to impose "democracy" has achieved nothing good.


Meanwhile, the root causes of conflict in troubled countries remains untouched. A US Jewish scholar, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, comments in Interfaith Dialogue and Peacebuilding that religion is only the excuse for conflict - never its real cause. Conflict is rooted in inequality and injustice. Said would have agreed.

Other commentators pose as our saviours from vicious "extremists". While speaking the language of moderation and reason, such commentators are at pains to insist that they have no objection to decent, "moderate" Muslims. Or so it appears on the surface. It can be argued that the targetting of "militant Islam" continues the West's anti-Islamic traditions.

The first problem with "militant Islam" is that this concept - like "military intelligence" - is an oxymoron. Terrorism is the indiscriminate use of violence against innocent people for the purpose of furthering political goals. The word Islam means "peace". Islam is not a vengeful creed, but promotes "the mutual teaching of truth and constant patience". Any reasonable examination of Islam's message shows that Islam and terrorism are incompatible.

What are Muslims bound to believe about terrorism by their religion? The Koran stipulates that the murder of a single person is equivalent to that person slaying all humanity, whereas if "anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people". In other words, irrespective of whether Osama bin Laden or any other Muslim claims to be acting in accordance with their religion, they are violating its most basic principles if they engage in terrorism.

What is the anti-Muslim brigade up to? Said claimed these commentators were determined to "make sure that the "[Islamic] threat" is kept before our eyes, the better to excoriate Islam for terror, despotism and violence, while assuring themselves profitable consultancies, frequent TV appearances and book contracts".

Samuel P. Huntington's Clash of Civilizations is the lodestar of the anti-Muslim brigade. He argues: "The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilisation whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power."


Huntington's text attracted much attention when it first appeared as an essay in 1993 and then as a book three years later. The horrific events of September 11, 2001, catapulted it into prominence as the alleged "explanation" as to why Islam is supposedly hostile to all other world views. Huntington attempts to convince us that Islam in some form is responsible for bin Laden and other terrorists who hijack their religion. His arguments have been used to support the arguments of US policymakers as the justification for wars against Afghanistan and Iraq, and for threatening wars against Iran and Saudi Arabia. These arguments have been popularised by Australian politicians and sections of the media with similar agendas.

Yet we in the West should admit that our attitudes to Islam and Arabs are neither blameless nor particularly noble. This legacy can be traced to the Middle Ages, and the perceived threat to Western economic and political interests posed by the dynamic Islamic civilisation of the time. The West never got over losing to the Muslims in the Crusades.

Said argued that the foundations of our understanding of Islam, and the Middle East in general, were tainted - motivated by racism, colonial interests and antipathy.

Huntington warns the West to prepare for a time when the "civilisations" will face off, the non-West against the West. A new world war is most likely to take place between "civilisations", probably between the "Islamic" and "Western" ones.

For Huntington, the Islamic world comprises the most fractious and unstable of the so-called "civilisations". Muslim critics of Huntington see his theory as an exercise to defend Western interests. They point out that he is too ready to portray the non-Western nations as belligerent while ignoring the West's record of aggression and domination.

Islam cannot be the cause of global terrorism if the supposed practitioners of "militant Islam" are acting contrary to both the letter and spirit of that religion. Western commentators should ponder the fascinating and life-enhancing values and practices of Islam which contribute to peace and which are shared in all of the great religions.

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This article was first published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 29 September, 2003.

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About the Author

Dr Paul White is a scholar of Middle East politics and Islam who works for the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, which is a member of National Forum.

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