Clash or Dialogue: Reality and perception

by Jason Erb and Noha Bakr
After 9/11, Americans showed a renewed interest in Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations." In it Huntington argues that future wars will be fought not on ideological or even interest-based lines, but due to cultural and 'civilizational' differences and affinities.

To look at the rhetoric of militant extremist groups like al-Qai'da is to wonder if Huntington and his supporters might be right. There are many examples of Muslim preachers who teach that there can be no reconciling between the 'world of Islam' and the 'world of unbelief.' Muslim extremists do indeed take verses of the Quran and sayings of Muhammad to justify atrocities against non-Muslims.

There are also less well-known preachers of hate. For example, the United States has its share of 'holy men' who claim that Muslims are evil and that morality has no place in a war against an evil enemy. Christian preachers of hate claim they are in the midst of an apocalyptic and existential war between good and evil, and so violence against non-Christians is a Biblical imperative.

Over the centuries Christians and Muslims have indeed fought each other on numerous fronts. They have also cooperated and coexisted on countless others. We are not facing a clash of civilizations, where religious and ethnic identities determine the fault lines. We are facing a minority clash of fundamentalisms, whose followers exploit anxieties and frustration caused by genuine political conflicts to further their own ideological agendas.

Coexistence and cooperation among civilizations is not just possible, it is by far the historical norm. Historically, large Christian and Jewish communities prospered and were crucial actors in the economic and social life of places like Baghdad, Damascus and Istanbul; Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted for centuries in Bosnia and Spain; Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and animists lived together peacefully in South East Asia, as they generally do now throughout the world; art forms, cuisine, language, music and institutions of one 'civilization' frequently bear the direct influence of another civilization. The degree of modern international trade and commerce shows that, despite conflicts and differences, different people still build cooperative, mutually beneficial and peaceful relations.

Efforts at promoting the benefits that derive from a dialogue of civilizations have long gone beyond the needs of basic survival and material concerns. Prior to 9/11, the United Nations declared the year 2001 to be the year of dialogue among civilizations, and in May 2002 1,350 representatives of over 1,000 civil society organizations from more than 100 countries gathered to build upon a common vision of coexistence.

Even with oft-publicized rants from preachers of hate, interfaith organizations and initiatives regularly bring different people together to discuss ways to help ease the suffering of the underprivileged, build peaceful societies and solve conflict. The World Conference of Religions for Peace, for example, regularly meets to pool the resources and develop the capacity of religious leaders to address these common humanitarian concerns.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks American Christians formed protective cordons around American mosques and some even wore headscarves in solidarity with conservative American Muslim women; Iraqi Muslims condemned extremists who recently attacked Iraqi Christian churches and vow to protect this unique and vital part of their community; and Jewish and Palestinian activists still work together to protect the human rights of all residents of the Holy Land.

Most Americans are aware of Christian and Jewish involvement in nonviolent movements in America. Many, however, would be surprised to learn that Muslims have been active and crucial participants in pluralistic nonviolent civil resistance movements with Buddhists in Thailand, Hindus in India, Blacks in South Africa and other religions in Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa.

There is indeed a growing divide in the world, but it is not a timeless, intractable or divinely inspired conflict. It is a conflict driven by xenophobes based on anxieties and existential fears generated in a rapidly changing world. Proponents of clash theories make sense of their basic alienation by making the 'Other' the focus of all that is wrong with the world. So while there are differences in values, perspective and opinion on many issues, that has not taken away from the existence of common human desires, needs and values of our shared humanity, nor does it mean that current political differences are beyond human capacity to solve.

Dialogue and communication for understanding are among the first steps towards peace and such dialogue efforts are crucial bridges between cultures. When conflict exists, it is easy to dismiss the Christian imperative to 'turn the other cheek,' the Muslim imperative to 'repel evil with good,' or the Jewish imperative to 'love thy neighbor as thyself.' Most people, however, continue to live by these rules and see the value of continuing the dialogue of civilizations.

Dialogue and cooperation occurs despite the differences between peoples and the tug of fear-induced xenophobia or fundamentalism. In this time of growing insecurity, however, we must redouble our efforts to listen to what the other side is in fact saying, to really understand what the other side means. We need to continue building the global civic-fabric of our world to increase opportunities for relationships of trust and dialogue of respect. We need to push new audiences to get to know the Other from the Other, to learn about each other's differences and similarities on a firsthand basis.

Through increased dialogue and understanding we will strengthen and develop ties that allow for open communication. Such dialogue and communication can lessen the chances that our fears will take over and that these perceived differences will result in violence or conflict. This is a wellspring of peace and where our real security rests.

**Jason Erb and Noha Bakr are International Affairs Representatives for Quaker Service-AFSC and are currently based in Amman, Jordan. Quaker Service-AFSC is an international peacebuilding and development organization that seeks to promote reconciliation, sustainable development and non-violence.

Source: This article is part of a series of views on the relationship between the Islamic/Arabic world and the West, published in partnership with the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by the Common Ground News Service - Partners in Humanity.

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

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Why we do not get on - and what to do about it.
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong?
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West
The tension between East and West
Encountering the 'Other'
Is the world moving apart or coming together?
A public peace process
The West and the Arab World: the case of media
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations
Coordinated Action is Needed
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Other articles in this series

Why we do not get on - and what to do about it. by Steven Everts
Why is the legacy of confrontation so strong? by Rami G. Khouri
The lack of understanding between Arabs and the West by Tawfiq Abu Bakr
The tension between East and West by Shafeeq N. Ghabra
Encountering the 'Other' by Meena Sharify-Funk
Is the world moving apart or coming together? by Hazem Saghiyeh
A public peace process by Shamil Idriss
The West and the Arab World: the case of media by Daoud Kuttab
The Problem with the Dialogue of Civilizations by Sarah Eltantawi
Coordinated Action is Needed by Samer Shehata