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Who is winning in the “Clash of Civilizations”?

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Five years after the events of September 11th, the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia held a hearing yesterday entitled “Is there a Clash of Civilizations? Islam, Democracy and Central Asia Policy.” The hearing plays on Samuel Huntington’s fateful doctrine. Rather than using the hearing to debate the existence of a cultural clash between the Muslim and non-Muslim World, the subcommittee used the time to prove that such a clash does in fact exist.

The idea of a fundamental “clash,” combined with violent images in the Middle East, has worked rhetorical wonders in alarming and confusing us into believing that ‘they” hate “us” because of our freedom, liberty, and democracy. Such language that treats differences between the Muslim and non-Muslim world as an epic battle plays right into the hands of those like Osama bin Laden, who have built their followings on a similar worldview.

The hearing proved that the battle for “hearts and minds” has as much to do with language as it does specific policies. While Osama bin Laden argues that Muslims around the world are under threat of eradication from Western countries and must fight for their survival, the Chair of the House Subcommittee, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) writes that we are facing an enemy determined to “destroy Western Civilization and the principles upon which it is based.” Other panelists, representing such “diverse” institutions as The Washington Times and the Hudson Institute highlighted evidence to prove there is an irresolvable clash, including polling data showing that the U.S. is viewed unfavorably throughout much of the Muslim World. Arguments by ideologues on both sides of the conflict paint “the other” as extremist for political gain, using language of “fear” to gain new recruits.

There clearly is evidence of a real threat from those willing to engage in violence. Yet arguing that there is a fundamental “clash” between the United States and the Muslim World suggests that the tensions are natural and irresolvable—not largely political—and rests on a number of false presumptions.

The argument presumes that there are basic Islamic principles that fundamentally oppose Western Civilization as we know it today. The argument also suggests that an extremist interpretation of Islam—one that uses the religion to justify acts of violence—is practiced and embraced by the majority of Muslims throughout the world. Finally, it ignores examples of Muslim communities living in harmony in the West.

More comprehensive analysis suggests that there is more to the story than a simple and fundamental “clash.” Historians of Islam point out that there is little opposition between the basic principles within Islam and life within Western countries. American-Muslim advocates repeatedly emphasize that when Western leaders and media use terms like “jihadist” and Islamic Fascism, they bolster the Islamic legitimacy of terrorists. This elevates the voice of extremists and drowns out those who oppose using the religion for violent ends. Such language may help garner support for “national security” policies like the post-9/11 “Special Registration” program for Muslim immigrant men between 18 and 40 years old that ultimately yielded zero terrorists, but does little to help us in the struggle to understand and end terrorists’ acts of violence.

These presumptions also assume that the majority of Muslims are opposed to anything associated with the West and practice an extremist version of Islam. Yet a new Gallup World Study coordinated by Islamic scholar and Georgetown University professor John L. Esposito surveying much of the Middle East and Muslim World, yielded different results. The majority of respondents labeled themselves as “moderates.” They expressed an unfavorable opinion of the United States, but this did not translate to unfavorable opinions to all Western countries, such as those in Europe. This suggests that their unfavorable opinion has more to do with the United States’ policies than Western civilizations as a whole.

Self-labeled “moderates” and “extremists,” when asked what they admired most about the West, had the top three identical responses: technology; the West’s value system of hard work, self-responsibility, rule of law, and cooperation; and its fair political systems, democracy, respect for human rights, freedom of speech, and gender equality. Although the majority clearly deplores the U.S.’s imposition of democracy in Muslim countries, a significantly higher percentage of extremists over moderates (50 versus 35 percent) believe that “moving towards greater governmental democracy” will foster progress in the Arab/Muslim world. This suggests less a “clash” of civilization and more of a deep opposition to the U.S.’s unilateralism in the Middle East.

The suggestion that there is a fundamental “clash” between Islam and the West overlooks the significant number of Muslims who now call Western countries, like the United States, home. American-Muslim communities continue to embrace both their Western and Muslim identities—destabilizing the assumption that these are mutually exclusive. Moreover, advocacy organizations like the Muslim Public Affairs Council have worked tirelessly with authorities to counter extremism within religious institutions and prevent another terrorist attack perpetrated by self-identified Muslim terrorists.

Yesterday’s Hearing largely overlooked the complexity of both the Muslim World and the West. However, Democratic committee member, Rep. Ackerman (D-NY) and Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, did take the time to note that using generalizations and a language of a fundamental “clash” to shore up support for ineffective counter-terrorism policies will not win the struggle against terrorists or decrease the number of recruits for Osama bin Laden.

We must remember to be purposeful in our use of language and our counter-terrorism strategy in order to delegitimate those who use religious doctrine to justify their irreverent acts.

Almas Sayeed is an Economic Policy Analyst and member of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress.

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