First Published: 2007-06-14

 
Clash of civilizations; a dangerous idea
 

In his book, Akbar Ahmed's implies that civilisations are not only compatible but can learn a great deal from one another. An end to the clash of civilisations? No. But it is amazing how much easier it is to find your way out of the darkness when candles begin to light up, says Eboo Patel.

 

Middle East Online

Chicago - The first assignment I give the graduate students in my class at Chicago Theological Seminary is Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations. I figure it is only fair for them to do a thorough reading of perhaps the most prevalent theory of our times.

And then I spend the rest of the semester trying to dig out of that hole.

It's not that my students – most of them bright, progressive, hopeful people of faith – want to believe that there is a clash of civilisations. It is that Huntington has created a framework that facts seem to fit in.

And as our media continues to provide a microphone and a stage for religious totalitarians, the Huntington thesis that civilisations are inherently at odds with each other acquires the force of inevitability, which makes it the single most dangerous idea of our time.

So I am continually looking for resources that are as wide-ranging as Huntington's book - that pull together history, politics, religious scholarship and personal narrative into a coherent framework which can counter the force of inevitability with the power of possibility.

I have found one such resource in Akbar Ahmed's important new book, Journey Into Islam.

Professor Ahmed's personal range is remarkable. He is a devoted Muslim who was trained as an anthropologist at the University of London, served as Pakistan's ambassador to the United Kingdom, lived for extended periods of time on three continents, and seems comfortable in situations that range from tribal rituals to state dinners. He brings every inch of his access, erudition and aplomb to this book.

He also brings a deep and nuanced understanding of Islam, something shockingly absent from most of the current books on Muslims in the modern world. For Ahmed, Islam is not just a handful of sacred verses or a particular political movement, but a broad tradition inspired by a religious ethos that includes poetry, philosophy, prayer, politics and every other aspect of human life. This breadth of understanding is distilled into a fascinating three-part typology of Muslim leadership – the mystical, the modernist and the fundamentalist. Each of these archetypes is rooted within the tradition and has had various incarnations throughout Muslim history.

Choosing the rickshaw over the armchair, Ahmed sets off for an extended journey through the Muslim world to find out how these archetypes are playing out in reality. He gives us conversations with students at fundamentalist Muslim schools, meetings with powerful political leaders like President Musharraf of Pakistan and interactions with Muslim intellectual giants like Bosnia's Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric. He unpacks how the Muslim world views America's post-9/11 actions. And he brings an anthropologist's eyes to the journey – for example, pointing out how Muslim women on a flight back to the Middle East employ the restroom on the plane to change from their European skirts and blouses to the robes and headscarves required by their lives in the Arab world.

Ahmed is not afraid to ask tough questions. Where were the American politicians who knew enough of both American history and Muslim civilisation and took the long-view in rebuilding that relationship? Where were the Muslim leaders who could adapt the Islamic models of mystical and modernist leadership to the present times to challenge the fundamentalist path?

But ultimately, this is a book of hope. First and foremost, Ahmed has hope in all the traditions that he is a part of – Islam and the West, South Asia and America. He suggests that each return to its own first principles – democracy and equal rights for America, knowledge and balance for Islam – implying that, at bottom, these civilisations are not only compatible but can learn a great deal from one another.

And Ahmed provides a way forward in the form of a man named Aijaz, a powerful Muslim hardliner and author of books calling on Muslims to wage violent war against the West. Ahmed introduces us to Aijaz at the beginning of the book, and portrays him as an intransigent example of fundamentalist Islam.

But Aijaz listens carefully when Ahmed and his students visit his school. He begins to accept the message that real Christians and Jews are far more complex than the stereotypical images fundamentalist Muslim preachers insist on. He is drawn to the idea that Islam and America are not inevitably in conflict, that he can play a part in bridging the divide, and in fact there are many dimensions in the Muslim tradition that call him to do so.

Aijaz changes. He begins to give different speeches, write different books, even leaves his position at the fundamentalist Muslim school.

An end to the clash of civilisations? No. But it is amazing how much easier it is to find your way out of the darkness when candles begin to light up.

"On Faith" panellist Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of Interfaith Youth Core and the author of Acts of Faith. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service and can be accessed at GCNews. It originally appeared in newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/

 

US-Israeli ties sink to new depths over Gaza war

Fierce clashes kill at least 38 people in Benghazi

UN warns buying oil from terrorists could lead to sanctions

Warning of Tripoli catastrophe after huge oil depot blaze

Iran flogs 5 people for eating in public during Ramadan

Air Algerie crash black boxes sent to France

US, UN call for immediate Gaza ceasefire

Egypt army kills 14 jihadists in restive Sinai Peninsula

Calls for temporary Gaza ceasefire fall on deaf ears

Yemen army foils new Qaeda attempt to seize military posts

Investigators need ‘few days’ to probe cause of Algeria plane crash

Tunisia army suffers more losses in open war with terrorism

Jihadists advance amid escalation in Syria anti-regime offensive

Iraq Shiite militia takes bloody revenge against ‘Islamic State’ in Baquba

Israel resumes devastating military assault on Gaza

Thousands face famine as food security situation worsens in Somalia

Death toll in Gaza climbs as fragile ceasefire reveals destruction

Egypt summons Turkey charge d'affaires for second time in one week

‘Islamic State’ jihadists dynamite Shiite shrine in Mosul

US evacuates embassy staff in Libya over ‘real risk’

Investigators begin 'difficult' probe into Air Algerie plane disaster

Armed men snatch Head of Baghdad Provincial Council

‘Islamic State’ beheads Syrian soldiers in Raqa

Kerry in Paris for talks on long-term Gaza truce

Hezbollah chief speaks out on Gaza

Two rival Islamic states in Syria power struggle

Crete protest against Syria chemicals destruction in Mediterranean

74 killed in IS assault on Syria regime territory

Iran confirms arrest of Washington Post correspondent

Somali 'Shebab commanders' killed in AU offensive

Paris: survivors of Air Algerie jet crash 'unlikely'

Jordan shots down drone near Syria border

Gaza civilian toll spiralling to above 800

UN urges Europe to tackle Mediterranean migrant crisis

From Israel with ‘virus’: Death threat letter reaches Palestinian mission in France

Ordeal of ‘apostasy’ woman ends with departure from Sudan

Another bloody day as Israel targets civilians in UN-run school

‘Islamic State’ launches multiple attacks on Syria army

Attack on Egypt army post bears fingerprints of foreign intelligence

Harassment of Christians escalates in Islamist-run Sudan

Air Algerie plane goes missing over Mali

Algeria plane with many French nationals on board vanishes over Mali

Iraqi protesters denounce treatment of minority Christians

Iraq elects Kurdish politician as federal president

Russia begins supplying military equipment to Iraq