Are civilizations clashing?

clash1Political events in the Muslim world have taken a decidedly extremist turn. As we've said repeatedly on this site, those in the Western world must understand the Islamic world if a Clash of Civilizations is to be avoided. Some would say this is inevitable, but I would prefer the optimistic viewpoint and hold that this clash is avoidable. Paul Marshall, a friend of the blog and senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, summarizes the out-of-control cartoon situation in this Weekly Standard article.

This thoughtful and well-researched piece of journalism in The Economist goes a great length in explaining current events -- the political rise of Hamas in Palestine, Iran's extremist government and ongoing nuclear research, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the American occupation in Iraq and Islamic-rooted terrorism around the world -- as well as the roots of these events.

I apologize that I am linking to a pay site but this article was too good for me to ignore. Here's a key section:

For all these reasons, outside observers might be forgiven for thinking that political Islam, in various violent forms, was on the march against the West. In fact, the Islamist movement, though it may look monolithic from afar, is highly quarrelsome and diverse, and in many ways its internal divisions are deepening.

By no means everybody in the Muslim world rejoiced at the Hamas victory. It was disturbing in at least two different quarters. One was the corridors of power in Arab states, such as Jordan and Egypt, where the Brotherhood is already a powerful grass-roots movement and is steadily gaining confidence. In Egypt's partially-free elections last November, the Brotherhood did far better than expected; and in Jordan, where the Brothers have long been treated as an innocuous vent for letting off anti-Israel and anti-western steam, the movement is demanding a higher profile.

Even more dismayed by the Hamas victory, it seems, are the al-Qaeda terrorist network and its sympathisers. They were already furious with Hamas for compromising with secular liberal ideas by taking part in multi-party elections, and the fact that Hamas has played the democratic game rather successfully will only increase their dismay.

Here lies a paradox. The two best known forms of political Islam (broadly speaking, al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood) have common ideological origins. Both have their roots in the anti-secular opposition in Egypt, a conservative reading of Sunni Islam and the wealth and religious zeal of the Saudis. But they differ hugely over politics and tactics.

Based on information presented in this article, it appears to me that the Bush administration vastly misjudged Muslim reaction to an invasion of Iraq. Muslims may not have liked the corrupt, evil, secular Saddam Hussein government, but he was certainly better than an American-imposed governmental system and an occupation that Muslims see as the source of the conflict between Muslims in that country.

clash3Religion matters to these people in ways that we Americans (even Red Staters) have trouble understanding. While the United States has a 200-plus-year tradition of separation of church and state, Muslims know nothing of the sort and their extremists are not shy in resorting to violence:

Observing the ideological fights between al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood, and the physical fights between Sunnis and Shias, some American strategists might ask themselves: since they all oppose us and our allies, shouldn't we take comfort from the fact that they hate each other too?

In reality, things don't work that way. However little the arcana of Sunni or Shia theology are understood in Peoria or even in Washington, DC, the hard fact is that the American occupation of Iraq has made it appear, to many people in the Middle East, that America is now the main arbiter in the balance of power between the different components of the Islamic world. To put it another way, people who were already inclined to see almost every development in the Islamic world as America's work will be harder to dissuade.

Despite the darkening clouds in America's relationship with Iran, many Sunni Muslims are convinced that the Bush administration is subverting their faith by favouring the Shia cause in Iraq and hence promoting Iranian influence. In the slums of eastern Amman, for example, people hardly knew what Shia Islam was until recently. Now the word has spread that neighbouring Iraq is about to get a Shia-dominated government -- and, moreover, that it is all America's fault.

Nor can America escape this opprobrium by tilting its Iraqi policy a few degrees in a more pro-Sunni direction. Anything that seems to favour the Sunnis can also be interpreted as giving heart to the Saudi establishment, royal or clerical. And that in turn will be seen as a boost to Saudi efforts to spread various forms of Sunni fundamentalism all over the world.

The contrasts between different varieties of Islam, and Islamism, are not trivial -- either in their teachings or the behaviour they inspire. The western world needs to know about them, if only to know which outcomes and shifts of policy are conceivable, and which are not. But woe betide any western strategist who thinks the problems of the Muslim world can be addressed by a policy of "divide and rule". The most likely result of that is that western countries will be blamed for divisions that have already existed, in one form or another, since the founding of Islam.

clash2These conflicts go back dozens of centuries, as the article adeptly explains, and without a proper understanding it would be foolhardy for a government to consider intervening.

The same goes for journalists and media organizations. I fully support the freedom of the press, especially in the reprinting of cartoons in support of free speech, but did the originators of this controversy have any idea what they were getting themselves into?

As Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, the Washington bureau chief of the German newsweekly Die Zeit, stated in Tuesday's Washington Post, most Western news organizations would not have printed those offensive cartoons on a normal day, but once they became news, they were fair game by any journalist's standard and when freedom is threatened by violence, the natural and proper reaction of the free is to flex that freedom.

The conflict between two civilizations is well underway. With careful diplomacy and an educated public we may walk away from the brink of what nobody really wants in this world.

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