Sign Up

Queen Noor on Clashing Civilizations

How can dialogue between disparate groups help to achieve global security?

August 14, 2006

How can dialogue between disparate groups help to achieve global security?

To deny a cultural aspect to the differences between the Middle East and America, of course, would be plainly wrong.

To reduce the clash to simplistic formulations is to miss an important opportunity for the kind of deep understanding that would invite the first steps to rapprochement.

As someone with roots in both East and West, who has spent most of her adult life trying to build bridges between Arab and American culture, I have come to phrase the debate differently.

Not as a clash between Islam and Christianity, or between East and West, but between the forces of intolerance and the forces of understanding.

In my work with the United Nations and human rights groups, I have time and again seen that the clashes that impede progress begin with individuals, political blocs and even countries who insist that their way is the only way — who paint the world in black and white.

No one culture has a monopoly on either virtue or intolerance — such qualities are not apportioned geographically, or by religion. Advocates of compassion and peace can be found in all houses of worship.

But a great gulf exists between those who are genuinely willing to listen to and empathize with others and those who are not.

The greatest oppressors are those who feel entitled to impose by force their idea of what is right. The greatest injustices in human history occur when people believe so strongly in their own ideology that they are willing to hurt others in its name.

The ideology can be one of self-preservation and lust for power, as with dictators. It can be paternalistic, viewing the oppression of women, emigrants and the otherwise disenfranchised as "for their own good." Or it can be a so-called defensive policy that targets all dissent as a threat that must be dealt with preemptively.

All of these arguments have been used in one way or another to justify injustice and conflict.

Because faith remains one of the most compelling wellsprings of human action, the justification for anarchy and nihilism is often cloaked in the language of religion.

Today we have seen how the perverted actions of a violent fringe have hijacked the great faith of the prophet Muhammad for its own ends. Yet Islam has no monopoly on radical fundamentalism.

Christianity has carried the banner of "Holy War" — not only at the time of the Crusades, but in recent years, in the bloody execution of "ethnic cleansing" in the Balkans.

Tragically there are also Jewish extremists who are willing to use violence to further their vision of a religious utopia — one of them killed Itzhak Rabin for daring to contemplate peace.

Terrorist threats in America come far more frequently from Aryan rights fanatics spouting twisted Christian dogma than from Arabs or Muslims.

But to single out a religion because it is used as a cover for evil is exactly the kind of black-and-white thinking that gives rein to the abuse in the first place.

To be sure, threats to all three Abrahamic religions, and others as well, are very real. Anti-Semitism is once more on the rise in Europe.

Christians are subject to persecution in countries where they are in the minority, among them China, North Korea, Sudan and Pakistan.

And Muslims feel that their culture and faith are under attack in many places, especially in the current climate of fear and mistrust of Islam in the West in the aftermath of 9/11.

It is convenient for many pundits to describe these affronts as a "clash of civilizations" and promulgate the view that nothing can be changed; that cultural differences are hard-wired; that no amount of dialogue will change the dynamic of conflict; and that geopolitical power politics, bolstered by the threat of force, is the only way to manage these crises.

My approach is quite another. Moderates of all creeds must embrace their shared, universal values and defy those who cloak hatred in religious rhetoric.

We must not let the idea of "a clash of civilization" become a self-fulfilling prophecy, heightening the fears of people who think in black and white.

Unfortunately, news reporting that unfairly emphasizes Muslim violence feeds the human desire for simple explanations and even encourages pernicious conspiracy theories and the naming of scapegoats.

Let us not confuse fundamental with fundamentalist. The test comes when one's principles appear to conflict with the rights and needs of others.

It is one thing to be willing to die for one's beliefs, but quite another to be willing to kill for them.

Extremism also grows from frustration, anger and despair. People who feel they have nothing left to lose can resort to desperate acts.

From long experience, I know that the majority in our region long for freedom and control over their own destinies.

Two and a quarter centuries ago, a group of freedom fighters waged a war for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The people of the Middle East want and deserve no less. For them, as for people everywhere, true security derives from a sense of freedom, hope and opportunity. That security is the ultimate source of peace.

Such security can be achieved, I believe, through three interrelated solutions: education, dialogue and action.

This kind of education for peace and indeed peace itself, is impossible without respectful dialogue based on genuine listening.

Dialogue, rather than a debate that one must win, or an inflexible exchange of entrenched positions, allows the voices of tolerance to be heard above the rhetoric of a "clash." We are not facing a new clash of civilizations.

We are seeing civilization in its age-old struggle against inhumanity. Fanaticism has always bedeviled mankind, but we cannot abandon humankind because of it. Neither can we wrap ourselves in a comforting blanket of dogma, to keep us from facing the hard questions.

Through education, communication and action, those who believe in tolerance, compassion and the rights of others can join forces to reinforce the global community of shared benefits, responsibilities and values.

It has been said that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide people into two types and those who don't.

This aphorism has more than a grain of truth. It is so much easier to divide the world into us versus them than to praise the richness of its diversity. But it is in the glory of diversity that true dialogue among civilizations is forged.

Adapted from “After Terror” by Akbar Ahmed and Brian Forst © 2005 Polity Books. With permission from the publisher Polity Books.