Debunking the ʹclash of civilisationsʹ myth

Cultural discourse is littered with narratives that build on a number of false dichotomies, the most enduring being the exclusivity of East and West. The clash of civilisations, the superiority of one over the other, is an entrenched myth that not even globalisation and communications technology have managed to shatter. By Muhammed Nafih Wafy

By Muhammed Nafih Wafy

In his seminal work "Islam between East and West", Alija Ali Izetbegovic did a brilliant job of exploring the bipolarity of Islam, defining Islam as a synthesis of civilisation and culture, of manʹs animalistic and ethical urges, of body and soul, of the real and the sublime – and of the intellectual and scientific West and the artistic and religious East.

However, written in the early 1980s when the world was ideologically and militarily bisected into the capitalist and socialist camps, his analyses were not prescient enough to foresee the political plate tectonics that would happen in just ten yearsʹ time, marking the "triumph" of capitalism and liberal democracy over its detractors.

We saw the divisions Izetbegovic spoke of at great length dissipate when capitalism and liberal democracy prevailed over its "ideological inferiors", pushing back the Cold War frontiers of East and West. Francis Fukuyama, who argued that the global spread of liberal democracies, not to mention Western free market capitalism and lifestyle, might signal the end point of humanity's sociocultural evolution and become the final form of human government, was lauded as the philosopher who captured the spirit of the time.

Then there were the ideologues who harped on about Islam replacing communism as the arch-rival of liberalism, capitalism, democracy and whatever the West stands for. Indeed, instead of the polarity between the West and the East that Izetbegovic dealt with extensively in his book, it was to be the age-old polarity between Islam and the West that would rear its head in the first decade of the 21st century.

Symbolic image of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (source: picture alliance/Godong)
Ignoring the common ground: "differences built on false pretexts have contributed to the myth that Islam belongs to the East while Judeo-Christian traditions belong to the West. This, despite the fact that both Christianity and Judaism, like Islam, originated in the Middle East," writes Wafy

Samuel P. Huntington, touted as the messiah of this new kind of conflict centred on cultural identity, had predicted that deep-seated ideological and cultural differences would dominate the politics and international relations of the 21st century. While seeking to find in Islam the ʹotherʹ of whatever the West stands for, including its freedom, democracy, liberalism, religious tolerance, scientific spirit etc., the Huntington-inspired neo-liberal thinkers reinvented the old myths and fallacies, dating back to the Crusades. George Bush spelt it out explicitly in one of his speeches in the build-up to the war on terror.  

The clash of civilisations myth

In a broader historical perspective, the relationship between the East and the West or, more precisely, the so-called Islamic world and the Euro-American civilisation, is often overshadowed by the narrative of cultural wars and an endless clash of ideologies. But is this polarised existence or mutual antagonism something irredeemably intrinsic to the nature of the two civilisations, meaning they are destined to remain on an irrevocable collision path? Or is it born out of some historical blunders that had nothing to do with religion or culture per se, but everything to do with the political, economic, territorial ambitions of those wielding the reins of power at certain historical junctures? Have the fissures created merely become irreconcilably deepened, allowing the wounds to fester for several centuries?Beginning with the Crusades and continuing through the colonialism and expansion of empires to todayʹs ideological conflicts and propaganda wars, there have been plenty of reasons for the Islamic world and the West to remain at loggerheads with each other. Wars of invasion by erstwhile dynasties and colonial powers, imperial expansions (from both sides) for economic resources and political dominance have resulted in aggressive military confrontations, breeding mutual hatred, while cementing a deeply entrenched cultural and ideological divide.

But even though Judaism, Christianity and Islam share a degree of common ground, the differences built on such false pretexts have contributed to the myth that Islam belongs to the East while Judeo-Christian traditions belong to the West. This, despite the fact that both Christianity and Judaism, like Islam, originated in the East, or the Middle East to be exact; and that notwithstanding its origin in the Middle East, Islam as a religion or way of life has never shown the characteristic trait of any geography. Islamic geographic fluidity, cultural flexibility and political dynamism can be seen from the diversity with which that religion has been viewed, lived and experienced in different countries and geographies where it established itself as a civilisation.

The narratives of cultural war have focussed on exploring and protecting cultural exclusivity and deepening mutual disbelief, neglecting the opportunities to find out and build on the commonalities and shared values that could potentially unite. Far more has been invested, politically, culturally, economically as well as intellectually, in inflating mutual suspicion to the dizzying heights of antagonism, hatred and warmongering than in concentrating on what unites Islam and Christianity, to say nothing of the common ground shared by Islamic values and the spirit of scientific enquiry and humanism that has prospered in the West over the last five centuries.

This antagonism has been sustained and this myth gradually historicised over a period of decades by a great staple of colonial and post-colonial literature, theories and counter-theories. The myth has become firmly established, condemning to oblivion the historical fact that West and East have complemented each other in the creation of their cultures and civilisations. Even the fresh air of globalisation and modern technology, despite its immense potential to bring the world together, has failed to contain this miasma of mutual suspicion.

Harmony and symbiosis

However, beyond this distorted and convoluted narrative of confrontations and mutual antagonism, there existed and continues to exist, a vast and largely untapped area of mutual co-operation, cultural harmony and symbiosis connecting Islam and Western civilisation as a whole.

Oman-based journalist Mohammed Nafih Wafy (photo: private)
Transcending polarity: "it is high time the world moved away from the confrontational and divisive utopian theories of one ideology or civilisation dominating the other. The future is about exploring the commonalities and living with the differences, instead of deepening the divide," concludes Wafy

Civilisation is not something that was indigenously produced in the Arab world, in isolation from other geographies. Many of the celebrated Islamic thinkers and philosophers of the Middle Ages, when Islamic civilisation is believed to have reached its apogee, were non-Arabs and some of them were influenced by the ancient Greek philosophers. Being neither of the East nor West, this metaphorical ʹestuaryʹ point, a confluence of all the tributaries, served as a fountainhead from which thinkers such as Roger Bacon derived their inspiration for the Renaissance.

The definition of Islam as a civilisation, or as a way of life which is neither of the East nor of the West, cannot be restricted to the exclusivity of any Muslim culture that existed in the past, exists in the present, or shall exist in the future. Time after time, the Koran defines the prophetic mission of Muhammad as an endorsement and continuation of, rather than a break with, all the previous prophets and civilisations.

The Koran maintains that what was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad is meant to endorse and complement, rather than negate or contradict what his predecessors preached. The good relations and mutual co-existence between Muslims and Christians, Jews and other religious minorities who lived during the Middle Ages in much of the Islamic world testify to this.

Seeking the best in humanity

As Muslims are defined by the Koran as the "potentially best human society", Islamic civilisation cannot content itself with anything lesser in quality or mediocre in spirit. Islamic civilisation is therefore by nature something that is still evolving – with geographic fluidity, cultural flexibility and political dynamism – and is thus compatible with any advanced form of civilisation.

It is high time the world moved away from the confrontational and divisive utopian theories of one ideology or civilisation dominating the other. The future is about exploring the commonalities and living with the differences, instead of deepening the divide.

Both the messianic zeal of Muslim extremists, who seek to convert the whole world to their hardcore version of faith sealed with watertight practices, and the hubris of the neo-cons regarding the invincibility, superiority, universality and the eventual triumph of Western ideals over all cultures and civilisations have done a great disservice to fostering intercultural and inter-civilisational peace and harmony in the world.

Muhammed Nafih Wafy

© 2018

Muhammed Nafih is a journalist and writer currently based in Muscat, Oman. He is the author of "The book of aphorisms: Being a translation of Kitab al-Hikam".