Friday, March 11, 2011

Islam is Not a Civilization, Ramachandra- Faiths in Conflict?

image This post is a summary of chapter 1 “Islam and new religious wars?” in Faiths in Conflict?: Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World (IVP Academic, 2000).  Ramachandra, who works with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), writes dry and intellectually, but he has a very interesting argument, especially since this was written pre-9/11.  Here I will only try to summarize his argument and let you post your comments below.

From the Preface of the book:

In chapter 1 [Islam and new religious wars?], I discuss the “Islamic resurgence” of recent decades and the alleged threat it poses to the West.  One of the most competent exponents of the view that “Islam” and the “West” are mutually hostile and irreconcilable is Samuel Huntington [The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order], a politics professor at Harvard University and adviser on the international relations to the US governments.  In the post-Cold War world, Huntington argues, religious or civilizational clashes have replaced wars fought for economic or strategic reasons.  This chapter combines a critique of Huntington with an examination of the West’s perception of Islam and the misleading rhetoric of Islamist movements.  It also explores how dangerous stereotypes are generated in both Western and Islamic societies.  It concludes with some challenging question for Muslims and Christians alike.   

Ramachandra begins by agreeing that Huntington’s main thesis is simple, clear, and seemingly self-evident.  “In the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among peoples are not ideological, political, or economic.  They are cultural… The most pervasive, important and dangerous conflicts will not be between social classes, rich and poor, or other economically defined groups, but between peoples belonging to different cultural entities” (13).

Huntington defines six major contemporary civilizations: Western, Sinic [Chinese], Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, and Orthodox.  According to Huntington, the coming conflict between the West and Islam will be because Islam is obsessed with the inferiority of its power and and that the West believes in the universality of Western culture; Islamic intolerance will clash with Western arrogance.  For Huntington, the solution is that civilizations should not interfere in conflicts based in other civilizations and an international order based on civilizations is a safeguard against world war.  Ramachandra believes Huntington’s analysis is “seriously flawed” and an “unreliable guide for understanding the world in which we live” (15).  Ramachandra argues against viewing Islam in a civilizational category.

After the fall of Communism, the West is seeking new demons.  Islam now fits that bill and is seen as a threat against the West.  Correspondingly, predominantly Muslim countries portray any Western involvement in their affairs as an affront against Islam.  Both sides have utilized anti-imperialist slogans and demonization, and engaged in a process of “mutual satanization” (19).  However, the dangerous rhetoric of stereotyping the “other” in broad strokes is not a recent phenomena.

Both Islamists and and their critics refer to Islam as a specific, timeless, social and political programme.  But Islam is far from a monolithic, unchanging reality.  In the post-colonial world, nationalist or Islamist movements from Morocco to India to Indonesia have appealed to Islam to legitimate their polices and gain popular support.  “These groups are responding to specific, historical problems, often of a social and political nature, not engaging in some universal crusade against other peoples” (17). 

In order to understand the nature of these movements, it’s not necessary to examine the Qur’an, but instead to look at problems facing the populations of these peoples.  Islam is often times posed by Islamists as being under threat.  This language is “part of the rhetorical baggage of political struggle, employed by both those who wish to remain in power and those who aspire to attain power” (19).  Most Muslims are not supporters of Islamist movements!  The myth of the “Islam in danger” slogan is propagated by those who wish to maintain or gain control of the community.

Another misperception of Islam as a civilization is the myth of Islamic unity.  “Within twenty-five years of the death of Muhammad, Muslim believers were killing each other on the field of battle” (21).  A cursory look at Islamic history confirms that Islam has always been segregated, as does the animosity between Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran today.  In the Gulf war, one Islamic state attacked another Islamic state.  Even Muslim communities in the West which appear homogeneous to outsiders are fragmented around ethnic, linguistic, and political groupings.

Today, what passes for “Islamic legal code” is far from unified and always reflects the local context.  Numerous conflicting examples of shari’a law abound, all ambiguously based on the Qur’an and sunnah.  “If we want to know why most Muslims hold the views they do about sexuality, economics, democracy and the like, it is not ‘Islam’ alone that can explain it” (25).  The difficulty of establishing democracy in many parts of the Muslim world is due, not to the inherent nature of Islam, but to “low levels of development, entrenched traditions of state control, political cultures that inhibit diversity and tolerance, the absence of a tradition of private property, and the lack of separation of state and law” (26).

The way “Islam” is defined by those defending their power or by those in conflict with them is a mirror-image of the way the “West” is defined by Muslims.  “It is a prominent feature of Muslim writings, both serious and popular: the West is depicted as a monolithic entity, irredeemably materialist, immoral and decadent, and characterized by aggressiveness, expansionism and intolerance towards Islam and Muslims” (34).  It is this reductionist approach to complex cultures and peoples that creates the appearance of unbridgeable differences today.

Huntington’s overall flaw is that he claims that the reason for the increase in religious rhetoric as justification for political action on both sides is evidence that differences in culture or religion are what precipitate international conflicts. Thus, Huntington’s argument of the “clash of the incompatible civilizations” is a self-fulfilling prophecy; the more we believe it, the more it will come true (37).  In fact, numerous examples can be cited where the West has explicitly worked with Muslims when their goals were aligned (i.e. American CIA support of the Mujahidin in Afghanistan or Saudi and Israeli support of the Gulf war, to name just two).

Ramachandra offers four suggestions for living with integrity in a multicultural world. First, we should try to avoid using religious categories such as ‘Muslim’, ‘Christian’, ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Hindu’ to describe an ethnic or cultural group. Second, whatever religious traditions we belong to and whatever religious convictions we hold, we should apply the same standards to political phenomena in other societies that we apply to our own. The KKK doesn’t speak for American Christians in the same way Muslims don’t want Osama Bin Laden speaking for them as a Muslim.  Thirdly, Muslims themselves need to champion religious freedoms.  It is hypocritical for Muslim citizens in the West to enjoy religious freedom when minority citizens in their home countries are denied those very same rights.  Finally, we must take seriously the challenge to explore faiths and cultures of other people, especially those who live in our own neighborhood- this goes for both Muslims and Christians.


Ellen Appleby Keim said...

Peter King should read this article. Good points. As a former Christian converted to Islam I appreciate the even-handedness of the argument. Thank you.

Quixotic Iconoclast said...

Certainly we should not view Islam as a monolithic culture. It contains a huge variety of regional and ethnic groups. Neither is Western culture monolithic. Islam does bring with it a system of law, religious culture, and even language, so it is not unfair to speak of "Islamic culture" as long as we can appreciate the rich diversity of it.