Islam and the West:
Clash of Symbols, not Civilizations
by Abdul Aziz Said

In conflict situations, people under stress react by reducing their own beliefs to a small, workable subset in order to fight and protect themselves, assuming a form of fundamentalism which overemphasizes symbolic meanings or gestures, implicitly closing off the ability to hear and communicate with others. A 'clash of symbols' is being waged between Islam and the West: Westerners are finding headscarves, turbans and other symbols of Islamic religious expression repellent, as fundamentalist Muslims have seen in blue jeans and other manifestations of Western culture explicit anti-Islamic statements. Belief systems are becoming simplified into images to be either rejected or absorbed in their entirety.

Islam is not the enemy of the West. American media has often tended to portray the Islamic world (and various groups within it) solely through the prism of extremism and terrorism -- so often, indeed, that some of those who attempt to debunk the notion of an "Islamic threat" inadvertently perpetuate the simplistic "good (or secular, moderate, pro-Western) Muslim"/ "bad (or militant) Muslim" dichotomy. Instead of taking seriously the criticisms of Western attitudes toward the Middle East by Arab and Muslim scholars, many Western writers prefer to depict Arabs as backward, incapable of change, whose culture is the embodiment of all that Western progress has left behind. Even the governments of many Muslim countries play into this dichotomy, particularly when soliciting economic or military support from the United States. The dichotomy fails to do justice to the complex reality of Islamic society and undermines American interests in the Middle East and the Islamic world.

The shared cultural roots joining Islam with the West are forgotten far too often. Although recently voiced (and frequently ill-conceived) opinions regarding a 'clash of civilizations' posit that Islam falls outside the Judeo-Christian and Hellenic cultural continuum. The reverse is in fact the case. Classical Islamic civilization was constructed out of Arab, Biblicist and Hellenic cultures, but cast a wider net by integrating Persian, Central Asia, as well as Indian components within its cultural synthesis. Historically, Islam is the true bridge between the West and East.

The West is not the enemy of Islam. While the West may suffer from a sense of cultural triumphalism, it is a civilization whose hard-won achievements are not only compatible with Muslim values but which can broadly support and strengthen the Islamic community. The Western regard for individualism and political freedom, and its commitment to political accountability and democratic pluralism characterize some of the best of what the West offers the world. Muslims must not be so insecure as to believe that they can only reflect or reject the West. Arab and Muslim elites who adopt Western culture wholesale, without a critical or discerning eye, have only perpetuated a fear of an inappropriate and monolithic cultural onslaught among religious Muslims.

Moving beyond reactionary attitudes and positions at the level of symbols requires that both the West and Islam know one another. The US government has recently made commendable efforts to address the recent acts of intolerance confronting Arabs and Muslims in America. Yet the xenophobia directed against Arabs is embedded in a larger pattern of willed cultural ignorance compounded by chronic fear-mongering through the media. Ironically, Islam itself provides useful insights on overcoming self-negating and exclusionary outlooks through its focus on and regard for unity within cultural diversity.

While the West may not have understood Islam, Muslims have also failed to grasp the strengths or the spirit of the West. Where are the Muslim 'Lawrence of Arabias' who seek to discover and know the Western Christian worldview? Why has there been so little research among Muslim scholars on the Christian perspective of the Western experience, or the encyclicals of the Catholic Church, or the Christian struggle to balance the religious with the political? Much may be gained in insight from the historical experiences of Christianity for Muslims at this time, as it emerged at a time of profound oppression, injustice and occupation. How did this path of worship cope with such circumstances and move beyond them?

Most important for both communities at this time is the need for active engagement to move beyond reactionary impulses triggered by symbols. Persisting at the level is to endure a psychopathic condition, relying on symbols to generate meaning, divorced from the sources or context that originally inspired their meaning. The terrorists who struck at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon similarly confused form for substance: the United States is not a series of buildings that can be brought down, these are only external forms that do not necessarily damage the spirit that built them. Active engagement through sustained dialogue can help us to discover the common humanity concealed by form and obscured by fear and insecurity.

The West need not recoil from Islamic symbols as they do not represent anti-Western, anti-secular, 'irrational' extremism. The West is secure enough to uncover the extent to which a deeper conflicts have been clothed in religious rhetoric, in order to defuse the mobilization potential of manipulated imagery and address the material, root causes of conflict. Instead, the US can improve its image among Muslims and pursue policies more compatible with American long-term interests by demonstrating that it is interested in entering into dialogue with Islam, and that it does not view Islam as a "threat".

Genuine curiosity about the Western experience and reflection on the sources of Western strength would allow Muslims to draw on the best of what the West has to offer without forfeiting the true meaning or spirit of their beliefs. There is a great need in the Muslim world to deliberately integrate the person, the citizen and the Muslim. This involves a search for truth within Islamic traditions and contexts that begins at the level of the individual. Christianity has emerged with a close linking of personal behavior with citizenship and social values, while Muslims today are on the threshold of discovering the responsibilities and deeper meaning of Muslim citizenship.

Retreating from the challenges of active engagement only serves to strengthen the position of fundamentalists of both communities. Retreat is one of two faces of fundamentalism, which is a pathology of culture that arises when a group takes a subset of basic tenets of a tradition, and either under pressure of insecurity (as in the case of today's Muslims), or in the pursuit of hegemony or total security (in the case of the West), uses them either to seal off others, or to maintain dominance. A retreat to a cultural ghetto by any group, be it Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or Hindu, is not only a denial of the rich diversity of the modern cultural experience, but also a rejection of responsibility for future generations.

Historically, both the West and Islam have relied overmuch on the self-evident testimonies of their beliefs and accomplishments over genuine interpersonal or inter-civilizational dialogue and bridge-building. A new and mutually rewarding relationship has the potential to emerge between Islam and the West, where accumulated wisdom and insights must be shared to avoid stagnation and for progress to be achieved. Such a relationship would be premised not on ideas of cultural superiority, but on mutual respect and openness to cultural eclecticism. Muslims and Westerners can learn from each other and cooperate in the pursuit of humane values. The West and Islam are not destined to meet as rivals. The West can give Islam the best that it has in exchange for the best of Islam.


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