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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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Is there a clash of civilizations?

The September 11 attacks appeared to dramatically highlight the well-known thesis of a clash of civilizations that was argued by Samuel Huntington in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article and 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Huntington maintained that cultural and religious differences had replaced the ideological conflicts of the Cold War and were emerging as the biggest threat to world peace. In a December 2001 Newsweek piece, he declared that “the Age of Muslim Wars” had officially begun, presaging an intensified battle between Islam and the West.

This theory of global conflict failed to appreciate the significant diversity that exists not only among but also between and within the countries and societies that Huntington grouped under the rubric of a given civilization—whether it is Islamic, Western, or Chinese. In The Clash of Civilizations Huntington posits “the West” as a monolithic formation when he writes: “The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. Department of Defense … It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to extend that culture throughout the world.” This misses the mark. One need not look deeply into the history of great-power conflicts to see that civilizations do not reflect cultural and political unity. World Wars I and II, which pitted Germany against much of Europe and America, are sobering testimonies to the fragility of Western civilization.

So too, within the Muslim world a litany of conflicts dispels any idea of an Islamic civilization organized around a strong central identity: the Iran-Iraq war of 1980–88, the divisions within Muslim countries during the first Gulf War of 1990–91, and conflicts between Sunni-Shii in Iraq and Pakistan represent just a few examples opposing the view of an Islamic civilization organized around any strong central idea. More misleading still was Huntington's portrayal of Islam itself as “a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.” Strictly speaking, there is in fact no civilization that could be called “Islamic”: that term refers more properly and specifically to the religion of Islam, one component among many that shape Muslim culture and politics.

While some used Huntington's rhetoric to legitimize a one-note caricature of Islam, most Muslims do not see the West as monolithic. In fact, anti-American sentiment among Muslim societies is primarily tied to opposition to American foreign policy, not Western religion and culture. In the Gallup World Poll of 2005–7, Muslim respondents expressed very negative views of foreign policies that Tony Blair and George Bush had pursued. Respondents had more positive views of Western powers such as France and Germany that dissented from those policies. For example, while 74 percent of Egyptians had unfavorable views of the United States and 69 percent said the same about Britain, only 21 percent felt unfavorably toward France and 29 percent toward Germany. These policy disagreements become especially sharp when we compare Muslims' perceptions of the United States with their views of its neighbor to the north, Canada—i.e., America without the foreign policy. Sixty-six percent of Kuwaitis in the 2006 survey reported unfavorable views of the United States, while just 3 percent agreed with unfavorable descriptions of Canada.

These attitudes contrast vividly with Huntington's conclusion that “Islam's borders are bloody, and so are its innards,” which explicitly and simplistically attributes bloodshed to the religion of Islam—rather than to the actions of a minority of Muslim terrorists whose primary grievances are political.

After September 11, the image of a clash of civilizations was used to bolster depictions of contending forces in the “war on global terrorism,” routinely described in presidential addresses and editorial pages as a war between the civilized world and terrorists in the Muslim world who “hate” Western democracy, capitalism, and freedom or as an existential struggle against “evil.” In fact, extensive Gallup polling data, almost fifty thousand interviews conducted in more than thirty-five Muslim nations, showed that despite widespread anti-American and anti-British sentiment, Muslims around the world admire many of the Western qualities that analysts such as Huntington imagined they resented: technology, expertise and knowledge, and freedoms and values associated with democratic governments. Among the hopes for the future that respondents cited, economic security was a leading issue—but so was an eagerness “to have better relationships with the West.”

The clash of civilizations theory flattens cultural and historical forces into a caricature distorting the societies and religious traditions. It dangerously oversimplifies the encounter between the West and the Muslim world and can become part of the problem rather than the solution.

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