20 February 2006

Why the “Clash of Civilizations” is the wrong way to approach the cartoon controversy.

By S. Brent Plate

Journalistic coverage of the global protests over a few cartoon drawings of Muhammad has revealed at least one of the difficulties with the so-called “clash of civilizations.” The problem is precisely the monotonous repetition of the phrase “clash of civilizations” by prominent journalists in prominent venues from CNN to Time to The New York Times. The term was coined by historian Bernard Lewis in 1957, then later picked up and made famous by Samuel Huntington, and whosebook of that title has been disseminated throughout U.S. political structures for the last decade. The “us vs. them” mentality evoked by such a phrase is fraught with ignorance, mostly stemming from lack of historical knowledge among journalists and politicians who should know better. Even if Lewis wrote from his own political slant, he was a careful historian and revealed a complex history between Islamic and Christian cultures in modern Europe.

First of all, in utilizing such a grandiose phrase as “clash of civilizations,” we (journalists and the rest of us) must remind ourselves of the rather small-scale nature of this current clash. As Juan Cole notes, the protests have, by and large, been limited. In general terms, the Muslim world numbers as much as 20% of the world’s population, so if major protests were to somehow be widespread among the Muslim population, every one of us would know about it — not through CNN, but by hearing screams and gunshots in our own backyards. I write this in Fort Worth, Texas, a place not typically thought of in relation to Islam, yet within a couple miles of here there are a half-dozen mosques, regularly attended by Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, Indonesia, and by U.S. Latinos and African-Americans. It is only a minority of Muslims who are of the Arabic race. Muslims, now and for much of history, are not the antithesis to the West, they are the West.

That Islam is, and has been for some time, part of social life in the “West” is not merely the case for Fort Worth, Texas, New York City, or North America as a whole, but for Europe as well. Berlin, Bradford, and the borders of Paris, are filled with Muslims. Millions of Muslims live across the European continent, and millions more in the Americas. To pit “Europe” against “Islam,” as the reporting has done over and over, is to radically misunderstand one’s own backyard. In fact, Europe has seldom been against Islam — save a number of strategic national consensus-building moments in the last four or five centuries of modern history — nor has Islam been against Europe. Islam has rather been part and parcel of Europe, as an increasing number of scholars have been demonstrating in their academic studies over the past two decades.

The late George Makdisi, who was professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, argued persuasively in several places that the modern Western university system grew out of the great centers of learning from the Islamic world in places like al-Azhar University in Cairo (see The Rise of Colleges: Institutions of Learning in Islam and the West and The Rise of Humanism in Classical Islam and the Christian West). Meanwhile, Nabil Matar, of Florida Institute of Technology, has written a number of works (including, Turks, Moors, and Englishmen in the Age of Discovery, and In the Lands of the Christians) that show the continual interactions between Christians and Muslims in Europe throughout the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries. And María Rosa Menocal, Professor of Spanish and Director of the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale, outlines in The Ornament of the World “How Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain,” as her subtitle suggests. Not only did these three groups achieve some tolerance, but they seem to have sat down together at certain points and translated each other’s great intellectual works of theology, philosophy, science, and the arts.

None of these contemporary scholars offers a rose-colored view of the past, and each is clear that many conflicts have occurred between Christians, Muslims, and Jews across the last two millennia in Europe and the Mediterranean. However, the point that each makes, from differing perspectives, is that these seemingly separate civilizations have been dependent upon and exerted strong influence over each other for over a thousand years. In summarizing several of these recent works that make nonsense of the “clash of civilizations” view, William Dalrymple states in a review essay in The New York Review of Books: “throughout history, Muslims and Christians have traded, studied, negotiated, and loved across the porous frontiers of religious differences. Probe relations between the two civilizations at any period of history, and you find that the neat civilizational blocks imagined by writers such as Bernard Lewis or Samuel Huntington soon dissolve.”

The Protestant Reformation, for instance, would have been impossible without the technologies for papermaking and printing, both developed in China centuries before their European development and brought to Europe via the vast reaches of the Islamic empire that once stretched from the edges of China to North Africa and southern Europe. The Enlightenment relied on instruments such as the telescope, microscope, and navigational devices, which all had their roots in technological developments particularly from the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad (750-1200s). And the classical Greco-Roman cultures, “reborn” in the Renaissance, would have remained dormant were it not for Muslim scholars like Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and al-Kindi, keeping the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, among many others, alive.

Until we stop imagining the current conflict as a “clash of civilizations,” there will be no overcoming the problems. And until we stop imaging each other in crude and disrespectful ways, the violence will continue from both sides. Here, as always, a deeper look into our shared past is a necessary salve to the “clashing” of civilizations presented in the contemporary age, and re-presented in the news media.

S. Brent Plate, assistant professor of religion and the visual arts, Texas Christian University. Dr. Plate is the author/editor of several books, including Religion, Art, and Visual Cultureand Walter Benjamin, Religion, and AestheticsHe is currently writing a short book on “Blasphemous Images” for Black Dog Press, London. His last essay for The Revealer was “Chronicling C.S. Lewis: Marketing and Mythology.”