When asked about current relations between Muslim and Western societies, most people are likely to think about the “cartoon crisis,” the controversial remarks of Pope Benedict XVI regarding the Prophet Muhammad, or the debates raging in many European countries over the wearing of veils by some Muslim women.
In addition, most would recognize that terrorist attacks on the one hand and military interventions in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan on the other have increased the climate of suspicion that seems to be spreading across the world. Staggering economic inequalities and the ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots also create new fault lines, dividing peoples and nations.
These tensions help fuel the damaging yet powerful myth of a “clash of civilizations” — an ideological boon for all those who share an interest in shoring up hostility between Muslims and the West. A year ago, the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan created the Alliance of Civilizations High Level Group to help challenge this myth and recommend concrete measures to build bridges among communities worldwide. Our Group’s report, which we presented to Mr. Annan on Nov. 13, debunks a number of misconceptions and confronts some uncomfortable realities.
First, there is no basis, in our opinion, for the claim “civilizations” are set on an inevitable collision course. Civilizations are not solid, monolithic blocs; rather, they are the result of complex mutual exchanges and constant cross-fertilization among cultural groups. Growing polarization between the West and the Muslim world is undeniable but not unavoidable. Fatalism denies individual freedom and mistakenly portrays human beings, communities and nations as mere pawns of history.
Second, the history of relations between Muslim and Western societies is not primarily one of conflict. Despite periods of war, Islam, Christianity and Judaism all benefited from each other through trade and intellectual exchanges. Historically, under Muslim rule, Jews and Christians have largely been free to practice their faiths and many rose to high political positions in Islamic empires. Similarly, in recent centuries, political, scientific, cultural, and technological developments in the West helped influence the Muslim world in many positive ways.
Third, we firmly reject the claim that the roots of the widening rift between Muslim and Western societies lie in religion or culture. Rather, they are to be found in politics. In our view, there are two key factors feeding the current climate of suspicion and fear that mars relations across communities. In the first instance, the Israeli-Palestinian issue has become a key symbol of the rift between Western and Muslim societies and remains one of the biggest threats to international stability. We passionately believe the international community should turn its attention to this festering conflict with a renewed sense of urgency. In addition, military operations in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan contribute to a growing climate of fear and animosity. The spiraling death toll and violence in both those countries help swell the ranks of terrorist groups.
The other factor is the oppression of nonviolent political actors in the Muslim world, which strengthens the hand of extremists. Denying peaceful opposition movements the freedom to express their views and jailing their supporters generate anger and resentment, encouraging some, especially among the young, to join violent groups. And when Western governments lend their support — tacitly or overtly — to authoritarian regimes, they become part of the problem, stoking the fire of extremism. These issues are compounded by resistance to reform and limitations placed on intellectual enquiry which deprive many Muslim countries of the impetus and energy needed to achieve social progress.
To help address the Middle East conflict, we propose development of a White Paper analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian landscape dispassionately and objectively, giving voice to the competing narratives on both sides, and establishing clearly the conditions that must be met to find a way out of this crisis.
Among the issues feeding tensions between Muslim and Western societies is the potentially destructive impact of inflammatory language sometimes used by political and religious leaders and the effect such language can have when disseminated by the media. We urge leaders and shapers of public opinion to behave responsibly and do everything in their power to promote mutual respect of religious beliefs and traditions. We also request the U.N. secretary-general to appoint a high representative to assist in defusing cross cultural tensions, build bridges of understanding and create pathways toward reconciliation, especially in times of crisis. In addition to these critical steps aimed at addressing political conflicts, we believe initiatives in the areas of education, media, youth and migration are necessary to build bridges and promote a culture of respect and understanding among Western and Muslim communities.
In today’s interconnected world, nobody is immune from the growing danger of polarization between societies and cultures. As global neighbors, we all share a responsibility in building a common culture of respect and promoting a rational debate about issues that threaten to divide us.
We will achieve progress not by attempting to ignore or deny our differences, but by acknowledging them openly and by celebrating our diversity. We must also recognize that these differences are not primarily religious or cultural, but political. In other words, they are not insurmountable and can be overcome through determined leadership and sustained negotiations.
Only by engaging in this path will we be able to work out a common way forward, one that builds on the goals we share and rejects the doomsday scenarios of clashing civilizations.
Desmond Mpilo Tutu is the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town. Ali Alatas is former foreign minister of Indonesia. Andre Azoulay is adviser to Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.
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