One is hard pressed not to think that islamophobia is once again fashionable since Mr. Trump’s election as the president of the United States. This claim is based on Mr. Trump’s proclamations during the 2016 campaign promoting a total and complete ban on Muslims entering the US, signing executive orders banning people of several principally Muslim countries from entering the US and the views of those who play prominent roles in the Trump administration. Mr. Trump’s first, and now disgraced, National Security Advisor Mike Flynn tweeted: “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” In 2014, Steve Bannon, President-elect Trump’s incoming chief strategist, told an interviewer that “the Judeo-Christian West” is “in the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict … an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism”—an enemy that, unless harsher measures are taken, “will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.”
But more importantly, anti Islamic hate groups have increased in numbers by 197% since 2015 according to The Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups. Acts of islamophobia have sharply risen commensurately. What is even more disturbing is that acts of islamophobia by the US Customs and Border Protection officials have increased by 1000% since Mr. Trump took office.
On July 6, 2017 Mr. Trump gave a speech in Krasinski Square, Warsaw, Poland to a friendly audience, the majority of whom was bused in by the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In his speech Trump warned against the decline of western civilization. He defined the west by religion, ethnicity and culture, which is itself in constant flux. He left out the most the most important values of the west such as democracy, human rights, rule of law and the system of checks and balances. Mr. Trump’s view of the clash of civilizations is consistent with the wave of nativism/populism gripping the US, Poland and other countries to a lesser extent. The message was clear: us, the west, against them, the east/Muslim world, a message which resonates in today’s political climate. Some may call this demagoguery to exploit nationalist fears for short term political gains.
In boasting about western values, Donald Trump talked about classical music as exclusive to western culture. He should know that the foundation of “western classical” music is rooted in the music of other cultures such as that of Arabs. Muslim musicians have had a profound impact on Europe, dating back to when Charlemagne tried to compete with the music of Baghdad and Cordoba. Among many instruments that arrived in Europe through the Middle East are the lute and the rahab, an ancestor of the violin. Modern musical scales are also said to derive from the Arabic alphabet.
While the technological and scientific advances of the “Western World” in the last couple of centuries is undeniable, other cultures contributed immensely. The numbering system we use in the west today is based on the Arabic numeral system. The concept of zero, invented by ancient people in India, was adopted by the Arabs and introduced to the Europeans. Algebra, azimuth, and zenith all have Arabic origins. Algorithms are essential for today’s machine computations, which govern most of our lives from medical care to banking and financial systems, from space exploration to navigation on earth, from communicating with each other to exploring human diseases. In short, in the information age very little can be accomplished without algorithms. Yet the vast majority of people in the west are unaware of the origin of the word, algorithm. It is named after 9th century Muslim scientist Al Khwarazmi, the father of algebra. He was the first person to devise a systematic sequential method of solving a problem.
Another Muslim polymath, Abbas ibn Firnas, was the first person to make a real attempt to construct a flying machine and fly. In the 9th century he designed a winged apparatus, roughly resembling a bird costume. In his most famous trial near Cordoba, Spain, Firnas flew upward for a few moments, before falling to the ground and partially breaking his back. His designs would undoubtedly have been an inspiration for the famed Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci hundreds of years later.
Similarly, other non-western cultures have greatly contributed to the human technical and scientific advances laying the ground work for modern discoveries and inventions. The Chinese are responsible, among other things, for inventing paper, printing, gunpowder and even rockets. They also invented the compass, essential for navigation. The civilization of India contributed to human progress in the fields of metallurgy, mathematics, architecture, cartography, astronomy and many more. It is abundantly clear that human achievement to date has mostly resulted from a collaborative effort rather than a monopoly of knowledge by one specific civilization. Some may have contributed more than others, but all our ancestors, common or otherwise, throughout the world, have done their part.
The narrative that Islamic terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) are against us because they are Muslims, they hate us, they hate our way of life and so on, all against the west, doesn’t hold water. The overwhelming majority of their victims are Muslims living in the Middle East and Afghanistan, contradicting the clash of civilizations thesis. IS is not just against the west, it is against human civilization and therefore there is a need for a united west and east to stop these killers.
When western leaders talk about “clash of civilizations,” they play right into the hands of the very terrorist groups that we are fighting against. IS and Al Qaeda use this narrative to try to persuade Muslims that the “Crusaders” (the west) are against Islam as a whole. IS is using these declarations as a tool to recruit misguided young Muslims who are vulnerable to such propaganda.
The rise of populism, the increase in terrorist attacks throughout the world, sectarianism in the Middle East, the concern that the US will no longer stand for human rights and democracy in the world, and political division at home are all challenges requiring solid leadership. This is no time to exacerbate further division by promoting “The Clash of Civilizations,” code for islamophobia, pitting the west against Islam or any other group collectively.