The Fallacy of the 'Clash of Civilizations'

One of the most frequently asked questions since 9/11 -- "Why do they hate us?" -- has served to reinforce a simplistic and dangerously misleading framework for understanding.
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As analysts ponder and proffer views on the real and potential impact from revolutionary tsunami in Egypt, it is essential that we in the U.S. also learn valuable lessons presented by this teachable moment. One such lesson is the fallacy of the "clash of civilizations" theory.

For two decades politicians, pundits, preachers, and some scholars have explained the tumultuous international conflict as evidence of a "clash of civilizations." We have heard this mantra so many times that many people assume it somehow describes the dynamic interaction between "the West" and the Middle East and Islamic cultures.

One of the most frequently asked questions since 9/11 -- "Why do they hate us?" -- has served to reinforce this simplistic and dangerously misleading framework for understanding. How many times have we heard seemingly intelligent people answer the question by declaring, "They hate our freedom. They hate our way of life."?

The "why do they hate us" question, like the "clash of civilizations" theory presupposes that there is an "us" and a "them," that somehow "the West" and "the Islamic world" are homogeneous and monolithic. They are neither.

The world's 1.5 billion Muslims are dispersed on six continents, speak dozens of languages, and have been influenced by vastly different histories and traditions. Tunisia is not Turkey; Iraq is not Indonesia; Egypt is not Iran. And yet, the simplistic stereotypical, self-serving framework has been widely embraced and employed.

Until now.

The massive media coverage in Egypt has helped to educate everyone across the political spectrum -- from viewers of FOX News to the CNN and MSNBC faithful. Sound-bite questions and answers have given way to powerful truths. And these truths demand new and more coherent frameworks for understanding what in the world is going on ... and why.

We can now see clearly that the values and aspirations for which hundreds of thousands of Egyptians risked their lives -- freedom of expression, basic human rights, participatory government, economic opportunity and an end to systemic corruption -- are values that most people in the U.S. hold dear. Rather than "us" versus "them," it is now obvious how much "we all" have in common.

Many pundits and preachers promote Islamophobia by claiming the true goals Muslims desire require them to convert or kill Christians and Jews and establish a new caliphate under which Muslims can rule the world. While a small minority of extremists speak in grandiose terms about global Islamic rule, the vast majority of Muslims worldwide seek to improve their lives and the lives of the families and neighbors within the established nation-state system.

For all who were paying attention to the 24/7 coverage for three weeks in Egypt, the presence and participation of Coptic Christians alongside their Muslim compatriots in Tahrir Square was eye opening. How is it that more than 7 million Coptic Orthodox Christians live in Egypt and some 8 million more Christians live and worship in Lebanon, Syria, Israel/Palestine, and Jordan? If Muslims are required to convert or kill Christians, it appears the overwhelming majority in the Arabic speaking Islamic heartlands failed to get the memo these past 1400 years.

Having lived in Egypt and traveled throughout the Middle East some 40 times over the past 35 years, I share both the hope for the new day that is dawning and the awareness that the coming weeks and months are fraught with uncertainty and danger. But I am heartened by lessons that can help move us all forward on the precarious road ahead.

The compelling events in Egypt have created a rare opportunity to challenge conventional wisdom, rectify misleading assumptions, and dismantle stereotypical images. We can and must discard the "clash of civilizations" narrative and stop assuming "Why do they hate us?" is a key question.

The people of Egypt -- Muslims, Christians, doctors, vendors, construction workers, students -- do not hate Americans. Rather, they long for the freedom, rights and opportunities we enjoy. But many in Egypt and elsewhere have been angry and frustrated by disconnect between the values the U.S. government espouses and the actual policies that too often have empowered "useful autocrats."

Herein lies another powerful lesson that Americans and Egyptians must both embrace in pursuit of a more healthy future. We must all hold our respective governments accountable for consistently protecting the values we cherish and facilitating the aspirations that we all share.

Charles Kimball is Director of the Religious Studies Program at the University of Oklahoma and author of the forthcoming book, When Religion Becomes Lethal: The Explosive Mix of Politics and Religion in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Jossey-Bass).

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