In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote that “cultural and religious identities will be the primary source of conflict in the post-Cold War world.” Nine years after 9/11, Huntington’s thesis has become a reality. The attacks on 9/11 and the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and with al-Qaeda that followed are part of a larger conflict with a growing segment of the Muslim world that adheres to cultural and religious identities that are antithetical to and threaten Western philosophy and values.
We’re not at war with Islam, as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have frequently pointed out. People don’t wage war against religions. They wage war against its practitioners or a segment of them. Saladin wasn’t at war with Christianity. He was at war with the crusaders.
Our tendencies toward political correctness and oversimplification, however, have inhibited our ability to fully understand and appreciate the forces at work in this epic conflict and to effectively deal with them. Indeed, few non-Muslim Americans, including many in high places, understand or appreciate the complexity and history of Islam or the Muslim world.
President Obama certainly has a better understanding of Islam and Muslims than most by virtue of his exposure to them as a boy in Indonesia; and he has made reaching out to Muslims a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Unfortunately, he has had little success at winning their hearts and minds or with educating Americans about them. He might have been more successful at both had he been less deprecating of America and had his responsibilities as president and commander-in-chief not made it impossible for him to satisfy the Muslim street.
Nor has the domestic dialogue on Islam gone well. The Obama administration has avoided the use of words like jihad, jihadist, or Islamist to avoid offending Muslims, focusing the debate more on form than substance. When the administration’s conservative critics accuse it of political correctness, liberals accuse those critics of being Islamophobic. None of this promotes better understanding by Americans, nor does it encourage mainstream Muslims to look critically at and speak out against Muslim extremists.
On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, two stories in the news demonstrate that we’re not seeing the forest for the trees. They are the controversies over the construction of a mosque near Ground Zero in New York City and a Florida pastor’s plan to burn copies of the Qur’an. Both are important and involve legitimate concerns about U.S. constitutional rights; both raise questions of propriety; and we should honestly and openly discuss and debate them. Both, however, are only the visible parts of an iceberg.
The mosque debate began as a disagreement over the propriety of building a mosque so close to Ground Zero. The argument quickly escalated, and protesters for and against the mosque have demonstrated at its proposed location; and just about every major U.S. political figure has taken a stance on the issue.
Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the man behind the Cordoba House project, quickly became the focus of national attention. He, too, has aggravated the situation. Last week he warned that any failure to build the mosque at the present location would provoke “danger from the radicals in the Muslim world to our national security.” Whether or not Rauf intended this as a threat only he knows. Regardless, such statements tend to narrowly focus the debate to what Americans should say and do about Islam and Muslims and how Muslims around the world will react to us.
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, planned to burn copies of the Qur’an on 9/11 because he believes Islam is an evil religion that promotes violence and wants to impose sharia law on the United States. The media quickly gave him national attention; and when he first said he would cancel the burning he said he did so because Imam Rauf had agreed not to build the mosque near ground zero. Rauf denied the claim. Conservatives and liberals alike condemned Jones’ misguided stunt.
Ultimately he cancelled the burning of Qur’ans, at least for the present, because of the intense pressure put on him by President Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, General David Petraeus, and a host of politicians on the left and the right. They all urged him not to burn the Qur’ans because of the threat to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan from outraged Muslims. These are certainly legitimate concerns. As commander-in-chief, President Obama, like Gates and Petraeus, was looking out for the troops. Nevertheless, this too refocused the debate.
What are we accomplishing by not discussing the cultural and religious identities that are at the root of our ongoing conflict with radical Muslims? Easily outraged Muslims from Morocco to Mindanao have demonstrated time and again that they will take to the streets, denounce America, and even resort to violence over the slightest provocation. We can’t allow them or fear of them to prevent us from truly understanding the cultural and religious differences that divide us.
It’s time to take the discussion of the clash of civilizations out of academia and think tanks and involve the American people in it. In doing so, extreme voices will provoke anger at home and abroad, but unless we do this America will remain largely ignorant of what the future holds and how to cope with it.
Today, Muslims constitute 24 percent of the world population, or 1.65 billion people. Experts predict that the Muslim share of the world population will increase by over one percentage point each decade. By 2075, the world will be one-third Muslim. If cultural and religious identities are at the root of current and future conflicts, we must come to fully understand Islam and its various factions.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC, a company that provides global consulting services to clients in the international defense marketplace. He publishes commentary at EWRoss.com.