Clash of Civilizations?

By Tom Krattenmaker

USA Today, August 24, 2009

Each month, Rabbi Brian Walt of West Tisbury, Mass., and dozens of other Jewish clergy abstain from eating for a day and funnel the monetary savings to Palestinian children in Gaza. With each monthly enactment of the rite, the rabbis suck just a little more life out of a never-quite-valid theory, and mindset, that have loomed over the post-9/11 world like a specter — the so-called clash of civilizations.

“We believe Judaism is about compassion and justice for all people,” Walt explains. “In much of the religious talk about the Middle East, it’s about sides. You’re on this side or that side. We’re calling on all people of faith to say that not only Israelis deserve security, but that all people do.”

Walt, of course, is talking about the humanitarian consequences of an Israeli blockade to prevent the re-arming of Hamas in the tense aftermath of last winter’s clash between the Israelis and Palestinians. But the fasting rabbi’s point could apply just as well to a larger trend that seems to be gaining steam.

To the frustration of conflict-mongers on both sides of the divide, open-minded Jews, Muslims and Christians are breaking clash-of-civilizations formation and extending hands of friendship toward those they’re supposed to hate. This pattern is far from complete, with war-of-the-worlds field officers fighting tenaciously to keep the troops in line. Nonetheless, one gets the sense that the tides have shifted and begun moving, inexorably, toward inter-religious understanding and a less religiously fractured world. On these counts at least, the fast-approaching new decade might look a lot different from this one.

Moving away from ‘clash’

The “clash of civilizations” theory dates to 1993, when Harvard professor Samuel Huntington published the famous essay that coined the term and described its ominous contours. In the absence of the ideological battle of the Cold War, Huntington argued, conflicts between “civilizations” would define the new age — civilizations defined by their cultures and, especially, their religions.

Coming out the same year as the first World Trade Center bombing, Huntington’s essay seemed to explain something real and menacing taking shape in the world. This decade’s battles appeared to put real flesh on his theory’s bones. But recent months have brought acts of the highest profile that would appear all but impossible in a world cleanly divided by deep fissures between civilizations.

There was the American president — a Christian with an African surname and Muslims in his ancestry — traveling to Cairo and declaring to his Muslim audience: “America is not — and never will be — at war with Islam.” There was Rick Warren, the leading figure in American evangelicalism, addressing the conference of the Muslim Public Affairs Council and proclaiming his love for Muslims (as well as Jews, Hindus and Buddhists) and his conviction that “al-Qaeda no more represents Islam than the Ku Klux Klan represents Christianity.”

And there is the popular uprising by the Iranian people against an explicitly Islamist regime that had declared America the “Great Satan” and defined its country’s identity as over and against all things Western. As foreign policy scholar Joshua Muravchik argued in an (Portland) Oregonian opinion piece in July, “Much as the hammers that leveled the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of the Cold War, so might the protests rocking Iran signal the death of radical Islam and the challenge it poses to the West.”

In making sense of these and many similar stories, it’s important to resist getting carried away on a wave of We Are the World sentimentality. Threats remain, and hard-headed realism still is essential. Yet practical reality is also on the side of quelling conflict — unless you cling to the fantastical belief that Christianity must and will conquer Islam, or vice versa, and that such an outcome could somehow be achieved at a cost worth paying.

Sadly, there are some in both “civilizations” who prefer to keep the battle lines drawn.

Those committing terrorism in the name of Islam provide some of the most glaring examples. As do laws in several Muslim countries that harshly forbid conversions from Islam to other religions, and chauvinist politicians like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who spew slurs against Jews and Israel. Here’s longing for the day when headlines don’t bring more tidings of Muslims attacking Christian minority populations, as happened in Pakistan in early August, and Islamist clerics twisting Quranic teachings into vendettas against any “infidel” who does not subscribe to their hateful strain of Islam.

Fanning the flames

Clash-of-civilizations fighters on this side of Huntington’s fissure don’t match their Middle Eastern counterparts when it comes to deliberate violence against innocents. Even so, they do much to fan the flames of conflict with their rhetoric and politics. Consider the war-of-words reaction to Warren’s olive-branch appearance at this summer’s Islamic conference. “Traitor,” some Christians called him. “His being the keynote speaker (at the event) only validates a group that is anti-God and anti-America,” wrote the conservative blogger at Don’t Get Me Started. The promotional blurb for a propaganda video making the rounds this summer asserts: “Islam will overwhelm Christendom unless Christians recognize the demographic realities, begin reproducing again, and share the Gospel with Muslims.”

Wouldn’t it make more sense to try forming partnerships with Muslims — with those in the vast majority who, according to polling by World Public Opinion, reject al-Qaeda terrorism and have little interest in cataclysmic conflict with the West?

Rabbi Walt, a coordinator of Ta’anit Tzedek — the Jewish Fast for Gaza — flatly rejects the notion that his Jewish faith obliges him to fall in line with the Jews-vs.-Islam construct. “I don’t believe in the ‘clash of civilizations’ ” Walt says. “I believe there’s a clash, but it’s within each of the religious traditions. … I have much more in common with a progressive Muslim than I do with a right-wing Jewish fundamentalist settler on the West Bank.”

The more you listen, the more you hear a pattern in which the conflict-mongers on either side sound like echoes of each other. They hear only the worst from their opposite and trumpet their same-sounding conclusions —”They’re evil! They’re godless! They’re out to get us!” — trying to get the rest of us scared and angry enough to enlist. But while they demonize the enemy, they also depend on the other side, feed off it, sustain it. In a certain sense, the two sides are allies in a shared quest for endless conflict and war.

But as the fast-for-Gaza rabbis show, there’s a simple remedy the rest of us can apply: We can refuse to play along.

Tom Krattenmaker, a writer based in Portland, Ore., specializing in religion in public life, is a member of USA TODAY’S board of contributors. His book Onward Christian Athletes will be released in October.