Islam and the West: Clash of political interests or civilizations?


 A lecture delivered to the Gulf Culture Club on 1st November, 2006

 Dr  Asghar Ali Engineer*

 Chairman: I will just speedily introduce today’s programme and the speaker with it. I have taken the following introduction from a few articles in the Muslim News this week on politics. I think they make interesting reading and aptly relate to our discussion this evening. One of the points I took from the articles was that during the 1992 presidential campaign James Carvil one of President Clinton’s top advisers coined the slogan :”Is the economy stupid” as a way of putting the focus on the basic issue of the day.  

When Muslims are asked why they protest against wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Kashmir or Palestine why do the Western politicos seek to intimidate them. Why don’t they turn the other cheek when everything they hold sacred is abused and insulted. Perhaps the only reply that makes sense, the only reply is to proclaim again and again is politics stupid?

 Dr Asghar Ali: Salaam Aleikum. The concept of the clash of civilizations was  promoted by Huntington author of a book by the same name Clash Of Civilizations. I am of the opinion that this book was written with a political agenda. I went through the book and found the treatment of the subject was highly superficial and I was highly disappointed that a professor teaching political science at Harvard University which is considered  a top university in America, should write such a superficial book.

 I also came to the conclusion that it has been written with a purpose. The approach may be very superficial but the political agenda is very clear.  America always needs an external enemy. As long as the Soviet Union was there the external enemy was communism. After communism collapsed they needed an external enemy and they created one in the Islamic world.

 So the Harvard professor was asked to write a book on this subject which he wrote and it became the basis of American foreign policy. There are a number of right wing Christian think-tanks who are deliberately promoting this. What Bush says and does is on the basis of advise received from these right-wing Christian think tanks. The main interest of these right-wing Christian think tanks is  to maintain American supremacy and to procure oil at any cost.  To procure Arab oil is very important for them. 

This morning I was  speaking and one official was disagreeing with me. He said that America uses only 20 percent  of Arab oil. I don’t know if this is current. As far as I know America is definitely using much more than 20 – it cannot be 29. 

So it is not a clash of  civilizations,  it is a clash of interests and  politics in general us based on interest not a values. All the world’s problems could have been solved. But since it is not interest clashes . It is as clear and simple as that. But it is very unfortunate that many academics in Western countries seriously  believe  that is a clash of civilization: Western civilization and Islamic civilization can never confirm to each other, can never live in harmony with each other. 

I recall Dr Zaher Hussein from my country who became president of India. He had gone to inaugurate the centenary of the establishment of   an academy in UP. It was during the 70s. I don’t know what prompted him to make this comment but he said that civilizations never clash. It is barbarians who clash. He made this observation. He was a nationalist, an education list, a Muslim leader.  

Huntington came on the scene in the 90s and came to be discussed by the whole world just because he is a Harvard Professor even if his writing is total nonsense. It got reviews in almost all journals and today any serious intellectual refers to this book on this question.

 I was attending one workshop in Rajpur, a town in Gujarat.  A priest from Ram Kirshna  mission was present. They are known to be quite peace loving people who undertake a lot of social services like Christian missionaries. The  workshop was  on communal problems in India. We keep on holding workshops for promoting inter-religious peace in India. He described how Islam and Christianity clashed throughout history, how many wars took place like the Crusades and wars right up to WW2.

 Naturally I challenged him. If you read the statistics he gave you will see his understanding is extremely superficial Neither the Crusades or subsequent wars were truly religious wars.  They were not religious in nature, they were political in nature. And unless you understand this root cause you will describe them as religious.  And you will neither understand religion nor the wars. 

As opposed to Huntington’s theory  of clash of civilizations,  which has been grabbed by the media and many established intellectuals, Khatemi from Iran came out with the concept of dialogue of civilizations. Now who is being unreasonable and violent?  Khatemi proposed a dialogue of civilizations, not a clash of civilization in the UNO.

 And this has been the spirit of the Qur’an. Qur’an believes in dialogue not in war or conflict because even when it calls people to the way of Allah it calls them with wisdom and good labours. It is the spirit of dialogue. How do we define dialogue? How  do  we understand dialogue?  Dialogue should never be to convert others. Dialogue means to understand and to accept the others as they are. This is really the spirit of dialogue. If I want dialogue with people of other cultures, civilizations or religions and my motive is to convert them,  we will never have dialogue. We will have two monologues. I will speak one  things, the other person will speak something else. So it will be two monologues rather than dialogue.

 In order to have dialogue your spirit should be to understand the other and accept the other as the other is. But how many people have dialogue with that spirit. We always think my religion is superior to the religion of  others, my culture is superior to that of the others, my language is superior. With that approach we will never succeed if we want to encourage dialogue.

We say what we want to say without even understanding each other. Never try to enter into dialogue with a view of trying to convert others to your  point of view. Your  point of view may be very important but it is important to you because of your existence, your interests, your approach, everything is involved  in dialogue, in your  point of view. Similarly the other has his or her point of view for their existence, interests and beliefs. It is equally important to them. The moment you talk of superiority you loose the spirit of dialogue. To maintain a spirit of dialogue you must accept the others as they are not as they should be according to you.

 It is this dialogue of civilizations, in this spirit which is most important. Now  who is talking of the clash of civilizations? Those who want to  maintain their superiority, their supremacy over others. That is why they have to talk of the clash of civilization to get out of a dialogue of civilizations.  Their interests cannot be maintained, their supremacy cannot be maintained and they would become equal partners, but they do not want to be equal partners. A spirit of dialogue requires that both the parties to the dialogue should be equal partners. The moment one party to the dialogue adopts an attitude of superiority the spirit of dialogue is lost.

 In all civilizations, let us remember that civilizations are based on values, not on conflicts. So how can there be a clash. There are seven basic values and all religions, all civilizations emphasise some of these values.  They may not emphasise other values but they support other values as well.   The seven values are equality, justice, truth, compassion, human dignity, love and sensitivity to others. These are the seven most important values.

 Show my one religion which goes against any of these values. Islam emphasizes equality and justice more than other values. But that does not mean that it rejects other values in any way. It supports other values. Christianity emphasizes love and peace but that does not mean in rejects other values. In  Buddhism the central value is compassion but that does not mean it rejects others. 

So all religions, all civilizations are based on these values.  The seven values are complimentary to each other in all civilizations and religions.  Every civilization is based on these values. So where is the clash? Actually it is interests which clash. If my purpose is to rule over others, naturally my interest will naturally clash with the interests of others as others may not accept my rule.

 Today after the collapse of the Soviet Union America has become the sole power. And it wants to maintain that status of super powers. And that can only be done when it has a superiority of weapons and a stronger economy to manufacture those weapons. Its interest is primarily to maintain this status of super power. It is not interested in democracy anywhere. As Bush made a false claim that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but there were no WMD’s and they knew it.

 If there were WMD’s it is only and with America.  It has so many nuclear weapons that it can destroy Iraq many times over and yet it still said Iraq  WND’s.  There was no question of finding them because they did not exist. Yet everyone accepted that there were weapons of mass destruction. 

Then he came out with a theory that he had invaded Iraq for regime change – to bring about democracy. Now is it the way to bring democracy, to kill 600,000 people to bring democracy, to rain bombs over a country to bring democracy. The whole question was how Saddam dare to defy America? We are the most superior power on earth. You must just follow us, accept our superiority. It is the political interests which clash, not civilizations.

 The Islamic civilization has given so much to the world. It was one of the richest civilizations at one time: philosophy, science, religion. It has contributed very richly.  Naturally no civilization can make a rich contribution if it is not based on values. There were certain values on which Islamic civilization was based. The Western civilization also contributed a lot to knowledge, science, technology and  the concept of democracy. This is the contribution of  the Western civilization. 

The Islamic civilization originated in very different conditions. Its contribution was very different but it cannot be under-rated. Why does the West feel today that it has a superior civilization? Because of its game of  democracy, human rights, freedom? These are the issues on which the Western civilization claims superiority.  

In Islamic civilization there is no negation of these values because there was a time when Muslim intellectuals, academics, philosophers, scientists made their contribution. When Europe was passing through the Dark Ages. It was Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina, Farabi, Ibn Rushdt who achieved  excellence in the field of philosophy and they were top in European universities in the Middle Ages.  

They discovered the  entire Greek knowledge on which the renaissance was ultimately based through the Arabs. H.G. Wells, the noted historian who wrote a book The Short History of the World  said that the Arabs are the foster fathers of knowledge because the entire Greek knowledge was discovered by the Arabs. The Abbasids started Dar Al Hekma, the house of wisdom, in which entire knowledge was transported into the Arabic language and it was then transported to Europe and translated into European languages. No scholar can deny this contribution. 

So when Islam was going through its hey day it contributed very richly and these values were its basis. Qur’an upholds mutual consultation which is the spirit of democracy.  You may be very wise and powerful but you must still consult people, take peoples opinion into account.  Even the holy Prophet is required to consult his companions. This is the spirit of democracy. It is unfortunate that the caliph turned into a  monarchy during the course of history and that very basic value was lost.  Islamic civilization developed through the  feudal ages. 

Where was democracy in Western countries during the Middle Ages? It was all monarchy. Either the pope or the monarchs wielded power. Then there was a revolt against the church and the renaissance a Protestant movement took place. That put the West  on the road to material progress. Science and technology was the result of the renaissance movement.

 The problem with Islamic civilization is that in Islam there is no church. Who do you revolt against? This benefit also became a kind of problem. There is no central authority against which you can revolt. If I don’t agree with one particular imam, theologian or jurist I can have my school. I have my views or formulations. There is no question of revolt against any authority because there is no central authority in Islam. There is no concept of priesthood in Islam.  

So no revolt ever took place. Reform movements were there in the history of Islam but no Protestant like revolt against any central authority. Every civilization which  reaches a pinnacle also starts to decline.  Western civilization now it at its height. There is no doubt about that. Science and technology has given superiority. Democracies developed in the West  as a result of the development of science, knowledge and technology and the revolt against the church took place and led to a democratic way of life. In modern times the West did develop democracy.

 These values are there in the Qur’an but unfortunately the Muslims lost them. When Bush says ‘why do they hate our freedom, why do they hate our democracy?’ this is untrue. No Muslim hates freedom or democracy. There may not be democracy and freedom in Muslim countries as there is in the West for historical reasons.

 We should motivate Muslims to fight against monarchies, sheikhdoms and all that and establish democracy and freedom. It is pretty much there in the Qur’an and in Qur’anic teachings.  Freedom of conscience is there in Qur’anic teachings: no force in religion. These are very important concepts in Islam but Muslims lost them due to the feudalization of Islam.

 I very much differ with Mualana Mawadudi on most issues but I agree with  on one thing. He wrote a very good book  From Caliphate to Monarchy. The Umayyads represented the monarchy and all the Qur’anic values were lost. The Khawaraj re-emphasised the principle of democracy.  Of course none of us agree with Khawaraj on their theology but one thing we must recognize is that they said they did not want these monarchs. They said we must keep fighting against all Muslim monarchs until they are wiped out. 

Such movements did not survive. Then there was the kalamata movement. They believed in quality and wanted to practice Islamic  values. They were also wiped out. Then there was Zans revolt during Abbasid times. They gave a very hard time to the Abassid rulers, for nine years and it was very challenging for the Abbasid rulers to put it down.

 So all such movements were democratic in nature, but unfortunately they did not survive. They all point to the Qur’anic value of equality and justice. That is why it is incumbent on all Muslims to reflect. They always refer to the Qur’an and hadith. Why can’t they find these values in the Qur’an and why is equality and justice lacking in Islamic countries and societies. It is a moment of reflection for all of us that we must try to restore these values to Islamic societies and that  will strengthen co-operation between Western civilization and Islamic civilization. They must co-exit, they must co-operate, they must be harmonious to each other.  

Conflict  of interests will always lead to destruction.  I always welcome conflict of ideas because that leads you forward. I am not against conflict per se but not a conflict of interests. Conflict of ideas yes. That is how the West progressed. That is how  the Islamic civilization progressed at one time.

 There was a serious conflict between Imam Ghazali and Ibn Rushdt. Imam Ghazali wrote a book denouncing Ibn Rushdt.  These were conflicts of ideas which definitely enriched Islamic civilization. So never denounce the conflict of ideas but the conflict of interests. What is happening today is a conflict of interests not a conflict of civilizations or a clash of civilizations.

 Bush does not represent the spirit of Western civilization. His actions are undemocratic, against justice. So these two fundamental values of  democracy are denied. Where is democracy? It is not Muslim who hate freedom and democracy. It is Bush and people like him who hate Islamic civilization and lately he came out with the notion of Islamofascism. I don’t know about his understanding. Does he know what fascism is? Has he ever experienced fascism?

 So it is reflection of his hatred and my only humble suggestion to Muslim is don’t use violence. Violence never pays to weaker people, weaker sections. But apart from that it is a pragmatic situation. I oppose violence in principle. Violence, whether of the powerful or of the weak will lead to destruction. It does not solve any problem. Violence has never been part of the solution, it has always been part of the problem. 

I will end by giving an example of Gandhi from my country. I pose one question to you. How is it that India in the whole of Asia and Africa is the only democratic country? You will not find any democratic country  in the whole of Asia. Don’t include Japan because Japan was never enslaved. On the contrary Japan attacked other countries. You will not find any other country which is democratic thanks to Gandhi because he did not allow violence and he mobilized the masses. And that  strengthened the roots of democracy in India. The masse were involved throughout the freedom struggle, thanks to Gandhi and his concept of non violence. If he allowed violence the British, with their superior power, could have put down that violence but the transfer of power could have taken place to those who had guns and then there would have been no democracy.

That is what happened in Algeria, they fought for their freedom but there is no democracy in Algeria. Only those who had weapons came to power. That would have been the fate of India if they got freedom through violent means. So there was great wisdom  in the use of non violence.

If you lose non violent methods to fight there are two advantages: power will never go into the hands of warring groups. You will have moral superiority over your enemy and the whole world will sympathize with you. If you resort to violence you lose world sympathy and moral superiority and being the weaker section you cannot match your weapons against those who you are fighting. So you do not succeed in your aim. This is precisely the spirit of the Qur’an. Unfortunately its teachings are distorted by those groups who speak of jihad.

Show me one verse in the Qur’an where jihad is used in the sense of war. It is qiatal or harb which  are used for war. Jihad is a most glorified term to make maximum possible efforts so that truth, justice and equality prevail in society and that is why when the Prophet was asked what is jihad he replied the best the best for of jihad is speaking the truth in the face of a tyrant ruler. It requires tremendous courage. On the one hand we talk of jihad in the sense of war, on the other we do not have the moral courage and moral superiority to speak the truth in their face.

*Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer was born in Rajasthan, India in a Muslim Alim’s family and was trained in Tafsir, Hadith and Islamic jurisprudence. Later, he  pursued further education obtaining a degree in civil Engineering. Then he returned back to Islamic learning.  He has been involved in activities relating to inter-religious harmony for the last 40 years. He speaks several languages English, Urdu, Gujarati, Marathi, Arabic and Persian. Dr Engineer published 51 books on Islam and inter-religious problems in India, South and South East Asia. He contributes regular articles to several newspapers and research journals. He was awarded several awards including the  Right Livelihood Award  by a Swedish Foundation also known as  the Alternate Noble Award. He was conferred Hon.D.Litt by Calcutta University and also by Jamia Hamdard University, Delhi. He has lectured in several universities throughout the world.


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