There is today, in the minds of many, an East-West divide along Christian or Secular vs. Islamic lines. Many argue that this divide has existed for millenia and manifests itself in a clash of civilizations, to borrow the term used by Samuel P. Huntington, and that it will ultimately result in the fall of one or the other. This struggle for hegemony can be seen today in the geopolitical arena. At the heart of this debate, are deeply entrenched religious or other dogma and closely held cultural values on both sides. At stake for each side are its standards, ideals, principles and values. Each has a Utopian vision of an ideal world based on these standards, ideals, principles and values. Each affirms a past, whether historical or not, which affirms these standards, ideals, principles and values. At the extremes of either side there are those who dogmatically affirm that the differences existing between the two sides form a chasm that cannot be bridged, while at the same time, in the center there are pragmatists who firmly believe that the chasm can be bridged. In my opinion, pragmatism is the only answer to this dilemma.
“Humankind today is on the brink of an abyss … because it lacks the values that can nurture and protect it and guide it on the right path,” wrote the so-called “philosopher of Islamic terror,” Sayyid Qutb. For Qutb, a key member of the Muslim Brotherhood during Nasser’s regime in Egypt, the West (whether capitalist or communist) was materialistic and sexually depraved. To illustrate his point, he pointed to Americans who focused more on the appearance of their lawns and their own personal appearance than on the key social problems he saw, who displayed a bestial lustfulness even at church dances and found brutish displays of strength such as American football entertaining. He believed these problems, as he saw them, were the result of the West’s failure to submit to God’s law as revealed to the prophet Muhammad. He saw the rule of men over men as usurping God’s sovereignty.
For the likes of Sayyid Qutb, including his self-proclaimed disciples Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, “Islam is the solution.” They dogmatically maintain that strict adherence to Islam, which they see as an all-encompassing way of life is the answer to the world’s problems today. They call for and violently pursue the implementation of their vision of an Islamic state under sharia law, seemingly without regard for personal freedom or even basic human rights. Their standard is God’s law. Their ideal is an Islamic state. Their principles and values are founded in the religion of Islam as they interpret it. They go so far as to call fellow Muslims who oppose their extremist views apostates and seek to kill them. They classify the rest of the world as pagan. They see themselves as the executors of God’s will.
The West is not lacking in dogmatic thinkers who seek power to implement their own Utopian vision. In the United States, the so called neo-cons, or neo-conservatives, can be seen in parallel to the Islamic fundamentalists of the East. For the neo-cons, Christianity is the answer to the social liberalism and licentiousness that threatens to destroy their ideal. Whether or not they themselves actually believe in the principles and values they are pursuing, or are simply using them in a Straussian way as some believe to achieve their standards and ideals is irrelevant since they are dogmatists regardless. Also, the West is not lacking in dogmatic Christians who believe that their religion is superior to that of Muslims and that it contains within it the answers to all of society’s problems today. There are even those, such as Robert Spencer, who vehemently affirm that the liberal left or secular humanists of the West are most vile in their pronouncement of the simple truth that Christianity is just as likely to produce violence as Islam. Ironically, it is precisely this kind of dogmatism that leads to such violence in any religion.
There are on both sides of the East-West or Christianity-Islam divide dogmatists and pragmatists. Contrary to what the dogmatists would have us believe, it can be argued of any religion or ideology that it is incompatible with democracy. Just as there are Islamic fundamentalists arguing for their point of view, citing the Qur’an and the Sunna to back up their arguments, there are moderate voices in Islam such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his ilk arguing from the same sources to the contrary. Al-Qaradawi argues, based on his own interpretation of the Qur’an and the Sunna that takfir, or the accusation of apostasy of Muslims by other Muslims is un-Islamic and marked by bigotry and zealotry. He cautions that this common practice among Islamic fundamentalists founded on the writings of Qutb, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Kathir leads to an obvious dilemma. Takfiris, argues Qaradawi are too wrapped up in their own opinions to be truly concerned for the good of Islamic society as a whole. Another scholar bases his argument for Islam’s compatibility with democracy on Muhammad’s own constitution of the city of Medina. This document, he points out, is a model for a pluralistic society in which the rights of all peoples, regardless or ethnicity or religion are respected.
The United States was founded by secular humanists and moderate Christians holding to the same principles and values espoused by the Medina document. Its own constitution reflects these and calls them God-given and inalienable. The standard and ideal set maintained by the individuals that make up this society is one of pluralism. While many moderate Christians may firmly believe as right-wing conservative Christians do that Christianity holds the answers to all of societies ills, the first differ from the latter in that they would not force their belief upon others. As for the secular humanists, while there may be among them dogmatists who ridicule religion in general, the center is made up of pragmatists who believe that what works is true and would not foist there beliefs on others either.
We all have standards, ideals, principles and values. Arguably, all of us want to make the world a better place. There may truly be nihilists among us, but the vast majority of people, I believe, hold their standards, ideals, principles and values dear and see them as useful in guiding the lives of individuals and societies as a whole. However, not all of us are willing to bend to or compromise on our standards, ideals, principles and values to accommodate others. For those who are not, those I’ve here labeled dogmatists, the East-West/Christian-Islamic divide is intractable. For those who are, or the pragmatists, the chasm can and has historically been bridged – from Medina to the United States of America. The results of pragmatism are mixed and tentative, but the likelihood of their success has been proven far greater than that of dogmatism. The key to greater amicability and compatibility between the East and the West, and Christianity and Islam is to quell the dogmatic “no” by a pragmatic “yes.” Only in doing so will the so-called “clash of civilizations” end, and one true civilization emerge.