The terrible violence that has plagued the Middle East for the last fifty years and is increasingly a plague upon Europe and the United States is too often referred to as a clash of civilizations when it should instead be regarded as an internal struggle. The fundamental issues at stake – the tension between civil societal norms and religious zeal, the questions of ethnic and national identities, the conflict between advocates of social and technological change and the champions of traditional morality, and the unease produced by the real or perceived failures of modern governance and free markets – are common to all three regions.
Clearly, the degree to which they extend and the virulence with which they are debated varies enormously; yet we do ourselves a disservice when we isolate jihadist violence as a unique and uniquely foreign problem. Within the Arab world, these issues take the form of conflicts between modernizers and traditionalists (the former being advocates of democracy, women’s rights, and cultural pluralism, and the latter being the champions of sharia-based theocracy); they also include dissatisfaction with the political boundaries imposed on the region by European diplomats after the two World Wars and the governing regimes installed to maintain them. But Europe and the United States also roil with conflicts over government overreach, foreign immigration, equal rights for all, manipulation of electoral processes, the treatment of women, the omnipresence of weaponry and violence in society, and the role of religious commitment in civic life. Nothing excuses horrors like the recent jihadist attacks in Paris — but it is important to remember that a single angry zealot in Norway, Anders Breivik, driven by motives analogous to those of the Parisian terrorists, killed and wounded as many people in 2011; so too with the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, when an embittered political and religious ideologue, Timothy McVeigh, killed 168 innocent people and wounded 680 more. Terrorism is an American and European problem as well as an Arab one.
The “Greater West” (that is, the geographic and cultural territory homelands of the three great monotheisms) is now, and as ever, confronted with a host of problems. If we are to confront them intelligently, we need to recognize that they are largely shared by all of us. To think of the recent attacks as an outrage caused by a uniquely intolerant and vicious Islamic world is both delusional and dangerous. It is also self-serving. It is hypocritical of the United States to attempt to impose democracy on the Islamic world when it engineered the overthrow of a democratic government in Iran (1953) and endorsed the overthrow of democratically chosen governments in Algeria (1991) and Egypt (2012). It is equally hypocritical of Muslim religious leaders to insist that they condemn jihadist violence, when not a single one ever issued a fatwa against Osama bin Laden. The often-repeated assertion that Islam is a religion of peace would convince more people if a single cleric declared a single Islamic terrorist a de facto apostate. On the other hand, paeans to Christian mercy would ring more true if US and European political leaders would not call for admitting only Christian war refugees from Syria and Iraq.
At its root, Islam is as much a Western religion as are Judaism and Christianity, having emerged from the same geographic and cultural milieu as its predecessors. For centuries we lived at a more or less comfortable distance from one another. Post-colonialism and economic globalization, and the strategic concerns that have attended them, have drawn us into an ever-tighter web of inter-relations. The rise of secularism in Europe has eroded its religious identity and is challenging that of the United States, while at the same time growing ethnic and cultural pluralism has challenged to their sense of national identity. The Arab states, for their part, struggle to retain their relative religious and cultural homogeneity while nursing historical resentments against “the imperialist crusaders” whom they blame, conveniently, for whatever problems that trouble them at any given time.
The troubles of the 21st century Greater West will not be solved by a simplistic divisiveness that pits “them” against “us.” Only by recognizing that we are all experiencing the same sufferings, confusion, and doubt – although, admittedly, in different ways and to different degrees – can we begin to regard one another with the combination of respect and sympathy that defines true tolerance.
Featured image credit: White Doves at the Blue Mosque, by Peretz Partensky. CC-BY-SA-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.