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The Clash-of-Civilizations Scam in Brief Review

What separates the “Westerner” from the “Middle Eastern,” and more broadly the Muslim from non-Muslim is not a fissure between civilizations. Even metaphorically, the concept of a Clash of Civilizations is misleading.The separation occurs on a material field, not a metaphysical one. Christian European and Islamic culture have mixed, mutually influenced, permeated into and out of, one another since long before Al Ghazali attacked Aristotelians, Averroes defended them, and Aquinas repudiated the Immaculate Conception. The era of a never-ending “War on Terror” did not vindicate Samuel Huntington’s thesis. Rather, the events of 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan and the eventual invasion of Iraq were all consequences of earlier U.S. interventions, all occurring in the context of geopolitical management, an outcome of the U.S.’s powerful but clumsy material hegemony. 

Instead, the Clash of Civilizations is a scam-narrative, half gimmick to sell a series of products, and half post-hoc justification for the socially unjust material relationships between regions of the world (along with our current paradigm of energy development). While old people on all sides of these geopolitical conflicts send young people to secure their interests in oil, water, and power, a layer of scamming wordsmiths emerges, eager to enlarge the conflicts into a grand conflict between the rational West and the irrational, superstitious East—despite the fact that every practice of so-called “radical Islam” condemned by the West was normal business for European Christians only 400 years ago.

The vendors of the Clash of Civs scam hock their wares in books, on web sites, in newspaper columns, in well-funded “think tanks,” and even by presenting taxpayer-supported “counterterrorism” seminars to law enforcement officials around the country. Islamophobia is big money. One group, ACT! For America, went from a tiny organization to a nonprofit with a $1.6 million dollar budget after just a few busy years of hatemongering, and its executive director now pulls in nearly 200 grand a year.

Professional Islamophobes and their legislative business partners openly seek to criminalize Islam. They are encouraged by elected leaders like New York Representative Peter King, who recently convened a highly controversial hearing devoted to the threat of Radical Islam in the United States.

King joins the ranks of other Republican politicians, including Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann, who have jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon to garner votes and fill their campaign coffers. They do not simply target dangerous extremists and terrorists, but question the loyalty of the majority of mainstream Muslims, flouting fundamental American principles and threatening civil liberties.

…Pew Research Center data demonstrates that these Republicans and Tea Partiers know the fears and prejudices of their political base. They are the only groups to think Islam is more likely than other religious groupsto encourage violence. Fully 67% of those who agree with the Tea Party movement say Islam is more associated with violence than other religions. This contrasts by more than two-to-one (61% to 29%) with liberal Democrats who believe that Islam is no more likely than other religions to promote violence.

Lost in the fog of war is the fact that these political Muslim bashers are long on fear mongering and short on providing any supportive evidence. They ignore major polls by Gallup, Pew, Zogby and others that show that the vast majority of Muslims are politically, economically middle class and educationally integrated into American society. Their desire not to be confused by the facts contributes to a growing climate of Islamophobia that has led to discrimination, hate crimes, violence, desecration of mosques and the violation of the civil liberties of Muslim Americans. Surveys have shown that Muslims are not looking to install Islamic law in the U.S., promote terrorism or undermine the American Constitution.

Engaging the scammers and their followers is frustrating, because they often rely on inaccurate data, lie about their life stories and credentials (more here and here), and distort the results of amateurish set-ups to demonstrate the dangerousness of mosques and religious groups in the United States and abroad. Sarah Posner’s “Welcome to the Shari’ah Conspiracy Theory Industry” hits the nail on the head: This is a racket, not a public interest campaign. The purveyors of hate are not merely incorrect, but opportunistically incorrect.

The conspiracy theorists succeed by using self-styled, unqualified “experts” to stoke fears of secret plots of Muslims to take over America and replace its Constitution with shari’ah law. That they even point to shari’ah, says Lena Salaymeh, a Harvard-trained lawyer now working on her doctorate in Islamic legal history at Berkeley, is evidence of their ignorance about Islamic law, politics, and culture.

“There’s a cottage industry in the West of people who pretend to be experts on Islam, who are getting a lot of time in the media,” Salaymeh points out. “It wouldn’t pass in any other context that you would get people who really know nothing turning into experts. But it happens in this context because they’re saying what people want to hear.”

If one untangles what that cottage industry is saying, one can detect five claims of the shari’ah conspiracy theory: that the goal of Islam is totalitarianism; that the mastermind of bringing this totalitarianism to the world is the Muslim Brotherhood, the grandfather of all Islamic groups from Hamas to the Islamic Society of North America; that these organizations within the United States are traitors in league with the American left and are bent on acts of sedition against America; that the majority of mosques in the United States are run by imams who promote such sedition; and that through this fifth column, shari’ah law has already infiltrated the United States and could result in a complete takeover if not stopped. 

Julie Ingersoll’s “Conservative Christians Get in Touch with Feminist Side in Islamophobia” flags the inconsistency of the anti-Islamists’ alarm at allegations of abuse towards women, pointing out that “those fanning the flames of Islamophobia consistently promote their own Christian version of women’s subordination and patriarchy. What are the chances that their sudden concern for the rights of women is little more that a scare tactic to garner support for their effort to foster hatred and persecution of an American religious minority?” And I feel almost silly adding: The women of Islam, like the women of other diverse cultures, are like anyone, anywhere else.

The universalism that says “they are like us” must occur self-reflectively, of course, and we need to be honest with ourselves when we confront both rational disagreements with and irrational fears of those who are different from us. But we can still assert the universalism—we already know it’s true. The diversity within the Islamic world proves this; the struggles within Islam really do parallel the struggles that have taken place in every other major religion. As theological systems evolve, branching and rejoining, giving birth to new interpretations of old doctrine, the literal becomes the metaphorical, adherents begin to understand the way in which a story, passage, or symbolic account might provide psychological and sociological insight for individual and collective understanding. When religions turn toward, or stay inside the containers of literalism (and almost inevitably thereafter turn to violence), it’s often because of the re-imposition of material scarcity, the exploitation of one group by another, and the tendency of the powerful to treat believers and subjects as means rather than ends. Where love is allowed to flourish, it flows. Integral to that love is an acknowledgment, even among believers, that the meanings of their texts are diverse and a little unstable. Hussein Rashid’s “What Does Shari’ah Mean?” exemplifies the frustration of contemporary Muslims in having to answer for the literalism of the fanatics. 

…there is no one thing called shari’ah, but a wide variety of interpretations. It takes a certain amount of mind-twisting logic to look at Saudi Arabia’s laws that it calls shari’ah, where women are not allowed to drive and Iran’s laws that it calls shari’ah, where women are integral part of the government, and say that these systems form a unitary whole.

There are certain laws that come out of Qur’an for which all Muslims agree are clear limits. These include commands not to murder, not to steal, to give charity, to avoid pork and alcohol. Things like adultery are also forbidden, but to punish adultery, you need for male, adult witnesses to the act, so the Qur’an actually makes punishing personal indiscretions nearly impossible, a point often ignored by Muslim-majority nation-states that seek to impose such punishments. 

But how, one might ask, do we deal with Islamic fanatics willing to kill, or overzealous Muslims eager to legislate morality, or religious leaders abusing their clerical positions? We deal with them the same way we deal with fanatical Christians who want to kill non-believers, legislate morality, and otherwise hurt those outside of their metaphysical latitude of acceptance: We reject religious violence, we carefully deploy the rule of law against it, we educate our children and ourselves against fanaticism, and we build a world where there is no need or tolerance for religious fanatics—or professional Islamophobes hocking ignorant epic yarns.

(Author’s note: This is part of a longer essay I’m working on–and a presentation I’m making April 10–called “Listening to Iraq,” describing my trip to Duhok in 2009.)

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.