Clash of Civilizations versus Interfaith Dialogue: The theories of Huntington and Gulen

  • - By Aland Mizell
  • 31/12/2007 00:00:00

The concept of a clash of civilizations became more popular, as well as more controversial, after 9/11. Samuel Huntington introduced the phrase “clash of civilizations” in 1993 in an article in the Journal of Foreign Affairs. Since then many scholars have spoken about the war on terror as a sign of a possible conflict between the West and the Islamic world. Others would argue that 9/11 was a sign that this clash of civilizations has already begun. However, some disagree with Huntington’s ideas of such a cultural clash. One group of Muslims proposes that, instead of a clash, the three monotheistic religions have some things in common. To begin with, Christians, Muslims and Jews can come together to discuss the shared value of peace and tolerance, and thus Interfaith Dialogue has been successful by openly refuting the clash of civilizations among the three Abrahamic religions, and thereby advancing their unspoken cause. As support for the connection, the Qur’an says, "People of the book, come to the proposition that it is the same for us and you, so that we should worship none but one God, and not associate any partners with him, and not take one another as God," thus identifying the commonality of one God, but denying his shared existence with any other entity or being. The Qur’an continues, “If they turn way, say to them, ‘Bear witness that we are Muslims’” (Qur’an verses 3:64). In this passage Christians and Jews must become Muslims to continue the relationship.

After the 9/11 attacks on the twin towers in New York City, the Muslims once again attracted special attention. People in the West and especially in America began talking about the Islamic faith. What does the Qur’an say about human life? What are Muslims’ obligations? Why do at least nominally Muslims perpetrate so many violent actions?

In the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union also brought new questions about the balance of power. At that time Fethullah Gülen, the spiritual founder and leader of now the world’s largest Islamic movement, seized the opportunity to open many of his religious schools all over the Post-Soviet countries in the vacuum that more than seventy years of atheistic reign had left as Communism fell. In the face of a fundamentalist Shiite influence, the Central Asian republics, supported by the U.S., chose the liberal Sunni brand, represented by Gülen’s educational movement, over fundamentalism. This process of providing an alternative to radicalism in the aftermath of the Soviet Union parallels the strategy initiated by Gülen in post 9/11 to offer an alternative to the view of Islam as a radical ideology. He carefully tailored an Islam that embraced all faiths against the Islam of the terrorists while privately speaking and writing about the dangers of the Western culture and values. After the attack on the twin towers, many scholars called this polarity a clash of civilizations, some called it a clash of ideology and culture, yet others called it a new crusade. Many Muslims, however, saw the war on terror as a war on Islam, and many Muslims in America felt that they were under scrutiny. To further complicate the debate, some scholars said that the terrorist attack on New York City would change the course of world history while others called this an end to human history. Although perhaps not ending human history, the terrorist attack on New York City in a sense did change the course of history. Suddenly many Muslims took advantage of the event to spread their Islamic ideology rapidly throughout the world. Since that crisis, numerous special reports or programs, discussion groups, speeches on campuses, and units taught in classrooms, churches, and community centers have educated Americans, as well as Westerners in general, about the history, culture, and pillars of Islam.

Especially Fethullah Gülen and his community took advantage of this 9/11 event to establish the nonprofit Interfaith Institute, Islamic cultural centers, religious schools, the Turkish based Zaman daily Islamic newspaper, charter schools, organized and funded trips for non- Muslim to go to Turkey, and an Islamic lobbying power in U.S. Since Gülen’s exile from Turkey and move to the U.S., the number of Turkish Muslim missionaries has more than doubled, all of them coming under the platform of graduate students and businesses. Gülen is proposing that Islam will be the alternative to the new world system, and indeed believes that the world will be unified under the tenets of Islam because Islam is not merely a religion, but a way of life. It is also, and perhaps foremost, a state ideology. It is all pervasive and zealously missionary-minded. It permeates every aspect of social cooperation and culture. It is an organizing principle, a narrative, a philosophy, and a value system. Islam is a universal religion with a history of proselytizing and distinct plans to dominate the world because they strongly believe that Islam is the only true religion and that everyone is obliged to spread it throughout the world by any mean necessary. It is true that Christians are trying to do the same thing to win the world to Jesus Christ, so both faiths seek to find a way to share their faith with others. However, Christians do not hide their faith nor do they have the idea of conquering the world but rather they try to encourage hearers to know Jesus Christ as a personal savior. Gülen’s branch of Muslims uses Interfaith Dialogue, a nonprofit organization Gülen capitalizing on a supposed shared faith, to create an alternative to Huntington’s ideas of a clash of civilizations; in other words, it refutes the ideas of having conflict between the West or Christians and Muslims. Rather and his community believe that Christians and Muslims will come together and that Christians will have a chance to see the other side of the Islamic faith, not just the side of war and violence. In this teaming together, they will accept Islam, and as a result, many Christian leaders will believe, as Muslims do, that Islam is the only solution to today’s suffering and world problems and also understand that the world will become Islamic. By contrast, some analysts argue that Islamic fundamentalism can be blame for the problem what is going on around the world.

Gülen’s strategy for Interfaith Dialogue, however, aims at the supposed intersect among the “people of the book” and at the refutation of the positions about Islam being the solution or cause. Yet the two religions of Christianity and Islam cannot come to an agreement because of their core principles. For Christians the key tenets are that salvation is through acceptance of Jesus as the Savior and that Jesus is the Son of God. Muslims, however, deny that Jesus died on a cross and believe instead that Muhammad is God’s messenger. They believe that one cannot know about salvation until after death when the good deeds are weighed against the bad. So what is the purpose of Interfaith Dialogue then? For many reasons Muslims believe that the whole world will accept Islam as the way to salvation. Gulen considers that at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire the Islamic world lost its power and went backward, and, consequently, he is trying to bring the Ottoman Empire back on the stage one more time. Gülen posits that the Islamic world lost its leadership and its true representatives. He also thinks that God has chosen the Turkish people exclusively and those in his movement particularly, and thus they represent true Islam, and one day will dominate the world. Gülen holds that Arabs have damaged the Islamic image in the international arena but that his Turkish Islam could restore that image. Interfaith Dialogue is one of the main strategies to disseminate Islam in the Western hemisphere. As an Islamic scholar, Gülen believes that Islam will not come to the West by violence or war but rather by his followers living in the West. Gradually they will set the stage to establish an Islamic nation. Thus, he is using the same strategy he has implemented globally, and his Islamic organization is now advancing a similar dialogue over the entire world.

The dichotomy emerges in the goals of the East and West. Gülen urges his followers that wherever they go, they must prioritize Islam by promoting the universal message contained within the Qur’an and the Sunnah (traditions of the Prophet). Muslims teach that the only acceptable and true religion is Islam, and therefore the whole universe must embrace Islam; in so doing, the world will become an Islamic nation. On the other hand, to sustain the civilization, the challenge for Western policy-makers, says Huntington, is to make sure that the West gets stronger and defends off all the other ideologies, Islam in particular. Huntington (1993) argues that it “is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future." Cultural conflict will radically affect politics.

So where did Huntington go wrong? The Qur’an says, "God sends a Mujaddid, the Arabic word which in Islamic tradition refers to a person who is sent by God in every century of the Islamic calendar. Also, the Hadith indicates that, "Allah shall raise for this Umma [community] at the head of every century a man who would revive his religion and Muslims will rise up again one more time.” In the 20th century this was Saidi Kurdi, known as Saidi Nursi, and for the 21st Century the Mujaddid is Fethullah Gulen. The main obligation of the Mujaddid is to revive Islam, to remove from it any barriers that block Islam, and to restore Islam’s desire to ignite God's Light with their mouth, and in so doing will lead the world and will bring justice as well as Islamic civilization to the world. Islam presupposes a great divide.

In his sermon in Damascus, Said Kurdi explains the future of the Islamic world saying that in the end times Islam will have its victory and will be a super power since his main concern was Islamic unity. Also, Said Kurdi argues that Muslims and Christians will come together, and that Christians will have a chance to know more about Islam (Saidi Rislai nur Kulliyati Fourth Flash), as Gulen now proposes in his initiation of Interfaith Dialogue. It is true that Jews and even many people before them all spent a lifetime with expectations of a savior, especially when they had to face injustice and suffer. Like Christians who believe Christ will return, Muslims believe that in the age of end times a savior or Christlike Mehdi, a guided one, a prophesized redeemer of Islam, will come and serve as the Caliphate did. There will be signs before Mehdi comes to earth such as the decline of morality and the spread of diseases, ignorance, drinking, alcohol abuse, and sexuality, as well as the decline of the male and increase of the female population, and many other signs. But a man from Muhammad‘s descendents will come. Mehdi or Mahdi also refers to the savior who will come at a time when tyranny and injustice dominate the world; he will defend the faith when it has gone astray by ignoring the credo of belief, abandoning religious duties, and forgetting proper conduct as enjoined by faith. According to Gülen, he will re-establish justice, make Islam dominant, and be a descendent of the Prophet (Gulen web cite). In this view, when there is no unification among Muslims, God will help him to take control of the land. Under his rule Muslims will be blessed more than ever before. He will represent true Islam. Also, Muslims believe that there will be a Dajal, an anti-Mehdi. Mehdi will kill him, and then many Christians also will become Muslims. Then Muslims will dominate the world, gaining power politically and economically. Muslims are already talking about alternatives to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), setting up alternative investment to the New York Stock Exchange, looking at investment banking, and other financial arrangements in anticipation of that time. According to Gülen, throughout the ages of prophetic mission the Mahdi was represented by a chain of messengers; it was always a Prophet or a Messiah for whom the people waited. After Muhammad, people no longer await a messenger; rather they are expecting a reviver or a savior, a guide or a Mahdi from the lineage of the Prophet. This Mahdi has been called Mahdi al-Rasul, due to the perception that the Mahdi will be sent like a messenger by God and that there are signs of his superiority over the Fuqaha al-Arbaa (four great jurists of Islam: Imam Azam, Imam Malik, Imam Safii, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal), saints of all ranks. If Huntington is wrong about a great clash, then why does Islam present such an expectation of world dominance because of its superiority over all other faiths and cultures?

Also, if Huntington’s analysis is in error, why does the Qur’an draw such lines of demarcation? The Qur’an says to be friendly and kind toward the Muslim brotherhood and to be tough and extreme toward non-believers. When Saidi Kurdi was captured by the Russian soldiers, and a Russian general came to see the prisoners, all the prisoners stood up to show respect. Saidi Kurdi did not, and when the general asked him why he did not stand up, his answer to him was that a Muslim must not bow down to a non-Muslim and should not respect them. Also the Qur’an says, “ O Believers, do not be a friend of Jews and Christians; they are friends of one another; if some of you become a friend with them, there is no doubt you are part of them” {Surah Maide 51). So do Gülen’s followers really become a friend of Jews and Christians or is it just a show for them to impose their faith? Combined with the verses indicating that Muslims should worship one God, that nothing is associated with him, specifically meaning that they should not worship Jesus as a Son of God and that he did not die on a cross, what then is the common point for Christians and Muslims to come together and to be united or is this just a way for Muslims to spread their faith? Qur’anic verses command, “Oh believers, do not be a friend of infidels” (Surah: Ali Imran 118). If you be a friend of infidels, you do not do anything good for Allah.” In addition, “Infidels are your enemy” (Surah Nisa 101). “Who is my enemy is your enemy; do not be a friend with them” (Surah Mumtehine:1). “Most of them are perverted” (Surah: Maide: 81). “The worse creatures who are living on earth are infidels” (Surah: Enfal 55). The Qur’an clearly distinguishes between Muslims and those who do not accept Islam, the infidels.

According to Interfaith advocates, religion should have some moral values such as humility, love, tolerance, mercy, honesty, and resistance to wrongdoing and injustice. In this line of reasoning, since those religions have core tenets, therefore, they should work together to eradicate violence. That is why after 9/11 various members of some Christian sects and some Muslim sects got together, conducted conferences to bring the others representatives of religion together, and advocated a message of peace and tolerance. It is great to advocate peace and tolerance because we must learn to live together regardless of religion or race, color of skin, or ethnicity, but why do those people give the wrong message to the people? The Qur’an says, "It is who sent his Messenger with guidance and true religion to exalt it over every other religion, though the idolaters hate it (Qur’an, 61:9) Also, the Qur’an says, " If you believe in Allah, you are superior to others.” So what is the exact meaning of tolerance if that religion asserts that you are superior to others because you are a believer in that faith?

Huntington asserts that civilizational differences, which stem from divergent cultural and religious values, will be the primary cause of regional and global conflicts in the post-Cold War epoch. The clash of civilizations is inevitable, though not necessarily violent. For Huntington, the fault lines between civilizations stem from differences in social and political values. Islamic and Western civilizations have more likely clashed because Islam is the only civilization that claims universal values and poses a significant challenge to the West. Many Muslims believe that Gülen's answer to Huntington's clash of civilizations thesis is persuasive. How does Gülen refute Huntington’s clash of civilizations in public but implicitly accept Huntington's lines of enmity. Instead of emphasizing a commonality that would actually refute Huntington, he uses the Qur’an, the supposed superiority of Islam and particularly of Turks, and reverence for the golden generation of the Ottoman past to distinguish between those who believe in Islam and those who do not. In so doing, he in reality plays in Huntington's game field by believing that Islam is superior, promoting Islamic values and system, and trying to bring back the Ottoman Empire. If Gülen aims to promote tolerance, he should invite someone who disagrees with his ideology to his meetings, not only those tied with the community, to debate the differences.

Surely, Huntington has a cogent argument in noting the great divide. Indeed, the Qur’an says that the only acceptable religion is Islam and that the whole world must unite under the Islamic tenets. One who studies Islam understands that when Muhammad was weak and did not have many followers, he was very cautious not to engage the Jews in war. Muslims would even pray toward Jerusalem until they gained power, and then they turned toward Mecca. Because Muslims believe that Allah has promised Muslims that he will establish them on earth if they continue doing the right things (Nur Surah 24: 5), having Interfaith Dialogue with academia and higher educational institutions is very important because through them access into the government and influence of the Western policy makers will be possible. The other ambition of the Gulen’s Islamic organizations is to have representatives in the U.S. and other Western countries’ Parliament, Congress, Senate, and other branches of government. In Gülen’s view, in order to guarantee a good future for an Islamic nation in the West, it is vital that they have Islamic infrastructures that will be able to take care of Muslims all over the globe. Gulen believes that mosques have lost their function, and consequently it is useless if mosques do not teach science and other subjects that will compete with the West. His educational institutions can implant Islamic beliefs better than mosques.

In the final analysis, those studying socio-politics may weigh Huntington’s concept of a clash of civilizations against Gülen’s refutation of it under the notion of tolerance as a card to draw potential converts to Islam. Is Huntington accurate in his analysis about a cultural clash or is Gülen correct to refute it while seeking to establish a global Qur’anic civilization? Gülen argues that the clash of civilizations is not happening, but at the same times he insists that Islamic culture is superior to others and that Allah has chosen the Turkish race to carry out the Muhammad’s legacy. He also claims that Islam is superior and has a greater culture, values, and ethics. Noting this demarcation, Huntington says, “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural and values,” the divisions are “deep and increasing in importance,” and this “clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.” Does Gülen confirm this clash of civilizations by teaching Qur’anic verses that command his followers to set themselves apart from the infidels, those of other faiths, to remain untainted by them?

Aland Mizell is with the University of Texas at Dallas School of Social Science. President of MCI

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  • - By Aland Mizell
  • 31/12/2007 00:00:00