BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 September, 2003, 10:36 GMT 11:36 UK
Viewpoint: A Clash of Civilisations?
Dr Chandra Muzaffar
President of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST)

Dr. Chandra Muzaffar
Dr Chandra Muzaffar is a Malaysian political scientist who has written extensively on religion, human rights, Malaysian politics and international relations.

In the wake of September 11, the subsequent assault on Afghanistan, and Washington's occupation of Iraq, the idea of a 'clash of civilisations' between the West and Islam has been resurrected in some circles.

A handful of politicians, Christian evangelists and media commentators in the West, for instance, view Muslims and their faith as 'inclined towards violence' and therefore bent on destroying their 'civilised way of life'.

Within the Muslim world there are groups that are convinced that the West, specifically the United States, has made Islam and its people its principal target and will not rest until they are totally subjugated.

Actual realities, however, reveal that both these views are wrong.

It was not just people in the West who regarded the suicide aircraft attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon as a heinous act; Muslims everywhere condemned the slaughter of innocents.


Similarly, it was not just Muslims who were angered by the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Millions of people in the West protested. Indeed, their protests, especially in the case of Iraq, were far more massive than what transpired in Muslim countries.

If there is any dichotomy at all, it is between ruling elites and the people

This shows that on fundamental issues of justice, of right and wrong, confronting humankind today, there is no West-Islam dichotomy.

If there is any dichotomy at all, it is between ruling elites and the people.

The Iraq crisis exposed this new fault-line in a number of Muslim countries as well as a few Western societies.

It is important that people in the West and the Muslim world take cognisance of this and refuse to be drawn into a false, artificial inter-civilisational feud.

The real threat to our well-being emanates from vested interests that are determined to perpetuate their global military, political, economic and cultural hegemony.

Though the focal-point of this global hegemony is Washington, its power is sustained by a whole network of elites, including rulers in the Muslim world!

Shared goals

As a reaction to this collective hegemonic power, a fringe within the Muslim world has chosen to confront global and domestic injustices through the vile and vicious weapon of violence and terror.

In the midst of this twin challenge of hegemony and terror, people in Western societies and Muslim countries who are genuinely committed to a just world should re-affirm their faith in peaceful, non-violent political change.

This should become the shared goal of people in both civilisations, and indeed human beings everywhere.

Recent events have shown that we, the peoples of the world, are capable of transcending ethnic, religious, cultural and civilisational barriers in our quest for justice and peace.

Anti-war demonstrators marching in Northwood
Both Muslims and non Muslims march in opposition to war
When a struggle of such monumental significance to the future of the human race awaits us, how can we allow a false inter-civilisational clash to divert our energies?

Does it even make sense to talk of the 'West' and 'Islam' as two separate, distinct entities?

Doesn't the West, as a civilisational construct, exist within the Muslim world? Political institutions, economic systems and cultural values associated with Western civilisation have become part and parcel of Muslim societies in the course of the last two centuries.

Similarly, Muslims constitute an important minority in almost every country in Europe and North America today.

Besides, Islamic civilisation had, in the past, played a major role in shaping the European renaissance. That Islam has been part of the West, and the West has been part of the Muslim world, is not the only reason why we should cease to attach any credence to the 'clash of civilisations' thesis.

Power structures

In a situation where geographical borders are becoming less relevant and cultural boundaries are becoming less real, it does not serve any purpose to reinforce civilisational barriers which are non-existent in any case.

To understand the evolving global scenario, it may be more useful to talk in terms of global power structures and global interests.

Such an approach will shed more light upon the realities prevailing in both the West and the Muslim world and upon the relationship between the two civilisations.

It is when we come face to face with these realities that we will realise that it is not the clash of civilisations which is the real issue but the struggle for a just world where all human beings can live in peace and dignity.

What do you think? Send us your views using the form at the bottom of the page:

Your Comments

If the concept of "Clash of Civilizations" is unfounded then why are the Islamic countries in general and Islam as a faith in particular a favourite subject of criticism by the western media, intellectuals and western politicians? Why does West want to export and thrust its values on Muslim countries, using force? Can any body answer these questions?
Basit Shuja, Pakistan

The real issue is Muslim anger at Western governments
Sultan, Hyderabad, India
This entire issue has been turned on its head by labelling it as "Islam vs. the West" making it a clash of cultures. The real issue is Muslim anger at Western governments. In order to ensure a cheap and smooth flow of oil, the US has installed and supported puppet regimes in Arab/Islamic world and turned a blind eye on massacres against tens of thousands of Muslims by puppet dictators over the last 50 years. In the process, Muslim peoples remained poor, uneducated and saw their rights trampled upon. The the cat is out of the bag and Muslims have woken up to this painful fact. The sad consequence is that cults on th efringe which are really not part of Islam, such as the Wahhabis, have taken matters too far by targeting innocent and westerners. This is giving Islam a bad name and again Western governments have spin-doctored this into a culture clash of "Islam vs. the West" to gain currency with their own electorates.
Sultan, Hyderabad, India

This whole debate about a "clash of civilizations" is on the whole an artificial, academic construct which provide an ideological foundation for the world's power elites. Whether Islamic or Western, these power elite share the same interests. For instance, why does the US support repressive and undemocratic regimes in places like Egypt and Saudi Arabia if they are truly in support of democratic, free societies? Even Saddam was once a darling of the West.
Ado Mohammed, Nigeria

The only way for peaceful co-existence is mutual respect.
Luqman Omotoso, Nigeria

There are two countries in the world that are promoting fundamentalism. These countries are the USA, where Christian televangelists are promoting hatred against Islam and other religions, and Saudi Arabia which promote Islamic fundamentalism by condemning non Muslims.
Twalib Saad, Nairobi, Kenya

There is a definite conflict
Mohammed Nasir, Scotland
The West is based on secular and democratic values. This therefore shows a clear-cut clash between the two, since secularism is an alien concept in Islam. Another way of looking at it is that the West (and other nations) upholds the concept of freedom. This again cannot co-exist with Islam because Islam means to submit to the will of Allah, and not to our desires. There is a definite conflict.
Mohammed Nasir, Scotland

With all due respect, Dr Tom Brooks' argument that turning away from religion has led to the increase in prosperity of 'Western' countries is flawed. In the first place, the principle of democracy was first implemented in the US by people who would be called religious fundamentalists today - the puritans. Secondly, there are far too many non - Muslim countries languishing in poverty. The case of Africa is an interesting one. Many North African countries are economically better off than say East African countries that are overwhelmingly Christian. And this has nothing to do with religious leanings, but corruption coupled with greed and economic exploitation from the 'West' that supposedly preaches freedom and equality to all!

The Islamic world needs a real reformation and enlightenment.
Michael, USA
Christianity in its fundamentalist form is just as incompatible with secular democracy as Islam. So why do Christian countries have fewer problems with separation of church and state? Social and intellectual development is the key. The Islamic world has been largely mired in fundamentalism since the 15th century, while the west has progressed into secularism. The Islamic world needs a real reformation and enlightenment. Fundamentalism must be shunned.
Michael, USA

In the West Muslims are perceived as violent and intolerant and the horrors perpetrated by organisations like Al Qaida have gone along way to justify this perception, However, the West has a short and selective recall of history. One need not go too far back to the memory of the pogroms and concentration camps. No Muslim was responsible for that, nor were Muslims responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. More often than not they were at the receiving end of western terror: the French wiped out a quarter of the population of Algeria before conceding its freedom; the massacre of Sabra and Shattila and the killing of ten thousand Muslims in Srebrenica. Yet it is the Muslims who are branded as barbaric. The West has also undermined the democratic aspirations of the people of Iran and Indonesia in the past, and has continued to do so by propping up corrupt regimes. I do not condone or defend Al Qaida and its creed, for hatred only breeds hatred. I find it essentially un-Islamic. However the West would do well to remember the words of W.H.Auden in his poem "September 1939": Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.
Munawar Syed, United Kingdom

I find it both disturbing and laughable that such credibility is granted to the 'Clash of Civilisations' thesis. My existence as a whte Anglo-Saxon American Muslim is a manifestation of the fact that there is no inherent contradiction between Islam and the 'West'.
Patrick N. Cates, USA

To some extent I agree with Dr Chandra Muzaffar in that there are no fundamental differences on issues of justice, of right and wrong. However, the devil is in the detail. We in the West do not subscribe to the idea that religious doctrine takes precedence over the legislation that holds a country and binds its citizens. Islam does not recognise geographic boundaries and the rule of law that holds within that boundary. A Christian in a Muslim state does not hold the same fundamental rights as a Muslim in that country. In 'Western' countries, equal rights are ascribed to every individual. There are fundamental differences in beliefs. Individual freedom is anathema in the Muslim ethos. Freedom itself is not recognised.

Most Westerners are now turning away from religion in its orthodox form and this has led directly to greater wealth and understanding of the World around us. This has led to a considerable gulf in prosperity between Muslim and Non-Muslim countries. Even when doctrine is forced on people the fundamental of freedom will eventually prevail.
Dr Tom Brook, UK

The situation is changing for the better
Kaustubh Datar, India
I fully agree with the author's views. There is one important point of difference between the two. Western civilization evolves freely. Islamic civilizations do not freely evolve. Generally speaking, there is a perpetual tug-of-war between traditionalists and the open-minded. The good thing is that the situation is changing for the better. Though I predict that the see-saw would incline for quite some time on the negative side before turning around.
Kaustubh Datar, India

What a crying shame that the 'false inter-civilisational clash', or at least the perception of one, is propagated by such ugly simplifications as George Bush's 'Good vs Evil' crusade. Mixed with the view of Muslim persecution in conflicts around the world, how easy it must be entice Muslims to believe tales of an American war on Islam.
Ben Conley, UK

This is quite the best essay that I have read, congratulations! Humans are capable of just such cooperation and understanding. As a secular Ulsterman horrified by my own history, I pray for resolution which just might happen for me but the parallels with west vs Islam are obvious.
Robert, UK

The idea of a "struggle for a just world where all human beings can live in peace and dignity" sounds like a noble goal. The problem is that Islamic, Christian and Secular notions of "a just world", although related, are sufficiently different to cause Moslems, Christians and Secularists not only to struggle for justice, but to struggle against each other in the name of justice. Christianity has shown that it and secular culture can peacefully cohabit whereas Islam has not! Like the Roman god Janus, Islam appears to look in two directions; Christian minorities in places like Indonesia see smiling bombers and burning churches, whilst in the west where such behaviour is not tolerated it presents an altogether more peaceful image.
Mike, UK

If we have lived together for that long why can't it be done in the future as well?
Joudat Ayaz, Pakistan
Just a comment on 'Clash of Civilisation' thesis of Samuel P. Huntington. He is a Harvard professor who also wrote the book 'Political Order in Changing Societies' in the 60s and argued that military leadership is the best and most progressive kind of leadership for developing countries! The book became a hot-cake with military dictators around the world but decades of military rules have shown the bankruptcy of the theory (and may be the writer as well).

In the early 90s Mr. Huntington propounded his famous 'Clash of Civilizations' thesis which was jumped upon in the West (and to some extent in the East as well). It was publicised heavily in the international press. My argument is that if you beat about a bush, one is subconsciously led to believe that it is true. To me there is no clash pre se. Christianity is 2000 years old and Islam more than 1400. If we have lived together for that long why can't it be done in the future as well?
Joudat Ayaz, Pakistan

Your E-mail address

Disclaimer: The BBC may edit your comments and cannot guarantee that all e-mails will be published.


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific