Peace Through Knowledge: Responding to Conflict Involving Religion

Foundation Update

Peace Through Knowledge: Responding to Conflict Involving Religion

06 May 2015

A simplistic, deterministic narrative of conflict between religions and global civilisations dominates our world. To respond to conflict between these great actors we must develop a new formula for the way in which the world deals with religion, especially with Islam. Dialogue between these civilisations to foster mutual understanding is an imperative we can no longer ignore, writes Akbar Ahmed for our Global Perspectives Series.

Peace Through Knowledge: Responding to Conflict Involving Religion

By Akbar Ahmed

Since 9/11 a somewhat deterministic 'clash of civilisations' narrative seems to have dominated our understanding of global conflict. See S.P. Huntington, 'The Clash of Civilizations?', Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3, Summer 1993, pp. 22-49; S.P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1996. In this view This article was adapted from Akbar Ahmed's 2004 Milliband Lecture on Culture in the Age of Global Communications at the London School of Economics titled Islam Under Siege: From Clash to Dialogue of Civilizations., the fundamental lines of conflict in our times will be defined by cultural and religious civilisations, with Islam as a major global civilisational opponent to the West. But this scenario of escalating conflict does not have to define our future. Peace can be found through the search for a greater understanding of each other. There has never been a greater urgency for dialogue between the world's civilisations. For a full account of the opinions and arguments I express here, see my quartet of books examining relations between the West and the Muslim world after 9/11: A. Ahmed, Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization, Washington D.C., Brookings Press, 2007; A. Ahmed, Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam, Washington D.C., Brookings Press, 2010; A. Ahmed, The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam, Washington D.C., Brookings Press, 2013; and A. Ahmed, Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Empire, Washington D.C., Brookings Press, Forthcoming.

There can be no doubt that we are living at a critical and dangerous time in history with several world civilisations feeling under siege simultaneously. This arises from the cultural and historical contexts of their relationships, how each perceives the other and from the impact of the war on terror on Muslim communities around the world. While the West feels under siege from terrorism, Muslims across the United States of America, Europe and in the Muslim world feel under siege because the West's response to terrorism has affected their entire religion. With growing anger, often fuelled by their own experiences of oppression and persecution, they point to growing Islamophobia in the West and the plight of besieged Muslim communities such as the Palestinians, the Kashmiris and the Syrians. In spite of United Nations resolutions and military action, little has been done to settle these problems.

Individuals living in a siege mentality are thrown off balance. They fall back to notions of excessive group loyalty. In this heated climate, there is little room for dialogue and the dominant ethos is one of group survival and security. For the great Muslim historian and sociologist Ibn Khaldun who lived in the 14th century, the notion of asabiyya, group loyalty or social cohesion, explained how societies were bound together and passed on values, customs and behaviour patterns from one generation to another. In our times, through the processes of globalisation, asabiyya is loosening and even disintegrating. But as societies do not disappear into a black hole, different expressions of asabiyya begin to form. We are now seeing excessive or exaggerated forms of group loyalty, or hyper-asabiyya. This encourages a rigid drawing of group boundaries that can encourage violence.

For Muslims, as for other global civilisations, there are four main factors that contribute to the development of hyper-asabiyya. Firstly, Muslim leaders need to worry about social and demographic trends. Muslim population growth rates are among the highest in the world, the literacy rates are among the lowest, the figures for health facilities are unsatisfactory and the life expectancy below average. Pew Research Center, 'The Future of the Global Muslim Population', Religion and Public Life Project, January 27, 2011, [ UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 'International Literacy Data 2014', July 17, 2014, []; Pew Research Center, 'Main Factors Driving Population Growth', Religion and Public Life Project, January 27, 2011, [ Rapid urbanisation has not helped. Take Karachi, which in 50 years has gone from a population of a few hundred thousand to about 23 million people today. It is literally bursting at the seams and law and order, transport, health and civic facilities simply do not function in many parts of the city. A once rural population has been suspended between two ways of life and are particularly vulnerable. The gaps between the rich and the poor are growing dangerously wide. Anger is caused not only by the widening gap but also by the fact that many of the rich have made their money through illegal means. A large percentage of the population is young, jobless and restless for radical change and an aggressive Islam, which easily translates into violence, is the natural way out.

Secondly, Muslim societies, like others, tend to marginalise critical and creative scholarship. Muslims must remember that the word for knowledge, ilm, is highly prized in Islam. It is the second most used word in the Quran after the word for God. The poor treatment of scholars has driven a brain drain from the Muslim world to the West. Scholars are chased out, sometimes silenced and even killed. The climate of sycophancy surrounding rulers and the widespread powers of intelligence services make life intolerable for scholars of conscience. In the absence of critical and intelligent scholarship, neither objective analysis nor sensible predictions are possible in society.

Thirdly, Muslims face a greater challenge that is internal to their faith. They need to rebuild an idea of Islam that includes justice, integrity, tolerance and the quest for knowledge. Muslims must not just insist on the rituals, on the five pillars of Islam, but on the entire edifice of their religion. Reducing a sophisticated civilisation to simple fundamentals encourages simple answers: reaching for guns and explosives, for instance. Today, piety and virtue are judged by political action, often equated to violence, rather than moral integrity or spirituality.

Fourthly, and to make matters worse, the West does not generally understand Islam and therefore responds in ways that make the relationship worse. Since 9/11 there is also growing Islamophobia. The West must learn to curb this tendency, to discourage knee-jerk 'nuke 'em' responses and to avoid the labelling of any Muslim act as 'fundamentalist'. The international media and Western governments need to be more sensitive to Muslim society. The Western media needs to treat Islam in its coverage with the dignity due to a world religion. The media's generalised and often intense contempt of Islam provokes many Muslims into an anti-Western stance. It also makes the position of those who talk of dialogue and moderation more vulnerable.

These factors have real implications for us all, but it is their current unique geopolitical alignment for Islam that both isolates Islam and creates the global dilemma in which the 21st century is construed as an era of war between Islam and the other world civilisations. We know that for the first time in history, due to a unique geopolitical conjunction of factors, Islam is in confrontation with all of the major world religions: Judaism in the Middle East; Christianity in Nigeria, Sudan and sporadically in the Philippines and Indonesia; Hinduism in South Asia; and Buddhism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

Of course, this neat conceptual equation is challenged because so many Muslim countries are clearly allied to non-Muslim countries. Besides, so many Muslims now live in non-Muslim nations. But this idea is now firmly entrenched in the minds of many opinion leaders across the world. The major world civilisations are experiencing problems in accommodating or even understanding Islam, both within, and outside of, their borders. Whatever the economic, political and sometimes demographic causes of social transformations on this scale, simplistic ideas often capture the imagination and become the filter through which ordinary people understand them. Western academics and leaders have stoked this argument, building on narratives of conflict that have been around for a thousand years.

Peace will only come through a better understanding of each other. Whether one adheres to the notion of the clash of civilisations, or whether one chooses dialogue, this will be the key to resolving the many conflicts that rack the Muslim world today.

However, to advance this goal, more is needed than just political resolutions. Muslim honour and dignity must be restored. No other people in our times can be so openly abused and humiliated with such impunity. Their God, their Prophet, their holy book, their women and their culture can be attacked openly and freely. This has resulted in a growing sense of powerlessness and despair, which has fed into anger that in turn encourages violence. The continued presence of Islamophobia in the West only serves as a barrier to discovering real solutions towards these on-going conflicts.

It is vital to create an effective process of mutual understanding and dialogue. With dialogue comes knowledge and understanding of each other. This can be done through conferences, seminars and other means of disseminating knowledge about each other. Education and democracy must be encouraged in the Muslim world. Only through this process can we create a climate that will allow the real problems of the Muslim world to be solved in Palestine, Kashmir, Syria and Iraq. That stability and security must come to these regions as soon as possible makes these initiatives all the more imperative.

An important place to start is looking for what we hold in common. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam there is rich material: the idea of one invisible, omnipotent God; the angels and messengers; the sacred texts, revelations and commandments; the notion of the afterlife; and many customs and values.

What we must not do is to take the sacred texts out of context. Misguided Muslims, men like Osama bin Laden who cite Surah 2, Verse 190, "Fight against those who fight against you, but begin not hostilities", to justify violence against Jews and Christians in general and in particular the USA, are wrong. Non-Muslims, especially the instant experts in the media, who also use this kind of selective use of holy texts to support their arguments, are also wrong. Not only do they take these verses out of context, as they relate to a specific situation at a certain time in the history of early Islam, but they ignore verses, which often follow immediately after, that nuance and clarify the meaning, clearly conveying God's overarching command. In this instance, for example, Surah 2, Verses 192-193: "Make peace with them if they want peace; God is Forgiving, Merciful."

We must pursue a new formula for the new millennium. Justice and compassion must flourish, and be seen to flourish, in the Muslim world whose rulers must be people of integrity and Muslims must be allowed to practice their faith with honour. If these criteria are met, then Islam will be a good neighbour to non-Muslims living outside its borders and provide a benevolent and compassionate environment to those living inside them. It will continue to resist attempts to subvert its identity or dignity.

The urgency of the call for dialogue has never been greater. Creative participation in the dialogue of civilisations to find an internal balance between the needs and traditions of local communities and the world increasingly dominated by international corporations; the committed search for global solutions to the common global problems confronting human society; and the quest for a just, compassionate and peaceful order will be the challenge human civilisation faces in the 21st century.

This article is taken from the Global Perspectives Series (Volume I): Religion and Conflict: Responding to the Challenges. Find all the articles from the volume here.

The views expressed by this author remains solely their own and may not necessarily be the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation.
Copyright © December 2014 by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Edited by Daniel Cere and Thomas Thorp.
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