On April 15th Akbar Ahmed a professor of Islamic Studies at American University came and presented a lecture to the Clark Forum. This lecture, titled, “Islam & the West: A Clash of Civilizations?” is a part of the overall lecture series for this semester following the themes of “War at Home,” and “Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty.”
This lecture series is especially relevant to recent course work done in our International Relations of The Middle East and North Africa course. The Clash of Civilizations theory came about in the mid 1990’s in a series of articles and later a book published by Samuel P. Huntington. This argument put forth the theory that the post Cold War world is divided into 9 different major civilizations. He argues that certain civilizations are predisposed to conflict with others due to differences in cultures.
This theory as Ahmed pointed out in his lecture found noticeable popularity following the al-Qaeda attacks on 9/11. This is due to the contention that the Islamic civilization is fundamentally at conflict with the Western civilization. One important correction to the popular conception of this theory that Ahmed added was that these two civilizations will be at conflict if avenues of communication are not pursued.
It was this point that Ahmed chose to capitalize on and took this as an opportunity for building understanding of the region. To do this he specifically looked at the emergence of the Terrorist groups across the region. Comparing the similarities of Boka Haram, al-Shahaab, al-Qaeda, ISIL, and the Taliban, Ahmed determined that understanding these organizations is fundamental to building peace within the region. Asking questions such as why ISIL is executing fellow muslims, and why al-Qaeda is attacking school children. Ahmed pointed out that these terrorist groups are comprised of tribes or ethnic groups which have typically been marginalized in some way. Further, they have very distinct honor codes which include a revenge component. Finally, they are committing acts of terror in order to gain recognition. They are capable of these actions through their ability to utilize social media to target the marginalized Muslims in European society as well as their uncanny fundraising capabilities.
One key point that Ahmed continually reiterated was that in his experience and in the experience of the hundreds of people he has talked to across the country was that the United States is the best place to be a Muslim. This would conceivably disprove the clash of civilizations theory that Huntington had proposed. Instead Ahmed argued it is a lack of understanding of Middle Eastern culture and Islamic culture, specifically with regard to the tribal divisions so prominent throughout the region, that has lead to conflict.
Overall this was a very informative talk however, I felt as if Ahmed was missing a key component in the reason for conflict between the Western civilizations and Islamic civilizations. This is the history of colonialism. Using this as the basis for the later issues gives a much firmer foundation to the lack of understanding of the region. This is evident in nearly every state in the region, perhaps most notably Iraq. This is a country in which multiple conflicting tribes and ethnic groups were combined under a unified boarder. Inevitably this will lead to conflict. I would also like to note that the conflict as a whole is not a clash of civilizations between the West and Islam, instead it is an internal clash between Middle Easterners.
Understanding the tribal division is the key to successful foreign policy in the region. The Middle East and North Africa will undoubted continue to see a large amount of international involvement, specifically from the West. The key to limiting conflict and building relations is to realize both the tribal divisions and how they interact with one another. This is a very complex problem, yet it is the key to peace especially in the age of global terrorism.