Posted on March 18, 1996 in Washington Watch

Samuel Huntington’s essay “A Clash of Civilizations?” was a significant subject of discussion at a recent international conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The conference, a multi-level examination of the relationship between “Islam and the West,” was a part of the annual al-Janadriyyah National Cultural and Heritage Festival. Sponsored by the Kingdom’s National Guard, al-Janadriyyah brought together an broad array of Arab, European and American intellectuals. In recent years the event has become one of the more exciting and dynamic political events in the region.

While not a serious piece of scholarship or analysis, Huntington’s “Clash” theory was nevertheless a fitting topic for discussion. Since it’s publication in the Summer 1993 issue of Foreign Affairs, the article has aroused deep concern in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

In essence, Huntington’s thesis is that in the post-Cold War world, the “conflict between civilizations will supplant ideological and other forms of conflict as the dominant form of global conflict” and “a central focus of conflict will be between the West and several Islamic-Confucian states.” The policy recommendations Huntington draws from his thesis basically call for the West to work for greater internal strength and unity so as to better contain and, if necessary, confront the other hostile and competitive nations.

Huntington’s work is based on rather thin evidence, a selective use of quotations and facts, and appears to be an effort to give an intellectual cast to a fairly biased ideological worldview. This “clash” theory has been largely ignored by serious policy-makers and analysts and has been publicly repudiated by the President of the United States and his Chief National Policy Advisor. It has, however, been adopted by several anti-Arab cold warriors who have used it to justify their call for heightened Western antagonism with the emerging Arab and Muslim world.

What was disturbingly in evidence at the conference was the fact that while many Arab and Muslim scholars deeply resented Huntington’s work, some shared his assumption of an unbridgeable civilization-based divide between “the West” and “Islam.”

The unfortunate tendency of some thinkers on both sides of the discussion to generalize, objectify and demonize the other was the subject of an insightful paper by Dr. Jorges Neilsen. After noting that the concepts of both “the West” and “Islam” refer to peoples and states and realities so complex that to objectify them in a single word is not useful; and Dr. Neilsen critiqued the manner in which some scholars persist in so describing the world. “Orientalism,” he wrote, “is matched in the Muslim world by an `Occidentalism’... [and] both issues operate on simplistic caricatures of the other…. Such caricatures obscure the enormous variety of views and tendencies on both sides. In fact, it could be argued that the variety is so great that to talk of sides at all is probably not justified, ...[neither side] is monolithic.”

This shared tendency of some on each side to objectify the other results in their mistakenly mystifying the “other’s” policy objections. Just as some anti-Arab ideologues never tire of viewing the actions of some Arab or Muslim states or extremist groups as harbingers of a resurgent Islamic tide threatening the West, so, too, do some Arabs and Muslims mystify the action of some Western states as prefiguring a renewed crusade threatening all of Islam.

Hisham Milhem, a prominent Arab American journalist for several Arab newspapers, contribution significantly to dispelling this mirror image “Islamic tide/crusader” myth-making by noting that policies are not made by civilizations, but by individual states pursuing their national self-interests.

In my presentation, I sought to contribute to the de-mystification of “the West” by describing the real situation of the Arabs and Muslims in the U.S.

Media-propagated negative stereotypes continue to plague Arab Americans and American Muslims, and the communities have continuing policy differences with the Administration and Congress on certain issues. But it does not serve our effort to change these realities by generalizing or simplifying the source of our difficulties.

In twenty years of struggle in the U.S., Arab Americans have learned that negative policies are a function of our political weakness in a democratic society where politics and organized interest groups shape policy. Our ability to change U.S. policy is directly related to our ability to organize our communities politically, building political coalitions, and creating balance in the public pressure that will make U.S. policy more sensitive to Arab and Muslim needs and concerns.

Similarly, we have learned that while some widespread prejudices exist against Arabs and Muslims, they can be dispelled because they are largely the product of ignorance and a lack of information. Some creators of popular culture and media commentators do have a clearly anti-Arab and/or anti-Muslim political and cultural agenda. Their work preys off and feeds public ignorance. But it is simply not correct to view the work of those propagandists as synonymous with all of America.

In fact, through collective work over the past twenty years, Arab Americans and American Muslims have been able to identify many of the sources of this anti-Arab/anti-Muslim effort and simultaneously been able to educate large segments of the previously uninformed American society.

Our work in response to the false accusations made against Arab Americans and American Muslims in the aftermath of the tragic Oklahoma City Bombing is a case in point. Because we were to quick to respond and organize and effective in our response, Arab Americans and American Muslims were able to use expose the sources of the anti-Arab propaganda. We were also able to show the impact of this propaganda on those in the media gullible enough to accept it as well as on the misinformed segments of the public who acted on it.

In the end, Arab Americans and American Muslims generated tremendous press coverage sympathetic to our communities and our work. Major networks and newspapers did extensive positive reporting on our conversations with top Administration officials (including President Clinton and Vice President Gore), and major media personalities expressed their sorrow that our community had been falsely accused.

The problems of propagandists who attack Arab Americans and American Muslims, and a uninformed public, are still with us. And, therefore, the struggle to change these realities remains. But a remedy is possible – a remedy that consists of further strengthening the Arab American and American Muslim communities so that we can respond and act effectively to meet these challenges. Public opinion polling shows that we are succeeding: each year polls show that U.S. attitudes toward our communities are improving.

Arab Americans and American Muslims have recorded gains on the political and social level as well, due to persistent work and increased organization. Members of our communities now regularly testify before Congress, meet with Administration officials (including the President and Vice President). Both communities played a significant role in the broad coalition that recently succeeded in the effort to defeat Congress’ proposed anti-terrorism legislation. Our efforts were also able to convince Congress that the legislation would have violated basic rights guaranteed to all by the U.S. Constitution, despite strong lobbying from many American Jewish organizations.

Twenty years ago, Arab Americans had no place as an organized constituency in U.S. politics, and American Muslims were not given formal recognition by official Washington. As a result of effective organizing and hard work, those conditions have also changed.

Today, Arab Americans are fully recognized as a respected constituency group by both political parties and by the White House. Arab Americans currently play leadership roles in both the Democratic Clinton-Gore reelection campaign and the Republican presidential campaign of Bob Dole. And this year’s AAI Annual Conference that included a meeting with President Clinton, speeches by Vice President Gore, 2 Cabinet members and 25 members U.S. Congress and Senate, made clear that Arab Americans are making advances as a respected community in American political life.

American Muslims, too, have enhanced their community’s recognition in the U.S. There are now Muslim Chaplains in the U.S., Armed Forces, a Muslim religious leader spoke at the opening of a session of the U.S. Senate and at President Clinton’s 1993 inaugural ceremonies. More recently, Mrs. Hillary Clinton’s invitation to 100 American Muslims to celebrate Eid al-Fitr at a White House dinner firmly established Islam as a major religious presence in the U.S.

None of these gains have come easily. Not only did Arab Americans and American Muslims work hard for their new recognition, but the White House, Congress and political parties had to resist the determined efforts of those groups that sought to continue the exclusion of Arab Americans and American Muslims from U.S. public policy activity.

And so the struggle of the communities must continue. But already at this point, both Arab Americans and American Muslims can say, as some speakers as al-Janadriyyah noted, that today “Arab Americans and American Muslims can say with pride, `America is us.’”

The work of Arab Americans and American Muslims can provide important lessons in the study of the relations between Islam and the West. Their advancement, while not yet complete, establishes that change is possible despite deep differences, and that a “clash” is not inevitable. The changes achieved by Arab Americans and American Muslims have been hard-won, and reverses still do occur, but the example of the two communities should be learned from and supported.

Arab Americans and American Muslims can make a significant contribution in the relationship between the West and the Arab World and Islam. They can help provide understanding to Arabs and Muslims of the realities of American life and the possibilities that America offers. We also can and do provide America with an understanding of the concerns and needs of the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Arab Americans and American Muslims can be a bridge that ensures that cooperation and communication define the relationship between East and West, and not a “clash of civilizations.”

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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