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Clash of Civilizations? Perhaps Not.

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I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
Thomas Jefferson

The ongoing violence in the Middle East, apparently triggered by a ridiculous, uncivilized, low-budget video trailer that demeans Islam and its Prophet, Mohammed, is cause for reflection. WHY is the release of such an amateurish hit-job video cause for anything more than derision and disgust? Why the rage, the violence, the deep anger directed at the U.S.?

Proximate causes certainly include the long term support we've given to dictators across the Moslem world, the ongoing "War on Terror", and the sanctimonious hubris of a West that preaches the virtues of freedom, democracy, civil society etc. while clearly supporting tyrannies in Moslem nations--Dictators R US, basically.

However, I believe that the problem runs much deeper than this. At its core, we have a clash between two fundamental value systems. For the West, with its Enlightenment legacy, our core values (even if not often truly honored in our own societies) include freedom of speech--that is, the freedom to say whatever one chooses. The centrality of such a value entails the impossibility of any blasphemy statute. After all, in the US for example, there is no state religion per our Constitution's Establishment Clause :

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

Therefore, religion and religious figures can be legally mocked and satirized. It's part of free speech.

However, in Islamic lands, the core value of society is Islam itself. To challenge this idea is to challenge the very foundations of the social order. Such a challenge is therefore, existential in nature: By the deep logic of Islamism, this kind of challenge MUST be smashed, else the very foundations of social order will be imperiled. Free speech, if permitted, CANNOT encompass the freedom to question religious dogma, much less to mock the religion of Islam and its founding Prophet.

Therefore, looked at form this perspective, the current violence triggered by the campy video, represents a clash of two intrinsically incompatible civilizational worldviews. The rage is directed primarily at the United States because the United States is where the video was ALLOWED to be made. That America, and the West in general, does not respect their deep values is sufficient to set them off. Our perceived insensitivity then triggers all of the other resentments which they hold towards us.

However, it raises the point as to what our responsibility is toward this other society. Here, I argue that, aside from being polite in restating our absolute commitment to freedom of expression, we have no responsibility whatsoever to accommodate ourselves to their values system. This is because what is at issue is NOT a clash of civilizations as neocon theorists such as Samuel Huntington believe. Further, Islam, as currently interpreted, is NOT an equally valid ordering of reality to Western rationalism.

I firmly believe in the idea of progress, by which I mean that the long course of human history can best be described as a fitful movement AWAY from ignorance and superstition, towards ever more accurate understanding of reality. It is a move from magical thinking, as decreed by unchallengeable priests, towards rational thinking by empowered individuals. It is a growth from infancy into at least the adolescence of our species. Therefore, religious magical thinking as the basis of societal organization is childish. Our civilizational paradigm, while in my opinion, still at an adolescent stage, is more grown-up than is theirs as theirs is predicated upon this type of magical thinking.

However, this does NOT represent a fundamental civilizational difference between us and them. We of the west are NOT inherently better than they are.

Let us not forget that Western society languished in a religiously-based Dark Age for centuries, while Islam enjoyed a Golden Age back in the eighth and ninth centuries. The bright light of Islamic civilization then illuminated the world. Brilliant achievements in art, science, philosophy, humanism, technology, and more flooded out of the Abbasid Caliphate. Religion was studied rationally and analytically. To have lived in the Baghdad of Caliph Harun al-Rashid was to have lived during an intellectual golden age which not only rivaled that of Periclean Athens , but which almost certainly outshone it.

It was the knowledge developed, maintained, and spread by Islam that ignited our Western Renaissance, and ultimately, our European Enlightenment. The West owes Islam for that gift.

Islamic societies have no need whatsoever to merely imitate the West. They have no need to assimilate our Enlightenment. All that they need to is to revitalize the smoldering embers of their own Golden Age. That age was characterized by tolerance rather than some idealized version of absolute conformity to rules of Islamic religiosity. It was great, not because of religion, but rather, because it was a self-confident civilization which could and did behold objective reality in an objective manner. The new religion provided the organizational framework for an inter-continental civilization, most of whose members were not even Moslems to emerge and enlighten the entire world.

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Michael P Byron is the author of The Path Through Infinity's Rainbow: Your Guide to Personal Survival and Spiritual Transformation in a World Gone Mad. This book is a manual for taking effective action to deal with the crises of our age including (more...)
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