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LEBANON: Experts argue against 'clash of civilizations' at university forum

March 16, 2010 |  1:10 pm


 The clash of civilizations between the Islamic world and the West isn’t over -- it never began, according to a group of top-notch scholars gathered in Beirut last week.

The scholars from around the world convened at the American University of Beirut to discuss the future of engagement between the Islamic world and the West in a forum sponsored by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center.

“It’s more appropriate to talk about a clash of ignorances,” said Ali Asani of Harvard University. “People tend to paint each other with one color, with one brush stroke, as simplistic caricatures in utter humiliation.”

In addition to the stereotypes frequently constructed by Muslims against Americans and vice versa, the world is simply too globalized a place to allow for any kind of cultural misconception or hatred, they argued. About one of every five people in the world is Muslim, accounting for up to 1.5 billion of the total population. Almost two-thirds of the world’s Muslims reside in Asia, with Indonesia being home to 15.6% of them.

In fact, more Muslims can be found in Germany than in Lebanon and more in China than in Syria, according to an October 2009 study conducted by the Pew Research Center. Though the U.S. Census is legally prohibited from asking questions on religion, it is estimated that at least several million Americans are Muslim.

Despite such complexities, everyone tries to simplify. “On 9/11, I was confusedly watching my TV and CNN called me and asked, ‘How is the Muslim population responding?’" Roy Parviz Mottahedeh of Harvard recalled. "And I said, ‘How should I know? Canceling my chances of speaking on CNN.”

Learning about Islam could build a sense of appreciation, Mottahedeh continued. “One of the great things is to understand your religion through the lens of another tradition," he said. "We have books like "Islam for Dummies," but we need books for the intellectual lay reader.”

Adding to the complexities are the minorities within the Arab world itself. Last year, Cambridge University held a conference on Jews from the Arab world. “We really need to bring that complexity back to this region and to celebrate it,” Yasir Suleiman remarked.

Still all acknowledged that Islamic studies departments are booming in the West. “I owe my Lexus to Khomeini and my Lexus Coupe to Bin Laden," John Esposito of Georgetown University joked.

Asani cautioned against ”the devastating impact of illiteracy on democracy, which is fundamentally premised on a well-informed, educated citizenry.” 

He teaches his students about Islam through hands-on projects like building their own small-scale mosques for a U.S. city.

Robert Meyers of AUB also introduces his students to the U.S. beyond policy-making by exploring its raucous social history, since race in America “is the 800-pound gorilla in the room.” 

He compares racial issues in the U.S. to the human rights abuses committed across the Middle East against women, religious minorities and foreign workers.

"Stereotypes have a function of making the world simple," Suleiman explained. "Our duty as academics is to make it messy.”

Asani argued that scholars must "humanize" Islam. "Behind the profound ignorance of a religion practiced by over 1 billion people is a deep-seated prejudice and fear of Muslims,” Asani argued.

Recent political inroads have made cross-cultural dialogue feasible. 

“Most Egyptians didn’t know that 9/11 was planned in Afghanistan," said Jerry Wayne Leach of the American University in Cairo. The biggest change that has helped is the departure of Bush and arrival of Obama."

-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut

Photo: From left to right, Yasir Suleiman, Cambridge University; Ali Asani, Harvard University; Hugh Goddard, University of Edinburgh; Jerry Wayne Leach, American University in Cario; John Voll, Georgetown University; Robert Meyers, American University of Beirut. Credit: American University of Beirut