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Top 10 World News Stories
Special> 2012 in Retrospect> Top 10 World News Stories
UPDATED: October 8, 2012 NO. 41 OCTOBER 11, 2012
Dissecting the Clash
Getting at the roots of Muslim outrage
By Qin Tian

Clash of civilizations

The latest round of regional anti-Western demonstrations is not the first and will not be the last. Writer Salman Rushdie's life was threatened in the 1990s over his novel insulting the Prophet. More recently, the 2005 Danish cartoons controversy triggered a wave of Muslim anger for the portrayal of the Prophet. And in 2012 protests broke out after the burning of copies of the Quran in Afghanistan. Western society apparently has a habit of criticizing the greatest leader of Islam every few years. Muslim countries cannot tolerate those insults, no matter if they are unofficial or unintentional.

The late acedemic Samuel Huntington gave us a framework for explaining the phenomenon—"the clash of civilizations," referring not to individual or short-term incidents, but to grander clash between the Western civilization and the Islamic civilization.

The clash is a historical continuity. Western and Islamic civilizations have been fighting or competing with each other for more than 1,000 years. The insulting film is merely a small skirmish in a much deeper conflict. The clash has a critical dimension of mutual perception. A large number of Westerners tend to see Muslims as backward, conservative, extreme, or even close to terrorists. On the other side, Muslims see Westerners as imperialists, materialists, hegemonists, or even crusaders. There's not enough of a friendly basis from which the two sides can reflect on criticisms from each other.

Religion is also considered as one of the most important origins of the clash. Western Christian society has developed the separation of church and state, so the state doesn't interfere with religious affairs and vice-versa. Westerners see the film as an individual production, which the state cannot forbid. Producing and publishing the film is a basic right of freedom of expression. For Muslims, the Quran, the Prophet and the Islamic state are closely connected. Muslims are expected to live according to the Quran and the Prophet, and the state should be established according to Islamic principles. Insulting the Prophet equates to insulting the Quran, the state, the people and the civilization. This is what Westerners have difficulty in understanding. It's easy for Muslims to suspect a hidden agenda from the U.S. Government behind the film. U.S. Middle East policy has deepened this impression.

U.S. policy questioned

The clash of civilizations, whether you agree with the term or not, is steeped in history. It's unlikely to change soon. Nevertheless, we should try to limit and avoid the conflict at the strategic or policy level. It's quite natural that there are differences among civilizations. Even so, different countries can be friends. U.S. President Barack Obama said in his 2009 Cairo speech that the United States won't be the Muslim world's enemy. The reality, however, is far from the ideal.

Traditionally, U.S. Middle East policy is made up of several pillars, including antiterrorism, protection of Israel, oil interests and nuclear nonproliferation (especially against Iran). Not all of them match regional countries' interests. The United States launched an antiterror war in Afghanistan in 2001, which became a protracted conflict that crushed any hope of Afghanistan becoming a peaceful place anytime soon. The United States supports its staunch ally Israel in almost every dispute and conflict with the Arabs. Israel is disliked by almost every Islamic country. As long as Washington favors Israel, Arab countries will not trust the United States.

The United States is proud of its global leadership, especially its universal values. It works tirelessly to promote "democracy" around the world. During the George W. Bush era, the Grand Middle East Plan had at its heart the 2003 Iraq war. Saddam Hussein was overthrown, sectarian conflicts erupted and Iraq is still lacking a stable and healthy democratic system. When Libya's civil war reached a critical moment in March 2011, the United States and other Western countries again intervened militarily, this time under the flag of "the responsibility to protect." With Gaddafi removed, the Libyan political landscape fragmented. With so many militias operating on their own, it's hard to provide public security, let alone manage a democratic transformation.

The United States has left Iraq and Libya, and will soon leave Afghanistan. It seems obvious the United States is much better at disposing old regimes than establishing new ones, leaving a huge gap between its promises and achievements. People in the region have to deal with an awful mess alone in the end. Its unbalanced policy, partial stance and irresponsibility in the postwar period have damaged the United States' image in the Middle East and Muslim world. The insulting film was only a tiny affront that sparked the protests—a biased policy, a misreading of Islam and a mindset rooted in a clash of civilizations.

The author is a researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Email us at: yanwei@bjreview.com

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