The Conference for Civilisational Dialogue organised by the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue of Malaya University on Sept. 15-17, 1997 saw the meeting of some of the renown scholars of the world such as Prof. Tu Wei Ming, Dr. Roger Garaudy, Prof. Hans Koechler, Prof. Joseph Camillery, Prof. Chandra Muzaffar and, of course, Prof. John Esposito.
The matter which figured prominently at the three day conference was the so-called clash of civilisation thesis propounded by Bernard Lewis and brought to the fore by Prof. Samuel Huntington. In particular, arguments tended to converge on the fact that such a thesis was meant to demonise the perceived enemy so as to legitimate unwarranted actions that would otherwise be difficult to justify under ordinary circumstances.
Discussions had drifted into and around Huntington's social or cultural determinism of Islam as having, inevitably or otherwise, "bloody borders."
One of the most notable presentations was that of Prof.
Esposito's. In his usual scholarly suave and candour, Esposito stated to the effect that
in order to protect Western vested interests, Western powers in collusion with certain
academic and media personalities have drawn a convenient picture of Islam as a monolith to
be reckoned with. Three is, after all,
ample ammunition for loading the anti-Islam gun of the West.
As Esposito stated, "Ayatollah Khomeini's call for other Islamic revolutions found ready believers not only in the Muslim world but also in the West. In France, Raymond Aron warned of 'the Islamic revolution wave' generated by 'the fanaticism of the Prophet and the violence of the people,' which the Ayatollah has [supposedly] unleashed."
"US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance stated that a major reason for his objection to a military mission to rescue American hostages in Iran was fear of an 'Islamic-Western war.... Khomeini and his followers, with a Shiite affinity for martyrdom, actually might welcome American military action as a way of uniting the Moslem world against the West'," added Esposito.
He also pointed out that it was Charles Krauthammer, a syndicated American columnist, who wrote, "History is being driven by another force as well: the political reawakening of the Islamic world."
As Esposito explained, it is a challenge all the more ominous
because it is perceived to be pan- Islamic. It is a "global intifada,"
supposedly embracing not only the Islamic heartland but also occurring on the peripheries
of the Muslim world where Islam confronts the non-Muslim communities: in Kashmir,
Azerbaijan, (Kosovo) Yugoslavia, Lebanon and the
A similar attitude was expressed by Hirsh Goodman, whereby he stated that "the incipient threat we see facing Egypt - the inexorable spread of radical uncompromising, violent and militant Islamic fundamentalism - is by no means unique. Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, some Gulf states, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia are, in varying degrees, all in similar crisis."
Such slanted views were unfortunately affirmed by Muslim themselves. As M. J. Akbar, an Indian Muslim writer, noted that the West's "next confrontation is definitely going to come from the Muslim world. It is in the sweep of the Islamic nations from the Maghreb to Pakistan that the struggle for a new world order will begin."
Governments in the Middle East like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Turkey have used not only the perceived regional "fundamentalist threat" but also its global threat to appeal for greater understanding and aid from the West to justify their crackdown and at times indiscriminate repression of Islamists. They do not distinguish between those who espouse a violent revolution to overthrow the political system and those who, operating within the system, challenge the power of political elites.
The Turkish government, no longer able to portray itself as a
buffer state against the spread of communism to NATO's southern flank, is recasting itself
as a buffer state and bulwark, only this time against revolutionary Islam. As the
then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller warned, if Turkey is not admitted to the European
Economic Community, there "will be a
confrontation in the world... fundamentalism will find a fertile land to flourish in and then this will be the last fortress which will fall."
Such views or sentiments coming from the Muslim world itself have unfortunately lent credence to, among others, the repression of Palestinians by the Tel Aviv regime. "The Israeli government," said Esposito, "no longer able to present itself as the bulwark against the spread of communism in the Middle East, a role that powerfully justified substantial American aid, found in political Islam not only a domestic threat but also a new more virulent global threat."
Amongst Israel's typical arguments would be that "Our struggle against murderous Islamic terror is also meant to awaken the world, which is lying in slumber.... We call on all nations, all peoples to devote their attention to the great danger inherent in Islamic fundamentalism... This is a real and serious danger that threatens world peace... we stand on the line of fire against the danger of fundamentalist Islam."
Ironically, these or similar arguments were used by the Serbian terrorists in order to justify the genocide of Bosnian Muslims during the civil war of Bosnia Herzegovina.
Indeed, such irrationality has even gotten the better of some of
the best among scholars. Bernard Lewis, in "The Roots of Muslim Rage", wrote
that "Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilisation the
greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their
people.... It should now be clear that we are facing a
mood and movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations - perhaps irrational but surely a historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judaeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both."
Such is truly irrational because Lewis refuses to examine particular problems or conflicts in light of the prevailing politics or the state of contemporary international affairs. He even asks that Western Christendom revive its crusader mentality of "them and us" in order to justify the continued domination or even subjugation of non-Western worlds. It is also irrational because he assumes that the Judaeo-Christian heritage is necessarily aligned with Western vested interests in sheer neglect of the needs or aspirations of the Third World in which reside a substantial number of Christians of non-European descent.
In light of these facts, during the question and answer session, I asked Prof. Esposito whether we should include in the list of those Muslims who contribute, inadvertently or otherwise, to the notion that Islam equals fundamentalism which equals terrorist violence, the Sheikh al-Azhar. After all, the Sheikh had recently declared the suicide bombings in Israel to be unequivocally Islamic, in that it is a legitimate form of self defense. I pointed out to Esposito that in accordance with the examples of the Prophet (pbuh), "jihad" is built upon the foundations of justice and compassion, not terror. Hence there can be no justification in the primary sources of the Shariah for suicide bombing, meaning that the Sheikh's "fatwa" is truly a "bid`a" or innovation of the worst kind, over and above the inconsistencies of logic inherent in his "fatwa".
In a rather long winded response, Esposito explained that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter; and that terrorism, as seen in the case of Israel's or the Tel Aviv regime's treatment of Palestinians, can and has been used to legitimate wanton violence and continued acts of oppression. However, surprisingly, Esposito added, "Although I have not read or come across the actual 'fatwa', as a rule, we must not be too quick to draw upon the 'bid`a' gun against anyone, not least of whom the Sheikh al-Azhar."
At such a point, the moderator for the session Prof. Syed Hussein al-Attas of Malaya University intervened and unequivocally stated that "such suicide bombings are unIslamic. How does anyone justify throwing a bomb into a bus filled with people who are not belligerent, let alone kill oneself in the process? And we know from the primary sources [Quran and Hadith] that women and children, the old and the sick are to be spared during battle. These suicide bombers are different from the Japanese kamikaze, whereby the latter would commit an act of selflessness, brought about by desperation, against legitimate military targets."
Hussein al-Attas words were met with silence.
Ahmad Faiz bin Abdul Rahman
19 September 1997.
[Currently, he is a Researcher with the Institute of Islamic Understanding, Malaysia (IKIM) and a Pro-temp Committee Member of the International Movement for a Just World (JUST).]