A “Clash of Civilizations”?

by Dr. David L. Johnston

Since this is my first blog for PCI, you must know a bit about me. Practically all of my schooling was in France, where my father founded an inter-church youth organization for the purpose of re-introducing French youths to the teachings of Jesus. I started college in the United States with a French accent and a European mindset. Then after college I trained as a pastor at a seminary, but felt God was calling me to serve in Algeria. There I served as assistant pastor for nine years, first in the only English-speaking Protestant Church (Anglican) and then in the only French-speaking one (a mix of French Reformed and Methodist). The next stage was teaching, first in an English-language elementary school in Ismailiyya, Egypt; then at the Bethlehem Bible College in the West Bank, teaching Palestinians in Arabic.

Then, starting in 1997, there was this “second career” in academia . . . a PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary, postdoctoral research in Islamic Studies at Yale, teaching part-time at the University of Pennsylvania, and now at St. Joseph’s University (also in Philadelphia), a Catholic school. Each semester for the last couple of years, I’ve been teaching two classes each term, Introduction to Islam and Comparative Religion.

I am fascinated by the phenomenon of religion, how it developed over the millennia in various parts of the world; how religiosity has mushroomed globally since the 1980s especially; and how followers of the two largest “religions” – Islam and Christianity – can dig into the treasures of their traditions and invest those resources to build a more peaceful and righteous world. This series of blogs is my attempt to pull out from my academic publications (and lectures) bits and pieces that I think will widen your perspective and inspire you to take part in this movement – whether you are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or purely “secular.”

I put “religion” in quotation marks, only because scholars cannot agree on how to define it.  One group thinks there is something special that makes certain beliefs and practices “religious”: its reference to supernatural beings; or how people separate the “sacred” from the “profane”; or the belief in a transcendent power, whether personal or impersonal. Another group retorts that there is no one “essence” (no one “thing”) to “religion,” but that one should look at how religion functions in society: how certain beliefs and rituals bind people together, how collective myths shape a particular culture, and the like. Finally, another group says, “no, you just describe people’s beliefs, their rituals and practices, using the tools of sociology and anthropology (what is generally called the ‘phenomenology of religion’), and you note what different systems have in common.” That’s basically a middle path between the first and second options, and you can call it the “family resemblance” approach.

But, you say, “Who cares about this scholarly stuff? It’s just making something simple very confusing!” Perhaps, but it’s our oversimplifications that often create conflict. Consider this: the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington published an article in 1993 entitled, “The Clash of Civilizations.” He had long been an advisor to the State Department under several administrations and on the heels of the Soviet Union’s demise and the Gulf War his idea caught the imagination of many American intellectuals and politicians. Basically, he taught that from now on, the great conflicts of our world will take place between “civilizations.” The “West” will face off with “Islam” and “Confucianism” (i.e., China) in the first place, but other blocks will join in the fray, including the Hindu, Japanese, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin-American and African blocks.

The implication – spelled out in particular by American “Neo-Conservatives” – was that this clash is inevitable and that we had better arm ourselves to the teeth and get ready for it.  Not exactly a call to peaceful conflict resolution. The famous Palestinian-American English professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, wrote in response that first of all there is no such thing as “the West” (which country are you talking about? Which political current?) or “Islam” (do you mean the Sunni majority. . . what about the Sufis, the Shia, the Ahmadis, the Salafis, etc.?). And second, that this oversimplified, essentialized view (the “West” is the “West” by virtue of a common essence) grossly distorts reality and fans the flame of conflict like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Edward Said notes that right after the unspeakable horrors of World War II, nations assembled to create a platform of understanding so as to (or try to) insure that this would never happen again. Hence the United Nations, the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, and the spate of international covenants and agreements that are now seen as “international law.” Said calls this the “harmony” paradigm. A better world is possible, so let’s work together to make it happen. The other paradigm was the Cold War. Two blocks facing each other, with enough fire power to blow up the planet a few hundred times over.

All this to say: let’s take a closer look at some of the stereotypes bandied about in the media (like “Islam is violent,” or “religious people are bigoted,” etc.). Maybe reality is more complex and, actually, much more interesting. I may even get you to see that academic disciplines like sociology, history, theology and religious studies have some useful tools to work with!