Toward a Dialog of Civilizations

Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality Topics: Interfaith Views: 3555

In the introduction to Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Huston Smith recalls that at the height of the US-Iranian crisis in 1979, Meg Greenfield, a journalist, commented in Newsweek about Islam and the Muslim world, that "no part of the world is more hopelessly and systematically and stubbornly misunderstood by us."

That was more than two decades ago. In 2001, anger and hatred of some fringe Muslims rolled in to the shores of America, as the Twin Towers and the Pentagon became targets for terrorism. Islam is categorically against targeting civilians, even in a war; predictably, therefore, the misdirected acts of these self-declared servants of Islam and Muslims are hardly helpful for civilizations to forge a better mutual relationship.

Islam has faced much malign since the Crusades. That legacy lingers on. Some pro-Zionism, Christian evangelists are now flashing their true colors by attacking Islam directly and calling the Prophet Muhammad a terrorist, a megalomaniac murderer, a rapist, a pedophile, and so on. More than two decades have passed since the US-Iranian crisis catapulted Islam and the West to a new level of global tension; lamentably, we haven't yet progressed much toward a better mutual understanding. What Samuel Huntington predicted as "clash of civilizations" in the aftermath of the Cold War [Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993] seems to define the contemporary relationship between civilizations.

While buttressing the "clash" perspective, there is a systematic smear campaign against Islam and Muslims. There is also a sincere and parallel effort in the West, in general, and in the US, in particular, toward the "dialog" perspective. University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill's decision regarding its Summer Reading Program can be better understood in that "clash vs. dialog" perspective. Even though this program is already over, some important issues linger.

The controversy

As the UNC official website explained to its students about the Carolina Summer Reading Program, requiring a focused study of one book: "The goals of the program are to stimulate discussion and critical thinking around a current topic, to introduce you to academic life at Carolina, to enhance a sense of community between students, faculty and staff, and to provide a common experience for incoming students. ... This year's reading is Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations, translated and introduced by Michael Sells."

The reason for choosing the Quran as a topic was explained rather succinctly: "Westerners for centuries have been alternately puzzled, attracted, concerned, and curious about the great religious traditions of Islam. These feelings have been especially intense since the tragic events of September 11. Approaching the Quran is not a political document in any sense, and its evocation of moral 'reckoning' raises questions that will be timely for college students and reflective adults under any circumstances. The Carolina Summer Reading program is especially happy to offer a book of enduring interest this year that also offers the Carolina community an appropriate introduction to the literature and culture of a profound moral and spiritual tradition that many of us now wish to learn more about."

The vehement reaction

UNC officials obviously did not anticipate the controversy that their selection of the year engendered. Some people kicked up an uproar that this selection constitutes a violation of separation of church and state, and an infringement upon the establishment clause of the constitution. As one of the writers wrote in The Tartan, "Some were worried about their kids being forced to read the Quran and turning into America-hating pro-radical-Islamic terrorists, all from a translation of a few chapters of a religious book."

Comparing the Quran with Mein Kampf, one popular and haughty TV talk show host, Bill O'Reilly commented: "I want all the students in universities and colleges across the country to be as well versed as possible.  But I don't know what this serves to take a look at our enemy's religion." So, Islam is the religion of America's enemy! He claimed: "... (what) elite media want is for Americans to take a sympathetic view of Islam, and that is the agenda in play here. ... other elite media outlets and some college professors don't want to acknowledge that the greatest threat to the world today is radical Islam." So, who exactly is America's enemy--"radical Islam", or Islam in general?

The evangelical Christian groups, generally anti-Islamic, took up the cause and through the Family Policy Network, a Christian group based in Virginia, filed a federal lawsuit, using three anonymous freshmen as plaintiffs -- John Doe No. 1, an evangelical Christian; John Doe No. 2, a Catholic; and Jane Roe, a Jew. They alleged that UNC is "promoting" Islam and trying to convert students to Islam. They asked the court to halt the Summer Reading Program requiring a reading about the Quran.

The federal court refused to halt the program. Exposing the hollowness of the critics of UNC's decision, in an editorial "UNC Stands up for education," Wilmington Morning Star commented: "Actually, it's (UNC) trying to turn them into adults who might begin to understand the complicated and dangerous world in which they will live."

Nevertheless, the pressure was much more than just from the "court" -yard. North Carolina House Appropriations Committee voted 64-10 to bar the funding for UNC's summer reading program this year during state budget hearings. Under such severe pressure, UNC decided to make the required reading sort of "not required". UNC modified its stance: "Although the summer reading is required, if any students or their families are opposed to reading parts of the Quran because to do so is offensive to their own faith, they may choose not to read the book. These students should instead complete their one-page response on why they chose not to read the book."

Dialog: not a choice, but necessity

Destruction is lot easier than construction, which is an unfortunate but harsh human reality. Since the beginning of humanity, we have made tremendous progress in demonstrating the power of human creativity. Yet, our creativity to-date falls far short of our dream and imagination. On the contrary, our ability for destruction has already reached such height through our contribution that humanity is now capable to self-destruct. We have invented, produced, and amassed self-destructive weapons.

In the context of our ability to construct and destruct, dialog among civilizations is not a choice, but a necessity, unless we take the ultimate destruction in our own hands as our chosen destiny. Those who are casting the future in the framework of "clash" and those who are beating the drum of it might find it a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's why the need for dialog is so much more imperative.

Those who believe that they have a God-given mission to punish or humiliate the "infidels" - with whatever "collateral damage" - care little about the humanity and about a faith that teaches "...if anyone slew a person - unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land, it would be as if he slew the whole people; and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.' [Quran 5:35] They have little regard for the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad whose ingenious campaign, from a severely weak position vis-a-vis the Makkan Quraish, led to a most notable military success, virtually without any bloodshed or vengeance. Muslims need to take a closer look at their faith and its noble heritage to better understand their own lives and set a good example for others. The future is not merely in the life hereafter. They must have their constructive share in this world as well. "But seek, with what God has bestowed on you, the Home of the Hereafter, nor forget your portion in this world; but do good as God has been good to you, and seek not mischief in the land; for God loves not those who do mischief.' [Quran 28:77] Unfortunately, the voices of moderation, conscience, and enlightenment among Muslims are still not being heard loudly, clearly, coherently, and concertedly.

Interestingly, the West is appearing to be just as intolerant; it is trying to deal with Islam and the Muslim world with a deep phobia. It is resorting to intellectual, media, economic, political, and military prowess to ensure its domination of the world, especially the Muslim world, which it deems as a threat. The US, for instance, trained, armed, and used the Afghans in its proxy fight against the Soviets, and then abandoned their country, helping it become a breeding ground for destabilizing forces. Later, it went back to further demolish Afghanistan.

Palestine continues to bleed, and so does Israel. However, the US, despite being a superpower, continues its lap-dance on the lap of Israel, and manifests no real interest in a just and peaceful settlement of the ongoing bloody conflict. Under the new leadership, the US is offering Israel a carte blanche regarding the hawkish, racist, and domineering policy of Ariel Sharon, consequently pushing the desperation and plight of Palestinians to an unrestrained fever pitch.

The way the British divided South Asia, fragmenting Kashmir, Punjab, and Bengal, for instance, has left the people of that region in great misery due to uprooted and dislocated families across the borders, suffering from a state of incessant conflict and tension. The legacy of that partition by the British has also contributed to the heat from the nuclear race between Pakistan and India, which has helped it earn the tag of being one of the most dangerous regions in the world. The people of this region are still unable to rise above those wounds of the past.

Add to it a concerted campaign in the West to demonize Islam, as evidenced in the recent remarks by Pat Roberson, Billy Graham, and Jerry Falwell of fundamentalist, evangelical Christian background.  In the name of faith, peace, freedom, nobility and so on, they seem to be merely adding fuel to the fire.

As we face many a brewing clashes, some of which could potentially exacerbate into total annihilation of the world, dialog is not a choice but a necessity. Such dialog begins with seeking common grounds and building bridges. However, dialog must be predicated on accurate knowledge of each other, not on ignorance, stereotyping, prejudice, and hatred.

UNC's decision to select a book about the Quran had a very simple logic. A sociologist at UNC, Dr. Charles Kurzman, well-articulated it in his keynote address to new students' convocation: "As it happens, the most visible threat to homeland security these days, aside from accountants, seems to come from people who call themselves Muslims -- so it makes sense to find out what Islam is all about. All across the United States, sales of the Quran and books about Islam have skyrocketed over the past year as people realize that they know very little about this major world religion. If we were being attacked by Zen Buddhists, then I suppose we'd all be reading, ... a book about yoga or something. But Islam it is, so let's learn something about it." He further points out how "people in this country who confuse 'understanding' with 'approval.' ... If you try to understand why a handful of Muslims are angry enough to kill themselves in suicide attacks, then some Americans will accuse you of treason."

Dr. Kurzman further asserts: "It turns out that when we look at surveys and election results, we find that Muslims around the world by and large prefer democracy, human rights, and non-violence." Does it matter at all to the global community as to why there is hardly any functional democracy in the Muslim world, and why the general preference of the Muslims is not reflected in the reality that we encounter? Does it merit an exploration of these issues in the context of a book that Muslims recognize as the source of their guidance? If the answer is yes, then UNC's decision was no more than contributing toward a critical discourse about tensions at the civilizational level. In the aftermath of 9/11, conservative columnist Ann Coulter remarked: "We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity". Editor of conservative National Review, Rich Lowry, even peddled the idea of nuking Mecca, as those terrorists were Muslims and from Saudi Arabia. There are plenty of loud and lashing voices for "clash", but not so for "dialog".

Pitfalls of the contemporary decadent Muslim societies

If the West is Islamophobic, the Muslim world also has enough of West-o-phobia. There is no question that the US' "regime-changing" intervention in Iran in 1953 to install its puppet Shah was illegal from the viewpoint of international law, and that it was hegemonic and imperialist as well. The world knows how the US engaged its former bedfellow, Saddam Hussain, to invade Iran and assist in Saddam's acquiring of chemical and biological weapons program, to contain the "menace" of Islamic revolution. Yet, Muslim world does not understand that the rhetoric of "Death to America", that still reverberates through the streets of Iran and other places, may work well with an emotionally agitated populace, but it does not go well with a message of "dialog of civilization" which, it is poignant to note, was called for by President Khatami of Iran.

Muslims can't merely blame their misery and backwardness on the West, even though the West, for all practical purposes, has shown only distrust, contempt, and an attitude of control and domination. The real problems of Muslims are as much internal as they are external. Any pertinent solution must have provision to deal with the internal problems, and Muslims need to be proactive and self-critical about this.

The universalistic and extrovert culture of Muslims, long lost in the pages of history, had drawn them to all corners of the world, not just for trade, but also for seeking and sharing knowledge, wisdom and experience. Unlike Ibn Batuta, a 14th century traveler, who traveled nearly 75,000 miles in his 25 year journey for hajj to Makkah and covered an area of almost 44 countries of today, the more religious a Muslim is these days, the more he is living like a cocoon in his own neighborhood, without much interest in learning about others. Unlike Al-Biruni, who learnt Sanskrit during his stay in India and wrote one of the most important books on history of India, our religious personalities of today, don't want to learn even English, let alone Sanskrit (regarded as the language of Hindus and Hindu scriptures). The fossilized religious establishment has such a grip on our consciousness and perspective as Muslims that in 1500 years we are still bickering about the details of our prayers, ablution, fasting, and in many parts of the world we still can't begin or end fasting the same day. Illiteracy and poverty under autocratic or dysfunctional regimes, often internally legitimized and externally installed/patronized, are our common hallmarks.

We must not be West-o-phobic, and it is important for us to recognize that today's West upholds some of the most important values and dimensions that once made Islamic civilization outshine the rest of the world. The West represents one of the greatest human experiences of all times, and we as part of the humanity have a great deal to learn from its wide range of features, positive and negative.

Similarly, Islam has not lost its relevance, even though Muslim societies remain dysfunctional in our time, especially as the humanity appears to be near the brink of self-destruction more than ever. Islam once saved a barbaric and conflict-prone society from its misery, later helping raise the very same society - expanded and enriched through global interaction with others - to the pinnacle of human achievements. Human experience is very much important in Islam and as such, Muslims have so much to benefit from the totality of human experience, including the Western experience. "Hikmah (wisdom; experiential knowledge) is the lost treasure of a believer. Wherever one finds, one should avail it.' [Sunan Ibn Majah, #4169]

It is in this perspective that we need to welcome mutual scrutiny toward our improvement at the human level. Yes, there were vehement reactions against UNC's bold decision to choose a book about the Quran for its Summer Reading Program. Nevertheless, let not Muslims be disdainful about it. What would it have been, had a book such as Mahabharata, Bible, Tripitak, or even Marx's Communist Manifesto been chosen as one such focused reading assignment by a major university in a Muslim country, such as Bangladesh, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia?


The world is currently reeking of the rhetoric of "clash", while each side is heaping the blame squarely on the "other" side. Many have no problem with such escalating clashes, even though those could very likely jeopardize the future of the entire humanity. It is only through a viable paradigm of dialog toward our mutual acquaintance and cooperation for our collective betterment that we can endeavor to reshape what appears to be a perilous collective future. UNC made a bold decision to enlighten its learners by engaging them to a critical study of one of the most important and influential books in human history, the Qur'an. It did not subscribe to the rhetoric to expel all the Muslims from the U.S., or convert them forcibly, as was done under the Spanish Inquisition, or endorse the farce about nuking Makkah.  Others can follow the bold example set by of UNC. On the other side, the Muslim world also needs to take a self-critical stock of itself to better understand its own problems, much of it being internal, and also to better understand the West, not in terms of just its negatives - perceived or real, but also its enormous strength and contribution to human civilization.


The author is an associate professor of economics and finance at Upper Iowa University. [email protected];

  Category: Americas, Faith & Spirituality
  Topics: Interfaith
Views: 3555

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Older Comments:
First of all I will skip the personal attacks because I am an adult and will conduct myself as one, and yes it is against the constitutions rule on seperation of church and state period end of discussion. Second learn how to spell what before calling someone an idiot.

Mike's post truly exemplifies the kind of hypocrisy and double speak so common among right wing extremists and apolgists.
Part of a liberal education is learning and doing things students have never done before. If the book on Islam was the kind of hate-filled screed which "conservative christian" goons endorsed they would never have raised any objection.
Scripture is widely used in the study of comparitve literature, and in no way did it violate the separation of Church and State for this book to be on the summer reading program. These idiots are pro-stupidity.
Wat Mike needs to do is review the harm right wing nuts are done to the constitution by pushing their intolerant version of faith and politics upon us all, before lecturing us on how the constitution works.

SubhanAllah, very good article. May Allah reward Dr Omar Farooq for his work with Jannah.


One of the most succintly insightful articles I have recently read.
Thank You.


MIKE FROM U.S.A. said:
The simple fact that escapes a lot of people outside America especially the middle east where religion is not seperated from the state is, that in America there is seperation of church and state. UNC is a federally funded school, therefore to make any religious book required reading be it the Bible, talmud, quran, or the torah is a violation of the United States constitution end of story. This is America while we are majority Christian, any federal institution must have seperation be it federally funded schools, or courthouses, or public schools. No religion can be represented in the public forum, very simple concept. Therefore stopping mandatory reading of the quran is not anti-islam by some right wing zealots. It's following the constitution of the United States. Trust me if a federally funded school made the Bible required reading there would have been a much bigger uproar, and that's the truth.


Kudos to Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq, we can use more with his honesty.

Too often muslim writers are overtaken with their passion for Islam and the truth escapes them.

The answer to Muslim problems are in Muslim hands.


Those who complain about the Quran reading have never read a book in all their entire life! The article is wonderful, but this sad world is filled with ignorance and hatred, and only a BIG miracle from Allah could hope to save us all!

Thank you for an excellent article. It is very sad to see and hear the huge misconceptions people have when it comes to Islam, Christianity, and the politics of the various states we live in. Except for a Jewish friend and one Muslim friend, no one I have spoken to who is a Christian like myself even knew that we all worship the one God of Abraham. If we made an effort to treat other people as we would like to be treated, (this rule exists in all of the world's major religions), the world might become a lot safer. If there is an organization that promotes this kind of understanding I'd like to hear about it.

This was a very constructive article. We need more of this forward thinking to truly liberate ourselves from hate and ignorance

This is an article worth not only reading but learning. I distrust radicals of the religous stripe no matter what the name of their God is. The author seeks to inform not push a theology. We need more of this. There is certianly enough room in this world for all the major philosophies.

Those who complain about the Quran reading have never read a book in all their entire life! The article is wonderful, but this sad world is filled with ignorance and hatred, and only a BIG miracle from Allah could hope to save us all!