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World: Economic Forum Searches For Dialogue Between Islam And West

  • Robert McMahon

The World Economic Forum has opened in New York with discussion of a wide array of issues given new urgency by the terrorist attacks in September. A featured speaker on the first day, 31 January, was U.S. social scientist Samuel Huntington, who warned nearly 10 years ago of a "clash of civilizations," particularly one between Islam and the West. But he stressed that such a clash is in no way inevitable.

New York, 1 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington triggered new interest in the prophecies of U.S. social scientist Samuel Huntington, who wrote nearly a decade ago that the Western and Islamic worlds are destined to clash in the future.

A 1993 article by Huntington in "Foreign Affairs" magazine predicted that the new source of conflict in the modern world would not be economic or ideological but cultural.

In a follow-up book, he discussed the demographic explosion in the Islamic world and the Western insistence on the universality of its values. He faulted what he called the West's "universalist illusion" and its attempts to export its values. He said the clashes of the future are likely to result from a combination of Western arrogance and Islamic intolerance.

But during a panel discussion on 31 January, Huntington said such a clash is in no way inevitable. He said he is more worried about the way divisions within Islam itself are feeding conflict in the modern world.

His comments came during one of the many panels held on the opening day of the World Economic Forum in New York. The forum's organizers have said they want the conference to go beyond the usual dialogue on economic affairs to explore some of the root causes for instability in the world today.

Huntington's panel, which included Muslim and Asian experts, was intended to address ways of bridging cultural divides but ended up focusing on the causes of friction between the Islamic world and the West.

Huntington spent much of the time explaining his hypothesis on a clash of civilizations. He said, for example, there was strong evidence to show a wide gulf between the way cultures like the United States value individualism and others value communalism.

But he said it was internal conflicts within Islam that have proven to be of most concern in recent years: "I think the divisions within Islam are most unfortunate for Islam, [and] I think they are most unfortunate for the world because they lead to conflicts within Islam. And I think they exacerbate conflicts and the tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims."

Huntington rejected accusations made by some that he has portrayed the Islamic world as a monolith intent on eclipsing Western Christian traditions. He said the lack of unity in the Muslim world has hurt the development of many of its own states.

Huntington says it also makes it more difficult for the Western world to engage the Muslim world on contentious issues. It is much easier for a Western country like the United States, he says, to engage the Chinese world or Hindu world by contacting a capital like Beijing or New Delhi.

Another panelist, Karim Raslan, a self-described liberal secular Muslim, is a senior partner in corporate law firm in Malaysia and a regular commentator for Western media on Asian affairs. He spoke of what he said were sometimes sharp divisions between Arab and East Asian Muslims: "Frankly, in southeast Asia there is deep disdain, dislike, and anger among many southeast Asian Muslims such as myself with the conduct of Arab Muslims. I'm sorry, we've been appalled by the mismanagement of your economies and also the fact that you have sought to monopolize all discourse on the faith."

Raslan later urged liberal secular elites in the Muslim world to return to their faith, attend mosque services, and challenge some of the extremist views spread among the faithful. He also faulted the West -- especially the United States -- for its ignorance of Islamic culture.

But Huntington said he has become encouraged by efforts to bridge cultural divides, spurred in part by his writings. He noted recent efforts by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and others at promoting cross-cultural discussions to help nations acknowledge shared values and appreciate their differences.

"The government of Iran took the initiative in getting the [United Nations] to declare this past year the year for a dialogue between civilizations and this, I think, is something that is terribly important," Huntington said.

But Huntington said it is important to acknowledge that some cultural clashes have already begun: "There are all sorts of minor clashes going on around the world, obviously. The important thing is to prevent those from escalating, and on a couple of occasions in the past decade or so we've come very close to serious escalation and clashes between countries from different civilizations."

Another panel member was Francois Burgat, an expert on the Muslim and Arab worlds and director of the French Center of Archaeology and Social Sciences in Yemen. He said it is wrong to think Arab Muslims categorically reject Western values such as free markets and women's rights. But they cannot be coerced, he said, into changing their ways. Burgat also spoke of education and language as a bridge between the West and other cultures.

"Each non-Western individual ought to know a Western language," Burgat said. "This happens to be the case with elites, at least. How many Western elites know a non-Western language? Too little. Too little."

Burgat said most damaging have been the double standards Arabs believe Western states have applied in the course of international relations. Inconsistent policies in the Middle East, Algeria, and other places, he said, have greatly undermined Western legitimacy in the eyes of Arabs.