I would like to highlight how the concept of civilizational hybridity and efforts aiming at building trust along religious lines as exemplified by the event we are commemorating this evening can help counter the harmful effects of the two most prevalent and arguably most pernicious, but unfortunately not only, forms of extremism today namely ethno-nationalism associated with white supremacist groups and religious associated with violent Islamic radicalism. I will do so from a historically informed perspective of examining the historical nature of the civilizational interactions between the Arabo-Islamic civilization and that of the Latin Christian West.
The Clash of Extremisms
In the 1990s in the aftermath of the Cold War, the concept of the Clash of Civilisations gained traction among some political scientists and historians of international relations in the West that among others postulated that one of the likely future forms of civilizational conflict will be between the civilization associated with the concept of liberal, democratic West and the Islamic Civilisation. While this idea was dismissed by many academics and policymakers as too simplistic and not reflective of the internal diversity and fragmentation of both civilizational spheres events such as 9/11 and the subsequent so-called War on Terror seemed to have given legitimacy to this idea of the Clash of Civilisations. My position in this regard is that we are currently experiencing what could be called the Crash of Extremist ideologies based on strong ethno-nationalist and religiously supremacist sentiments whose views of the Other are premised on strongly essentialist and totalitarian perspectives.
For example, on the one hand, as evident in their manifestos, white supremacist groups want us to believe that:
- Islam is an inherently violent political ideology bent on world domination;
- That Muslims in the West all subscribe to this ideology either overtly or covertly;
- Those Muslim immigrants, many of whom are refugees and have fled horrific conflicts in their own countries of origin, are single-mindedly focused, not on rebuilding their lives and living in peace with their fellow citizens, but on transforming the West into an ISIS utopia.
Furthermore, white supremacist groups use major episodes from the premodern history of Islam-West relations such as the conquering of Constantinople by the Ottomans as evidence of the perpetual threat all Muslims pose to the Western civilization.
Moreover, an important element in the master narrative underpinning the ideology of these groups is their disdain for multiculturalism and pluralism which they view as to avenues of Trojan Horse-like Islamic takeover of Europe.
On the other hand, some of the master narratives of the Islamists terrorist organizations such as ISIS are that :
- There is only one true Islam;
- That their interpretation of Shari’a including their understanding of the institution of the caliphate, is the only legitimate understanding of the canonical Islamic texts;
- That it is the duty of Muslims in the West in peaceful and, in times of war, non-peaceful ways to support the establishment of the universal Caliphate as Islamist militants understand it;
- That Muslims’ political loyalty to such a Caliphate overrides their rights and responsibilities as citizens of Western democracies, whose values are considered as antithetical to those of the “Islamic” principles.
Last year, my colleague Halim Rane and I published a book in which we tried to provide a comprehensive overview of the most significant research on various aspects of Islam and Muslims in the West over the last three decades or so. The book among others, documents
- The complicated history and the nature of the relationship between Arab-Islamic and Latin Christian civilizations;
- The multitude of ways of being a Muslim in the West and how these different ways of being a Muslim interpret the Islamic tradition very differently;
- And the various efforts of contemporary Muslims in the West to integrate into Western liberal societies, including the articulation of a conceptually and culturally distinct form of Western Islam.
The book’s findings show how the earlier mentioned views of the extremists and their respective ideologies are significant distortions of the actual reality.
History and the nature of the relationships
There is no denying that much of the history of the relationship between the Arab-Islamic and Latin-Christian civilization was dominated by two political-military superpowers which were often engaged in conflict and did so while firmly holding onto their respective religious dogmas and views of the Religious Truth. But even during the darker periods of this conflict, there were examples of positive interactions and attempts at rapprochement and mutual understanding as evident it is being commemorated this evening. But this is not the only example even within the context of what historians have called the Crusades.
A distinguished professor of Middle Eastern medieval History professor Suleiman Mourad has shown that the time period of the Crusades from the perspective of what the medieval Muslim sources tell us is not just a mindless recounting of countless battles that marked these two centuries-long periods, but also of “innumerable political and military alliances, systematic sharing of sacred spaces, commercial dealings, exchange of science and ideas, etc., between Muslims and crusaders”. He provides an example of a Muslim chronicler and historian Ibn Wasil, who spent two years in southern Italy on a diplomatic mission in the early 1260s. During his stay there ibn Wasil wrote a book on logic in the honor of emperor Manfred of Hohenstaufen, the last King of Sicily.
Mourad also tells us of a story of Emperor Manfred’s father, Frederick II, who regularly wrote to Muslim scientists asking for scientific information, and that it was precisely under his command of the Sixth Crusade in 1228-1229, that he negotiated a peace treaty with Sultan al-Kamil that allowed the Muslims and Crusader Christians to share Jerusalem. According to this agreement “the Christians had full control of their religious places while the Muslims maintained control over their sacred places in the city and the surrounding villages.”
Moving beyond the mere description of the historical incidents that demonstrate cooperation and mutual understanding between Islam and the West there are strong reasons to argue for the conceptual viability of the idea of an Islamo-Christian Civilisation as a historical reality as I shall argue later.
The Case for Civilisational Hybridity
As noted earlier the Clash of Extremisms is based, among other things, on the idea of what can be called the defense of civilizational purity thesis according to which The West is very different from the Islamic Civilisation and the values defining these two civilizational entities are mutually exclusive or at least exist in great tension on many very significant socio-political, cultural and existential issues. The question that needs to be asked here is to what extent are these views actually representative of the historical realities?
Upon closer reflection on the matter, it becomes quickly evident that it is impossible to outline the contours and characteristics behind the historical and intellectual relationship between western-European and Arabo-Islamic “inter-civilizational constellations’ straightforwardly and continuously.
A contemporary British scholar of cosmopolitanism Gerard Delanty, in fact, identifies three “modes” of western-European ways of relating to “Islam”, namely the mode of fear and xenophobia; the mode of fantasy and moral superiority; and lastly, the mode of “of borrowing, translation, and adaptation.”
Delanty argues further that each of these “modes” has been co-present at various points in time at varying levels of prominence and prevalence. The worldview underpinning contemporary right-wing radical groups centers squarely onto the first mode, that of fear and xenophobia, and completely discards the third mode which here I will term civilizational hybridity. Importantly, the first mode of fear is not simply to be conceptualized in terms of western non-Muslim citizens’ security concerns from potential terrorist violence perpetrated by minority (immigrant) Muslims. It is a fear that runs much deeper and pertains to the question regarding as one scholar puts it “the essential nature of European culture, and what role the Muslim presence is likely to play in it” Hellyer 2010:3. This fear has been elsewhere described as fear of Eurabia and/or Islamisation of the West/EuropeBangstad: 2014.
As one way of countering the narratives and the worldview of both right-Wing and Islamist extremists in the rest of my talk, I would like to highlight the work of but one among many influential scholars who have critiqued the idea of Western/ European civilizational distinctiveness and have emphasized the symbiotic links between the formation of Arabo-Islamic and Western “civilizational constellations” Delanty 2019.
One of the most systematic proponents of this approach is Professor Richard Bulliet, a noted historian of the Middle East. His main thesis is that the Arabo-Islamic civilization should be considered in many ways constitutive of that of a Latin/Western Christian civilization, because of the numerous, robust, and mutually defining cross-cultural interactions that have been taking place over a period spanning nearly a millennium and a half. For Bulliet these linkages are multifaceted and are evident at historical, scientific, cultural, philosophical, doctrinal, and scriptural levelsBulliet 2004, 6, 45. As such Bulliet states that:
The past and future of the West cannot be fully comprehended without an appreciation of the twinned relationship it has had with Islam over some fourteen centuries. The same is true of the Islamic world2006, 45.
Furthermore, Bulliet provides ample evidence that there are stronger arguments for the conceptual viability of the idea of an Islamo-Christian civilization rather than just that of a Judeo-Christian one. The latter is nowadays taken largely as self-evident and unproblematic in the West, although for a very long time this was not the caseIbid., 5–6. Indeed, the phrase Judeo-Christian civilization as a marker of Western civilization was coined in the 1930s and it took several decades for it to become more widely accepted. Bulliet argues that in addition to having strong scriptural and doctrinal commonalities, the Arabo-Islamic and Latin Christian civilizations have had a long history of civilizational cross-pollination without which our present (post-) modern would not have been possible. In Bulliet’s own words:
Common scriptural roots shared theological concerns, continuous interaction at a societal level and mutual contributions to what in modern times has become a common pool of thought and feeling give the Euro-American Christian and Jewish communities solid grounds for declaring their civilizational solidarity. Yet the scriptural and doctrinal linkages between Judaism and Christianity are no closer than those between Judaism and Islam, or between Christianity and Islam; and historians are well aware of the enormous contributions of Muslim thinkers to the pool of late medieval philosophical and scientific thought that European Christians and Jews later drew upon to create the modern West. Ibid., 6.
Importantly, Bulliet uses this shift in consciousness about thinking in terms of Judeo-Christian civilization that occurred as I previously mentioned as recently as 80 years ago or so to further argue that historical legacies of long-standing periods of antagonisms between the Christian West and the Arabo-Islamic civilizations Duderija and Rane,2019, must not be considered as being tantamount to historical destiniesBulliet, 2004: 5-6.
Therefore by affirming the concept of Islamo-Christian civilization we emphasize the idea of civilizational hybridity that problematizes the worldview and the metanarratives underpinning both forms of extremism, ethno-nationalist and jihadist.
The Question of Trust and the Robustness of Multicultural Societies
However, to adequately deal with the challenges of the Clash of Extremisms we need to go beyond theory that affirms civilizational hybridity and also develop a practice-based ethic whose foundation is founded on trust as a means of countering fear and distrust of the perceived Other and related processes such as Islamophobia or what we could call Occidentalism. Here I borrow the definition of trust as defined by one of the scholars of British multiculturalism as “an investment of belief in reciprocal socially-oriented intentions and actions in another”Morey,2018,3.
Such a view of trust is based on principles of mutual reliance, accountability, and reciprocityIbid and presupposes that the best interests of others will be compatible with ours”. This approach to trust and specifically trusts in diversity and multiculturalism should be viewed therefore as a form of the lived experience of cultural diversity and not simply just as a political and legislative policy. This approach to trust is, in fact, essential for the stability and robustness of multicultural and diverse societies such as those in the ‘West’. As noted by a scholar of British multiculturalism:
All successful relationships are built on trust, as all successful societies must also be. Trust offers an important lens through which one can understand relations between Muslims and non-Muslim at this fraught moment in historyMorey 2018: 2. Holding events such as the one this evening but also those that promote intercultural dialogue respect and understanding and indeed the civilizational interconnectedness and interdependence of entire humanity is a perfect opportunity to cultivate this trust, especially in multiculturally diverse societies such as Australia.
In conclusion, what can we do to counter the Clash of Extremisms? I will not pretend that I have definite answers to the often very complex processes that are relevant concerning this Clash but I did offer a few pointers.
First, as far as countering Islamicist-based extremism is concerned, we must dismantle the theology of empire in Islamic fundamentalism and its hermeneutical roots, embedded in the pre-modern Caliphate model that is alive among some Muslims that views the world through the lens of subjugation and domination of (certain kinds of) Muslims over non-Muslims and “heterodox Muslims.” That kind of thinking will inevitably exacerbate ethno-nationalist sentiments as a manifestation of an already existing residual xenophobic worldview among some non-Muslims that reared its ugliest head in the genocide of Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica in 1995.
Second, we have to promote the idea of civilizational cross-pollination and hybridity in contrast to the myth of civilizational purity. We have to understand that no civilization can emerge, develop or be the product of its own internal dynamics. History testifies to this repeatedly, especially about the civilizational interactions between the Arabo-Islamic and Latin Christian civilizations.
Third, as recent studies in the context of Islamophobia have shown, regular everyday face-to-face interaction between Muslims and non-Muslims is a very important way of curbing prejudice. The lack of trust and confidence in multiculturalism and diversity can be found in both forms of extremism discussed here as evident in the manifestos written by ethno-nationalist inspired terrorists who repeatedly condemn multiculturalism as the Trojan Horse of Islamisation of Europe or the willingness of groups like ISIS to exploit feelings of discrimination and marginalization present among some Muslims in the West as a lure to join their totalitarian cause.
Therefore, fostering relationships that strengthen trust based on principles of mutual reliance and reciprocity between Muslim citizens of the West and western societies of which they are an integral part is an additional, and in my view crucial element in helping resolve the phenomenon of the clashes of extremism. Moreover, we ought to acknowledge the diversity and complexity of “the Other” as individual members of their own diverse communities. Finally, we have to remember that diversity and inherent equality of all human beings, underpinned by a set of commonly shared values and principles, is a normal and desirable part of human existence, and then inculcate these principles among our children and youth.
The meeting of St. Frances and Sultan Al-Kamil 800 years ago that happened under very trying circumstances teaches us that at the time when Extremisms are on the rise we also need to rise to the occasion and do our own part in upholding, embodying, and promoting the values of trust, diversity, and hybridity at both individual and societal levels.