Dialogue or clash of civilizations?
By Goudarz Eghtedari
November 23, 2001
Since September 11 we have heard in numerous occasions the "Why
do they hate us?" question and answers to it. As President Bush maintained
his line to assure his Moslem partners that this is not a war against Islam,
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi went so far to say that; "They
hate us because we have Mozart and Michelangelo."
There is little doubt that these comments and schools of thought are
the conclusions of the theory of Clash
of Civilizations that was offered in the summer of 1993 by Samuel Huntington
in the Journal of Foreign Affairs. Huntington discussed the interactions
among seven or eight major civilizations, of which the conflict between
two of them, Islam and the West, gets the most of his attention.
President Khatami gave a high-level response from the Islamic side. In
a speech to United Nations General Assembly in 1998 and on his first visit
after a surprising landslide victory in the presidential elections, Khatami
instead spoke of "Dialogue among Civilizations". The UN adopted
this suggestion and ironically the year 2001 was named the "Year of
Dialogue among Civilizations".
But in several TV interviews in the U.S. last week, Khatami said dialogue
can only work if it is with a fair and equal conditions. All proponents
of dialogue demand respect from the West, at least with regards to acknowledgment
of the contributions of their culture to science and humanity. After all,
such names as Khayyam, Rumi, Hafiz, Avicenna, Ibn Khaldun, Averoes, Biruni
and Tusi, to name a few, have contributed tremendously to human civilizations.
Dennis Overbye in an article in Science Times titled "How
Islam Won, and Lost, the Lead in Science" wrote, "Muslims created
a society that in the Middle Ages was the scientific center of the world.
A golden age that can count among its credits the precursors to modern universities,
courts, algebra, the names of the stars and even the notion of science as
an empirical inquiry. It was the infusion of this knowledge into Western
Europe, historians say, which fueled the Renaissance and the scientific
The amount of interests in books and articles about the Middle East and
Central Asia in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on our soil has been
tremendous. One would have thought that we should expect more opening in
the channels for the flow of information, encouraging dialogue. Unfortunately
though, we witness some moves to block this exchange of knowledge and understanding.
One proposal that is now on the senate floor is to ban visa for all students
from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Cuba and North Korea and put limitation
on others. This bill titled "Visa Reform Act of 2001" was initially
proposed back in 1997 by Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Proponents
of the Bill Senators Fienstein and Kyle refer to one Iraqi student who studied
here 30 years ago and went to lead Iraq's nuclear institute.
As Professor Ward, President of the American Council on Education, testified
before the house committee on education, "The overwhelming majority
of students who come here to study return to their home countries as ambassadors
for American values, democracy, and the free market. More generally, the
chance to study at an American college is often a life-altering experience.
Many individuals who do so, such as Jordan's King Abdullah, United Nations
Secretary General (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kofi Annan, and Mexican
President Vincente Fox, make an impact in their home countries and throughout
the world. But even those who do not assume such exalted positions leave
with a deep appreciation for the people of the United States and for the
benefits of personal freedom, and democracy."
On the other hand Martin Kramer the editor of the Middle East Quarterly
wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which he requested downsizing
of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA).
Kramer claims that MESA and its affiliate schools around the country have
not done enough to expose the Islamic world and extremists of the Middle
East and calls for cutting of federal funds now available from the U.S.
Department of Education.
It is clear in my opinion that while most of us are begging for more
information on the Middle East and blame ourselves for not knowing enough
about it, there are certain voices who want to shut down both directions
of information and knowledge, consequently leading us into more clashes
instead of the dialogue.
Curtailing these exchanges would only deprive our nation of one of its
best tools for extending democratic values throughout the world, making
us more susceptible to the distortions and myths of extremist organizations
Goudarz Eghtedari is a Systems Science researcher and a lecturer at
Portland State University.