Difference is Not Diabolical


  by Clinton Bennett, PhD


Paper presented at the IIFQP Colloquium, Towards Common Ground: Civil Society in support of the 2005 World Summit Outcomes, delegates dining hall United Nations Headquarters, NY Friday 23rd September 2005


Your Excellencies, ladies and gentleman:


I trust you will excuse me for giving this paper a theological title, as I am a religious scholar.  My title is ‘difference is not diabolical’. In 1989, after the collapse of the Berlin wall, President George H W Bush announced the birth of a New World Order.  The ideological battle between Marxism and Western capitalism had ended and now the world could enter a new era of peace and stability.  Many of us, at the time, hoped that this organization, the UN, would play an increasingly significant role in the new, uni-polar world order.  In 1993, Samuel P Huntington, an International Relations professor at Harvard, predicted that the future fault lines of conflict would not be ideological but civilizational.   He anticipated a clash between the West and the Muslim world, together with a neo-Confucian alliance (‘The Clash of Civilizations’, Foreign Affairs, Vol 72 22-28 and The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996, NY, Simon & Schuster).  Since then the view that a clash of civilizations is inevitable has attracted much support.  The call for an alliance or dialogue between civilizations, supported by the UN in several General Assembly resolutions, is obviously a strategy to offset or prevent the opposite, a deadly confrontation.


I have been studying and writing about relations between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds for over 25 years and for all this time, and long before Huntington published his famous article (and the later book) I’ve heard people expressing the view that some sort of clash is unavoidable.  From a very early period, the idea took root in the European mind that Islam is the antithesis of everything that Europe represents.  It was different, therefore diabolical. When this idea started, Europe and Christianity were synonymous.  Europe, as recent debate over the proposed EU Constitution shows, no longer wears a Christian badge but the juxtaposition of Europe as good and of Islam as bad continues, more or less unchanged, though extended to include North America and the rest of the West as good.  The old rhetoric was – Christianity is true, Islam false, Christianity is civilized, Islam barbaric.  Now the rhetoric goes like this: the West upholds human rights, democracy, free thought, religious liberty, a secular world-view; Islam denies human rights, is undemocratic, stifles free thought, oppresses women and rejects secularism.  As Benjamin Barber put it, it’s McWorld versus jihad (Jihad v McWorld, NY, Ballantine, 2001).


The problem with such a simplistic and facile caricature of ourselves and of the Other is that it represents what we want to believe rather than describing any actually existing reality that is really out there.  There is democracy in parts of the Muslim world – Bangladesh, Malaysia, Turkey, Indonesia and of the four two have or have had women Prime Ministers and one has had a woman President.  Not every Muslim country is ruled by a tyrant.  There are human rights abuses in Europe. Christians and other non-Muslims live in the so-called Muslim world, and serve in Parliament and in senior civil service posts.  In the so-called non-Muslim world, there are Muslim mayors, city councilors, members of Parliament and senior civil servants.  As I have argued before, we should resist perpetuating the myth that two entities exist, mutually exclusive, different and in-compatible.  We must not perpetuate the myth that difference is diabolical.


Yet we know that there are people – such as the perpetrators of 9/11 and of 7/7 – who believe that the West and the Muslim world are enemies.  In the case of 7/11 – the recent suicide atrocity in London – those involved were born and raised in the United Kingdom.  It’s a sober challenge to the European and North American self-image that our societies are the envy of the world to ponder what caused such deep alienation and hatred.  My Prime Minister, Tony Blair speaks about protecting our values and way of life from those who would destroy or disrupt them.  The bitter truth is that some Muslims living in the West do not feel that they belong, do not feel that they are welcome even in their birthplace, so instead of seeing themselves as loyal to the values and way of life that Tony Blair extols they locate their loyalty and identity in the aspiration for a restoration of an Islamic super-state, or Caliphate.  They see Western society as immoral, promiscuous, decadent and godless and they know this because they are surrounded by it!  They see Islam as godly and moral but as too often dancing to a Western tune.


Such Muslims think that the West should allow Muslims to develop their own systems, instead of seeking to impose its mechanisms on the rest of the world.  They complain that the West speaks with forked tongue, claiming to promote democracy but tacitly supporting a military coup against an elected government in Algeria.  The West, they say, polices the world selectively, attacking Iraq which did not have WMD (Weapons of Mass Destruction) while ignoring others, who do.    What in my view we are dealing with is a reluctance to accept blame where blame is due.  This explains why official government refuses to connect 7/7 with the ongoing occupation of Iraq – I am speaking here of the continued presence of British troops in Iraq – or 9/11 with policies in the Middle East.  Accepting that some genuine and real grievances lie behind even the most heinous acts of terror does not legitimize the terror.  We need, in the West, to learn to dialogue with other cultures, perhaps especially with Islam which is a religio-social-cultural-political worldview, although Islam is by no means monolithic, which is another myth.  We need to accept that because we separate religion from politics, everybody else does not have to.  People, a majority, have the right to choose.  We need to look at how democratic our societies really are – with low voter turnout and with the least objectionable candidate attracting votes from the most objectionable and with lobbyists exercising considerable clout.


We need, in genuine dialogue, to recognize that our ways are not necessarily the best, that alternative models of good governance can have equal validity.  Difference is not diabolical.  We need to learn that democracy cannot be imposed by force, or established according to an external timetable.  Even investing authority in religious leaders must be acceptable if a majority want this.  Perhaps the sacred, almost deified ‘nation state’- dare I say this here at the UN! - should be re-examined, in the context of the many trans-national networks in which most of us live out our lives.  These include environmentalist networks, religious networks and links with ancestral homelands or with countries of origin.


In the European context, I am convinced that Turkey’s entry into the EU would be hugely beneficial in promoting the Dialogue between Civilizations.  It would positively impact, I believe, the political and social integration of Muslim minorities throughout Europe.  It could boost economic growth in the region, possibly impacting Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. It could help to build up civil societies as the necessary foundation for democratic structures.


Finally, what about religion?  Is it part of the problem or can it also be part of the cure?  Animosity between people of different religious faith is, I believe, almost always caused by social or economic factors, such as inequality of opportunity or discrimination, or animosity is caused by misunderstanding and ignorance. When these are removed, we usually discover resources in our faiths that enable us to recognize Others as fellow pilgrims on the way.  I am not denying that, out of self-interest, some religious leaders fuel hatred of Others but more and more and more of us affirm shared values and a common commitment to creating peace.  IIFWP has a network of Ambassadors for Peace, people from all walks of life but of religious faith, who are willing to work with governments and with the UN – possibly through an inter-religious advisory council – to promote the dialogue.  The agenda should be – how can we truly listen to, and learn from, each other without thinking that we must all look, be and act the same.  I close with some sentences from the Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations, by the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, Dr Jonathan Sacks:


The test of faith is whether I can make space for someone else.  Can I recognize God’s image in someone who is not in my image, whose language, faith, ideals, are different from mine?  If I cannot, then I have made God in my image instead of allowing him to remake me in his.  Can Israeli make room for Palestinian, and Palestinian for Israeli?  Can Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucians, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants make space for each other in India, Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Kosovo and the dozens of other places in which different ethnic and religious groups exist in close proximity?  Can we create a paradigm shift through which we come to recognize that we are enlarged, not diminished, by difference … This is not the cosmopolitanism of people who belong nowhere, but the deep human understanding that passes between people who, knowing how important their attachments are to them, understand how deeply someone else’s different attachments are to them also. (NY, Continuum, 2002).