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Clash of Cultures


The war in Iraq has brought to glaring light a fundamental quality of the age – a clash of cultures between the Near (or Middle) East and the West, between Islamic and Western cultures.


Ten years ago, suggesting such a thing was politically incorrect.  Now books and articles explore the subject, a few of which are listed at the end of this post.  Indeed, the subject cannot be fully explored in anything less than a very lengthy article or post – but the longer the post the less likely it is read.  So here I barely scratch the surface.


Culture, at foundation, might be defined as the values, behaviors, beliefs, institutions and thought characteristic of a society, shaped over time by a shared history.  When America invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam, Americans expected Iraqis to embrace characteristically Western cultural values and institutions – that, at a minimum, Iraqis would adopt as the foundation of their newly-freed society the Western values and institutions of democracy in government, equality under the law for all citizens, the separation of religious and civil authority, and the primacy of the nation-state as the basis of social identity and security.  We encouraged Iraqis to vote a 'unity government' into power, but not all Iraqis voted, and the government failed to unify the nation.  We encouraged Iraqis to write a new constitution, and were appalled that it did not guarantee equality to all Iraqis nor did it guarantee separation of religious and civil authority.  We insisted that a united Iraq become the basis of national identity for all Iraqis, and are dismayed by de facto Kurdish independence in the North and de facto Sunni/Shiia civil war in the South.


All this, I think, points to a fatal flaw in the thinking of most Americans – believe it or not, not everyone wants to be 'like us'.  To understand why, we have to understand something of the history of the Near East, and how it shaped a culture so different from our own.


A new religion largely shaped Near Eastern culture from the Seventh Century onward.  Arising on the Arabian Peninsula, Islam united the indigenous, predominantly Arab populations under a new faith that merged both religious and civil society under God's perfect, final and unchanging law (Sharia).  By contrast, the predominant religion of the West (Christianity) began as a persecuted sect, and only after centuries of perseverance achieved a place alongside civil authority.  At times Christianity vied with civil authority for primacy, or civil authority sought to bend Christianity to its purposes.  But at no time was Christianity and civil authority merged. 


The union of religion and civil authority has always been a part of classic Islamic thought and practice under Sharia law, the foundational legal code of traditional Muslim societies.  In the minds of most Muslims today, there can be no separation of religious and civil authority.


The primacy of Sharia as God's perfect, final and unchanging law prevented the separation of religion and civil authority in Islamic culture.  It has also hindered development of democratic ideals in Near Eastern societies.  Western society over time emancipated, then granted equal rights under the law, to all its citizens, without which democracy, in the modern Western sense of the institution, is impossible.  Some have attributed this development, with good reason, in part to the teachings and example of Christ. 


Sharia law, among other things, institutionalized from Islam's founding the status of men over women, the believer (Muslim) over the non-believer, and even the free over the slave.  Wherever Sharia prevails, the social stratification embodied in the Muslim legal code is law; the Western cultural ideal of legal equality regardless of religion, gender or social status runs counter to Islam's foundational law.


Further reinforcing Islam's primacy in Near Eastern culture has been the Muslim experience with invading, conquering armies from about the Tenth Century onward.  At the crossroads of three continents, the Near East since antiquity has suffered successive waves of foreign invasion and occupation, a condition that plagued Muslim culture after its own rise to dominance in the region.  By contrast, the history of Western Europe (at least since Roman times) is primarily the history of Europeans fighting among themselves, while managing to keep the invader largely at bay – a condition that eventually facilitated the rise of native, ethnic nation-states of defined geographic and ethnic boundaries (Britain, France, Prussia/Germany, Austria, etc.).  Over time, Europeans began to identify with, and depend for security upon, the nation-state, supplanting the ancient sources of both identity and security – the family, the clan, the tribe and religion.  In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, this gave rise to the Western values as nationalism, patriotism and statism. 


The history of the Near East is the history of Muslims fighting among themselves, but also contending with successive waves of invaders from the East (Seljuk Turks, Mongols and Ottoman Turks) and from the West (Christian Crusaders, the French and the British).  Under circumstances wherein foreign domination came and went, individuals often were forced to cling to the ancient sources of identity and security – the family, the clan, the tribe and religion.


That without exception all invaders of the past either converted to Islam or were eventually ejected further reinforced the primacy of Islam in Muslim society.  Islam – along with the family, clan and tribe – were (and remain) the foundational constants in a region continually invaded and conquered by outsiders, and most recently by America.


Indeed, the very concept of the nation-state, such as it exists in Muslim culture today, is largely one foisted upon a conquered people by French and British colonial powers in the middle of the Twentieth Century.  It remains in the minds of many if not most Muslims (together with such concepts as liberal democracy, legal equality regardless of religion, gender or social status, and separation of religious and civil authority) the invention of the Crusader West.


'President George W. Bush’s vision for the Iraq War was nothing if not expansive. Liberal democracy and popular sovereignty were to supplant tyranny not only in Baghdad, but in nearby capitals as well. And the force of U.S. arms would not be needed to accomplish the latter missions. As Bush asserted to eager applause at the American Enterprise Institute on February 25, 2003, “a new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region.” Democracy, the war party believed, would be contagious.' 

(from: Regional Implications of the Iraq War by Chris Toensing | March 27, 2007 - Foreign Policy In Focus


That Iraq has not blossomed into a Westernized, secular, egalitarian, democratic nation-state comes as no surprise to the student of history.  But then, students of history rarely if ever make history – that is the overwhelming purview of authorities, both civil and religious.


Would that these from time to time read a little history.



Huntington, Samuel P.  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1996)


Khalidi, Rashid  Resurrection of Empire: Western Footprint and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East (Beacon Press, Massachusetts, 2005)


Lewis, Bernard  The Middle East, A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years (Scribner, New York, 2003)


Lewis, Bernard  What Went Wrong? The clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Harper Collins, New York, 2003)


Polk, William R.  Understanding Iraq (Harper Collins, New York, 2006)


National Geographic, Cradle and Crucible: History and Faith in the Middle East (National Geographic Society, Washington, D. C., 2002)


National Intelligence Council, Mapping the Global Future: Report of the National Intelligence Council's 2020 Project (NIC 2004-13, December 2004)  (accessed 7/25/06)


Braden, Charles S.  The World's Religions (Pierce & Washabaugh 1965)


Ruthven, Malise  Islam, A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2000)


Bickel, Bruce & Jantz, Stan  World Religions & Cults (Harvest House Publishers, Oregon, 2002)




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