Crossing the Civilizational Divide: One Journey Inside Islam

Crossing the Civilizational Divide: One Journey Inside Islam

"Majorities want U.S. forces out of Islamic countries," declares a survey on Muslim public opinion just released by WorldPublicOpinion.org. Its lead researcher, Stephen Kull, informed Congress on May 17 that "very large majorities believe the United States seeks to undermine Islam" (an average 8 in 10), and "spread Christianity in the region" (an average two-thirds of Muslims). That's the bad news, which therefore dominated the headlines. But there was plenty of good news in the report as well. Overwhelming majorities throughout the Muslim world endorse globalization as "a good thing" -- no fewer than 92 percent do so in Egypt. The same goes for democracy (two-thirds of those surveyed throughout the Muslim world say they favor it) and support for human rights, including the freedom to practice any religion. Vast majorities, moreover, consider attacks on civilians (including, specifically, Americans) "completely inexcusable" as well as attacks on civilian infrastructure even if no civilians are killed. Can it be that the "clash" among our civilizations has been overblown?

That is certainly the opinion of professor Akbar Ahmed, a former High Commissioner of Pakistan to Great Britain who holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. He argues for compassion and dialogue as the only way to avoid a tragic clash among the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. His new book, "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization," published by the Brookings Institution, is a fascinating personal account of his travels last year into the heart of Islam, spanning the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia. Through in-depth discussions with high-level officials and religious figures as well as ordinary people, Ahmed offers a nuanced picture of a complex world that alternately fears and misunderstands America, yet seems eager to engage with us if given a chance.

In addition to invaluable personal encounters, Ahmed administered questionnaires to about 120 people at various sites (universities, hotels, cafés, madrassahs, mosques, and private homes) in each country, including queries about what respondents read, what changes they had noted in their societies, the nature of their daily interactions, and their personal views on contemporary and historical role models. The latter was especially revealing, since role models offered an important clue to the ideological perspectives of the respondents.

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