The topic, Dialogue Among Civilizations, is itself intriguing. The Webster dictionary offers several definitions of the word civilization. The one that seems to fit this occasion best reads as follows: "Civilization. The culture characteristics of a particular time and place."
Conference sponsors wish the dialogue to deal with the present time-as well as the future--and surely no one will dispute the fact that culture characteristics differ from one place to another and sometimes within a single country.
In my new book, Silent No More: Confronting America's False Images of Islam, a book that I hope will soon become a bestseller worldwide, I mention the clash of civilizations forecast by Professor Samuel Huntington. If I understand his writings correctly, the professor forecasts a serious clash between Islam and the West.
It is in respect to that somber forecast that I offer a few comments.
I am not an expert on civilizations past, nor on Islam, or even on my chosen religion, Christianity. I make no pretense at scholarship, but I have had broad, unique experiences during my 80 years, some of which may be of interest.
I had a late start traveling through Islam. I reached the age of 52 and already had served for 12 years as a Member of Congress before I had a conversation with a person I knew to be a Muslim. That may strike you as strange, perhaps hard to believe.
If so, bear in mind that America had only a tiny Muslim population prior to World War 11. Today the U.S. Muslim population is in the neighborhood of seven million, but most of them remain largely isolated from non-Muslims. They tend to live in tightly-knit neighborhoods in metropolitan areas. My hometown of about 30,000 people has a Muslim population of ten. That averages one Muslim in every three thousand.
Most Americans never encounter people they know to be Muslims. They have never read or heard a verse from the Quran. Any impressions of Islam they hold are apt to be false.
With the passage of time, the dispersal of Muslims throughout the non-Muslim community will occur. This transition will help promote interfaith understanding, but the process will take time. Most Americans, including many Christian clergy, are misinformed about Islam. They believe that Muslims condone terrorism and abuse of women, oppose democracy, and worship a strange, vengeful God.
During the past quarter-century and especially during the past three years of book preparation, I made up for lost time in my personal quest for correct information about Islam.
Any way, I have a simple theme on the dialogue among civilizations to offer here. Perhaps some will say it is simplistic, and perhaps it is. As the result of my life experiences, I am convinced that the following statements are valid:
1. A clash between the Islamic civilization and the West is not inevitable. In fact, in the absence of some unexpected calamity, the clash will not occur.
The two civilizations understand each other better today than yesterday. They will understand each other still better tomorrow. The cultures are moving closer to each other. In the bright light of education, the perceived differences are eroding, and, although certain fundamental characteristics will survive, additional erosion is certain to occur in the future.
Time is also on the side of interfaith understanding. With energetic work on the part of well-intentioned individuals in Muslim countries as well as in the United States, the tide of understanding and mutual goodwill will rise steadily, even sharply, in the tomorrows ahead.
Muslims are the second largest and fastest growing religious community in America. They are already more numerous than Jews and are expected to double their numbers in less than twenty0 years. To me, it is a mistake to describe Islam as Eastern and Christianity as Western.
Christianity is prominent in many areas of the East. In demographic terms, Islam is more a part of the West than Israel and Judaism.
If a silver lining can be found in the September 11th catastrophe, it lies in the aftermath-the large volume of civilized discussion and publication in America that deals with Islam. Most of it is educational and constructive. Some commentary is destructive and bigoted, but it is far outweighed by the positive and helpful.
In the absence of a calamity, time will be on the side of decency and harmony. As Muslims grow in number and become dispersed throughout America, non-Muslims will gain understanding of the basic doctrines and beliefs that link Islam with Christianity and Judaism. They will feel comfortable with Muslims and welcome them into the U.S. mainstream.
The American people are fundamentally fair-minded. They seek the truth and want to help abused people. If a clash between Islam and the West does occur, it will arise mainly from ignorance, the obvious antidote to which is the truth.
Many years after a college professor taught me logic and ethics, he wrote a profound observation. Listen to his words, "The expressed purpose of each [major] religion is peace, unity, harmony. It is interesting to speculate what might be accomplished if the religions could only cooperate to achieve their expressed goal."
Christians and Muslims should be working together toward their common goals. Much needs to be done.
2. The days and weeks immediately ahead may be critical in settling whether a clash of civilizations will develop.
Today, the point of greatest danger is Washington, D.C.
As a Republican who urged Muslims to vote for George W. Bush in 2000, I find it difficult to defend his official work these days, especially his rhetoric.
The president invites U.S. Muslim leaders to the White House for discussion and prayer, but he demands that Muslim nations, and all others, cooperate with him in his war on terrorism or stand guilty of being for tyranny and against freedom. It is a demand that gets strong applause on political hustings across the American countryside, but others worldwide view it as gross arrogance.
When his secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, my former colleague in the U.S. House of Representatives, makes a case for preemptive military assaults against nations believed to possess weapons of mass destruction, he sounds more like an Israeli defense minister than a senior official of the nation that proudly champions the rule of law and human rights through the years.
When the president labels Iran, North Korea and Iraq as the axis of evil, he insults political forces in North Korea and Iran that he should be attempting to cultivate. Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war a few years ago and have otherwise been at odds for years. Iran and North Korea are moving toward conciliation. Bush should not try to force them into Saddam Hussein's arms.
Perhaps each new president-elect should be required to take an elementary course in diplomacy before taking the oath of office.
Bush's worst shortcoming is his failure to recognize the plight of the Palestinians as the central foreign policy issue of perhaps two billion people worldwide, including more than one billion Muslims. The president has not met with any Palestinian officials since becoming president but routinely rolls out the red carpet to Ariel Sharon, the butcher of Beirut, and offers unstinting sympathy and support to Israel but none to the Palestinians.
To him, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute is a vexing impediment to his war on terrorism, while perhaps two billion people, irate over the hypocrisy of U.S. policy, see the issue the other wary around. He seems oblivious to the close concern that Muslims feel for each other, wherever they may live, and the outrage of all Muslims against the United States because of its complicity in Israel's longstanding brutalizing and dehumanizing of Palestinians.
Bush is unwittingly placing himself at odds with the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, a separation that could quickly become a chasm-even a harsh struggle that some might call a clash of the Islamic civilization against the West.
Individual citizens, including everyone gathered here today, can have an impact on the course of events. Each of you can find ways to help the American people gain an accurate understanding of Islam. Each can find ways to alert President Bush to the peril of his present course, either directly or through acquaintances in America.
Each of you can help avert a needless, destructive clash of civilizations.
February / March 2002