It is important to understand Islam from a cultural point of view because the basis of much of the current turmoil within Muslim countries and conflict with their neighbors can be attributed to cultural clashes. Consequently, a clear understanding of culture and its derivatives is necessary to comprehend the relevance of Islam to the civilization of Muslim peoples in the twentieth century and beyond.
The word “culture” comes from the Latin cultura, which is a derivative of the verb colere meaning “tending” or “cultivation.” It was first recorded in the Oxford Dictionary of English in 1510 as meaning: “training of the mind” or “manners.”1 However, culture in anthropological usage, may be defined as “the way of life of specific group.”
“Basically, the idea of culture arises from the observation that what human beings do and what they refrain from doing is, in part, a consequence of being brought up in one group as opposed to another. People have a social heredity as well as a biological heredity.”
Biological heredity represents practices common to all human societies, like, sleep, marriage, care for children and smiling, while social heredity refers to customs which usually vary from one society to the next. A simple definition of culture would then be ‘the man-made part of the human environment.’ “Members of the human species are trained in the family and in their education, formal and informal, to behave in ways that are conventional and fixed by tradition.”
While virtually all students of man agree upon the indispensable importance of the concept of culture, no single definition has yet won universal acceptance.
The culture of most of the world today is that of Western Europe and America. It was exported to the remainder of the world during the period of European colonization and continued during the neo-colonial era by way of indirect rule. In the twentieth century Western culture has been promoted on a massive scale through the far-reaching effects of the media. Today, it is not surprising to find in the pages of National Geographic pictures of South American Indian youths in loin cloth in the middle of the Amazon wearing baseball caps with a Nike logo or Mongolian horsemen in the middle of the Gobi Desert wearing striped Adidas sweat pants and Rebook trainers.
Western culture now represents the dominant cultural influence in most countries, both non-Muslim and Muslim. And it is the natural conflict that arises from the clash of cultures, which dominate the social and political policies in both the West and the East. Harvard University Professor, Samuel P. Huntington summed up the essential issues of the cultural clash in his following observation.
“The underlying problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power. The problem for Islam is not the CIA or the U.S. department of defense. It is the West, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the universality of their culture and believe that their superior, if declining, power imposes on them the obligation to impose that culture throughout the world. These are the basic ingredients that fuel conflict between Islam and the West.”
In this statement Professor Huntington dismisses the usual claims regarding Islamic fundamentalist terrorism as the major threat to the New World Order. Western media constantly reduces the world’s problems to this common denominator. The New York Times carried an article stating, “Muslim fundamentalism is fast becoming the chief threat to global peace and security as well as the cause of national and local disturbance through terrorism. It is akin to the menace posed by Nazism and fascism in the 1930’s and then by communism in the 50’s.”
However, Professor Huntington brushes such claims aside and identifies Islam itself as the main problem for the West because its civilization is fundamentally different from Western civilization. He also identified two distinct qualities of Muslims, which, in his opinion, contribute to the problem. The first is that Muslims consider their culture superior to all other cultures. Most Muslims will openly claim that Islam is better than all other religions and philosophies. This attitude is a natural consequence of their belief that the religion of Islam was revealed from God. It is only logical to assume that the culture created by practicing God’s religion must, of necessity, be superior to any culture resulting from human experiment.
The other quality is that Muslims desire that the laws that govern them be Islamic. Much of the turmoil in the Muslim world today, in Algeria, Egypt, Chechnya, Dagestan, etc., is a direct result of this desire. During the era of European colonization of the Muslim world, the colonial administration substituted European laws for Islamic law. During the neo-colonial era, Muslims who were trained by their colonial masters were given the reins of government of Muslim territories and continued to govern according to European law. Today the vast majority of Muslim governments rule according to British, French, German and Dutch laws, and Muslim law is only partially applied in the area of family law.
Consequently, as the wave of Islamic awareness sweeps over the Muslim world, the aspiration of Muslims for self-determination has exploded in a series of violent confrontations with existing administrations. In places like Indonesia, where since the era of Sukarno (1945 – 1965) and his successor Suharto (1968 – 1998), Pancasilia, has been the state philosophy/religion taught in all schools to the population of some 200 million Indonesians, 95% of whom are Muslims. And, to suggest that Islamic law be introduced was considered an act of treason.
In 1998 Suharto was finally overthrown by popular dissent. All of those who clamored for power, including Suharto’s henchman and substitute, B.J. Habibe, immediately began paying some allegiance to Islam. And in recent elections, Sukarno’s daughter, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was decisively defeated by Nahdlatul Ulama’s Abdurrahman Wahid, who is half-blind and can hardly walk.
On the other hand, Professor Huntington negates the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as the chief enemy of Muslims. Although the CIA has a reputation for toppling governments and assassinating political figures, the professor assures Muslims that it is not their chief enemy. He further rules out the American military complex in spite of its presence in Saudi Arabia, its decimation of the Iraqi army, its launching cruise missiles into the Sudan and Afghanistan, and its open support for Israel.
The real source of the problem facing the Muslim World, according to Professor Huntington, is Western civilization itself. He further explains that the root of the problem lies in the fact that the West considers its culture superior to all other cultures. It considers its civilization and its leading principles what all human beings should aspire for and live by.
Because, according to Darwinian theory, the evolutionary process refines and improves human beings and their society. From our supposed savage ape-like origins to twentieth century civility, human society has progressed relentlessly. During the last few centuries, the evolutionary principle of “survival of the fittest” appears to have placed Western nations and their culture at the top of the pyramid of human civilization.
Thus, claims the West, the foundational principles of their civilization must be the most suitable for human society. Professor Huntington takes the issue another step further, pointing out that the West not only considers its culture the most appropriate for all nations, but it considers itself duty bound to impose their culture by any means necessary, politically or militarily, on the rest of the world. Professor Huntington has correctly identified these as the essential elements of the cultural clash facing the world as it enters the 21st century.
Dr. Bilal Phillips
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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