AUSTIN, Texas – The characterization of Muslim and Christian conflict as a “clash of civilizations” only prolongs problems and encourages dangerous forms of fundamentalism, one prominent scholar told listeners at an ethics conference Feb. 19.

Charles Kimball, who has visited the Middle East 40 times and worked closely with Congress, the White House and the State Department, spoke at Ethics Without Borders, an event in Austin, Texas, organized by the Texas Baptist-affiliated Christian Life Commission.

A professor of religion at Wake Forest University, Kimball called the clash of civilizations framework “an extremely unhelpful one” for people in the United States, most of whom know very little about Islam.

“I think it’s important to see in this kind of us-versus-them mentality the very deep (anti-)Islamic bias that’s at work,” Kimball said. “They advance a simplistic image that Islam is anti-Western, anti-us. The premise here is that Islam never modernized, never separated between church and state, that Islam is somehow incapable of differentiating between civilizations. That is simply untrue.”

The term “clash of civilizations” was first popularized in a 1993 Foreign Affairs article by Samuel Huntington. In the essay, Huntington said world politics is entering a new phase in which the fundamental source of conflict will be cultural, not ideological or economic.

“Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations,” Huntington wrote. “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

Islam was “the brilliant civilization that led the world” through much of history, Kimball said. Historians have said Western civilization was influenced by the Arab world and Islam in areas of philosophy, astronomy, mathematics, architecture and the university system.

Muslim scholars led the way in academic and scientific fronts well before their Western counterparts caught up, Kimball said. So to neatly divide the modern conflict into a clash of two different civilizations is much too simplistic, he said.

“This is not an anti-intellectual tradition,” he said. “It’s one that has been historically flexible and open. There are so many ways that we are interconnected historically with Islam that throws this premise on its ear.”


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