Today in Malaysia, representatives from the West and the Muslim world will meet to discuss what many consider the seminal issue of global concern – the supposed "Clash of Civilizations".
We all see symptoms of the divide between the Muslim and Western worlds but many struggle to understand it. Some say we are indeed locked in a "Clash of Civilizations"; others attribute differences between societies to little more than a series of misunderstandings. How can we make sense of problems that we observe so that we may try to solve them?
The misunderstanding is that the Islamic community is growing radicalized, and wants to destroy the West's culture and cause its people to either submit to Islam or become dhimmis, but too many people in the West misunderstand this, and talk about things like poverty and skin color, when it is a hateful, imperialistic ideology being passed off as a religion that is causing the problems.
And, to my Muslim readers, don't try to tell me that what the radicals preach isn't hateful, imperialistic ideology, because you know as well as I do that it is; just like I know that NOT every Muslim is like those guys.
In Kuala Lumpur today and tomorrow, religious scholars, academics and government and business leaders will try to do just that. By defining the breach in perceptions that exists on both sides, they will lay the foundation for bridging the gap.
Some might ask: how can such a bridge be built when so much violence, protest and misunderstanding seem to dominate headlines on both sides of the Muslim-West seam?
To start, let's be clear in asserting that dialogue can take place. What we have today is much less a "Clash of Civilizations" than a clash of perceptions. Little about our cultures, religions or ways of life—though these are certainly different—suggests coexistence to be impossible; rather, it is our perception of this impossibility that drives discord.
Dialog can only really take place with the jihadists after they have been militarily defeated.
The greatest misunderstanding, therefore, is that we imagine the problems that separate the Muslim and Western worlds to be larger and more formidable than they actually are.
Yeah, like calling the West the House of War, calling for the destruction of Western culture, and the enslavement and rape of its people, combined with efforts to make these things happen -- this is really not as big a problem as we make it out to be.
Some in the Muslim World, for example, perceive Western military invention on their soil as a vestige of a malignant narrative stretching from the Crusades to the era of colonialism, whereas many Westerners view current events, such as the American invasion of Afghanistan, strictly in terms of a struggle against international terrorism.
As long as the Crusades -- a terrible chapter in human history -- came up, let me ask a question: Who started it?
That militants often justify acts of violence with Islamic vocabulary only distances Muslims and Westerners from mutual understanding.
Wait a minute: Gina Khan is a Muslim and a Westerner.
And, there are many people like her.
Let's call it jihadists versus infidels and takfir.
It is the militant extremists of every creed, in fact, who bear the greatest responsibility for exacerbating negative perceptions. The atrocities of Christian and Jewish extremism should be on display alongside those perpetrated by their Muslim counterparts: from the Ku Klux Klan to Baruch Goldstein to September 11th, religious fanatics of all faiths perpetrate violence that aggravates intercultural tensions and widens the perception gap.
The Ku Klux Klan is indefensible.
But, it has caused only a tiny fraction of the suffering that militant Islamists have.
Incorrect perceptions in the West about Muslims need fixing too, including the oft-heard charge that Muslims categorically practice violence and abuse women. As we know, however, Muslim-majority countries are more tolerant and diverse than many in the West suppose.
The impressive plurality of ethnicities, languages, beliefs and opinions among today's population of more than 1.2 billion Muslims does more than validate the Prophet's tradition that "Differences of opinion in my community are a blessing"—it puts to rest the notion that Muslims are a homogenous and insidious group, naturally opposed to dissent from within or without.
And Saudi Arabia and the Taliban's Afghanistan have been such shining examples of progressive, multicultural tolerance, where the right to any belief is honored.
Issues of perception are key in debunking the sense that cultures are clashing. Lately, it has become clear just how carefully religious scholars, politicians and commentators must choose their language to avoid making the problem worse.
To illustrate, the current US Presidential election has seen both John McCain and Barack Obama distance themselves from former spiritual guides—Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who famously blamed the US for the September 11th terrorist attacks and Reverend Rod Parsley, the notorious defamer of Islam.
Though both candidates have rightly disavowed such comments, they recognize that more work still needs to be done, and have sent representatives to Kuala Lumpur to help repair the damage to the public's perception of the Muslim-West divide.
Yes, there is certainly a divide, a set of real problems that often fan the embers of misunderstanding until they flame up into something far more sinister and threatening. But the breach exists only because we have created it through government policies, academic discourses, media relations and other interactions that feature pessimistic rhetoric. Regrettably, enough leaders from all walks have spent so much time brooding on the factuality of the Muslim-West divide that many no longer consider the gap bridgeable.
We can indeed bridge this gap. What we need first, however, is to measure its width so that our engineering won't go to waste. In Kuala Lumpur, for the first time ever, practical-minded leaders will meet to begin this task by setting down a concrete definition for the divide, to be encased in the "Kuala Lumpur Accord."
Then will they will tackle the issue of how to construct positive policy, academic and media initiatives that will help future leaders span the gulf of false perception.
It is not a "clash of civilizations" -- it is civilization, which most emphatically includes some elements of the Islamic world, clashing with barbarians.
The gap that needs to be bridged is the gap between this reality and the political newspeak that refuses to acknowledge the truth.
Hat tip to my email tipster.