In his compelling Nov. 5 op-ed article, columnist Diego Rivera claims that the West must defend its values against those who would attack us. Although he refers only to “foreign forces,” the author claims “there are other civilizations that do want to harm the West” and his examples strongly suggest he is referring to Muslims. While I agree with him that the U.S. must stand up for its values, I disagree that we are in an intercivilizational conflict with Islam.
One of the major problems with dividing the world up into civilizations is that such accounts tend to overlook intracivilizational differences. In referring to a group composed of billions of people as one “civilization” — be they Muslims, Chinese, Indians, Africans or Christians — one has to be careful not to overgeneralize.
By referring to a group of 1.8 billion Muslims globally as a “civilization,” it is easy to overlook the differences within that group. For instance, the strictly fundamentalist Wahhabi Muslims in Saudi Arabia have traditionally had little in common with their more syncretic coreligionists in Indonesia. Similarly, a Chinese Uighur probably has more differences than similarities with a Muslim Tucsonan, even if they do practice the same religion.
The author also neglects to take into account the role that sectarian divides among Muslims — not anti-Western sentiments — drive some of the violence we see today. Much of the bloodshed currently taking place in countries such as Iraq, Syria and Yemen has more to do with the Sunni-Shia divide (and other non-religious factors) than it does with hatred toward the United States or the West.
Indeed, the fact that Islamist terrorists kill far more people in the Muslim world every year than they do Westerners stems from the conflict within Islam between modernizing and orthodox Muslims. If the conflicts we see today stem from civilizational differences, as the author claims, we would see that anger directed mainly towards the West, but instead it is directed primarily toward their fellow Muslims.
The author also believes that terrorist attacks in the West share a common goal of destroying the West. Again, this claim elides the significant differences causing the attacks in the U.S. and Europe. The terrorist attacks in Europe are occurring, in part, because those countries adopted multicultural instead of assimilationist policies for their newly arrived immigrants. What this has amounted to over the years is de facto segregation, which has left some Muslims (and other minorities) in European countries feeling isolated and rejected from the mainstream cultures in those societies.
Unlike Europe, the U.S. has historically been better at assimilating immigrants and thus has not produced as many disenchanted and radicalized young Muslims as in Europe.
Portraying the terrorist actions by some Muslims as signs of an intercivilizational conflict is misguided. Such portrayals fail to take into account intracivilizational differences, both in the “Muslim world” and in “the West.” This has important implications for how we as a country should respond to terrorist attacks.
If we faced a threat from another civilization, we should attack that civilization, which could require enormous sums of money and result in many deaths. However, if we instead face threats from individuals, then we can respond accordingly with the numerous tools our law enforcement and judicial systems already have at their disposal.
Keeping the scope of the threat in perspective not only helps us to save money and lives, it also can help us to be less fearful and enjoy life more.