A Common Word (1)

The following is an expanded version of my presentation at the University of Minnesota, Crookston, on April 14, 2009, entitled “A Common Word.”  The program was organized by the Cooperative Campus Ministry.

Humans do not like to be confused, but the flood of data that drowns us everyday from multiple directions does seem to result in precisely the kind of frustration that we call confusion.  When the rate with which we receive information about national or international events rises above our capacity to absorb, analyze, and interpret, the information ceases to have any relevance or meaning beyond itself.  The more details we learn, the less we seem to understand the big picture.  The sheer quantity of information ends up reducing the quality of our knowledge.

Overwhelmed by the never-ending flow of apparently disconnected information and news, we experience various intensities of confusion.  We then seek to overcome that state of confusion by one of two strategies:  We either give up, deciding that we are not interested after all in stuff that seems to matter not; or we give in, deciding that we are going to trust our favorite experts to do the hard work of synthesis for us.  In most cases, these experts are individuals with whom we already share our assumptions and prejudices.

The first option can easily lead to full-blown apathy, which can prevent us from recognizing problems that need to be addressed as well as of our own responsibility in addressing them.  Trusting a few experts, on the other hand, can have an even more devastating effect, for a given synthesis that we find attractive may not, in fact, be as accurate a representation of reality as we would like it to be.  Instead of merely becoming uninterested in the issues, we may then be misled into accepting such a distorted picture of their nature and significance that we end up becoming part of the very problems that we think we are trying to solve.  In effect, we simply become more entrenched in our preconceived assumptions and prejudices, not because we have tested them against reality but because this or that famous and/or powerful person seems to be confirming our beliefs.

The following discussion illustrates how a handful of experts, ideologues, and zealots may seem to have a disproportionate influence in the world, not because they are particularly insightful but because their brand of synthesis happens to strike a sympathetic cord in their audience.  By playing upon their audience’s assumptions and prejudices, as well as their fears, such individuals are able to create an entire show of smokes and mirrors.

The particular show of smokes and mirrors that I want to discuss here has recently acquired the status of a powerful myth with millions of believers.  A myth is an explanatory framework in narrative form, a story that provides us a way of apprehending reality.  Like all myths, this one has both a descriptive aspect and a prescriptive aspect; it not only tells us the way things are, but also what we ought to do in response to the way things are.  I call this myth “the Doom Scenario.”  In essence, “the Doom Scenario” says that two distinct and independent entities, usually called “Islam” and “the West,” are at war with each other, and that this war should be our main interpretive lens for understanding a large number of apparently unconnected events and happenings.  In other words, “the Doom Scenario” can help us grasp the nature and meaning of much of what we read in newspapers or watch on TV news.

No single person is responsible for creating this narrative, so it is difficult to say exactly who deserves the credit or blame for “the Doom Scenario.  In the last two decades or so, however, a few individuals have stood out as major players in the construction and popularization of this story.

One of the experts on all things Islamic is Prof. Bernard Lewis of Princeton University.  Prof. Lewis has had a long and distinguished academic career as a historian of Islam.  His is believed to be the great synthesizing mind, for he can read and digest thousands of books, articles, manuscripts, and news items, find out what is most relevant, and then offer us his big picture of what is going on in the world, why do Muslims behave in the way they do, where is it all going to end up, and what ought to be done.  He is one of the significant individuals behind “the Doom Scenario.

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In his now classic 1990 essay, “The Roots of Muslim Rage,” Prof. Lewis gave us a very bad news, that of the already underway clash of civilizations . . . a conflict of historical, even cosmic, proportions, between two ancient rivals, a conflict we can neither avoid nor ignore.  Reading this essay, one feels as if Prof. Lewis is giving a live commentary on two heavily loaded trains that are racing toward each other on the same track.

This is where you are supposed to say: uh-oh.

But some thought this was a cool idea.  The late Prof. Samuel Huntington of Harvard University found the phrase clash of civilizations to be irresistibly attractive, publishing his own analysis under the title “The Clash of Civilizations?” (also considered a classic), in the summer of 1993.

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For Huntington, as for Lewis, the phrase clash of civilizations  captures the essence of what countless individual events and happenings all around the world actually represent.  He too is considered a synthesizing mind, someone who can plow through megatons of data and is able to see, and tell, what is really going on.  He, like Lewis before him, claimed to have recognized a clear pattern by connecting apparently unrelated events and phenomena.  Agreeing with Lewis, Prof. Huntington told us that the clash was real, it was already happening, and it was going to get worse by the minute.  In Huntington’s apocalyptic vision, two titans were at war and neither was likely to give up easily; coexistence was impossible and confrontation was unavoidable.  Like Lewis, Prof. Huntington reminded us that there was nothing particularly new about the clash; it was only a fresh phase in an age-old struggle.

So far we have heard the bad news from two great American minds, self-appointed representatives of “the Judeo-Christian heritage” and defenders of the “secular West.”  But what about the Islamic side of things?  It so happened that one of the most famous/notorious of all self-appointment representatives of “Islam” could not agree more with the Lewis-Huntington story.  He too shared with the world his own very similar vision of endless confrontation and conflict, lending further support to the apocalyptic scenarios of the two American visionaries.

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The tone in Osama bin Laden’s message is overtly religious, but we ought to remember that the first two visions are not entirely secular either.  In effect, all three individuals happen to share some of their most basic assumptions, reasoning styles, hopes, dreams, and convictions.  All three agree on what I call “the Doom Scenario.”

It is important to keep in mind that “the Doom Scenario” comes in many different levels of intensity; it has a number of identifiable features, but not everyone who accepts it in broad outlines is likely to subscribe to all those features with the same degree of commitment.  Once recognized in its ideal-typical form, however, we may become sensitive to the presence of “the Doom Scenario” even when encountering its milder forms.

So, what’s going on in the world today?  According to “the Doom Scenario,” as distilled from the explanations given by our three prophets of doom, what’s going on is that two very different civilizations are competing against each other to dominate the world.  Each consists of an absolutely unique set of fixed values and unchanging life-styles on which it refuses to compromise as a matter of principle.  There is nothing they share, or hold in common.  The gulf between them is unbridgeable.  These two civilizations may even represent, in either a hard or a soft form, the cosmic forces of good and evil, God and Satan, Ahuramazda and Ahraman.  Each believes its own motives to be pure and benevolent, and the motives of its enemy to be evil and predatory.  Each is convinced that the “One True God” is on its side, and its side alone.  Each is also convinced of its own eventual victory, and of all the good consequences that would follow from that victory.  And yet, both sides are aware of the grim reality that no resolution of the conflict is going to happen any time soon . . . after all, this is an ancient and ongoing struggle, and its end is not in sight.

The message is clear: This is going to go on for a while, so you better fasten your seat-belts.

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