A Common Word (2)

There are, then, a whole bunch of experts, ideologues, and zealots on both sides of the so-called Islam/West divide who subscribe to “the Doom Scenario.” Once you’ve accepted this scenario, your options become rather limited.  If it’s really Us against Them, if they are really out to get us, and if peaceful coexistence is indeed an impossibility, then what else can anyone do except resist (if one is able to fight) or surrender (if one is unable to resist)?


Consequently, those who accept “the Doom Scenario” tend to limit their thinking to the level of strategy and tactics.  The question for them is “how can we win the clash of civilizations?”  Is diplomacy a better way to ensure that we prevail over them, or should we send in our troops?  Should we try to kill as many of them as possible, or should we try to impose economic sanctions in order to subdue them?  Should we play the respect card, or should we torture them?  How should we plan and execute the next attack?  To bomb or not to bomb, that is the question.

The problem with limiting our thinking to the strategic and tactical levels is that we confine ourselves in ways that may be entirely unnecessary, not to mention counterproductive.  To even ask the question “how can we win the clash of civilizations?,” is to already assume that there is one, or that it is inevitable.  But perhaps this isn’t the right question to ask.  Perhaps the right question to ask is this: “what kind of world do we wish for ourselves and our children?”

To think in terms of strategy and tactics only is to be stuck in the proverbial box of win/lose thinking.  When we are stuck in this box, we assume that our win is their loss, and their win is our loss.  We think in terms of how to win, and we lose sight of the box itself, taking its limitations as the final limits of our own thinking.  But perhaps there are more important questions to be asked: Who made this box in the first place?  Who put us inside the box?  Exactly whose interests do we serve by remaining inside the box?  Is there life outside the box?  What will happen if we dare to step outside this box?  What would we see if we could only leave the box?


If we were to step outside the narrow confines of win/lose thinking, we may discover that the most important question has suddenly changed.  Instead of asking “how can we win the clash of civilizations?,” the question becomes “do we want a clash of civilizations?”  We discover, in other words, that the clash is not an inevitability; it is a choice.  It is not an inherent part of physical reality; it is a human construction.  We bring the clash into existence by believing that it is real and even necessary, and by acting as if it were, in fact, real and unavoidable.  We then maintain its reality by means of specific forms of thinking and acting, every day.  We literally choose the clash of civilizations into existence.

It follows that we are free to think differently and thereby to act differently; in other words, we are perfectly capable of sending the clash into the realm of nonexistence just as easily as we have brought it into being.  In fact, since we maintain the reality of the clash by our thinking and acting in certain ways, all we have to do is to cease thinking and acting in our customary ways and the clash would literally disappear in a puff of smoke.

Let’s tackle the question “do we want a clash of civilizations?”  I have enough faith in the basic goodness of humankind to say that most people would respond to this question by a categorical “no.”  And it’s not just my faith in the basic goodness of humankind that makes me think this way; it is also my understanding of how human beings actually reason that makes me confident of this answer.  Most people, most of the time, are not belligerent.  Even when acting in purely selfish ways, human beings have every reason to avoid conflict and no reason for seeking it.  They fight, or go to war, or kill, only under exceptional circumstances.  The default tendency of the human mind is to favor peace over conflict, not simply because we are altruistic by nature (which we are) but also because a rational cost/benefit analysis encourages that we choose peace even if we were absolutely selfish beings.  In other words, the existence of peace does not need any explanation; what needs explanation is conflict, a failure of peace.

Part of what pushes us into conflict, into war, and into killing, therefore, is that we frequently find ourselves “trapped” in the box of win/lose thinking.  This is manifested in our belief that we can meet our needs and fulfill our interests only by preventing some group of people from meeting their needs and fulfilling their interests.  In other words, I cannot win unless you lose; and you cannot win unless I lose.  Our needs and interests, in this view, are mutually exclusive.  My success is inextricably linked to your failure, and vice versa.  Life on earth is a zero-sum game.

Much of what we call “international relations” continue to be based upon the same win/lose thinking that has already produced colonialism, transcontinental slave-trade, world wars, concentration camps, nuclear weapons, Apartheid, genocides, the threat of mutually assured destruction, war lords, 9/11, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, and a host of other atrocities.   One does not have to be a genius to recognize that if one set of assumptions has helped us create an increasing amount of mess, then the only way to clean it up will require a very different set of assumptions.


Albert Einstein’s advice is really quite elementary.  It is the kind of wisdom that one ought to have picked up in kindergarten.  First, learn from other people’s experience; if history shows that a particular kind of thinking or acting has consistently produced undesirable results, this is warrant enough to try something different.  Second, learn from your own experience; there is no reason why you should stick to a theory or strategy that has so far failed to help you fulfill your needs.  As most kindergarteners know, if a door doesn’t open when you push it with all your might, then pulling it might be a good idea!

One Comment

  1. I guess “When Muslims and Christians begin to dialogue on the metareligious question of the very nature of religion, creative ways to conceive of the relationship between religion, politics, and economics will undoubtedly emerge. Potentially, this will lead to a Christian-Muslim movement of solidarity in which we work together toward the shared goal of a more just and peaceful world.” (Shedinger) But in the midst of idealogies, cultural differences in values, beliefs many a times self imposed – all this noise – how can one even be audible?

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