The Samovar

Alliance of Civilisations
November 19, 2006, 5:11 am
Filed under: Activism, Politics, Religion

The UN recently created a new initiative, the Alliance of Civilisations. This initiative rejects the idea that there is a “clash of civilisations”, that the West is fundamentally incapable of peacefully co-existing with Muslim nations, etc. I was really looking forward to reading their report, but it was slightly disappointing. Unsurprisingly, it said lots of things that I agree with and would like to believe are true, but it didn’t argue its case coherently or persuasively. For example,

4.14 In some cases, self-proclaimed religious figures have capitalized on a popular desire for religious guidance to advocate narrow, distorted interpretations of Islamic teachings. Such figures mis-portray certain practices, such as honor killings, corporal punishment, and oppression of women as religious requirements. These practices are not only in contravention of internationally-agreed human rights standards, but, in the eyes of respected Muslim scholars, have no religious foundation. Such scholars have demonstrated that a sound reading of Islamic scriptures and history would lead to the eradication and not the perpetuation of these practices.

4.15 Many of these practices relate directly to the status of women. In some Muslim societies, ill-informed religious figures, in some cases allied with unenlightened conservative political regimes, have succeeded in greatly restricting women’s access to public and professional life, thereby hampering their prospects and potential for self-fulfillment. The effect on those women, on society at large, and on future generations, has been to inhibit economic and social development as well as democratic pluralism. This problem can only be overcome through laws that ensure full gender equality in accordance with internationally-agreed human rights standards. Such measures are most likely to succeed if supported by religious education that is based upon a sound interpretation of religious teachings. It must be noted, however, that in many parts of the world, including Western countries, much progress is still needed with regard to the status of women.

4.17 Among the intra-Muslim debates that most directly affect relations with Western societies is that over the concept of “jihad”. The notion of jihad is a rich one with many shades of meaning, ranging from the struggle between good and evil that is internal to every individual (often referred to as the “greater” jihad in Islam) to the taking up of arms in defense of one’s community (the “lesser” jihad). Increasingly, this term is used by extremists to justify violence with little consideration for the historical context and the related religious exigencies that most Muslim scholars agree should inform its application. When such exhortations to violence by radical factions are picked up and amplified by media and Western political leaders, the notion of “jihad” loses the multiple meanings and positive connotations it has for Muslims and becomes associated with only violent and negative meanings which have been wrongly attributed to the term.

Yep, I reckon that’s probably all true, but why?

This sort of thing comes in the first third of the report, the rest is practical suggestions for how to bring about an alliance of civilisations. For some reason, they fail to excite me. This is probably my fault. I feel like, if we need to find an idea to rally around in bringing about an alliance of civilisations, then this isn’t it. I’m sure the ideas are good ones, but are they enough and are they convincing? Personally, I’m not sure.

Perhaps if someone else has read this report you could explain to me that I’m missing something?


It seems to me that this relates to your discussion on Atheist Fundamentalism (which I’ve never got around to joining in with).

Yes, there are decent arguments to be made against oppresion of women, political violence etc. etc. and for plurality. But the argument here seems to be that these come from ‘correct’ interpretaions of Islam (or other religions).

Obviously, non-Muslims including atheists are going to find such an argument weak – indeed, unintelligible. Much though we might agree with the conclusions, we can’t follow the working out. We’re in no position to judge the strength of the argument in religious terms. And therein lies the rub. Is the argument theologically valid? Objectively we can see that others don’t seem to think so. The Goodies can argue away with the Baddies and neither of them can be said to have a sounder religious case than the other.

Hence Atheist Fundamentalism. The religious arguments simply don’t make sense, wherever they come from. We have to be fundamentalist in only dealing with issues from a secularist viewpoint. We have to be fundamentalist in going back to first princples, holding people to the rational basis and consequences of their conclusions.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

I think you’re saying that the correctness of an interpretation of Islam is not a rational matter, right? I think I agree, although I’m willing to be shown to be wrong. It seems to me that it is at least to some extent a matter of choice which parts of a religious text you emphasise or de-emphasise. Rather than taking this to be a bad thing though, I think it is potentially a good thing because it allows religions to develop in line with changing views of what is or is not acceptable. If you take the position that religious texts have to be interpreted in the context of the time they were written, and that they can be reinterpreted in the context of our time, this even makes a sort of theological sense.

I plan to write an entry on exactly this sort of thing, but I don’t know how long it will take me to research it and write it.

Comment by Dan Goodman

Welll…one has to ask “Why not just cut to the chase?” Is it rational to look to scripture in support of a moral position in the first place? At best…one is bound to get confused. However, it is worth remembering that all religions diverge. It’s lazy atheist orthodoxy to single out for attack the worst excesses. (and far more sporting to shoot down the ‘good’ bits. 😉 )

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Well indeed and that is the question that I do ask, but it’s also worthwhile having a more inclusive strategy that can address these sorts of issues within religions, as discussed at length of the ‘confessions of a fundamentalist’ entry – just going to go and reply to your comment there now…

Comment by Dan Goodman

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: