Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East

March 26, 2009

Samuel Huntington's thesis of a "clash of civilisations", formulated as the Cold War ended, has proved to be one of the most influential ideas in international-relations theory. Among political analysts, military strategists and policymakers, the idea of "us" against "them" is undoubtedly prevalent.

In parts of the West, Muslims, in particular Middle Eastern Muslims, have been singled out as the incongruous "other" with which "we" are at war, if not militarily at least culturally and religiously. Nowhere are ideas such as these more generally spread than among the American public, which has been fairly obvious from various opinion polls conducted since 9/11. It is against this background that Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East has been written.

It is indeed a sad testimony to the state of the world that a book such as this should even have been conceived. The premise of the book is naive ad absurdum; the authors, both North American peace and conflict researchers, state that it is "primarily intended to stimulate prospective thinking about how Muslims and non-Muslims might work together to 'make things right'". While this aim may be commendable, showing ways in which Muslims have conceptualised "peace paradigms" throughout history and trying to offer solutions on this basis for a future rapprochement, the inadvertent result is an inevitable concretion of the prejudices and misconceptions it sets out to counter.

Thus, for instance, while they criticise Huntington's framework for not taking adequate account of cultural and religious factors, one might argue that the authors in fact strengthen his approach as they uncritically accept and utilise his terms.

In addition, while recognising that Muslims are not a monolithic and homogeneous group, the authors nevertheless add to this stereotype by constantly using analytical categories such as Muslims and Westerners, Islam and the West, and so on. Ought not the opposite of Muslims be Christians or Jews, one wonders? Nonetheless, the book fails to rise above these kind of basic, essentialising categories.

The thrust of the work is its analysis of "Islamic peace paradigms", which constitute the lion's share of the book. But here, too, the basic premise is flawed. Even if it were possible to talk about dominant Islamic paradigms, as if "Islam" were monolithic and not made up of a wide range of sects and sub-religions (Shia, Ismaili, Sunni, Druze, Alawite and Yezidi Islam, to name but a few), how meaningful is such an ahistorical discussion? Islam, like all other belief systems - religious, political and cultural - has developed over the years in relation to religious, political and cultural challenges, and a discussion of Islamic paradigms is therefore quite meaningless without proper contextualisation.

This relates to the main criticism, which is the crux of the matter. While the authors rightly recognise that the Middle East is not a historical exception to world politics and history, but that it has been the subject of political and economic domination over the centuries, they nevertheless reject "political" explanations of the current conflict and instead insist that the answer lies in "culture". However, the basic problem as regards Middle Eastern relations with the West, as most scholars of the region would acknowledge, is undoubtedly of a political and economic nature (oil, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the occupation of Iraq, unpopular pro-Western autocratic regimes and so on). Cultural and religious differences are only secondary. Thus, seeking explanations in these categories, for instance by selectively reading the history of Muslim-Christian relations to show the perpetuality of conflict and omitting the wide array of historical examples of co-operation, trade and intellectual transmission, only adds to the proselytisation of a civilisational clash.

Therefore, this book (although containing well-researched discussions of scholarly interest) must be regarded more as a contribution to the domestic American political debate than to the development of the field of peace and conflict studies. To put it bluntly, Islam and Peacemaking will probably have as much impact as would a study of Communist notions of peaceful co-existence conducted at the height of the Cold War.

Islam and Peacemaking in the Middle East

By Nathan C. Funk and Abdul Aziz Said. Lynne Rienner Publishers 303pp, £60.95. ISBN 9781588265692. Published 15 December 2008

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