No Virginia, There’s No “Clash of Civilizations”

What inspired you to write On the Muslim Question? What sparked your interest?

Injustice. I saw otherwise intelligent and open-minded people saying silly and often offensive things about Islam and Muslims. Prime Minister David Cameron, Pope Benedict XVI, Jacques Derrida, John Rawls: they’d say things they’d never say about any other religion. The bigotry was much more pronounced on talk radio and blogs. Some of those things echoed what was said about Jews in the nineteenth century. The more carefully I listened, the more it seemed that they were really worried not about problems in the Muslim world but about problems in the West.

What’s the most important take-home message for readers?

That depends on the reader. The message to leave with is the message in the final chapter: there is no “clash of civilizations.” There are clashes in civilizations and clashes between people who come from different traditions and cultures, but there is no cosmic battle between Islam and the West. The message that opens the book is similar. When people talk about supposed dangers and defects in the Muslim world they speak, unwittingly, of problems in the West. These problems concern our own failures with regard to equality, sex and sexuality, freedom of speech, and democracy.

Is there anything you had to leave out?

Because I decided to write for a general audience I had to leave out much of my own scholarship and scholarship I value. In a more scholarly book I would have engaged with the work of Talal Asad, Roxanne Euben, Saba Mahmood, Tariq Ramadan, and Faisal Devi—scholars I value. I would have tried to weave elements of canonical Muslim philosophy (especially al Farabi and Ibn Khaldun) into the Western canon. I would have been able to write more on the movement of religions and the religious in history.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?

The great misconception, again, is that there is a clash of civilizations. There are some smaller related misconceptions. People think the Muhammad cartoons set off violent riots among Muslims in the West. They didn’t.

Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?

I began writing for a scholarly audience, but I rapidly came to think it would be better for this book to speak to a general educated audience. The Muslim Question isn’t a scholarly question, it is a political question. What we say about Muslims, how we think of Muslims and Islam, how we of the West act in relation to our principles: these are issues for us all.

Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?

There are a few readers I expect, even hope, to piss off. I see those who cultivate hatred of Muslims and Islam as contemptible, and I mean to show them in that light. If Pamela Geller, Michele Bachmann or Paul Berman [See Bruce Lawrence’s The Polite Islamophobia of the Intellectual —Ed.] picks up my book I expect them to be angry. I’d like them to be ashamed. Most people, I hope, will see their world in my book and feel proud and reassured. The world most people live in—the streets they walk in, the neighborhoods they live in, their schools and hospitals—is a Western world that enfolds Muslims with Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, and the rest. In our ordinary lives, most of us are at home with Muslims and Islam.

What alternative title would you give the book?

“There is No Clash of Civilizations.” I thought of calling it that, but the book goes beyond that into the significance of the Western debates and anxieties about Islam.

How do you feel about the cover?

An excellent question! I believe authors should control their covers, and they can’t. The cover is an important part of the book and one that can color all that is said inside. Princeton worked with me on this cover and I like it very much, especially the prominence of the question mark.

Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?

You can’t really wish to write someone else’s book. Reading at its best is like friendship: part of the pleasure is that the friend is not you, thinks different things, has different tastes, surprises you, does what you cannot.

But I admire and envy those who write fiction and poetry. If I could write fiction on this subject, I would like it to be like Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road. If I wrote poetry on this subject, I would like it to echo the pride in Mahmoud Darwish, “Record!”; the sorrow of Yehuda Amichai “everything in three languages/ Hebrew, Arabic and death”; and the strength of Langston Hughes, “Don’t be discouraged, builder.”

What’s your next book?

Usually one book shows me the way to another. I wanted to make it clear in this book that Islam is not “the other of democracy,” hostile to democracy or working against it. As I wrote, the Arab Spring came. Watching the people of Cairo, I remembered something I had once written about the courage democracy requires. That is the book I am writing now.