War or Reconciliation (Part 2)

Response to Ayaan Hirsi Ali – The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World?

Historically, ethnicity and religion are two founding elements for the formation of political organizations and nation states. However, globalization opens door to interspersing of diversified communities into modern nation states causing fuzzier nation frontiers and contact zones. It is undeniable that some Christians are unfairly persecuted in the Muslim majority countries, as voiced by Hirsi Ali, but the hyper interconnectedness of global citizens and the in vogue trend of pluralism and interdependency of nation states challenge Hirsi Ali’s advocacy on the political theory of clashes of civilization – the global Muslims war against the Christians.

The Clash of Civilizations

Although Hirsi Ali acknowledges the growing demography of Muslims in the West and their interconnectedness with the local context, she does subscribe to the 1990s political theory of Samuel Huntington on the ‘clash of civilization’ between the West and Muslims.

Her book, Nomad: From Islam to America – A Personal Journey through the Clash of Civilizations,  encapsulated her life into two blocks of cultural identities; in MENA countries (Middle East and North Africa), especially in Somalia where she originally comes from, and in the USA and Europe. A review on Nomad says that, “In her newest book she makes a personal and emotional exodus from Islam and describes her culture shock experiences during assimilation into Western Society.” Can the clash between the two civilizations be used as a clear-cut description on the pressing conflict of international relations and cultural identities in the increasingly globalized society today?

In fact, the spectrum of definitions of the West and Islam is quite wide. In the World Economic Forum January 2008 report, “Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue,” the definition of the West refers mainly to “Europe and lands of significant European settlement, primarily North America, but also Australia and New Zealand. The definition is geographical historical rather than cultural. A geographical-historical definition of the West makes sense for another reason: throughout much of the Muslim world, the West is still viewed through the lens of the colonial and post-colonial European and American global preeminence.”

According to this geographical-historical definition, Hirsi Ali now lives in the West. But her ‘exodus’ from Islam and Muslims is endless. Strongly advocating that the only way to liberate women who are suppressed under Islam is to free them from Islam, Hirsi Ali does not seem to be totally liberated yet, even though she is ‘free’ from conforming to any Muslim tradition. Her voices seem to hope that she will be freed from Islam as she journeys away from the Islamic civilization into the Western civilization. Unfortunately, in addition to facing physical threats from some radicals, she is also emotionally imprisoned by the bitterness harbors from her past religious and cultural traditions that inevitably shapes her perceptions and values. The crisis between the ‘two civilizations’ continues within her life cognitively, emotionally, and even physically.

Mario Apostolov commented on such mental construction by saying, “Any frontier, be it political, social or cultural, is the product of human imagination and an instrument for shaping the structure of human society.” [1] Thus far, for any individual, liberation needs to first come from one’s inner being; the spatial, emotional, and spiritual spheres.

Pew Research: Global Muslims Demography 2011

Equating Christians with the Westerners and the Muslim World with MENA Countries

The title and the content of Hirsi Ali’s recent writing, “The Global War on Christians in the Muslim World,” illuminate her evolving thoughts, from the clash of civilizations of ‘the West and the world of Islam’ to the clash of ‘Christians and the Muslims world.’ She conflates the West with Christians. Professor Hugh Goddard, a renowned scholar in Muslim Christian Relations pointed out that the adversarial relationship between the West and the world of Islam is not quite the same as the relationship between Christians and Muslims.[2]

In her writing, Hirsi Ali’s lens on Islam is also narrowed down to the North African Muslims’ lives and religious traditions, especially those from the Arabic speaking countries. This ‘Arabic bias’ image distorts the actual demography of majority Muslims living outside the Arab speaking countries. In Islamic Connections – Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia, Professor Feener of National University of Singapore wrote[3],

“.. the top five largest Muslim national populations are located outside of the Arab Middle East. Today, nearly 60 per cent of the Muslims living in the world do so in Asia. By comparison, the combined populations of all of the Arabic speaking Muslim nations of the Middle East add up to less than 20 per cent of today’s global umma.”

Hirsi Ali is not alone. Many scholars like her too equate the West with Christians and the Middle Easterners and North Africans with global Muslims. Today, there are more Christians from the non-Western countries: Latin America, Africa, and Asia, compared to 1950s where about 80 percent of the world’s Christians lived in the northern hemisphere in Europe and North America. In the turn of this century, the center of gravity of Christianity is shifted from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere.[4]

The well perceived denotation of the West to Christians and the Muslim world to the Middle Eastern countries most likely emerged from the collective memories and psychology, and capital of myths of global citizens that majority Christians lived in the West, and that Islam spread globally from the Middle East. The perceived conflict between the West and the Middle East, especially on the power dynamic between militarization of the West and oil monopoly of the Middle East, is re-enforced by media coverage. Together, the historical elements and the media continuously influence societal spatial sphere on the framework and the interplay between nation states and faiths.

After the Cold War 1990s, the surging regional confrontation on international collaborations and conflicts, and the animosity and violence that took place at their fault-line and contact zones increase global awareness that these ‘power blocks,’ (which may even use religions to disguise their ‘military versus oil power dynamic’) pose future threats to the world peace. While faith and religion can positively impact diversified communities, both are often abused by influential and politically motivated leaders to support such hegemony of power. In line with this, Maria Apostolov commented that,

“The interpretation of relations between Christians and Muslims in terms of confrontation is often results of particular interest-based or benefit-seeking activities… Clearly high fragmentation of social identities is durable trait of the eastern Mediterranean and south eastern Europe – the historical heart of the zone of contact between Christianity and Islam. This fragmentation is demonstrated in both popular attitudes and elite behavior. They reflect the specific social and political situation, including interests, acts and discourse of people with influence at certain time in a certain country.”[5]

Hirsi Ali and her Leadership

The world definitely needs more influential woman leaders and Hirsi Ali is in that position. Her narrative and polemical writings grab the attention of many people. This writing, for example appeared as a front article in Newsweek Magazine. She is courageous but her motive is ambiguous.

One may question if she is genuinely concerned about the persecuted Christians, or her own vocation, or both. David Johnston articulated this in his response to her writing by saying;

“Truth is, weaving a tale of Muslim rage with Christian victims piling up from Nigeria to Indonesia conveniently adds to the political strife of a US election year. When Democrats decry the plight of beleaguered Muslims, Republican hopefuls vie for the harshest invectives against Islamic radicalism. As it turns out, Hirsi Ali works for that great bastion of conservatism, the American Enterprise Institute.”

Regardless of Hirsi Ali’s purpose of writing, it is undeniable that her long term vision and leadership are crucial towards human flourishing. As a woman of influence, Hisri Ali indeed has the capacity and the options to further develop and improve her leadership style, strategy and networks. For example, by peaceful approach in fighting for the rights of the marginalized as exemplified by Women in Religious Peace Building Network. Her voice will be more powerful if she sets a living example to the oppressors in loving others by adhering to the Golden Rule – Ethic of Reciprocity, ‘do unto others what you want others to do unto you’. In addition to being courageous, her leadership will surely be more effective, respected, and liberating if she also approach the matters respectfully and wisely.


International relations, realpolitik, and politicizing of religions within the modern age nations and among political leaders are to be separated from Muslims and Christians’ genuine and personal relations with one another. The apparent reconciliation, faith based diplomacy, cooperation, and engaging faith initiatives that are taking place globally are another side of Muslim Christian relations that Hirsi Ali blurred. Such resurgence needs to be taken into account when evaluating the current stage of relationships among Muslims and Christians, the two biggest faith adherents in the world today. Only when all facts are outlined properly that readers can judge whether her claim on global war on Christians by Muslim world is valid.

And if there is such movement, ‘Global war on Christians in the Muslim world,’ does Hirsi Ali have the authority to declare this on behalf of Muslim nations? Prominent Muslim leaders, such as the signatories of A Common Word who advocate ‘Loving of God, Loving of the Neighbors’ and ‘Loving of the Good, Loving of the Neighbors,’ would have made that declaration in the last 2012 World Interfaith Harmony Week if this is really true?

[1] Mario Apostolov, The Christian Muslim Frontier – A zone of contact, conflict or cooperation (New Yok: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 1

[2] Hugh Goddard, A History of Christian Muslim Relations (Chicago: New Amsterdam Book, 2000), 4

[3] Cited from, R.Micheal Feener & Terenjit Sevea, Islamic Connections – Muslim Societies in South and Southeast Asia (Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2009), pg xiii

[4] Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations – Pillars of World Christianity (USA: Oxford Press University, 2008), xx to xxii.

[5] Ibid, Mario Apostolov, 3

Other References

1. Maps on Islamic countries: http://www.pewforum.org/Muslim/Map–Distribution-of-Muslim-Population-by-Country-and-Territory.aspx

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