The Clashes of Civilization

A lot of my college classes might be considered ‘useless.’ Not mildly useless in the what-are-you-going-to-do-with-a-major-in-English-literature way, but absurdly useless in the atonal-music-theory and sword-fighting-for-fun kind of way.

Honestly, I don’t believe any of it was useless. I believe that every ‘random’ detail belongs to at least one pattern, and that connecting distant dots unleashes divinity and wonder.

The extent of Islamophobia in the U.S. shocks me. I want to lend counterexamples to the violent images of Islam that pervade American media. I’ve started by talking to friends and family about my experiential knowledge of Muslim cultures, and I keep looking for easier ways to bring up this topic with wary audiences. Embedded in a detail from music class, I found an exciting possibility. But we’ll get there in a moment.

A story charmer and I have been talking a lot about waking up. Why do we wake up in the morning, and what do we wake up to during the day? What does ‘awakening’ entail? For me, the most visceral awakenings happen when I find a new place for the random details, when I realize an outlier actually ties into something much, much bigger.

I love to read and write. Through the written word, I try to sate my curiosity about what’s happening in the world today. As an academic, I’ve slogged through controversial, complex geopolitical histories looking for ‘The Answer’ to better relations between the West and the Middle East. No matter how many research papers, policy proposals, and historical narratives I consumed, though, I could not satisfy this perpetual question: what is going on with this clash of civilizations?? I think my dissatisfaction resulted from where–and how–I sought information, and it mirrors a larger problem of Western short-sightedness about where and how we look for solutions.

Remember learning about Gutenberg’s printing press in school? The story I heard closely resembles Wikipedia’s summary:

“[Gutenberg’s] invention… started the Printing Revolution and is widely regarded as the most important event of the modern period.[1] It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.[2]”

What Wikipedia leaves out, at least until later in the article, is that the dissemination of a very specific book sparked ‘modern Enlightenment ideals’: the Gutenberg Bible. Western ideas about political power–including imperialism and notions of appropriate democracy–are built on a foundation of printed Christian text, and that foundation forms the fact value of the written word.

But could something other than the pen be mightier than the sword?

Sitting in ethnomusicology class, I found a possible answer: In Islam, the human voice is considered the best medium for understanding and preserving the word of God. Printing the Qur’an is helpful, but limited in its ability to convey the words’ highest meaning. Saying them out loud — with the proper pronunciation, lyricism, and spiritual sensitivity — illuminates their richer beauty, making the heart tremble with joy.

That’s when I heard it.

Over time I’ve learned that my best ideas generate another kind of clash: the sound of very loud cymbals. It feels like the vibrations emanate from the center of my head, like the sides of my skull have been struck together, like opposing spheres of stubborn shell ringing with a cacophonous resonance.

For me, the clash is a wake-up call. It’s an alert from the universe to keep an eye out for new ideas, to look for a new path of understanding that’s somewhere close by.

I invite you to greet the clash from a new perspective. I invite you to listen. What do you hear?

I hear the perennial longing of the seeker, the wanderer, and the fleeting beauty of the human experience. I hear the transformative power of the human agency and human voice. These are concepts that can resonate regardless of religious background. This acceptance of our human capabilities could be the starting point for a more direct cultural connection between Islam and the West.

Looking for text-based answers to the clash of civilizations is like insisting on using a North American I-15 plug in a European Type D outlet: frustrating, pointless, and potentially very dangerous (unless you’re a harmless blogger, of course ;D). Western policymakers have to realize Christian values are not universal, including values about creating and communicating information. Western governments cannot sustain any form of resolution with Muslim governments as long as we cling to our world perspective, to history written by and for imperial fantasies. We need new hardware. We need to be capable of connecting to the other side.

We need to be open to other sources, to other ways of knowing. We need to explore beyond our limited understanding of what ‘makes sense.’ I’m also curious: what does your brilliance feel like, taste like, smell like? What sense of discovery do you use? Take some time to find out. Join us in the process of waking up.

For my part, I’ll keep listening. For new clashes, new questions, new answers. I know what my joy sounds like, so I have faith that I’ll keep finding it.