Transforming Islamic-Western Identity Conflict: A Framework for Strategic Engagement

Article excerpt


Recent years have witnessed an unsettling polarization, politicization, and securitization of cultural and religious identities linked to "Islam" and "the West." Political and military conflicts between the United States and various Middle Eastern states and movements have begun to feed a larger dynamic of identity conflict, in which partisans perceive their cultural values or religious identity--and not merely their state or nation--to be under attack. Drawing on insights gleaned from interdisciplinary conflict analysis as well as from constructivism and identity theory, the present study outlines a number of policy-relevant principles that Western leaders and activists might apply in efforts to deescalate Islamic-Western conflict and stimulate cooperative efforts to advance an inclusive, human security agenda.

An Atmosphere of Growing Polarization

Studies of public opinion in the Arab world and in the United States since September 2001 suggest that, in recent years, alienation between Arab-Islamic and North American solitudes has become painfully acute. Throughout the Middle East, views of the United States in particular have gone from bad to worse. In April 2002, 76% of Egyptians claimed to hold the U.S. in low regard, whereas by July 2004, 98% expressed a negative opinion. In Morocco the trend was much the same, moving from 61% negative in 2002 to 88% negative in 2004 (Linzer, 2004). The event that is generally held responsible for this deterioration--the decision to invade Iraq in March 2003--also reinforced beliefs that the "War on Terror" is really a U.S.-led "War on Islam." Incidentally, surveys of Muslim population groups indicate that this perception that Islam itself has come under attack is the most significant predictor (not social class, gender, or level of education) of willingness to justify suicide bombings and other attacks against civilian targets (Fair, 2006).

The data from North American polls is also troubling. As the years have passed since 2001, increasing numbers of U.S. citizens have reported that, in their view, Islam is an inherently violent religion (Deane and Fears, 2006). After September 11, many Americans concluded, with President George W. Bush, that the shocking terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were intended as an onslaught against freedom itself--and were not, as outsiders perceived, politically motivated attacks on symbols of American economic and military predominance. Insofar as such views ascribe conflict to values and identities without noting more mundane problems linked to interests and policies, they are not without consequence. They appear quite unsettling when considered in light of a December 2006 poll by the University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes. According to this poll, Americans are significantly less likely than citizens in several of the world's most populous Muslim-majority countries to categorically condemn "bombing and other attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" (Ballen, 2007).

Trends in public opinion, of course, can be highly volatile and are responsive to immediate events. Whereas 9/11 sparked a creeping outrage within an American society that had little knowledge of or exposure to Islam, the U.S. invasion of Iraq prompted a sharp spike in anti-American (and in some cases, anti-Western) attitudes throughout a world that distrusted American unilateralism. More recent U.S. efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to Indonesia and Pakistan, however, appear to have generated significant dividends in the domain of public opinion (Ballen, 2007). Fatalism is both unwarranted and premature--yet insofar as empowered political actors in the West and radicalized networks in the Muslim world embrace worldviews positing irreconcilable cultural and religious differences, the danger of escalating identity conflict between "Islam" and the "West" remains acute. Ongoing political violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine, and Somalia, combined with the threat of a new confrontation between the United States and Iran, provides ready plausibility to simple, "us versus them" narratives that explain conflict by invoking undesirable values and characteristics of "the other" (Funk and Said, 2004). …