A Clash of Civilizations Between Islam and the West: Is it Inevitable?

07/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Ken Hackett

Is a clash of civilizations inevitable between the West and Islam?

President Barack Obama doesn't think so. In his recent speech in Cairo to the Muslim world, he sought out the common ground and values that unite all people of good will, noting that America and Islam "share common principles -- principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings."

As someone who leads a humanitarian organization that works in the five nations in the world with the largest Muslim populations, I could not agree more. Whether carrying out education programs enabling girls to attend school for the first time in Afghanistan, rebuilding communities after an earthquake in Pakistan or helping poor families start small businesses through microfinance in India, we have built strong and effective relationships with a multitude of Muslim communities around the globe.

These relationships, built around shared values, are examples of the type of partnership that President Obama spoke of. Such partnerships must be characterized by mutuality and solidarity, recognizing that each partner brings unique resources to the table, such as knowledge, history, finances, expertise and relationships. And, each partner must be accountable to the other for achieving results. Indeed, only through this kind of partnership can our humanitarian assistance and development efforts be successful and sustainable.

In our successful partnerships with Muslims communities, we have found that working together to meet the needs of real people helps demystify our respective religions and cultures and fights attempts to demonize the other. As a result, our staff have benefited from amazing generosity, hospitality, and even protection from those we work with. As the President noted, interfaith dialogue can and should lead to interfaith cooperation in service to others.

Another part of President Obama's speech that resonated was his call for a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by ensuring a secure homeland for Israel and statehood for the Palestinian people.

I wholeheartedly support this message of peace for the Holy Land. A negotiated solution to this conflict has long been advocated by my organization, Catholic Relief Services, and by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The legitimate right of both Israelis and Palestinians to live securely and in peace, each in a homeland of their own, must be recognized and supported. Violence must be abandoned, rights recognized, obligations of previous agreements fulfilled, settlements stopped, the humanitarian crisis and lack of opportunity ended and Jerusalem shared by all faiths.

This vision of peace was shared by Pope Benedict XVI during his pilgrimage last month to the Holy Land.

"Allow me to make this appeal to all the people of these lands: No more bloodshed! No more fighting! No more terrorism! No more war!" the pope said. "Let us break the vicious circle of violence. Let there be lasting peace based on justice, let there be genuine reconciliation and healing. Let it be universally recognized that the State of Israel has the right to exist, and to enjoy peace and security within internationally agreed borders. Let it be likewise acknowledged that the Palestinian people have a right to a sovereign independent homeland, to live with dignity and to travel freely. Let the two-state solution become a reality, not remain a dream."

Having supported humanitarian programs in the Holy Land for nearly 50 years--and having relationships with communities there--CRS believes a negotiated solution is the only way to end the growing humanitarian crisis there. We urge President Obama to provide a clear framework for an end to the conflict, help Israelis and Palestinians make the difficult decisions necessary to achieve lasting peace, and hold both parties to account when they fail to honor their commitments.

Ken Hackett is president of Catholic Relief Services, the official overseas humanitarian organization of the Catholic Church in the United States.