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Ivan Petrella

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Obama, Islam, and a Clash of Theologies

Posted: 05/05/10 08:31 PM ET

In foreign policy, the George W. Bush era was the era of Samuel Huntington's thesis on the clash of civilizations. In an influential essay that became a book, Huntington argued that with the end of the Cold War, future conflicts would be fought between civilizations. The civilization he really worried about, though, was Islam. Islam, he wrote, "has bloody borders." In the 21st century, he suggested, no border would be bloodier than the one separating Islam from the West.

What's striking about Huntington's worldview is that it's identical to that of Osama bin Laden. A reading of The Clash of Civilizations would confirm the latter's own views. "You see," Bin Laden might well tell his followers waving this book in hand, "I'm right, they agree with me. We're at war with the West."

Thankfully, President Obama has put an end to the bizarre symmetry between our foreign policy and the views of Al Qaeda. For him, there's no clash between Islam and the United States. Islam is the United States. As he said last year in Turkey, "The United States has been enriched by Muslim-Americans. Many other Americans have Muslims in their family, or have lived in a Muslim-majority country. I know, because I am one of them."

True to this insight, the Obama administration is changing the focus of conversation with Muslim countries. Terrorism and radical religion will no longer be the guiding topics. A National Security Council staffer explained that "you take a country where the overwhelming majority are not going to become terrorists, and you go in and say, 'We're building you a hospital so you don't become terrorists.' That doesn't make much sense."

I agree: it doesn't. We can't let a fanatical-violent minority shape the way we interact with the majority of the Muslim world. Yet I fear that moving away from a focus on religious violence could blind us to the very real clash that fuels many conflicts.

Just because the clash of civilizations is bogus doesn't mean there's no clash. There is. But it's a clash of theologies. Current conflicts are driven by competing theological frameworks, are internal to religions and regions, and at times express themselves globally.

So while there's no battle between Islam and the West, there is a battle within Islam: a conflict between violent-fanatic understandings of Islam and a broader spectrum of Muslim worldviews over how the religion gets defined. The events of 9/11, which at first glance appear to corroborate Huntington's thesis, are better understood as an eruption of the fight over the "true" definition of Islam unto the American stage.

This same clash is found in other religions and other parts of the world. In the United States, the Christian Right rails against progressive understandings of religion and the separation of church and state. This struggle also spills onto the global scene, in the unqualified support by sections of the Republican Party for the extremist Jewish settlers of the occupied territories. You'll find the same conflict within Judaism as well. The New York Review of Books recently reported on links between fundamentalist rabbis and the growing number of religious soldiers who say they would resist orders to remove those same settlers. It's just a matter of time before this struggle over what it means to be Jewish affects American foreign policy.

Basically understood, a theology is a worldview that determines what actions are considered right or wrong. The Muslim who blows himself up in a market square is guided by a theology that makes suicide bombing a virtuous act. The same goes for the Christian who torches an abortion clinic or the Hindu mob that levels a Muslim shrine. Theology precedes virtue; theology makes right and wrong.

In the world of a clash of theologies, soft power -- the ability to persuade others without using force -- is more effective than hard power, and the battle over minds is more important than the battle over territory. To focus on theology is to focus on the worldviews that motivate behavior. It requires paying attention to local context and detail. The stakes are high. The whole world has a vested interest in which theologies win in the struggle over the definition of Islam in, say, Pakistan or Iran. The whole world also has a vested interest in which understanding of Christianity triumphs in the United States and which version of Judaism prevails in Israel. Without the right theologies in place, there won't be peace.

I know that in a time of iPhones and iPads, the word "theology" sounds old and dusty. But it's not an anachronism -- the struggle between theologies is a driver of our turbulent time.