Islamic and Western Approaches to Peace

Whether your intellectual tradition is that of the Enlightenment, or the religious patterns of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism along with modern liberalism each provides horizons of meaning that offer a picture and a future of peace. All of these intellectual systems have an end state that is, if not utopian and glorious, at least peaceful and orderly. But how do we begin to interrogate and engage these systems? What do we have to know about the cultures that are most representative of these belief systems?

In the micro world of interpersonal relations, or the more detached pedagogical stance one can take in the classroom, it is easy enough to make references to cultural generalities. We talk quite prolifically about cultural differences and enjoy citing examples of cultural variation. But when it comes to defending these cultural generalities, when one is asked to stand up in front of an audience and say things that involve generalities about cultures to which we do not belong, things get a little bit more difficult. I have participated in many conversations where generalities about culture were invoked (and I’m not talking about humorous stereotypes) but the participants would be hard-pressed to defend these generalities; they shy away from expressing cultural descriptions because they realize that such generalities are always a little bit on shaky grounds.

But on the other hand, there are characteristic qualities of cultures. We classify cultures as either individualistic or collective, self oriented or other oriented, modern or traditional, along with any number of other descriptions. These generalities often have some claim to legitimacy but they also are rarely a universally valid framework. We have to grapple with differences and try to avoid shallow cultural blather but at the same time improve the depth of our knowledge about cultures, especially cultures in conflict trying to resolve differences. Below, and in the next few posts, I explore some differences we might claim separate Islam from the West with respect to concepts of peace and conflict resolution. A good reading on this topic is Islamic Approaches to Peace.

When it comes to understanding Islam and its conceptions of peace and conflict management, we are in a difficult historical period because of “Islamism” and it’s narrow and aggressive discourse that is seen as a threat to peace. The concept of peace in the Islamic culture is typically misrepresented or ignored. But there are differences between Western and Islamic concepts of peace that must be understood. The differences between the two cultures form the basis for dialogue and deliberation. Yet, you actually see very little contact and very little theorizing about Islamic-Western dialogue. There are any number of reasons for this, but one of the most pertinent is that Western literature is more concerned about stating differences rather than commonality, and emphasizing the incompatibility of Islam with Western ideas about conflict.

There is a shameful lack of contact between Islam and the West with relatively little grassroots dialogue. There is a need for a new attitude and framework in order to organize knowledge about Islam for Westerners and organize knowledge about the West for Muslims. For example, there does seem to be a tendency to define Western approaches to conflict resolution as the “norm” or the ideal to strive for. We simply don’t have attitudes that expect Islam to be serious about peace. And although everyday contact between Muslims and Westerners is fine wherever it is possible (e.g. educational institutions), it still falls short of the structured and guided form of communication that results from dialogue and deliberation.

It is commonly accepted among conflict scholars that peace between deeply divided groups requires a global conception of peace that is integrated; in other words, problems will not be solved on the basis of narrow self-interest or the belief in one’s own cultural superiority with respect to ideas about peace. Peace will not come and problems will not be solved on the basis of a single dominant cultural attitude. Religion, for example, is essential to the attitudes about peace for Muslims but far less important for the secular West. And it is the West that must accept the role of religion and integrate it into the process.

All major religious, philosophical, and secular systems of belief and knowledge claim that peace will be the result of the full expression and recognition of the systems. And in a new world where boundaries are more porous and once separated groups must now confront the other there is an even more profound need for intercultural communication.

About Donald Ellis

Professor Emeritus at the University of Hartford.

Posted on November 18, 2013, in Communication and Conflict Resolution and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Islamic and Western Approaches to Peace.

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