Islam vs. the West: Why Is there Conflict?

man praying in mosque
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The clash between the West and Islam will be vital to the course of world events over the coming decades. Islam is, in fact, the only civilization that ever put the survival of the West in doubt -- and more than once! What is interesting is how this conflict flows not simply from the differences between the two civilizations, but more importantly from their similarities.

It is said that people who are too much alike cannot easily live together, and the same goes for cultures as well.

Both Islam and Christianity (which serves as a​ culturally uniting factor for the West) are absolutist, monotheistic religions. Both are universal, in the sense of making claims to apply to all of humanity rather than a single race or tribe. Both are missionary in nature, having long made it a theological duty to seek out and convert nonbelievers. Both the Jihad and the Crusades are political manifestations of these religious attitudes, and both parallel each other closely.

But this doesn't entirely explain why Islam has had so many problems with all of its neighbors, not just the West.

Religious Tensions

In all these places, the relations between Muslims and peoples of other civilizations -- Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist, Jewish -- have been generally antagonistic; most of these relations have been violent at some point in the past; many have been violent in the 1990s.

Wherever one looks along the perimeter of Islam, Muslims have problems living peaceably with their neighbors. Muslims make up about one-fifth of the world's population but in the 1990s they have been far more involved in intergroup violence than the people of any other civilizations. 

Several reasons have been offered as to why there is so much violence associated with Islamic nations.

One common suggestion is that the violence is a result of Western imperialism. Current political divisions among the countries are artificial European creations. Moreover, there is still lingering resentment among Muslims for what their religion and their lands had to endure under colonial rule.

It may be true that those factors have played a role, but they are inadequate as a full explanation, because they fail to offer any insight into why there is such strife between Muslim majorities and non-Western, non-Muslim minorities (like in the Sudan) or between Muslim minorities and non-Western, non-Muslim majorities (like in India). There are, fortunately, other alternatives.

The Main Issues

One is the fact that Islam, as a religion, started out violently - not only with Muhammad himself but also in the following decades as Islam spread by war throughout the Middle East.

A second issue is the so-called "indigestibility" of Islam and Muslims. According to Huntington, this describes the observation that Muslims do not easily assimilate to host cultures when new rulers arrive (for example, with colonization), nor do non-Muslims easily assimilate to a culture under Islamic control. Whichever group is in the minority, they always remain distinct - a situation which does not find a ready analogy with Christians.

Over time, Christianity has become pliable enough such that it adapts to host cultures wherever it goes. Sometimes, this is a source of grief for traditionalists and orthodox thinkers who are dismayed by such influences; but nevertheless, changes are made and diversity is created. Yet Islam has not (yet?) made such a transition on a broad scale. The best example where some success has been achieved would be many liberal Muslims in the West, but they are still too few in number.

A final factor is demographic. In recent decades there has been a population explosion in Muslim countries, leading to a huge increase in unemployed males between the ages of fifteen and thirty. Sociologists in the United States know that this group creates the most social disruption and causes the most crime - and that in a relatively wealthy and stable society.

In Muslim countries, however, we find little such wealth and stability, except perhaps among a few of the political elites. Thus, the disruption potential of that group of males is much greater, and their search for a cause and an identity can create even more difficulties.