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Canada Can Rise Above The 'Islam Versus The West' Narrative

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In 1993, the late Samuel Huntington published his highly controversial essay in Foreign Affairs magazine entitled "The Clash of Civilizations" (which became the object of a book in 1996).

Huntington argued that future divisions amongst humanity and the dominating source of conflict would be cultural. Nation states would remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal global conflicts would occur between nations and groups of different civilizations.

In effect, he contended, the fault lines between civilizations will become the key battle lines. He dismissed the notion of a universal civilization, stating that human beings are divided along cultural lines -- Western, Islamic, Hindu and so on -- each group with its own distinct set of values.

According to Huntington, Islamic civilization was the most troublesome given that Muslims' primary attachment was to their religion, not the nation-state, and that their culture is unreceptive to certain liberal ideals like pluralism, individualism and democracy.

Hence Huntingdon's clash of civilizations narrative insists that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Islamic and Western Civilization. Paradoxically the leaders of global terrorist movements such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) unequivocally agree with Huntingdon's view and have done their best to propagate it.

Regrettably, the Canadian majority concurs that "there is an irreconcilable conflict between Western societies and the Islamic faith in the world."

Critics contend that Huntington's arguments are a vast oversimplification of reality that requires generalizations about language, history, customs, institutions and, most importantly, religion. The very assumption that civilizations have distinct values can be misleading especially since the entities in question are culturally diverse and certain not ideologically monolithic.

Often regarded as one of the main adherents of the Huntington thesis, historian Bernard Lewis acknowledges the important divisions in the Islamic world with multiple sub-cultures and tribes he points out "... that Islam is less unified than any other civilization."

Even some of the more thoughtful media has encouraged the Huntingdon thesis. A February 2015 column in the New York Times appeared under the title "Islam and the West at War." The title is undoubtedly fodder for the fundamentalists.

Regrettably, the Canadian public seems to feel that the Huntingdon thesis has legitimacy as the majority concurs that "there is an irreconcilable conflict between Western societies and the Islamic faith in the world." Ten surveys conducted between 2012 and 2016 by Leger Marketing for the Association for Canadian Studies reveal that 55 to 60 per cent of Canadians subscribe to Huntingdon's thesis.

In January 2016 the idea was strongly supported by 26 per cent of Canadians with some 28 oer cent somewhat in agreement, 19 per cent somewhat disagree, 12 per cent strongly disagree, 12 per cent don't know and three per cent prefer not to answer.

Even those Canadians most convinced there is an irreconcilable conflict between Islam and the West see dialogue as a critical counterterrorism measure.

It's worth noting that those Canadians strongly persuaded by the Huntingdon thesis are least likely to trust Muslims and most likely to view them negatively (with 65 per cent saying they don't trust them and 70 per cent holding a negative view of Muslims).

On the other end of spectrum, some 16 per cent of those out rightly rejecting the Huntingdon thesis distrust Muslims and 13 per cent view them negatively.

There are important caveats in the Canadian endorsement of the Huntington thesis. A poll conducted a decade earlier in 2007 by the British firm Globescan reveals that 73 per cent believe that common ground can be found between Muslim and Western cultures while just 16 per cent believe that violent conflict is inevitable.

A significant majority (56 per cent) of Canadians sees "conflicts about political power and interests" as the source of tensions between Islam and the West, while 29 per cent believe they arise from religious and cultural differences. It's true that there is ground to challenge the way in which the options are framed for the survey respondents, but consider yet another caveat to Huntingdon that arises from a 2015 ACS-Leger survey.

In effect, while a majority of Canadians agree with Huntington's proposition, the majority also agree that dialogue between religious groups is essential in the fight against terrorism. Even those Canadians most convinced there is an irreconcilable conflict between Islam and the West see dialogue as a critical counterterrorism measure. Alas, Canadians believe in the possibility of reconciling the irreconcilable. There yet remains hope for the future.

Jack Jedwab is the author of Counterterrorism and Identities: Canadian Viewpoints (LLP, 2015).

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