Omid Safi at GVSU: Moving Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

On Wednesday, Omid Safi gave a talk at Grand Valley State University titled “Moving Beyond the Clash of Civilizations: A Progressive Muslim View.”


After arranging wallet-sized photos of his three children facing himself on the podium, Omid Safi began his address to the packed GVSU Loosemore Auditorium with a bit of soft-spoken humor and then made a serious observation.

“We live in a very messed up world. It has become sheer pain to watch the nightly news, the sheer hemorrhage of human lives,” he said. “And yet, I continue to believe another world is possible. There is enough for all of us–enough water, enough food and more important, enough love, human dignity and self determination.”

Being a Muslim, one of Safi’s first points was, as is necessary these days, his explanation of “What Islam Is Not.” He explained that in truth, Islam is neither terrorism, nor the submission of women, nor a religion bent on destroying Israel. Safi defined Islam as “submission to God and oneness with all of humanity.”

“One-fifth of the world live on less than one dollar a day. They do not have clean water, enough food, many are homeless and they have no medical care. (Islam calls Muslims to) stand up for justice, to be witnesses in the sight of God, even though that means standing up to your own family, your own self and your own community. It is necessary to speak the truth but be motivated by nothing short of love for humanity, community and tradition–religion.”

The Clash of Civilizations

A term made popular by the book of that same title written by Samuel Huntington, professor in the government department of Harvard in 1993, The Clash of Civilizations describes the supposed thousands of years of irrational hatred that all Muslim people hold for the “West,” just because the West is… the west. Safi described a map within the book that divides the world into two sections, “The West” and “The Rest.”

Huntington and Ivy League notables, Daniel Pipes and Bernard Lewis, author of The Roots of Muslim Rage, had great influence on members of the present day Whitehouse cabinet, including George Bush. These errant theories of religion/political science spawned the Islami-phobia that runs rampant on the news and in the frightened minds of Americans today.

“The communists are gone; we need another target. So they recycled the tired, trite, boring garbage. The cold war cliches by old cold war people who got comfortable with the state of affairs between the US and Russia,” Safi explained. “Now their target is Islam. They coined terms like Islami-fascism, The Axis of Evil, saying that Islam is ‘the one world culture that has problems with modernity.'”

Safi pointed out that certain Muslims are responsible for creating this Clash of Civilizations, as well. He explained how an obscure Islamic sect, the Wahhabi, gained worldwide exposure for its anti-Christian and anti-Jewish views because some of its few devotees were oil-rich Saudis. (Safi terms Wahhabi as Petrol Islam.)

He decried the actions of the post-communist Afghanistan Taliban and said Osama Bin Laden is an engineer who has no right to be issuing religious fatwas encouraging violence against the US, its allies and citizens.

Beyond the Clash of Civilizations

How can the peoples of the world move beyond this clash? Like many Jews and Christians, Safi looks to his faith for the answers. He says that Islam leads its followers to embrace all of humanity with mercy and love.

“Another world is possible. There are other means of living. We must pursue the possibilities. We have the responsibility to speak the truth to the powers, no matter who the powers are and uphold the sanctity of every human life,” he said. “As Muslims, we want to restore loveliness to our faith, not just defend ourselves against charges of extremism, terrorism and misogyny.”

He also looks to exemplary human beings such as the Dalai Lama, 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, and Dr. Martin Luther King.

“The reason I emphasize love? It is easy to have pity but pity is not a divine quality. It is easy to have shame, and most Muslims have had shame over the past five years. It is easy to feel guilt. As an American, I feel guilt for what my country does to the rest of the world,” he said. “Shame and guilt won’t give us the motivation to change the world. Motivated by love, we can bring about the process of transformation.”

The transformation that Safi wants is based on the first pillar of Islam: justice. He quoted Dr. King, “A threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and then continued,

“God commands Muslims to justice and piety. Unless your spiritual growth is committed to justice, it is an illusion. The greatest danger is when those who have the greatest power are also the least motivated by love, while those of us who love don’t want the power. As Martin said, ‘Love without power is anemic and sentimental but power without love is reckless.'”

Gender Equality and Pluralism

Safi defined feminism as “…any radical notion that women are full, complete human beings at every single layer that makes us human: physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. Women are not deficient men. The proper attitude is not to give back or restore rights to women. It is that some men have stolen them and the thief must return that which is stolen. You can measure justice in a community by how the vulnerable are treated. In many communities that means women.”

Speaking of pluralism, he again quoted Dr. King, “Learn to live together or perish like fools.” Safi stressed that we need to be more than tolerant, as the word tolerance, by its dictionary definition, comes from medieval toxicology and refers to how much poison a body can put up with. “So,” he quipped, “does being tolerant mean, How many blacks, gays, women or Muslims can I put up with before it kills me?”

“Every human life is as precious as the next, whether it be Lebanese or Israeli,” he continued. “However, we must insist on historical honesty and address colonialism. Speak truth to the powers. It is mandatory for us to insist that violence is a poison that threatens to destroy humanity. We cannot achieve good with violence. Those with access to violence use it on a daily basis to slaughter innocents.”

Safi insisted that peace is more than the cessation of violence; peace is always connected to the experience of justice. He again quoted Dr. King, this time recalling his speech at Riverside Church, and the words rarely referred to on Martin Luther King Day: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Safi said that, like Dr. King, those who seek justice in the world need to be like water, to flow to the lowest level, where humanity is hurting the worst. He reminded the audience that Dr. King was assassinated while on a mission to help sanitation workers–garbage men.

“Who are the sanitation workers of today,” Safi asked, “and what are we doing to help them?”

Author: mediamouse

Grand Rapids independent media //