Two news items in two days to feed talk of the “clash of civilisations” between Islam and the West: yesterday, a survey that shows abysmal ignorance about Islam; today, a plan by the Pope to rehabilitate the reputation of the Crusades.

A good time, therefore, to try to get some clear thinking on the subject, and one place to start would be an op ed piece by Karen Armstrong in yesterday’s Age.
Armstrong says that the battle over the Danish Prophet Muhammad
cartoons “represents a clash between two competing conceptions of the
sacred”: that for the West, free speech is a sacred value on a par with
Muslims’ veneration of the Prophet.

I don’t think this really works. No-one really takes criticism of free
speech to “vitiate the deepest self”: the whole point of toleration is
that it tolerates even those who are hostile to its basic principles.
And the fuss about the Crusades should remind us that those in the West
who are keenest on a cultural war against Islam don’t have any deep
commitment to enlightenment values themselves.

Islamic fundamentalists direct their anger against the trappings of
liberalism, but a liberal, secular West is hospitable to Islam in a way
that a dogmatic, Christian West never could be. From the conservative
point of view, of course, that just demonstrates the weakness of
liberalism, that it is prepared to nurture its own enemies.

But Armstrong has some very sensible things to say about our relationship with the Muslim world:

“A hundred years ago, every single leading Muslim
intellectual, with the exception of the proto-fundamentalist
al-Afghani, saw Western modernity as deeply congenial and, even though
they hated European colonialism, many wanted their countries to look
just like Britain and France.Relations soured not because of an
inherent ‘clash of civilisations’, but because of Western foreign

In other words, cultural hostility is politically driven, not deep
seated. Recall how animosities in the Balkans, dormant for 50 years,
were inflamed by the political opportunism of Slobodan Milosevic. Some
of our leaders seem determined to play his role in the middle east.