The world has a West vs. Islam problem. As French cartoonists are killed for penning depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and upstanding Muslim American citizens are murdered in the streets over “parking disputes,” it is easy to think that Samuel Huntington must have been right: there must be some fundamental, unalterable differences between us—the self-congratulating and materialistic Westerners—and them—the violent and anti-secular Muslims—that makes our respective “civilizations” incapable of peaceful coexistence. Since Huntington wrote his famous “clash of civilizations” thesis, which posits that the conflicts of the 21st century will occur along the fault lines of ancient cultural traditions like Islam and the West, his words have been something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Though academics scorn his arbitrary classification of civilizations and his monolithic treatment of diverse cultures, the discourse of a clash between Islam and the West has become the media’s most beloved narrative and brought many a Westerner to equate “Muslim” with “terrorist.” Whether you think Huntington was off his rocker, or want to join his fan club, that’s not the point. In our world today, there is a growing schism between Islam and the West. The question of where it came from—actual immutable dissimilarities in humanity or perceived and constructed difference—doesn’t really matter anymore. What matters today is that lives are being lost because of it, and it is past high time to do something about it.
The problem is not Islamic extremism, as many a Western news anchor would argue, or American exceptionalism, as a jihadi militant may assert. Rather, it is the pervading vilification and homogenization of members within one “civilization” by those of the other. The tragedy is that a deep and prejudiced misunderstanding has arisen between two formidable and noble cultural traditions and has played itself out in violent acts and an abandonment of basic human empathy. Since Al Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, the United States and much of the Western world has perpetuated a view of itself as victim, our way of life unjustifiably targeted by destructive and aggressive Islamic fanatics. The atrocities and anti-West mottos of groups like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Boko Haram in Nigeria, and al-Shabaab in Somalia, along with events like hostage-taking in Sydney and the 2012 murder of the US Ambassador to Libya, just add fuel to the fire and buttress such sentiments. Likewise, since the days of colonialism, Islamist discourse has portrayed Muslims as the victims of the overbearing cultural dominance and economic control of the West. The decadence and “Orientalist” view of many American tourists and the West’s propping up of brutally repressive dictatorships across the Middle East has reinforced such a worldview. Events like the 2013 American drone strike that turned a Yemeni wedding into a 14-person funeral and a series of deadly mosque shootings and arsons across the United States in 2012 do not help ameliorate the prevalent perception.
With the recent events in Paris and Chapel Hill bringing this “culture clash” to a boiling point, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wrote a letter on January 21st addressed to “the youth of Europe and North America.” This unprecedented appeal asks younger generations growing up in the West to make an effort to understand Islam independently from the interpretations of our parents, governments, and media. Despite the astounding significance of such a gesture—this is, after all, the same man who has referred to the United States as “Great Satan”—the letter received relatively sparse media attention in the West. While major news sources like The New York Times and BBC covered it, it was not front-page news, and arguably should have been.
The Ayatollah’s letter is important for two reasons: 1) the simple fact that it exists, and 2) its insightful content. The fact that it was written at all is a remarkable display of goodwill on the part of the Ayatollah. It is also extraordinarily optimistic. Not only is it important for Westerners to see that the Iranian Ayatollah, an influential Islamic scholar, is willing to reach out and bridge the chasm between Islam and the West in his appeal, but the letter also demonstrates his faith in Western youth to overcome societal prejudices and recognize a common humanity. With the simple act of writing such a letter, the Ayatollah rightfully acknowledges that not all Westerners have already, or would like to, buy into the misguided and regrettably prevalent view that “Muslim=terrorist.”
The actual content of the letter—a call for more individual interpretation and unbiased portrayal of Islam in Western society—also rightfully identifies a critical step towards mending the relationship between Islam and the West. As the Western education system is currently constructed, there is no room for Islam. History and social studies courses emphasize Western history and the accomplishments of Western civilization, disregarding or even omitting the contributions of Islamic civilization over the ages. Although America has long prided itself as a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-religious, and ultimately multi-cultural society, there is remarkably little to be found in our history books about the rich legacies and achievements of cultures outside Europe and North America. Only when students learn about Islam in a context beyond news reports that show only barbaric acts of Islamic extremist terrorism will they be able to separate the ideas of Islam and Muslim from the actions of those groups and individuals that have injudiciously taken on the name of the faith in justification for their bloodthirsty agendas.
While achieving more balanced and unbiased education in the West will begin to address the misunderstanding between Islam and the West, all roads run two ways. Just as it is important for Westerners to separate “Muslim” from “terrorist,” it is important for those who view Western states as “Great Satans” to separate the actions of those governments from those of their people. The Ayatollah’s letter begins to do this—respecting the intellect and judgment of Western youth enough to believe that we can and will look beyond the prejudice prevalent within our societies—but such understandings must pervade beyond one Iranian leader.
Ending the conflict between people of Islam and people of the West will be a critical challenge for the millennial generation. While there is no easy fix for lives lost and years of vilification and victimization, mending the divide of understanding is an important start. So, in my response to Ayatollah Khamenei, I say this: As a youth of North America, I will endeavor to learn and form my own opinions of Islam and the diversity of people who ascribe to it, if you and others across the schism who abhor the actions of my government will do the same for me and the variety of people with whom I share a Western identity.