There is something poetic about President Barack Obama’s decision to appear at next week’s gathering of the U.N. Alliance of Civilizations in Istanbul, Turkey. This will be Obama’s first visit as president to a Muslim country and it comes eight years after America’s previous president, George W. Bush, presented the world with a stark ultimatum. “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” he warned a few days after the attacks of September 11, 2001. “In this conflict there is no neutral ground.”
Obama's words have left jihadist ideologues like Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden scrambling to find some response to an American president who can proudly proclaim, “I have Muslim members in my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”
Bush’s words not only launched the so-called war on terror, they were seen by many as an implicit endorsement of the clash of civilizations theory, which had quickly formed the ideological backbone of the struggle against militant forces in the Muslim world. Indeed, the late Samuel Huntington’s argument that “Western” and “Islamic” civilizations were destined for a catastrophic and inevitable collision had so thoroughly seized the imaginations of people on both sides of the conflict that even Osama bin Laden gave the theory his wholehearted support. “This [clash of civilizations] is a very clear matter,” bin Laden told a television reporter for al Jazeera in October 2001. “[It is] proven in the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet, and any true believer who claims to be faithful shouldn’t doubt these truths, no matter what anybody says about them.”
And yet, by transforming the countless cultures of the Arab and Muslim world—from Morocco to Malaysia—into a single, homogeneous, and historically inevitable enemy, the clash of civilizations was, for most Muslims, a blatant assertion that the war on terror was in fact a war against Islam. No wonder, then, that some 80 percent of Muslims around the globe continue to believe that the United States seeks to “weaken and divide the Islamic world,” while almost two-thirds say that the purpose of the war on terror is to “spread Christianity in the region.” To this day, positive perceptions of the United States remain at an all-time low throughout the Muslim world, even among America’s staunchest allies. A poll by the Pew Global Attitudes Project revealed that 70 percent of Egyptians, 70 percent of Indonesians, 73 percent of Pakistanis, 85 percent of Jordanians, and 88 percent of Turks (all U.S. allies) hold unfavorable views of the U.S.
From the beginning, indeed from the very first moments of his presidency, Barack Obama has made it his mission to actively and aggressively change the perception of the U.S. by engaging the Muslim world, and doing so through the language of mutual respect (A lack of respect is cited as the prime reason by the overwhelming majority of Muslims when asked what they see as hindering relations with Western countries). “My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives,” Obama declared in an interview with the Arabic news channel al Arabiya—the first interview he gave as president. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that Americans are not your enemy.”
Obama’s words were more than a repudiation of the clash of civilizations mentality. They were seemingly an effort to make himself—the son of a Muslim father from Africa and a Christian mother from Kansas—the bridge linking Islamic and the Western civilizations together as one. And they have left Jihadist ideologues like Ayman Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden scrambling to find some response to an American president who can proudly proclaim, “I have Muslim members in my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.”
It is therefore fitting that Obama will use the platform of the Alliance of Civilizations—an international network of opinion leaders, heads of state, corporate and media leaders, civic foundations, and religious groups whose very purpose is to build trust across cultures—in order to renew America’s relationship, not only with the Muslim world, but with the rest of the international community. His presence at the historic gathering in Istanbul will, one hopes, put the final nail in the coffin of the clash of civilizations theory, consigning that silly and simplistic theory to the dustbin of history.
Reza Aslan, a contributor to the Daily Beast, is assistant professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside and senior fellow at the Orfalea Center on Global and International Studies at UC Santa Barbara. He is the author of the bestseller No god but God and the forthcoming How to Win a Cosmic War.