Last evening in New York, I joined a strong panel organized by the UN's Alliance of Civilizations at the New York Times to discuss U.S. relations with the Muslim world. The room was packed to hear Roger Cohen, Joe Klein, Martin Indyk, Reza Aslan, Dalia Mogahed and I talk about a variety of issues. A surprising amount of the discussion ended up focusing on Israel, which perhaps shouldn't be that surprising, with some real sparks between Aslan and Indyk in particular over the possibility of a two state solution. While I took part in a variety of conversations about Israel, Iran, democracy, and Obama's foreign policy more generally, my main concern was the dangerous resilience of "clash of civilizations" narratives in American and global discourse about Islam. For all of Obama's efforts to change that narrative, to move away from a war on terror and focus on partnerships and respect, recent trends only confirm how deeply ingrained the older confrontational narratives really are. Why? What can be done?
The power of these post 9/11 confrontational narratives about Islam has been on full display of late. What I like to call stupidstorms break out with alarming regularity, driven by right wing media: the frenzy around anodyne comments by the NASA director about engaging Muslims, the firing of Octavia Nasr over her Hezbollah tweet, the especially nasty clashes over the Ground Zero mosque complex. The sheer amount of disinformation, vitriol, and agitation against Muslims and Islam in pockets of the right wing media (new and old) beggars belief. Part of the blame also lies with right wing politicians, who cynically (or, more frightening, sincerely) exploit the anti-Islam tropes to drum up votes and to grab attention. And part of the blame lies in the reality of the persistence and terrorist attacks of al-Qaeda affiliates and sympathizers. , and the polarizing effects of the escalating arguments over Israel, Gaza, and Iran. It isn't just the right wing echo chamber, though --- the frenzies over the Captain Underpants failed bomber and the Times Square failed bomber show a mainstream media still hardwired to fall back into the comfortable tropes of the war on terror.
The progressive side bears some of the blame as well, though. The resilence of the clash of civilizations frame is enabled by the inability of advocates of a new approach, including the Obama administration and many progressive foreign policy thinkers, to develop and defend a powerful alternative frame. The best argument, and certainly one which I've made often, is that the U.S. has a vital national security interest in preventing a spiral towards a "clash of civilizations" which would strengthen al-Qaeda's appeal and narrative. That's right --- but it's also a negative message, about what should not happen, rather than a positive one about Islam or about America's relationship with Muslims around the world. The Obama administration, particularly the people involved in following up on the Cairo speech, has been trying to build such a positive alternative in many creative ways. But their efforts thus far have been largely under the radar, and when they do impact on the American public debate it is usually as fodder for a stupidstorm (the NASA director, grumbling about why we are focusing on Muslim entrepreneurs).
It's sobering that years of efforts to promote better understanding of Islam and to build a stronger, healthier discourse around Islam have done so little to dull the blade of the "clash of civilizations" line. The best hope for doing so would be to depoliticize the issue, to remove it as a partisan wedge, but given current trends it seems highly unlikely that right wing politicians or media will stop fueling those flames any time soon. Censorship is also not the answer, even if it were possible in today's polarized and fragmented media sphere. Paul Berman's recent complaint in the Wall Street Journal about what he's not allowed to say about Islam, about which I'll have more to say when our exchange in the next Foreign Affairs comes out, misses the point: it isn't that he "can't" say such things, it's that we should get our facts right, and think about the real world effects of our arguments. Perhaps the answer is that progressives and those hoping to prevent a return of the clash of civilizations must move beyond the still vitally important negative argument about the security imperative to prevent such a clash and offer a more positive, constructive alternative frame (as a recent National Security Network conference began to do). For instance, a stronger case could be made about the unique American embrace of a strong presence for religion in public life -- not just a generic tolerance of diversity but as a positive good which can cross traditional partisan lines. I can't claim to have the answers... just a lot of questions and concerns about the dangerous resilience of the 9/11 discourse about Islam in the United States.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.