There Is No Clash of Civilizations

A Syrian refugee looks out of a window at Zahi Alsameen school serving as a refugee camp for students and women in Jaramana district, southeast of Damascus.

We hear it said we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations.” We hear it from presidential candidates, from right-wing talk radio pundits, from white supremacist, nationalist and terrorist organizations. They say we live in the midst of a “clash of civilizations.” This is the first great lie of the 21st-century. It feeds on fear and ignorance. It is a tool used to prepare people for war.

There is no clash of civilizations. There is only a clash of extremists, extremist ideologies and extremist organizations bent on violence. They exist everywhere. They might claim the mantle of Islam, or of Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism. They might claim to speak for Iran or Russia, Syria, France, Israel, Nigeria, the Sudan, Ukraine, Lebanon, Palestine. They might claim to be American and wrap themselves in the American flag. They claim to have the best interests of the people at heart. They claim to know the will of God. They would have us believe there is a clash of civilizations and that the people must defend the homeland, must say ‘no’ to refugees, must murder infidels, must deport the undocumented, must kidnap young girls, must build walls, must establish a caliphate, must strap bombs to their chests, must shoot at Black Lives Matter vigils or mosques or churches, must incarcerate and murder people for no other reason than the color of their skin. Oh yes, the extremists are clashing, but not the people.

We the people know the truth. We Muslim people, we Christian people, we Jewish people know the truth. We Iranian people, we Syrian people, we French, Russian, Nigerian, Israeli, Kenyan, Malian, Ukrainian, Somalian, Lebanese, Iraqi, Afghan, Sudanese, German people know the truth. And despite what we hear from some presidential candidates and from the extremists among us, we American people know the truth: there is no clash of civilizations.

We are not so naïve to believe that there should be no military confrontation. Terrorists who perpetuate violence must be countered with all available tools. But neither are we so naïve to believe that military means alone can solve the problems that create refugees in the first place. The first step we the people must take is resisting the lie, refusing to adopt the extremist narrative, refusing to hate. And with the lie exposed, we the people must then show the world that we are indeed the principled, moral, compassionate civilization we claim to be, that we will not abandon refugees fleeing from a war our own government’s actions helped make possible. We will say ‘yes’ to Syrian refugees! We will say ‘yes’ to Iraqi refugees, to Afghan refugees, to Mexican and Central American refugees. And we the people will not let our leaders build walls or prisons or detention centers. And we the people will not let our leaders criminalize Islam, just like we the people will not let our leaders criminalize black or brown skin or drug addiction or mental illness or poverty. We the people will not let our own state use violence against its own people because we the people say Black Lives Matter! And we the people will not tolerate a society that breeds despair and hopelessness and poverty and thereby drives some to extremism. We the people will work for affordable housing for everyone; for affordable, accessible health care for everyone; for a living wage for every working person. And we the people will be humble and gracious and generous. And we the people will live peacefully with one another, Christian next to Muslim next to Jew next to Hindu next to Buddhist next to Atheist, because this is what civilization looks like.

Only extremists would have us believe civilizations are clashing. Don’t believe the lie. Say ‘yes’ to Syrian refugees.