AU scholar at London conference challenges ‘Clash of Civilizations’ claims

AUBURN – Claims of a clash of civilizations between Islamic and Western cultures are vastly overstated but could become self-fulfilling prophecy if unchallenged, says an Auburn University authority on the world’s major religions.

Richard Penaskovic, religious studies professor in AU’s College of Liberal Arts, questioned the thesis of Sam Huntington’s best-selling book “Clash of Civilizations” in an invited presentation at a recent conference in London on a major movement among moderate Muslims. At the conference on “Muslim World in Transition,” Penaskovic cited arguments by a leading moderate Muslim cleric who advocates peace among adherents of all religions.

Penaskovic, who is also immediate past chair of the University Senate at Auburn, was one of 49 experts from throughout the world invited to present papers and speak at the late October conference, which focused on the contributions of the Gulen Movement. Based on the teachings of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, the movement encompasses five million Muslims in Turkey and numerous other religious moderates in other countries.

The London conference was the first of two for the Auburn professor in connection with the Gulen Movement. He is scheduled to speak during Thanksgiving Week at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, at a conference addressing “Fethullah Gulen’s Initiatives for Peace in the Contemporary World.”

Although not widely known in the United States, where he now lives, Gulen has built a worldwide following for two primary reasons. One involves his repeated calls for adherence to the Quran’s teachings on tolerance, acceptance and compassion. The other involves Islamic schools his movement has established in Muslim communities worldwide that emphasize the sciences and humanities in their curricula.

“The biggest problem Muslims face in the United States is media misrepresentation,” said Penaskovic. “Terrorism exists as a political tool for extremists, but terrorism is incompatible with the Muslim faith, just as it is with other religions.”

Penaskovic said extremists on both sides of any issue benefit from oversimplified, polarized thinking that reinforces a “them or us” theme at the expense of the majority. Meanwhile, the views and activities of moderates, who represent the majority, never make the headlines, he added. Unless more moderate voices are heard, he said, large numbers on either side of the issue can eventually become convinced that the “other” is an enemy rather than neighbors and friends with many overlapping beliefs and interests.

In his remarks at the London School of Economics, Penaskovic said Huntington’s arguments in “Clash of Civilizations” present Islam as monolithic and hostile to the West. Rejecting those arguments, Penaskovic supports Gulen’s contention that followers of Islam are as diverse as Christians in their religious beliefs and the vast majority reject the violent views of the radicals.

Penaskovic argues that cultures and civilizations borrow heavily from one another, and religions intersect peacefully in all parts of the world. Religious conflict between the largely Christian West and the mostly Islamic Middle East has been rare in comparison to religious wars each has endured among its own peoples, he notes. Much more common, he said, is that Muslims and Christians have moved freely back and forth from one culture to the other through most of history and especially in modern times.

The author of “Critical Thinking and the Academic Study of Religion,” Penaskovic said the international conferences provided an opportunity to meet leading scholars on religion and international affairs from throughout the world. The London conference proceedings have been published in a 754-page book by Leeds Metropolitan University Press.

Penaskovic, an Auburn professor since 1984, said the perspectives presented at international conferences add a new dimension to his scholarship on world religions and helps him develop new material for his classes on world religions and related courses in the Department of Philosophy. Those classes have been in heavy demand since 9-11 as students seek to understand more about the interaction and shared history of the world’s great religions. Of particular interest, Penaskovic said, is student interest in the historical intersection of religion and politics on the world stage, with politics usually proving to be the driving force.

Contact: Richard Penaskovic, (334) 844-4616 (penasri@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)