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September 16, 2002

Hefner examines Islamic culture

By Eric Rangus

In his 55-minute address, “Clash of Civilizations or an Islamic Reformation?” Robert Hefner, anthropology professor and associate director of Boston University’s Institute for the Study of Economic Culture, centered his comments not so much on a conflict between Islamic radicals and the West but rather on the power struggle between those radicals and democratically minded Muslim moderates.

“It would be a missed opportunity if the West fails to see that the violence of Sept. 11, 2001, was directed not only at the United States but also at moderate Muslims,” said Hefner, a specialist on South-east Asia with a focus on the relation between religion and economic development. He addressed a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 in the Jones Room of Woodruff Library last Wednesday.

Hefner spoke in depth about a Muslim world that has been struggling to define itself in modern times. A great deal of Muslim leaders and populations, he said, are committed to Western ideas of democracy, but their efforts at reform often are undermined by hard-liners, the most prominent of whom is Osama bin Laden.

He defined the extremists’ hatred of the West as stemming from causes ranging from the Crusades to colonization, to the rising influence of Islamic religious affairs in public policy. Hard-liners see the West—along with nations such as Israel, Russia and India—as dedicated to destroying their religion.

Moderate Muslims, Hefner said, see the situation differently. In countries such as Iran and Indonesia, they even have had a modicum of success in achieving democratic reforms within the context of a Muslim state. But those reforms, Hefner continued, have been subverted by conservative Islamists in power in Iran, who so far have succeeded in blocking many reforms, and by militarists in Indonesia who used violence to break up a democratic Muslim coalition.

“Higher education, women’s participation and economic growth advance democratic Islam,” Hefner said. But, he added, poverty and strategic use of violence (like the Sept. 11 attacks and the unrest in Indonesia) can undermine those reforms.

In conclusion, Hefner said that what is going on now is not really a clash of civilizations, despite the fact that many in the West may see it that way.

“Even if U.S. military action is considered a technical success,” Hefner said, the war inside Islam will continue.

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