I have been asked to address the issue of the topic presented at the launch of the Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations: Clash of Civilizations: Real or Imagined? I have come to the conclusion that the clash is both real as well as imagined, simply because “facts” or reality are often inseparable from perceptions “imagined”. The more so because much of the debate has been exacerbated and distorted through media.

Western media have used such variants of expressions ranging from “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamic terrorism”, “Islamic Jihadists”, and even “Islamic Fascists”. Toxic television, rabble ras well as trash tabloids are prone to use these caricatures. They feed on one another in ways “fact” becomes fiction, and fiction “ ignites” facts.

The Muslim world as a whole has suffered from this massive media manipulation. It has given rise to many different set of perceptions about “clashes within civilizations,” including among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia and Southeast Asia. You can also say that it is a clash of ideas about civilizations across all continents.

The “Clash of Civilizations” was first publicly raised in 1993 in an article written in Foreign Affairs magazine by Professor Samuel Huntington , and it is useful to remind ourselves of the context of when and why the question of clash of civilizations was brought up at the time.

First, it appeared in the wake of the “victory” of liberal capitalism over communism symbolized by the unification of two Germanies in October and the disintegration of the Soviet Union in December. Earlier, the January 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait added the sense of western triumphalism. American hegemonism was at its peak.

Second, the crises in the Middle East and the rise of militant Islamist movements against Western interests throughout the world in the mid 1980s began to be perceived in the West that “Radical Islam” would supplant Communism as the principal challenge for the world-wide ideological contest. Bombings against western interests in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Gulf region resulted in the rise of faith-based neo-conservatism in the United States.

Thereafter, the events of September 11, 2001 confirmed the notion in the West that there would be a world-wide contest between the liberal capitalist world led by the United States and the Islamic world led by Usamah Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda movement.

While there may be superficial truth about this world-wide contest for ideological supremacy, the fact of the matter is that there were even more serious clashes within civilizations, both in “the West” as well as in the “Muslim world”. Within the Western world, there began a series of political cleavages between Christian fundamentalists and progressive schools both in the Protestant as well as Catholic churches, in North America, Europe as well as in Latin America.

In the United States, the Christian right representing various church denominations became powerful in influencing both domestic and foreign policy debates. From prayer in schools, abortion, gay marriages, stem cell research, to preaching Christian civilization and feisting western-style “democracy” abroad, these self righteous views influenced the perception that the current American administration has been strong influenced by the right wing constituencies. In Europe, crises of identity among Muslims within each of the European democracies in part have been compounded by worries over illegal immigration.

Contrary to popular opinion both in the West and within the Muslim world itself, there began serious clashes about civilization in the Islamic world itself. While a tiny minority may have been attracted to the motion of a “world wide caliphate” imbued by Islamic values as propounded by Usamah Bin Laden, there have been different “realities ” at the ground level.

Serious differences of the interpretation of Islam in Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia began to proliferate. Differing interpretations of the practical application of Muslim values are present in the Middle East among and within each Arab state, between Arab states and Iran, between the larger Middle East and Turkey, between Muslims in Pakistan and Muslims in India. And indeed, among Muslims within Malaysia, Indonesia.

Ultimately, it is the clash of local political interests that define conflict in the Middle East. Much of the root causes of these conflict rests on tribal rivalry and clan contests for access to status, group privilege, personal power or combination of the three. As we meet in this room tonight, the Palestine Authority is divided by factionalism between Fatah and Hamas which ironically, has little to do with Islamic values. In contemporary Iraq, violent clashes occur between Sunnis and Shites, as well as among Sunni parochial groups. And then there are thecriminals and thugs who profit from incessant chaos. The issue of anti-Americanism is marginal to all of these situations.

Historically, the Muslim world in the Middle East has been marginalised by the juxtaposition of three issues: one, the Palestine-Israel conflict going back to the early 20th century; two, the nexus of energy dependence and strategic military projection of the West going back to the 1930s; three, the conflicting claims by Islam, Christianity, and the Jewish religion over heritage of the holy sites in the region.

After decades of so many “Middle East peace processes” involving presidents, prime ministers, chancellors, kings, sultan, emirs, special envoys, rapporteurs and good offices, there has to date been no international initiative that has been able to sustain the painstaking tribal and clan accords that are imperative to make any progress viable. Thus far, all manner of agreements have unravelled by these micro dimensions of clashes of civilization.

Indonesia has often been seen as a model “moderate” Muslim country which can play a significant contributing role to the peace process in the Middle East. But we all realise that the realities of the Muslim world in the Middle East is strikingly different from the situation in Southeast Asia. We must not be too tempted to preach, much less transpose, our version of Islam to the situation in the Arab world in particular and to the Middle East in general. The history, geography, culture and the regional strategic context of the Middle east and Southeast Asia are vastly too different to have any immediate practical relevance.

Within Indonesia itself, there is much work to be done in the days, months and years ahead to prevent and mitigate clashes within our own micro civilizations at the ground level. From Aceh to Papua, from Northen Sulawesi to the south in Rote, the challenges of alleviating mass poverty needs to be addressed in tandem with continuing cooperation and dialogue among Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians.

The effective delivery of food, adequate housing, clean water, primary health care, affordable utilities and employment to the 39 million who live off on less than 2 dollars a day and the 10 million openly jobless are sources of profound challenges to all Muslim leaders of the Muhammadiyah, the NU, and all Islam-based parties and civic groups represented in this hall.

For myself, it is a source of pride and hope that many of you who recently established this Centre have worked together with friends and colleagues from other faiths to rebuild schools, mosques, churches, and health care facilities after the many devastating social conflicts throughout Indonesia over the past 9 years.

While we may enjoy and enrich ourselves intellectually in gatherings of seminars, workshops and even in launch events such as here, we can only pre-empt clashes among our religious communities if we together cooperate in providing basic human needs to the poorest members of each of our constituents.

As we all work hard towards a fairer and just society, let us through the work of this Centre enhance our sense of tolerance among our faiths by appreciating the salient features of our respective religious precepts, rituals and norms. Let us commit ourselves to ensuring that many, if not all, of those whom we seek to alleviate from wrenching poverty can at least have the audacity of hope that their lives can improve within their life-time.

Realistically, we cannot in the near term save them all. There will be many who will have to go through a series of glitches and crashing of cultural gears, before things get better. But let us in this hall tonight pledge ourselves to resolving these ground-level issues as quickly as is humanely possible.

Only then can we be vindicated by our common commitment that this Centre is serious not only in promoting dialogue and cooperation among Indonesians of all faiths, but can provide real- world practical solutions on the ground that replenishes the true traditions of pluralism, tolerance and openness within the widening embrace of Indonesian-ness . Let us conduct dialogue and work cooperatively. Let us all practice what we preach.