Vali Nasr: Is there really a clash of civilizations?

Vali Nasr is an Iranian-American political commentator and scholar of contemporary Islam. Born in Iran, Nasr and his family immigrated to the United States following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nasr received a BA from Tufts University in 1981 and a masters from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in 1984. He earned his PhD from MIT in political science in 1991.

Known for his view that wars within Islam will shape the future, Nasr has testified before Congress and has advised the President and Vice-President regarding sectarian violence in Iraq. Nasr is the author The Shia Revival, Democracy in Iran, and The Islamic Leviathan.

He has taught at the University of San Diego and the Naval Postgraduate School, and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard and Professor of International Politics at Tufts. A Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Nasr has been published in Foreign Affairs, The New Republic, Foreign Policy, Time, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. He is an editor of the Oxford Dictionary of Islam and has appeared on CNN, the BBC, National Public Radio, and not least of all The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and The Colbert Report.

  • Transcript


Question: Is there really a clash of civilizations?

Vali Nasr: Well this is not a problem between Christianity and Islam, even though it’s increasingly being made into one. And partly because both countries, now some of the most engaged and hard line political groups tend to be religious. There’s the evangelicals and fundamentalists in the U.S., and the fundamentalists and hard liners in the Muslim world.

But in reality, this was not a problem that arose out of theological disagreements between Christians and Muslims. It is not like the disputes that the Vatican now has with the Orthodox church that requires the Pope to go to Istanbul and have a one-on-one discussion with the patriarch and resolve it.

The problems, even though they are put in the language of Islam in the West, really come from policy disagreements. The core of this is that the United States, however way it perceives its interest in the Middle East, has gone about protecting and promoting in a particular way that has run into trouble on the ground and has run into resistance.

Ultimately it’s about policy options. It’s not something that the U.S. says here or there. It’s about what U.S. will do here or there. It’s whether the U.S. will continue.

I think the most significant issue is whether the U.S. will continue to look at military options as the primary vehicle for protecting and promoting its interest in the Middle East and the Muslim world or not. Whether it continues to define the war on terror in a language of a war that then presupposes all kinds of civilizational [sic], cultural conflict, as opposed to much more of a law and order issue. These are debates we can have domestically about handling crime.

It is not that our interests are going to go away. It is not that our interests are always goignto be respected and received in the Muslim world with a welcome. They will not.

But the contingents come because of the particular policies that we have adopted in terms of pursuing them.

If we looked at the Muslim world right now, the United States in the past five years [i.e. circa 2002 to 2007] has invaded two Muslim countries. It is poised to invade a third one, Iran. Its level of military funding and direct involvement in other countries – Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon – is on the rise. And that is, right now, the most contentious issue.

Recorded on: Dec 3, 2007