Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001


Benet Davetian (2001) 'Moral Tensions Between Western and Islamic Cultures: The Need for Additional Sociological Studies of Dissonance in the Wake of September 11'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 6, no. 3, <>

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Received: 31/10/2001      Accepted: 20/11/2001      Published: 30/11/2001


This article suggests that, in the wake of the events of September 11th, it would be an error for sociologists and political analysts to concentrate on revisions of economic and political theory while not paying equal attention to the moral tensions between Islamic and Western cultures. It proposes that economic and geopolitical research be expanded to include bilateral studies of Western and Islamic conceptions of morality and standards of right and wrong. The argument is based on the proposition that certain Western liberal attitudes threaten Islamic peoples' commitment to the traditional family, thereby delaying conflict resolution and providing terrorists with additional venues for "justifying" their acts.

Courtesy; Ethics; Family; Globalization; Iran; Morality; Religion; Sexual Permissiveness; Sexuality; Terrorism

Faced with the mind-numbing horror of September 11, social scientists may feel compelled to search for new ways of theorizing what appears to some as a watershed in history, similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall. But, we would be wise to avoid the kind of West-centric worldview adopted by Francis Fukuyama when he equated the abdication of the Soviet regime with the triumph of the Western liberal global project. Fukuyama's sensational declaration that history as we had known it had expired seems to have been premature [1]. Apparently, it has not. Fukuyama's "last man" seems to be in some pretty terrifying company.

Richard Dawkins, in an opinion piece in the 15 September issue of the Guardian, makes a similar West-centric judgement by referring to the terrorists as misguided young men seduced into evil by the promise of a privileged place in heaven[2]. Such promises may have given the terrorists the resolve they needed to keep a tight grip on the joy sticks of those jets and entertain no last-minute doubts as their targets closed in on them. But a place in heaven is not sufficient motivation for men who go through the long periods of disciplined preparation needed for engineering such precise and horrific devastation. More complex forces are at work.

If we are to learn a sociological lesson from the events of September 11 it is that we need to extend our research beyond unidimensional economic, religious and geo-political issues. Using whatever multidisciplinary means are at our disposal we need to get at the core of the "emotional" dissonance between the Islamic and Western world. Terrorists are more than mindless men whisked off the streets and then implanted with "go-kill-for-Islam" electrodes. Certainly, the terrorist act is a despicable one. But by branding terrorists as "forces of evil" we place them in a supernatural category and lose sight of the concrete cultural biographies of their origins. We lose sight of the gradual build-up of hate and alienation which makes a man take on the role of executioner. In our diplomatically-astute desire to reassure Islamic countries that our quarrel is not with Islam but with the evil of terror, we create the impression that were it not for terrorists and radical Islamic fundamentalists the West and the Islamic world would get on quite well with one another. Our optimism is bolstered by large numbers of Muslims who reassure us that Islamic doctrine does not support such indiscriminate acts of violence. Yet, these mutual reassurances gloss over many remarkable differences between the two civilizations. Although they are differences that do not call for recourse to violence, they do move terrorists to attempt to justify their acts as moral crusades. It is in our interest to understand these differences and study them in bi-cultural context.

Steve Fuller also leans towards a unidimensional view when he states that Christianity and Islam share the same Judeo-Christian roots. Certainly, the Holy Koran goes to great lengths to recognize and respect Judaic and Christian prophets. Entire chapters are devoted to them. But where I disagree with Fuller is when he states that he regards with suspicion "any general explanatory framework that counterpoises 'Islam versus the West,' especially if this dichotomy is posed as a difference in values....Since the values espoused on both sides of the divide are in fact very similar..." [3] .

One should specify which "values" are being compared. Certainly, Islamic people are as mercantile as we are. And they can be just as honest or dishonest as ourselves when it comes to monetary or political dealings. But there are important systemic differences between Western and Islamic cultures, differences that extend beyond Judeo- Christian origins. These differences have to do with the extent to which individual impulse is restrained in the interests of communal cohesion. They also have to do with the fact that the West has become secularized while Islamic cultures continue to uphold practices and prohibitions which date back to the teachings of the Holy Koran.

Samuel P. Huntington has recognized the complexities of these differences in Clashes of Civilizations, in which he notes a growing "Islamic modernity" which can be adopted as a cultural style by both terrorists and non-terrorists alike. He recognizes that the tensions may be broader than the local acts of terrorists and the religious rationales used by them when lobbying for an Islamic-based justification for their acts[4] . Indeed, the viewing of the Westerner as "the other" is not limited to the terrorist mentality. Many Muslims who would ordinarily not sanction military conflict with the West remain uneasy with Western cultural values and practices.

So, a useful question that sociologists interested in the study of Western-Islamic dissonance (deadly as well as not deadly) need ask is a simple but rather disconcerting one: Were the West able to suddenly redress and eliminate all the territorial abuses and policy errors of the past and magically grant the Islamic world an overnight quantum improvement in living standards, would Muslims adopt the Western way of life in toto? Asking such a question may require us to develop a modified index of compatibility, one that integrates an understanding of the moral standards of the two civilizations.

Fuller's affirmation that there are no basic differences in values between the Islamic world and the West may have held prior to the 1960's. There was a time when the majority of Muslims respected and envied American (and European) public and private values. The 1950's image of the hard-working Western male and female devoted to their family and children in a country of plenty gave hope to developing nations. It did not clash with the goals of traditional Islamic communities. Back in the 1950's we were still able to blush at the mention of romance or sex. We hadn't yet begun sending one another unsolicited pornographic images by email and forming "adult contact" groups. Nor had "serial monogamy " become a standard sociological term taught to high school students.

But then something happened in America itself. No Muslim terrorist precipitated the event. It happened starting in the 1960's when a cultural revolution, managed by American youth, turned into one of history's most extreme manifestations of "generational disequilibrium." Similar generational conflict appeared in Europe. The cultural revolution sought to disempower traditional and fixed systems of authority in the interests of individual impulse and the right to political, sexual and moral self-determination [5]. What emerged from the social changes of the 1960's was a culture quite incompatible with the traditionalism of Islamic cultures, a traditionalism based on sexual circumspection and automatic deference towards elders and institutions such as the family.

Our subsequent tolerance of a variety of "life- styles" (and the various moral predispositions that go along with them) is what threatens Islamic cultures bound by tradition and theology. Andrew Delbanco, in his seminal work, The Death of Satan, documents some of the ways in which Americans have given up the traditional framework of "good" and "evil" and become extraordinarily at ease with a variety of private and public practices which they themselves previously considered immoral [6]. So we should not be surprised that people living in Islamic cultures are happily buying up the fruits of our technology while remaining unsure of our integrity as persons. We have lifted many of the restraints which regulated our social interactions, while they have not.

An example of this tension between the "traditional" and "western liberal" worldview, and its resulting misunderstandings, was observable in the explanation given by the Taliban as to why they could not turn Bin Laden over to the coalition or kick him out of their country. They said that he was a guest, and, although he could leave of his own free will, they could not ask him to leave. Most Western observers considered their explanation a categorical support of Bin Laden. In the West, we are more informal and, consequently, more direct. We either support someone or we don't. We come out and say it. But the Taliban were using traditional Afghani (and Muslim) courtesy practices to make their association with Bin Laden an ambiguous one. In Islam, the guest is to be welcomed by strangers and friends alike. And, as long as he is not caught stealing or committing acts of violence against the household, he is to be treated with quasi-religious deference. One simply does it because it is prescribed. One does not hold lengthy post-modern theoretical discussions about whether the process of hospitality should be "informalized" or "deconstructed." It remains a tradition. Removing it would be tantamount to negating passages in the Holy Koran. An Islamic culture that does not practice generalized courtesy cannot be considered Islamic. The Taliban had to reaffirm the courtesy custom in order not to lose credibility with their own population. But there was a subtext to their statement. They said that Bin Laden was free to leave of his own accord. This was a disavowal of complete compatibility with their "guest." Had Western political analysts been more conversant with traditional Islamic courtesy practices they might have read the situation a little differently and allowed the Taliban time to turn a cold shoulder to the Bin Laden project and revise their political policies. But perhaps Washington did understand the semiotics of the situation and found a good opportunity to justify the removal of the Taliban, a decision that didn't seem to cause much grief to any Islamic country.

Theorists like Anthony Giddens[7] , Jurgen Habermas [8]and Charles Taylor [9], who embody the best in reconciliatory social thought, encourage us to keep talking and suggest that the process of dialogue will in itself unleash unforeseen forces that might bring about positive change despite individual aspirations and differences. Yet, one wonders if this dialogism can work between cultures that consider one another's moral practices as suspect. Perhaps further mutual analysis is required prior to the start of a fruitful dialogue. Our liberalism and individualism is a sign of moral weakness in the eyes of a society regulated by communal traditions. And, to our liberal mentality, traditionalism is a symbol of excessive restraint, tyranny, and resistance to change. We have to accept this difference in world-view and work with it.

What unites the Islamic world and transcends differences in national history and geo-politics is the value accorded to the traditional family and the restraints placed on its members in favour of its continuance. This is the core of Islam. And it is the consideration of this aspect of Islamic culture that many Western sociologists avoid because the entire issue would force us into a comparative study which might leave our own family values and sexual practices open to some reevaluation. Pressured by political correctness to avoid calculating the opportunity costs of our own post-patriarchal social project we are inhibited to consider the strengths and weaknesses of our culture from the point of view of Islamic values. This, of course, makes our governments equally tongue-tied to openly criticize the consequences of rigidly-applied traditionalism as found in certain Islamic cultures. Attention is drawn to economic and geo-political promises of reconciliation. Perhaps it is time that we depart from the restrictions of "cultural relativism" and investigate if a workable middle ground cannot be found through a moral coalition between the West and Islam. The time may be ripe, for the West is anxious to find relief from the tensions of individualism while Islamic cultures are beginning to smart from the pressures and obligations of communal custom. We might find a mutually beneficial dialogical space if we manage to exchange clear and uninhibited sociological insights and desist from frightening one another.

Last year, I went to Iran on a research trip as part of a multi-national study I am doing on courtesy and civility practices [10]. I had previously been in Turkey, Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon. I noticed that there were two practices that were almost identical in all these countries. First, a strong valuation and practice of courtesy and a concentrated effort to communicate hospitality to the other. This courtesy code discouraged direct confrontations, creating feelings of communal belonging while also leaving individuals in the position of constantly having to evaluate each other's real intentions and feelings. Second, I found a strong tendency towards discouraging extra-marital sexual relations in order to encourage and support marriage. While the idea of romantic love (as opposed to arranged marriages) was increasingly accepted, the idea of pre-marital sex was not. A careful analysis of the function of the veil and segregation of genders in certain Islamic public places always leads back to this need to control and decrease the sexual opportunities of each gender. It is not only the public persona of the woman that is being restricted but the sexuality of the entire population. I am of the opinion that if all Islamic men were certain that their wives would not be tempted by other men their resistance to the woman working outside the family would be considerably lower. We have learned that much from studying our Victorian middle-class ancestors.

During my research I met Iranian Muslims of every political persuasion. What seemed to preoccupy them were not political issues with the West as much as the social problems of the Western world and how these might affect their own lifestyles. Throughout my research journey, Iranians repeatedly confronted me with one central embarrassing question. One would have thought that the same question had through some collective unconscious process invaded nearly every Iranian mind. They wanted a credible answer to a philosophical question: "Can a society continue telling right from wrong if it tolerates every cultural practice?" It was one of the questions posed by the Islamic clerics when they had rationalized a return to a theocracy---the question seemed to have left a profound impression on even those who strongly opposed a theocratic state. I had been asked the same question in other countries in the Middle East.

Richard Rorty has perceptively written that we have become so open-minded in the West that "our brains risk falling out" .[11] Muslims are voicing similar concerns. One university professor asked me gently so as not to cause offense: "Why are you Westerners so afraid of authority? Habits and customs and mores are maintained through authority, the authority of the elders. Why are you so against that? How else can we remember to tell right from wrong? Can we leave it in the hands of children?"

Repeatedly, as I travelled through Iran in search of a more comprehensive understanding of Iranian courtesy practices, I was accosted by people from all walks of life wanting answers to questions about the sanctity of the family. They were the same questions I had encountered during other stays in Middle Eastern countries. One Afghani refugee selling cucumbers from a donkey-pulled cart on the Isfahan-to-Tehran road offered me tea and then shared with me what was troubling his mind. He was against the state having a say in religious and moral matters but frightened of what might happen if it did not. He took a picture of a teenage girl out of his wallet and pointed to her, "This is my daughter. She goes to school and is excellent in reading and writing. That is all she is there for. I don't want some school teacher telling her how to use condoms and have sex before marriage." I began to explain our Western notion of human rights and openness and the dangers of repression, but he cut me short, "She will marry and have a family. The other way is the way of misery." What was I to say to him or the hundreds of others with whom I spoke who very lucidly expressed similar fears. They had nothing against McDonald's. They just didn't want their families disintegrating under its golden arches. I tried to offer up functionalist explanations of our social problems. But the effort was useless. My hosts politely side-stepped my explanations and affirmed their belief in a restraining morality that would reject expedient solutions.

As a sociologist I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I could not criticize their desire for fixity nor could I whole-heartedly approve of it. I knew too much of what could go wrong when there was not enough freedom or too much of it. Speaking with Muslims I was faced with the tragedy of both the West and the East. The Afghani on the Isfahan-Tehran road was clutching the photograph of his girl, worried that his daughter would let a boy touch her before marriage. I, on the other hand, was afraid that my daughter would discover cyber-sex and live a life without touch. We were from different places and time-frames. The fact that we might have owned the same brand of radio was not much help.

Oddly, I felt as if I were talking to Victorians. The people I met were reconfirming the morality and family practices broadcast to the world by our own forefathers [12]. One woman who had just returned from a three-month visit to London asked me, "Why do some British women use the words, 'Let's be wicked' so much? It's even in advertisements." I answered, "It's perhaps because they were taught to be very good and now they are still good but need to prove they can be bad if they want to....sort of a way of proving they are free. At some point the human system rebels against excessive restraint." She did not understand my explanation. She shook her head and said, "And freedom is to wish that you are wicked? Isn't that being attracted by evil?"

And there you have it. The word that suddenly renders the other sub-human: Evil. America the evil. Osama Bin Laden the evil. Terrorism the evil. Capitalism the evil. Internet the evil. Prayer the evil. Non-prayer the evil. Sex the evil. Abstinence the evil. Veil the evil. Miniskirt the evil. Patriarch the evil. Matriarch the evil. Evil the evil.

A bunch of young men flying explosive fuel and innocent passengers into hell are, as far as they are concerned, fighting evil. No human being can admit that what he is doing himself is evil and then continue doing it. He must rationalize his actions as a "good," or, at least, an "inevitable" departure from usual decency to protect the long-term good. What is terrifying about Bin Laden is that he looks sane, even gentle and ascetic. He is certainly not uncomfortable with the ultimate universal moral meaning of terrorism. Certainty about the evil of the "other" calms the psychotic mind, fills it with statistics and logistics, and sanitizes genocide[13] .

To say that the terrorist is diametrically different from those Muslims who denounce terrorism is stating the obvious. Certainly, it is a diplomatically wise statement. It allows for an effective coalition and protects non-terrorist Muslims from unjust discrimination. But, on a methodological level, it is sociologically misleading. The reassurance does not address the fears felt by ordinary Muslims when they see images of twelve-year-old girls with cut out shorts roller-blading down Malibu beach courtesy of global satellite television. We ourselves are not given to collectively ask why such young girls would be allowed to be manipulated by corporations to present themselves as sexual objects before they have properly learned how to write a simple sentence. We do not ask it nor permit ourselves to passionately campaign against it because we consider individual freedom primordial, even the freedom to be robbed of our own dignity. How then can we turn to Muslims and convince them that the veil is unfair to the comfort of women? Might they not misunderstand our intentions and wonder what else we will be removing to accommodate our entrepreneurs?

We are given to being tolerant of our social problems because we have also enjoyed the flip side of them: increased self-fulfillment. But let us hope that we do not make the geo-centric error of asking other cultures to adapt to the new world of individualism in a shorter time than it took us to do so, or assume that our path is the only path possible to all cultures. Doing so would put other cultures in an "overload" situation and increase resistance and conflict. We would, in fact, do well to leave some traditional cultures in place should we ourselves lose our way and decide we need some comparative guidance. America has led a heroic experiment in emancipation and has brought a lot of good to the world. But it cannot expect others seeking emancipation to willingly reproduce the unintended consequences of its own project. "Hybrid cultures" can and should try and avoid the social problems of the mother-ship. Naturally, this will mean that we will have to tolerate economies different from our own. A culture that forbids pornography will certainly dampen our export possibilities. But that is the price we will have to pay for cultural reconciliation. So the talk of a global liberal American order is in itself a systemic error. The consequences of such errors are books such as that of Fukuyama that do not last beyond the 15-minute Warholian time-frame of fame.

What we need, instead, are more bilateral sociological studies that go beyond economic and political issues. We need to take more account of social psychology, the sociology of change and what has been taught to us by meticulous sociologists such as Weber who studied the process of cultural transition and its surprising consequences. Some of the questions which we need ask include the following: How does a culture which has chosen extreme tolerance deal with a culture that is not embarrassed to not tolerate that which it considers unacceptable---in other words, how does a pluralist society communicate with one where a majority moral consensus rules? And how is the intolerant (read judgmental) culture to deal with its open- minded counterpart whom it considers misguided? What methods of research can be discovered to allow these two civilizations to trust one another when each perceives the other's moral positions as a threat to its lifestyle? These questions are as pressing as the question of what makes a terrorist. Both categories of questions lead back to the common denominator of "otherness."

To speak of a "clash of civilizations" on purely religious or economic terms, therefore, is to miss the on-going cultural war that is engulfing the world as well as our own national cultures. Robert Bly, in Sibling Society, has criticized Americans for refusing to grow up and for living in a world of childhood fantasy. Unashamed to criticize feminists and masculinists alike he calls for a reconciliation of the sexes for the sake of the children and calls for parents and grandparents to reclaim their traditional roles as confident guides[14] . His critics remind him that it was precisely the moral intransigence of these elderly guides that launched the cultural and sexual rebellion of America in the first place. Meanwhile, the whole world looks to America wondering what will be the outcome of America's own soul-searching. So the West-Islam issue is one that goes beyond international date-lines. It is an issue which might require resolution both on the Western front and within the Islamic world. Sociology can only help expand and accelerate such a project.

The theoretical explanation that may best serve create tolerance of these seemingly irreconcilable differences is what we have learned in our research of courtesy and civility. Norbert Elias has suggested in The Civilizing Process that, as we have moved towards central states controlling violence and taxation, we have had to accept increased levels of restraint placed on our personal and collective behaviour [15]. Being "civilized" and being "restrained" have become mutually associated. Yet it seems that the affluence and increase in education that follows from such centralization has a paradoxical effect. It leads to an increase in human rights and technological complexity and a decrease in sexual restraint and adherence to custom. Based on a study of the mechanisms and processes of restraint in historical context we may be able to reach a point where we accord both the West and Islam the benefit of the doubt. We may be able to adopt a position of faith which allows us to view each civilization as contributing elements that counterbalance the excesses of the other.

Only a gradual and patient sharing of self- reflective explanations can produce understanding between civilizations that do indeed have the potential to clash with one another, as has warned Huntington. Such a discussion cannot appear to be a mutual seduction. It must be conducted with each culture attempting to express to the other its fears, its aspirations and its own desired (and necessary) place in history. Such bilateral sociological understanding would be the ultimate meaning of a "coming together" of Islam and the West. Sociologists have the opportunity of initiating that reconciliation by offering level-headed and comprehensive explanations. These explanations can only serve to decrease sentiments of "otherness" and the motivation for "jihad." The challenge now is to find research funds in a civilization that has become fearful of the word "moral."


1Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992). Fukuyama has written articles justifying his position in the aftermath of September 11th. They can be found at: and < sp?story=98776>

2Richard Dawkins article in the Guardian can be found at: <,4273,4257777,00.html>

3Steve Fuller, "Looking for Sociology after 11 September," Sociological Research Online, British Sociological Association.

4Samuel P. Huntington, Clashes of Civilizations and the remaking of the World Order (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

5Allen J. Matusow, The Unraveling of America: A History of Liberalism in the 1960's. New York (1984).

6Andrew Delbanco, The Death of Satan. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (1995).

7Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity. Stanford: Stanford University Press (1990)

8Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society; Vol. 2: The Theory of Communicative Action. Boston: Beacon (1984)

9Charles Taylor, 'The Politics of Recognition' in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, Amy Gutman, ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press (1994).

10The research trip was part of D.Phil thesis research on courtesy and civility practices, entitled, The Anatomy of Courtesy and Civility: A Study of British, French and American practices, 1200 to present. University of Sussex, Department of Sociology.

11Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1989)

12Michael Mason, The Making of Victorian Sexuality, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1994)

13Benet Davetian, The Seventh Circle, Vancouver: Ronsdale Press (1996).

14Robert Bly, The Sibling Society. New York: Vintage (1994)

15Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process, Vol. 2, State Formation and Civilization. Tr. Edmund Jephcott, 1982. Oxford: Basil Blackwell (1939 [1982])

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2001