Islam and the West

By Saad Hafiz

The Islamic world and the west appear to be caught up in an intensifying phase of political and cultural conflict. Each side views the other with mistrust and suspicion and both have a shopping-list of grievances. Over-zealous punditry on television, in the op-ed pages, on campuses and in strategic studies think tanks reinforce the fear that Islam and the west are on a collision course. Great stress is laid on the political and cultural divide, futility of communication and engagement and cries of hegemony and imperialism. In this cacophony, those who seek dialogue and reconciliation between the faiths struggle to be heard.

Muslim self-confidence, which was at its peak some centuries ago, has disappeared. Religious literalism has gained centrality over reason in the Islamic worldview. Long buried is the adab movement of classical Islam, which was concerned with the etiquette of being human. This movement represented enlightenment in Islam, placing reason as the other side of revelation and the Qur’an as presenting both as ‘signs of God’. Many Muslims tend to view the ‘western’ concepts of humanism, secularism and liberalism as threats to Islamic culture. They insist that the decree of God and divine values must prevail in society, emphasizing the difference of Islamic culture from Western atheistic culture.

Secularism is a particularly dirty word on Islamic streets, connoting Godlessness and promiscuity. Propagating secularism is seen as an attempt to remove God and religion from the life of man and society. The positive experience of the majority of Muslims in countries with non-Muslim majorities, who have adjusted and are prospering in the secular world, is seldom discussed. Privately, many Muslims do admire the west as the latter went from strength to strength, drawing on the invigorating changes that swept aside the European past: advances in technology, the transformation of public institutions, the rise of individual freedom and responsibility, and the advent of the dicey concept of modernity.

On the other hand, like earlier Enlightenment thinkers, many in the west view Islam as an embodiment of fanaticism, anti-humanism, irrationalism and the violent will to power. Islamic civilisation is seen as grounded in a backward society and inferior political institutions and religious beliefs at its core compared to the freedom and liberty, reason and liberal thought offered by the west. Some would like to see Islam like Christianity recast itself as one religion among others in the secular space and like Christianity be dragged kicking and screaming into the secular world. They tend to forget that the west’s transformation to an increasingly secular, democratic, industrial and tolerant society has been a long, evolutionary and often painful process. Western political theorists also see the fusion of state and Islam as a specific threat leading not to social improvement and democracy but to theocracy, intolerance and majority-controlled mayhem. Their proposed solution is embedding secularism and religious neutrality as a core value of all Islamic state institutions.

It is difficult to find alternatives to the narratives of confrontation that do not predispose Muslims and westerners to inevitable conflict. Retreating from the challenges of active engagement only serves to strengthen the position of fundamentalists in both communities. Moving beyond reactionary attitudes and symbolic positions requires that the west and Islam know one another. Such a process should involve active listening and a commitment to sustained dialogue. It is an imperative to develop inclusive narratives, shared values and intercultural compatibility. An affirmative approach to relations between Islam and the west must underscore peace as a mutual ideal of both civilisations. It should not rush to achieve immediate rewards, a quick end of conflict, or complete understanding. Rather, it should seek to help each side understand how the other community expresses its basic concerns, while encouraging both sides work together in the discovery and creation of common meanings and priorities. This would challenge the west and Muslims to better understand their own principles and ideals as they learn to share them in new ways.

The fact that many existing problems between Muslims and westerners have much less to do with religion or culture than with nationalism, gaps in levels of development, historical disadvantages of Muslim countries, and protracted conflicts over territory and natural resources merits discussion. Such gaps can be bridged through goodwill, dialogue directed toward understanding, and practical problem solving. There could also be a mutual desire for peace, a respect for learning, esteem for toleration, and quest for human dignity within the common heritage of civilisation. For the west, peace means an absence of war, terrorism, and gross violations of human rights. For Muslims, real peace signifies a presence of justice, self-determination, and social equilibrium or harmony. Like the west, Islam possesses multiple paradigms of thought and action on matters pertaining to peace, and it is only by recognizing the internal diversity of civilisations that we will be able to construct narratives of intercultural peacemaking.

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