Middle East Roundtable
Edition 15 Volume 6 - April 10, 2008
Is the West anti-Islam?
• Not yet, but soon without serious dialogue - Maryam Yasmin Hussain
The West often tends to misinterpret the teachings of Islam.
• It cuts both ways - Anders Jerichow
Both the West and the Islamic world would be wise to focus on policies rather than images of perceived clashing civilizations.
• No easy answers - Ersin Kalaycioglu
Arab Muslims seem to perceive the designs of the US as imposing a new hegemony over their oil resources in the guise of democratization.
• Days of war - Abdel Monem Said Aly
Both Islam and the West are in dire need of a reassessment that does not seem possible in the near future.
Not yet, but soon without serious dialogue
Maryam Yasmin Hussain
Ever since the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the Muhammad cartoons on September 30, 2005, the controversy surrounding them has been ongoing. The cartoons caused uproar among the Muslim masses around the globe, exacerbated when the cartoons were reprinted in more than 50 countries. Worldwide protests and demonstrations broke out, in some cases causing deaths and injuries. The controversy was ignited again when the cartoons were re-printed by Jyllands-Posten on February 13 of this year in Denmark and then deepened when a Dutch anti-Islam movie called "Fitna" was released on the internet on March 27. One can only hope that the movie does not cause the kind of violence that the Danish cartoons did.
The cartoons and the movie have triggered an array of questions in people's minds, especially among Muslims who have lived in the West for decades. There is obviously a sense of insecurity among Muslim minorities in the West because they see their faith repeatedly under attack. The most urgent question raised is whether the West is becoming Islamophobic? It is not an easy question to answer as it differs from person to person and experience to experience. One thing, however, that has to be accepted and understood is that racism is a global phenomenon, be it in a Muslim or non-Muslim context.
As a product of the twenty-first century and being divided between the western and Muslim worlds, I believe it is important that one keep one's mind and heart open on this ongoing debate. It is always dangerous to reach easy conclusions. Personally, I feel the West often tends to misinterpret the teachings of Islam. However, I don't want to generalize. There are minorities in every society that are infected with extremism, which compels them to incite to hatred against others.
A very common example of western misinterpretation of Islamic terms is that of the word "fundamentalism". Among the critics of Islam it is often used to describe faith-justified terrorism, the brutal treatment of women and abrasive behavior. But in an Islamic context, "fundamentalism" very simply means adherence to and faith in the five basic tenets of Islam, i.e. the beliefs that there is only one God and that Muhammad is his prophet, and the performance of prayers, fasting and the hajj or pilgrimage. The fundamentals of Islam are clearly devoid of any kind of violence yet the inaccurate use of the word has caused a certain amount of Islamophobia to spread among non-Muslims.
In this context, it might be instructive to refer back to the 12 Danish editorial cartoons. In reaction to these cartoons, Muslims from all over the world shunned Danish products and campaigns were started to promote a boycott of anything related to Denmark. Numerous protests and demonstrations were witnessed in disparate corners of the world.
Unfortunately, many of these demonstrations turned violent, causing the deaths of innocent people and injuries to others. In Syria, Lebanon and Iran some went as far as to set fire to Danish embassies. The cartoons were a grave offense to Muslim sensibilities. Nevertheless, the "fundamentalist" Muslim rejects the notion of violence in reaction.
The movie "Fitna", meanwhile, was released in Holland by a Dutch MP, Geert Wilders. The 15-minute film shows verses from the Qur'an that are allegedly linked to recent acts of terror, such as the 9/11 attack in New York and the 3/11 attack in Madrid. But the verses are taken out of context. To understand any verse of the Qur'an it is important to know the history of that verse along with the circumstances under which it was revealed. The film, in taking such verses out of context and connecting them to acts of violence, seems to be nothing more than an attempt to spread hatred among people of different faiths.
While the reaction to Wilders' movie has been more muted than the reaction to the Danish cartoons, it did not go unnoticed. Not only was the film another offence against Muslims, it was also deeply hurtful. Thousands of Muslims protested in Amsterdam, while in Muslim countries protest rallies were organized. In Kabul, Afghan women chanted slogans against Holland and Denmark and burned their flags.
A majority of us believe in freedom of expression and speech. But does that give permission for people to utter whatever they please? This cannot be so. No one should be allowed to insult another regardless of whatever gender, color or faith he or she belongs to. This seemed a perfectly well understood principle in the case of David Irving. At the very time when the cartoon controversy was at its peak, Irving was jailed for denying that the Holocaust was a historical fact. No protests were heard from western countries in support of Irving's freedom to express his beliefs.
It is clear that there is a serious fissure between the West and the Muslim world, though whether it has yet reached a state of full-blown Islamophobia is open to question. In order to prevent this from occurring, however, a serious dialogue between Islam and the West is urgently required. Unfortunately, this is nowhere in sight.- Published 10/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Maryam Yasmin Hussain is of Pakistani origin, born and raised in Denmark. She is currently living in Pakistan where she is pursuing her studies.
It cuts both ways
Does the West have a problem with Islam? Well, does the Muslim world have a problem with the West? Indeed, they have--each of them. In fact, these two worlds share a lack of compatibility to globalism. Both worlds face challenges to pluralism. And both worlds would be wise to focus on policies rather than images of perceived clashing civilizations.
The three "value scandals" between the West and the Muslim world--i.e., the 1989 Salman Rushdie affair, the 2005 Danish cartoon affair and the 2008 Dutch "Fitna" affair--remind us that there is no such thing as collective responsibility. Rushdie's extraordinary novel "The Satanic Verses" wasn't a product of the West collectively. The cartoons weren't an official or national product of the monarchy of Denmark. And certainly the film "Fitna" wasn't the state responsibility of the Netherlands.
Likewise it wouldn't make sense to blame all Muslims, not even all Iranians, for the Khomeini fatwa against Rushdie in February 1989. Just the same it wouldn't be fair to treat all Muslims as responsible for the attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran in early 2006 or to portray all Muslims as potential murderers after Pakistani demonstrators called for the death of the Dutch filmmaker Geert Wilders this year.
Collective responsibility certainly is a dead end for relations between the West and Islam. Both better realize that they each includes a variety of political as well as cultural expressions.
Globalism has created a global public. No discussion anymore is limited to national or even linguistic borders. No piece of news may be limited or held within states. We share a worldwide web. We share satellite communication. We receive the same pictures and the same stories in split seconds. And local cultural dogma in one place will inevitably be confronted with different dogma in the international information society. Both worlds need to adapt to a future that is not only not distant, it is already here.
To protect people legally from intimidation, racism and dissemination of hate is possible and necessary. But protecting all religions--and all religious and political ideas and feelings--from critique and satire on the other hand will be impossible.
Still, is the West anti-Islam? Well, at least the West is extremely preoccupied with Islam. Each and every day European media deal with relations with the Muslim world, with local relations with Muslims inside Europe and with differences in cultural orientation. And every day media in the Muslim world deal with relations with the West and spend time and space dealing with differences in ways of living.
In the West, media find it hard to identify what is culture, religion or national identity among Muslims. Often, media fail to identify true representatives of migrant and religious communities. Extraordinary extremists are portrayed as representing the silent majority. But again, it goes both ways. The Muslim killer of the filmmaker Theo van Gogh in the Netherlands did not represent Islam, just as Theo van Gogh did not represent the Dutch. Vocal religious Muslims often attract attention and call for the right to represent less vocal co-Muslims.
In the Muslim world, media often find it similarly hard to differentiate between westerners and the West. US President George W. Bush is seen as a legitimate representation of Americans or even westerners even though Bush does not represent all westerners nor even most Americans, just as Saudi King Abdullah certainly does not represent all Muslims nor even most people in Saudi Arabia. Collective projections and mistaken representation complicate matters.
The West is not anti-Islam. And the Muslim world is not anti-West or against western people, as opinion polls confirm in both cases. But yes, the West undoubtedly has a problem vis-a-vis fundamentalists, in particular violent fundamentalists pretending to represent Islam and with religious radicals challenging secular society. And sure, the world of Islam undoubtedly experiences a problem with western government policies that officially talk about democracy, while supporting totalitarian regimes throughout the Muslim world.
Yet, while both worlds are preoccupied with fearful or suspicious perceptions of the other, interdependence is growing by the day. Muslims migrants continuously and in growing numbers apply for work permits and citizenship in the West. And western business interest in the Muslim part of the world is accelerating at the same speed. The West needs more immigrants to uphold economic growth and welfare communities. And the Muslim world needs western imports.
But both worlds obviously find it hard to digest pluralism and different cultural norms. The Muslim world has failed to nurture historic pluralism and cultural diversity. The Arab world has seen its Jewish communities leave for good. And the Christian communities of the Muslim Middle East are steadily shrinking, as even relations between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims are increasingly sensitive.
At the same time, the West fails to integrate smoothly its immigrants, in particular Muslim immigrants. And in secular societies right wing and nationalist parties increasingly dominate an immigrant-hostile political environment.
A lack of open minds has led to emigration from the Muslim Middle East. And a lack of open minds in the West has led to problems for immigration from the South. Both worlds endure problems of "the opposite"--although they are increasingly dependent on each other.- Published 10/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Anders Jerichow is president of Danish PEN and editor at Politiken daily, Copenhagen.
No easy answers
The "West" and "Islam" are both multi-dimensional concepts that evoke complicated and varied reactions and emotions. The West refers to a socio-political geography of western Europe and North America. It hosts cultures that are deeply influenced by past religious struggles between the church and the state that shaped the rise of enlightenment and secularism. Western societies also gave birth to the industrial revolution, capitalism, imperialism and their critiques. Currently, the West is where post-industrial societies, liberal market economies, scientific advances and post-modern arts and literature interact and co-exist as a fount of globalism and its critiques.
Islam is both a religion and a culture that has deeply influenced the societies that extend from western Africa to Indonesia, straddling a large variety of peoples governed by disparate political systems. This geography generally coincides with the former colonial lands of the western states and now constitutes the bulk of the third world. Large minorities of Muslims also live in Russia, China, India, the Balkans and in several European Union countries, the United States, Canada and Australia. Few Muslim countries have developed some form of secularism, few are rich in natural resources and yet even fewer are industrial societies.
Islam is divided into various sects that, as recently observed in Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan often clash over power, patronage and distribution of resources among themselves. Concomitantly, they have serious concerns over the outcome of such practices of globalization as privatization, free trade and liberal movement of capital, while movements of labor get restricted as visa obstacles and even walls are erected to keep Muslim laborers out of western countries.
Since the US and its allies have interfered in their domestic or regional politics, Muslims have tended to perceive them as imperialist forces trying to reassert their former colonial rule either directly or through regional proxies. Arab Muslims seem to perceive the designs and policies of the US and its allies as imposing a new hegemony over their oil resources in the guise of democratization, an idea that harks back to the mandate regimes of the interwar years (1918-1939).
Although the image of western neo-imperialism is also shared by non-Muslim third world countries, Muslim communities have again come under the influence of ideological currents and organizations that use Islam as a fount of ideas to meet the challenge of awesome political threats. This pattern emerged for the first time in the Mongol invasions of the Arabian Peninsula in the thirteenth century and resurfaced in the struggle for independence from the mandate regimes.
As young men and women sacrifice their potentially bright careers and lives in jihad against the US and its allies, they project an image of political threat to western states and peoples. Simultaneously, they evoke a sense of gratification and even empowerment among downtrodden Muslim communities elsewhere. Communities of Muslim migrants in Europe and North America are portrayed as safe havens for jihadists. They have also become ghettos of ill-educated and unskilled laborers who bloat the ranks of the unemployed, on the one hand, and provide an abundance of cheap labor that threatens the jobs of similarly unskilled domestic labor, on the other.
Muslims have emerged as scapegoats to motivate anti-immigrant movements and parties in Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. The electoral support these parties enjoy indicates that large anti-immigrant minorities have emerged in the West. These xenophobic minorities have shown little tolerance for any people who deviate from the dominant cultural group that constitutes their nation-state (staatsvolk). They hate all "others", and Muslims specifically, for whom a conspicuous image of "the other" has been constructed. The anti-immigrant movements in the West have become large enough to influence the political discourse, election results and often the immigration policies and practices of their countries.
The reactions of western publics to Muslim communities seem to coincide with ethnic nationalist, xenophobic anti-immigration movements, economic concerns centering on unemployment, and perceptions of jihadist terror. Muslim communities in the West and elsewhere also feel threatened by what they perceive to be western neo-colonialism, preemptive wars and multinational economic enterprises that take over their markets and threaten their jobs.
Perhaps the best way to describe the current perception of the Muslim communities in the West is that there are as many different images of Muslims as there are different understandings of the role of religion in public life, the image, role and need for migrants, and types of domestic socio-economic problems ranging from crime to unemployment in western societies. Western publics and states continue to deliberate as to how to accommodate and acculturate Muslim migrants into their secular and pluralist political cultures, even as they deal with such Islamic countries as Libya in the past and Iran now that incite confrontation with the West. No easy answers to this conundrum are yet obvious.- Published 10/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Ersin Kalaycioglu is full professor of political science at Sabanci University Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences in Istanbul. From 2004 to 2007 he was rector (president) of Isik University in Istanbul.
Days of war
Abdel Monem Said Aly
It was the events of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington that launched a new era in the troubled relationship between Islam and the West. This new era has been no less complex than the previous 14 centuries of cooperation, competition, and conflict. Indeed, even before the advent of Islam in the seventh century, the lands south of the Mediterranean and beyond to Arabia and central Asia had a tense relationship of trade and religion with Europe, the heartland of what would become known as the West.
There was always something wrong with the way the relationship was conceptualized. Islam is a religion for believers and an "other" for non-believers. It was never connected to the civilizational roots of its geographic origins in Egypt and Mesopotamia but was ready to connect to Christianity and Judaism. The West is much more a civilization that mixed Christianity as a religion with historic and cultural roots of the Hellenic and Roman times down to the enlightenment and the industrial age. Islam and the West are different entities that have become entangled by man in a historic discovery of light and blood.
This long journey has been shaped and reshaped by time, technology and the balance of power. The modern era was formed by the colonial age, technology, and intra- western hot and cold wars. But contemporary times are shaped by globalization and the events of 9/11 that called for a new way of discovering the other. Stereotypes have been handy for both sides to characterize and define one another. For Muslims who have identified the West at times with Christianity and elsewhere with historical legacies, the West is nothing but cowboys, colonialists, crusaders, conspirators and capitalists who are adamant to destroy Islam and Muslims. In response to these five Cs of Islam there are five Bs for the West, where Islam and Muslims are nothing but a manifestation of the backward, the Bedouin, the bazaar mentality, the oil billionaire and of course the bomber.
The negative perceptions were deepened by the misunderstanding of the tragic events of 9/11. Muslims never understood why they should be held accountable for a terrorist act perpetrated by a few as so many terrorists have done in a lot of countries. For the West, it was never clear where exactly the motive for killing 3,000 victims was--whether it was located in Islam or Muslims or their societies. These two lacunae of understanding were soon to be mixed with old festering problems of the Arab-Israel conflict.
The Afghan and Iraq wars were woven in agony and bewilderment about friends, allies and enemies. Old and well established relationships between the West and countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia were soon to suffer tension and acrimony. The "Greater" Middle East formula of the great powers was for Muslims no less than a grand assault on their lands. The photos from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prisons were soon to portray the fight against terror as no more than a vendetta. The popularity of Osama bin Laden and his followers in Muslim countries would testify to communities that failed their test of history.
These latter day formulations are not mere expressions of the angry, the parochial or the patronizing. Rather, they are the tip of the iceberg, hiding a sophisticated machine of thinkers, political movements and fundamentalists of all types. The new age has been shaped by the ideas of Bernard Lewis and groups of neo-conservatives in whose glaring view Islam--and Muslims--are the new enemy of the West, while Islamic fundamentalists wait on the other side to find living proof of a society and a religion that are eternally hunted by the damned and the aggressor.
Hence both the present and the future belong to the zealots and the inspired. History may have changed with the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, but the equation did not. The winners in both cases are the fundamentalist Sunnis and Shi'ites. Iran got rid of the moderate Khatami and replaced him with the ideologue Ahmadinezhad. The Sharia court fanatics took control of the Somali street. Hamas took over the Palestinian people and built a base in Gaza.
In Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Sudan and Algeria there is a struggle among moderate, conservative and radical modes of fundamentalism. Far beyond to the East, the rest of the Islamic world has to find its way between resistance and joining the bandwagon of the West. The latter in its own way presses the attack.
Both Islam and the West are in dire need of a reassessment that does not seem possible in the near future.- Published 10/4/2008 © bitterlemons-international.org
Abdel Monem Said Aly is director of Al Ahram Center for Political & Strategic Studies in Cairo.
Bitterlemons-international.org is an internet forum for an array of world perspectives on the Middle East and its specific concerns. It aspires to engender greater understanding about the Middle East region and open a new common space for world thinkers and political leaders to present their viewpoints and initiatives on the region. Editors Ghassan Khatib and Yossi Alpher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com, respectively.