The West and the Muslim World
Catherine Cornet - 19/01/2005
The report, “The West and the Muslim World” authored by 6 renowned Muslim intellectuals, Salwa Bakr, Basem Ezbidi, Dato’ Mohammed Jawhar Hassan, Fikret-karkik, Hanan Kassab Hassan and Mazhar Zaidi and released by IFA (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) is a clear attempt to deconstruct the main clichés and prejudices that embarass relationships between the Western and Muslim worlds today.
The authors, from countries as different as Syria, Pakistan, Former Yougoslavia, Malaysia, Lebanon and Egypt, describe the severe crisis that being a Muslim today in the West represents. By so doing, they also assess all the clichés that prevent us from establishing a real and fair dialogue between the two worlds. Personal experience has given the opportunity to understand the roots of so much controversy and difficulties has helped them give some simple recommendations in order to help the normal citizen to rediscover respect, understanding and, above all, an undertsanding of “the other”.
The West and the Muslim World
The first chapter is dedicated to “Claryifying the context” . It helps questionning the dubious vocabulary of “West” and “Muslim world”. Looking at the “West” from the outside, itis difficult to grasp as a clear entity “What is the West for us? Is it Christianity; is it secularism, or atheism? Is it a symbol of power, or economic efficiency? Is it represented by the Enlightenment, by human rights, or by fascism, racism and the holocaust – or by all of these? Is it defined by art and culture, by consumerism or technology? The West does not exist as an entity; it is a vague concept full of contradictions.”
If the West does not fall easily into a definition, the qualification of “muslim world” is not more convincing and gives little food for thought...“The muslim world is not a geographically defined entity, but a sort of loose combination similar to other groupings established among the non-aligned countries or from the Third World. We could argue that the bond of nationalism is stronger and more common in the Muslim world than that of religion.”Disqulalifying the analysis that take this wolrd into account as a whole, falls into generalities and ignores the diversity, the contradictions and internal conflicts of this “world”.
A vicious circle
The main significant issues that divide and bring the relationship into a vicious circle are clearly defined by the authors:
• “the Palestinian cause and the positions taken by the West towards the
• the Iraqi issue, the war and the occupation of Iraq by US and British
• the potentially dangerous scenarios that are being publicly discussed by
US officials, which include plans for further radical changes in the region,
including threats against Syria and Iran;
• other miscellaneous problems effecting Muslim regions: the internal
struggle for reform in Iran, the Balkan situation (the Kosovo issue and the
Albanian – Macedonian conflict), Chechnya, Kashmir, Afghanistan, the Muslims
in China, and finally the attempts made by Turkey and the Balkan Muslim
states to join the European Union.”
Concerning these burning issues, muslim scholars forsee a unique way to “reconcile” public opinions: “Serious attempts to revive International Law, which had been ignored and seriously damaged by the US before and during the Iraq war, are urgent.”
Going back to a more fair international system preseved by law would help beaking this vicious circle of hate and revenge.
Overcoming the burden of History
More classicly, the report recalls History, the crusades complexe which carried through to the campaigns of colonialism, the fall of the Ottoman empire and all its consequences on people’s perceptions of each other that survived until now with their burden of clichés and misconceptions. The “Distorted Images of Islam and Muslims” is another result and preocupation of the scholars: “In the West, Muslims are often presented as uneducated, uncivilized, sexually repressed, authoritarian, fatalistic, having too many children (»demographic bomb«), regarding women as »production machines«, morally corrupt, and intellectually inferior. The Muslim world is perceived as a »state of perpetual chaos and corruption«, although the causes of such phenomena are not analyzed. Islam is depicted as the main obstacle to modernization, despite the fact that a project of modernization seeking reference to Islam has been under way in the Muslim world throughout the last hundred and fifty years.” This line of thought can be explained by the West’s inability to consider a modernity that is not western.
Islam is seen only as a civilization and, as such, is compared to other civilizations, especially to the the most powerful of them: the Western civilisation. What is missing from this perspective is that Islam is primarily a religion, whose teaching transcends time and space limitations. Secondly, viewing Islam only as a civilization led proponents to the belief that if Islam wishes to survive in our time, it must modernize itself. Moreover, modernization projects in the Muslim world were regularly defined as “Westernization” «projects, according to the logic that to be more Western is to be more modern. On the other hand, the possibility of constructing a Muslim modernity was either denied or minimized. Thus, opponents of wrongly conducted modernization projects in the Muslim world became anti-Western.” The only way to avoid this confusion between two very different concepts is then to draw and recognise on both sides a clear difference between modernity and westernisation.
On the other hand, Modern history has paved to way to “Perceptions and Stereotypes about the West in the Muslim World”. From the mid-19th century onwards, “Arabs
and Muslims looked to the West to save them from the decline and backwardness that the declining Ottoman Empire had led them into. The Western ally transformed into an invading enemy that set out to exploit the riches of the region and control its resources, thereby providing fledgling Western industries with muchneeded raw materials. The West was viewed as a dominating political power out to torpedo any project that could endanger its military and political interests. Consequently conspiracy theories emerged in the Arab collective consciousness. A distrust of Westerners emerged, particularly towards those professing their love to the East.” As for this distrust, an entire chapter is dedicated to the Question of Palestine showing how the Western position in the conflict emphasized the distrusts of the Muslim world towards the West.
September 11, International Terrorism, and the Wars against Afghanistan and Iraq
“The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 triggered a chain of events that have dealt a major blow to relations between much of the Muslim world and the United States in particular.” From that date onwards, the report sees the widening of the misunderstandings, the arising of a clear discource dictated by hate and war that is always difficult to contradict. Equating Islam with terrorism, the failure to address the roots of terrorism, the practice of double standards by the US within the Muslim world created huge tensions and nearly managed to completly halt the dialogue...
Where do we go from here?
After this short analysis of the difficult but easily hpothesised and desired dialogue between the Muslim World and the West, the six scholars have made a courageous attempt to formulate recommendations in order to help recreate a fair and constructive dialogue between two “worlds” that, they believe, have an “history of relations (...)characterized by the baggage of past antagonism on the one hand and the richness of peaceful engagement on the other.” Making efforts to go towards a peaceful engagement rather then hate and antagonism. To this purpose the 6 intellectuals have formulated a series of recommendations that are worth quoting in toto:
1.Increased opportunities for research and cooperation between Muslim
and Western scholars in the area of political debate, culture, history, and
religious studies should be made available in order to promote mutual
understanding, tolerance, and a culture of peace and non-violence. In this
way, academic exchange between Muslim and Western countries would be
increased; culture-related courses should be included in the respective programs
of exchange, and institutes and networks should be set up to support
2. Research institutes should initiate specifically designed collaborative
research projects exploring the mutual images of the other culture in order
to contribute to the elimination of existing distorted images.
3. A joint review and evaluation of textbooks for schools and universities
on both sides should be undertaken with regard to the treatment of the history,
culture, religion, value systems, and the social reality of the other side.
This task should be given to independent expert groups.
4. Increased opportunities for more intercultural training of disseminators
and teachers should be organized. A study of existing intercultural
training programs in Europe should be conducted in order to identify the
most appropriate model to be used within the framework of Muslim-Western
5. Projects to improve the media coverage of the other side and efforts to
bring about more balanced, professional and objective reporting on issues
involving both sides should be initiated.
6. Inter-media exchanges should be further promoted by improving and
expanding existing journalist-exchange programs. For instance, state-run
TV stations such as the Deutsche Welle may allocate daily or weekly slots to Muslim intellectuals to independently prepare programs on and for the Muslim world.
7. Intercultural initiatives should be launched in the field of documentary
film production in order to sponsor an alternative image of the other culture.
Such projects have been implemented fairly successfully by some production
houses in the United Kingdom and can serve as an example.
8. The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) should establish an Eminent
Persons Group of outstanding individuals to undertake a comprehensive
examination of the fundamental strategic challenges confronting the
Muslim world and the measures that need to be taken to address them
9. International Muslim institutions like the OIC should play a more proactive
role by commissioning their own studies on the fundamental problems
confronting the poorest countries and the remedial measures that
need to be taken. These studies could build upon existing ones and be conducted
with the support and collaboration of relevant international agencies
like the World Bank and the UNDP. The initiative for these must come
from the leadership of these institutions themselves.
10. The more affluent and better performing OIC economies should work
with the international community and on their own to extend assistance to
the poorer countries. This assistance could include human development programs,
technical assistance and medical aid. The OIC Chair and its office
could initiate this effort.
11. A concerted effort should be made by Muslim countries to address
their respective governance weaknesses. Important areas for urgent attention
would include political participation, respect for human rights, economic
reform, education reform, public service reform and the elimination
of corruption. This effort is critical and essential if Muslim nations are to
empower themselves and improve the welfare of their people. The effort
must be nationally driven, and will not be easy where governments are
lacking commitment and resources are limited.
12. The Muslim world must close ranks and work hard at making cooperative
bodies like the Arab League, the Gulf Cooperation Council and the OIC
more cohesive, purposeful and performance-oriented. Until they transform themselves into credible organizations, there is little they can do to protect and promote the collective welfare in all fields.
13. Concerted efforts need to be taken by Muslim countries to address the
political and socio-economic roots of militancy and terrorism in their territories.
These roots may be found among other things in extreme poverty and deprivation, the marginalization of minorities, oppression, lack of popular participation and human rights violations.
14. The Muslim world and Europe should work closely to enhance efforts
in addressing the root causes of international terrorism.
15. Europe and the Muslim world must intensify initiatives to press for a
resolution of the Palestinian question that is just, balanced and long-lasting,
based on the relevant United Nations resolutions. The peaceful resolution
of the Palestinian question is urgent, because the issue is the single
most important factor driving Muslim anger and alienation today.
16. Regular track-two dialogues should be initiated to promote the candid
and productive exchange of views regarding outstanding issues affecting
relations between the West and the Muslim world. Participants should include
senior policy makers in their personal capacity, academics and intellectuals,
and figures from the business sector. The initiative can be coordinated
and led by one institute in Europe (e.g. the Institute for Foreign Cultural
Relations (ifa) in Germany), the Middle East (e.g. the Palestinian Institute
for the Study of Democracy (MUWATIN) in the Palestinian autonomous territory) and Southeast Asia (e.g. the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Malaysia) respectively.
17. Collaboration and networking among citizens’ movements and organizations
of civil society across borders should be sustained and strengthened as a powerful moral and political force for peace and against war.
18. Europe and the Muslim world should work closely to coordinate efforts in preserving and promoting multilateralism. The United Nations and International Law should be the only legitimate foundations for the
management of international peace and security.