What's the Real Difference? Islam and the West

Part 2: Part II: A Lack of Critical Detachment in the Muslim World


Pope Benedikt XVI wasted no time offending Muslims -- but largely smoothed ruffled feathers with his recent trip to Turkey.
Getty Images

Pope Benedikt XVI wasted no time offending Muslims -- but largely smoothed ruffled feathers with his recent trip to Turkey.

For the most part, atheists and agnostics cannot speak openly about their beliefs. In many countries, statutory sanctions apply to Muslims converting to other faiths (apostasy). The death sentence may only be imposed in a few countries, but the penalties under civil law are often draconian enough.

Religious communities such as the Alevis, who have pursued their own path for centuries, or the Ahmadiyya movement and the Baha'i, who broke with the Islamic community in the 19th century, face discrimination or outright persecution in most Islamic societies. This adds a further bone of contention to the relationship between the Muslim and Western worlds, particularly as the West has come to regard freedom of religion as a core element of any enlightened society.

The Muslim world never experienced a Western-style enlightenment, not that this would necessarily guarantee democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights, as European history demonstrates - a fact that cannot be overstressed. Enlightenment is, however, a prerequisite for a more judicious attitude toward the professed superiority of a community's own religion (not, however, as regards its claim to possessing the absolute truth, which the Christian church also asserts) and toward its own history. Most Muslims lack critical detachment when it comes to their heritage. Enlightenment, however, needs to originate from within and reflect its specific context.

Candidates for reformation

It is worth noting that Muslim reformers cannot effect a reformation in the spirit of Martin Luther, because Islam lacks a clerical hierarchy invested with the authority to offer indulgence for sins - the very thing that outraged the German. In Islam, there are no sacraments and no ordained clerics; "laypersons" are not excluded from reciting sacred texts. While translations of the Koran were long considered taboo, a more relaxed attitude now prevails. Muslims may consult translations, carefully labeled as "interpretations" of the Koran, but the Arabic original must be recited at religious services etc.

Iran may be the most likely candidate for a reformation. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Shiite clergy has asserted a monopoly on political leadership. Even contentious within Shiite ranks, this is rejected as patently un-Islamic by the Sunni majority in the Muslim world. For Sunnis there can be no such thing as a ruling clergy.

It is both pointless and counterproductive to insist that Muslims must embark on their own reformation and enlightenment if they wish to be part of the modern world. Deliberate provocations are similarly counterproductive, such as the defamation of the Prophet, which goes beyond a simple reproduction of the Prophet's image; contrary to popular belief, such representations exist in Islamic art.

Places where the West and Islam live side-by-side, like Jerusalem, are especially volitile.
AFP

Places where the West and Islam live side-by-side, like Jerusalem, are especially volitile.

It is perfectly possible to preserve and defend the fundamental right to freedom of speech, to artistic and intellectual freedom, without insisting on reopening this particular wound. This does not mean capitulating to violent zealots. But it does mean showing due respect to the religious sensitivities of Muslims. Insulting the Prophet is hardly likely to foster a critical and enlightened examination of Islam. Quite the contrary.

Supporting the forces of reform - in ways that reflect their needs - would make sense, as long as these are not presented as champions of a modern Western society. Or worse, as political partners of the West; this can only serve to discredit them in their own communities.

An explosive topic

It is no accident that reformist and liberal forces often portray themselves as vehement critics of American, Israeli and even European policies. Current perceptions of Islam are, after all, intimately associated with the imbalance of political power between the Muslim and Western worlds. Which brings us to an important issue, one worth considering in its historical perspective.

Today, Islam's relations with the West are such an explosive topic that one could easily assume it has never been otherwise. In reality, Europe did not become the Islamic world's principal point of reference until well into the modern era. Islam evolved in the Middle East, where its adherents continually rubbed shoulders with Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians - who represented neither Europe nor the West.

Hardly any aspect of Islamic religion, art and culture would be conceivable without this cross-insemination, be it the exegesis of the Koran, theology, law, mysticism, literature, music, architecture or political theory. But today's Muslims find it difficult to appreciate that Islamic culture is the product of numerous and manifold influences, because Islamist leaders promulgate the view that Islam is based exclusively on the Koran and the exemplary practices of the prophets, the Sunnah.

Modern politicians would do well to remind all parties of these interconnections, and refrain from idealizing them when doing so. After all, these contacts have all too frequently been the spark that has ignited religious and political controversies. The ensuing religious debates have tended to become competitions in which the aim was to emerge victorious by proving the opposing side wrong.

What about the Crusades?

Elements of material culture often migrated in one direction or the other as a result of military campaigns. Many architectural masterpieces were created by craftspeople and master builders who had been captured by invading armies - a circumstance that by no means negates the reciprocal cultural enrichment.

The publication of Muhammad caricatures in Western newspapers impressed few in the Muslim world.
AP

The publication of Muhammad caricatures in Western newspapers impressed few in the Muslim world.

Christian Byzantium and Europe were just two regions involved in this process. Iran and central Asia played a key role for centuries, as did India in some fields. To the caliphate of Baghdad, Sicily and the Iberian Peninsula seemed very remote - a kind of "Wild West." Al-Andalus, Islamic Spain, has certainly had more significance for Europeans than it has in the Islamic world, as a memorial to how things once were and how they might have remained.

And what about the Crusades, which are so eagerly discussed today? In their own age, they had more impact on Europe than on the Islamic world, excepting those Muslims in the region between Southern Anatolia, Syria and Egypt. It was there that Muslim princes and scholars mobilized against the Crusaders in the name of jihad, in a holy war that was primarily defensive in nature.

The caliph in Baghdad, however, took no part in it. His gaze was trained eastward, toward Iran and Transoxiana. The Crusades did not shatter the Islamic world. That was left to the Mongol hordes of the 13th and 14th centuries, led by Genghis Khan and Timur. They devastated the area from Samarkand to Baghdad and Damascus (the Maghreb remained untouched).

By contrast, the effects of European colonialism were extensive, profound and traumatic, and are still in evidence today. Europe's colonial powers began their conquest of the Islamic world in the 18th century, subjugating India and what today is Indonesia. By the 19th century they had penetrated to the Arabian outreaches of the Ottoman Empire. It is all too easy to forget that the colonial era is recent history in both the Arab world and Iran. Europe's colonial influence reached its zenith after World War I, when it established protectorates and mandates on the territories of the former Ottoman Empire.

Foundations for close ties

Germany, of course, was not a colonial power in the Islamic world, but France was in the Maghreb, Syria and Lebanon; Great Britain in Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, India and Malaysia; Italy in Libya; Spain in Morocco and Mauritania; and the Netherlands in Indonesia.

Turkey alone managed to win independence after the war ended. For all practical purposes, Iran was under foreign control. Decolonization only began in earnest after World War II: India became independent in 1947, Algeria in 1962, the former Trucial States of the Persian Gulf a decade later. Chronologically speaking, the colonial era seems less remote to its victims than the Third Reich and Prussian Empire seem to Germans, even if very few of today's Muslims actually witnessed it.

Today, the impact of colonialism seems mixed. It colors perceptions of the West's policies and its attempts to exert influence, particularly where Israel and the protection of domestic minorities are concerned - a right the European powers have traditionally claimed. It also, however, laid the foundations for those close ties that have shaped patterns of migration, fostered political and strategic cooperation, and underpinned cultural exchange. Britain, France and the Netherlands are the most obvious examples.

Today, the Islamic and Western worlds are more closely linked than ever; they have become positively enmeshed. This closeness creates commonalities, but also sources of friction. Christians are much more likely to argue about God with a Muslim than with a Hindu. Yet Muslims, Christians and Jews can build on a common legacy, a common context that should, in principle, make any debate about values easier.

The concept of human rights unquestionably evolved first in Christiandominated Europe and the United States. However, the underlying principles are viewed as universal. They cannot be understood solely as the outgrowth of a Judeo-Christian tradition; the West has no monopoly on human rights. Equality, justice, human dignity, protection of the environment, and the elimination of poverty and violence are relevant to everyone.

It has become fashionable to deride interreligious and even intercultural dialog and to dismiss it as irrelevant. But talking makes sense if there is a clearly defined goal. Dialogue helps bring "others" and indeed the "self" into sharper focus. It can highlight the differences between Islam, Islamism and violence committed in the name of Islam, and may even help the West internalize the distinctions. In the best-case scenario, it can reduce the risk of Islamic terrorism. It cannot, of course, prevent nuclear armament in the Middle East, ease migratory pressures or solve the Palestinian conflict. But then none of these is primarily a religious problem.

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