Something is rotten in the relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds; there is a diffuse but pungent odor of fear and mistrust. The unease has primarily to do with the issue of violence: violence that permeates the past and the present, violence in all its glory - honor killings, suicide attacks, the Crusades, colonialism, the Taliban, Abu Ghraib, sharia, headscarves, youths rioting in France, jihad, Israel, insulting the Prophet, and freedom of speech. What a tangle!
Europe, the West and Christendom have all but become synonymous, as have the Middle East, the Islamic world and Islam itself. Theory and practice, unalloyed doctrine and tainted practice are all blithely muddled together. Political conflicts assume the mantle of cultural clashes and vice versa.
As so often, perceptions weigh at least as heavily as facts. However, in this case the bare facts are daunting enough. Once upon a time, a clear distinction between "Islam" and "the West," may have been possible. But no longer. The boundaries are blurring: Millions of Muslim men and women live in the West and many are citizens of Western nations. They are therefore now inextricably part of the West.
The resulting conflicts are very real
Conversely, the West has left its mark on the Islamic world; through its politicians and generals, but also through its materialism, technologies, communication tools and organizational paradigms, things with which only hermits can completely avoid contact. The resulting conflicts are very real.
Yet, given the current European propensity for viewing reason as a Christian legacy and themselves as sole heirs to the Enlightenment, it ill befits Europe's residents to cast reason aside whenever their relationship with Islam and Muslims is at issue. Let us begin with religion. Germans particularly are wont to portray the Judeo-Christian tradition as the cornerstone of European identity and culture - however tenuous and contentious the realities may be. Islam does not even merit a mention. Educated commentators might, at best, make passing reference to Islamic Spain, where the Greek classics were translated by Muslim and Jewish scholars and exported to the Christian West. This may secure those scholars a modest place in Europe's cultural heritage - albeit as mere messengers, rather than as thinkers in their own right. From a religious perspective, however, their existence matters little.
For centuries Christians regarded Mohammed as a false prophet; even today few Christians would probably consider him a true prophet. The Islamic attitude toward Judaism and Christianity is quite different. Islam sees itself explicitly as belonging to the same monotheist tradition as its two sister faiths embody. It connects to them, relates to them, but at the same time considers itself superior. Just as the New Testament succeeds the Old Testament for Christians, the revelation of Islam concludes the chain of revelations for Muslims. The Torah and the Gospels are respected, but it is the Koran alone that contains the true message. Moses is a prophet, Jesus is a prophet, but Mohammed is the "Seal of the Prophets."
It isn't exactly clear where Jews and Christians fit in when Islam distinguishes between believers and non-believers - although the distinctions are no less rigidly delineated than those between Jews and non-Jews, or Christians and heathens, in the West. In some passages, the Koran refers to them as believers, but in others they are conscripted into the great army of unbelievers that Muslims must fight with every resource available. From a theological perspective, this is a complex issue, because the Koran and Islamic theologians hold that believing in Christ as the son of God is perilously close to polytheism, for it suggests that Christians do not worship a single God. This point, like so many others, highlights the extent to which the Koran - treated by most Muslims as the unadulterated word of God, to be understood verbatim - requires and has always required interpretation.
Such an assertion inevitably offends fundamentalists, who hold fast to a literal reading of the scripture and believe it must be followed without any "ifs" or "buts." The assertion is nevertheless valid - and thinking Muslims have always admitted as much.
In practical terms, the situation has been somewhat more straightforward. Jews and Christians enjoyed the protection of the Muslim authorities. They were, after all, recipients of a scripture of revelation, who, like Muslims, believed in the one and only God - albeit, from an Islamic point of view, in a diluted form. Hence the designation dhimmi ("protected person") applied to both Jews and Christians living under Islamic rule. This exemptive status explicitly distinguished them from the non-believers who were the Muslims' predefined enemy. In exchange for the payment of special tributes, their independence was guaranteed and they were protected from physical violence.
In the course of the Islamic conquests in southern and southeastern Asia, Hindus and Buddhists were granted a comparable status, although these faiths were scarcely monotheistic. Muslims were as capable as anyone else of differentiating between religious and political necessity. Consequently - with Islamic conquests serving to extend Islamic rule - they exercised a pragmatic tolerance.
Like all foreign invasions, these conquests involved violence or at least the threat of violence, a fact that many of today's Muslims are reluctant to acknowledge. Not unlike the West's former colonial powers, they prefer to cast themselves in an altruistic role, with invasion and occupation masked as a mission civilisatrice. As a rule, however, Muslim conquerors did not force subjects to convert to Islam, which most scholars believe is explicitly prohibited in the Koran (Sura 2, Verse 256: "There is no compulsion in religion.").
The picture is scarcely rosy
In such circumstances, tolerance was closer to toleration, not tantamount to acknowledging that members of other faiths were equal in religious terms or deserved the same rights. But that attitude also prevailed in Europe until well into the 19th century. Equality for religious minorities under the law is a relatively recent concept. And Europe for one has experienced more than its share of problems when trying to put this idea into practice.
If tolerance in the sense of toleration is the yardstick, the Islamic world cuts a far better figure than historical Christendom, although here too the picture is scarcely rosy. The Renaissance may have seen outstanding cultural achievements in Europe, but it was in no sense harmonious - not even in Islamic Spain, which is often retrospectively idealized as a "golden age" of peaceful Muslim, Christian and Jewish coexistence.
Even under Islamic rule, some members of other faiths were persecuted, forced to convert or subjected to pogroms. These, however, were the exception, not the religiously sanctioned rule. In any comparison with Europe - whether during the Christian-dominated Middle Ages, the Reformation or the era of totalitarianism (which, we might remember, postdated the Enlightenment) - "Islam" emerges as the clear moral victor.
The present situation is different. With a few highly publicized exceptions, religious tolerance is still exercised in predominantly Islamic societies. Today, however, toleration is not enough. There are demands - mainly, but not exclusively, from the West - for religious minorities to be granted the same legal rights and, by extension, for freedom of religion. In most chiefly Islamic societies, the religious and legal categories derived from the Koran have remained in force. Consequently, non-Muslims are denied equal rights in some walks of life. They can be hindered from maintaining and renovating their churches, monasteries, synagogues and temples; they are not allowed to proselytize; and, not infrequently, they are barred from certain functions and offices.
That is not only true of countries like Saudi Arabia where sharia law applies, and the authorities obstruct the practice of other faiths. It also holds good for a country like Turkey, which regards itself as secular. This is partly due to the frequent equation of "Turkish" with "(Sunni) Muslim" - a politicization of religion rejected by most Muslims outside Turkey.
Part II: A Lack of Critical Detachment in the Muslim World
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.
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.
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.