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The Muslim & Western Worlds: High Time for Reflection?
In truth, it had been bubbling for years, perhaps discreetly under the surface for much of the time, and pundits had predicted that it would come to a head sooner rather than later...

24 September   |   2010   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

... Well, it seems to have done so - quietly, strongly, even alarmingly, and alas in an adversarial manner on some occasions.

What am I talking about, some of my readers might wonder perhaps? Well, the title of this personal reflection is a giveaway: I refer of course to what could possibly appear to a Martian visiting Planet Earth as a socio-political - dare I also add philosophical-anthropological - standoff between Islam and Western-rooted values. Or perhaps as Dominique Moisi writes in The Geopolitics of Emotion, there seems to be a clash of emotions between the fear of the West and the humiliation of the Muslim world - although those two raw emotions, I believe, could easily be inter-changed at times.

I could detect the growing momentum of such contemporary struggles - or at least strains - with the ongoing debate that was posited in earnest during the preparatory work undertaken by former French president Valéry Giscard D’Estaing and his team on the EU Lisbon Treaty (that entered in force on 1 December 2009). Europe was faced with dilemmas affecting the role of Christianity as a religion, a faith, a set of values, a culture and a civilisation within our continent. It was later aggravated - surprisingly so for some - by the referendum in Switzerland on 29 November 2009. After all, this country, long famous for its religious tolerance, chose with a majority of 57.5% of voters to ban Muslims in Switzerland from building minarets. In fact, and based upon my own years-long experiences, I would also suggest that this ‘minaret moment’ in Switzerland could well have occurred in many other places too. Indeed, it did not simply stop with a public referendum about future minarets, but spread also in other - equally worrying and frankly more challenging - ways.

I am thinking here of France where the National Assembly voted on 29 November 2009 by 335 votes against 1 a new draft law outlawing the burqa and the niqab from French streets. Belgium had already clamped down on such face veils in April of the same year, and this French bill sailed through the Senate on 14th September and should now come into force after a six-month ‘adjustment’ period unless domestic or European legal proceedings are instituted against it.

Such a stance by the French government to promulgate this law has been explained away as one of robust political resistance to Muslim practices within French society that might appear as an attack against the much-heralded republican - and by definition secular - values of laïcité within society that date back to the French Revolution of 1789 which gradually dissociated - in an arbitrary and bloody manner at times - the church from the state. Here in Britain also, we elected only last spring two representatives of the anti-Islamic (some commentators would also use the terms xenophobic or fascistic) British National Party to the European Parliament. In Italy, a bill was also introduced this year to ban the construction of mosques and restrict the Muslim call to prayer. Of course, there is also the right-wing populist Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party (PVV) in Holland: he is an almost iconic - albeit in my opinion a fallible - symbol of a supposedly anti-Islamic West who was elected to parliament on 9th June with an enhanced majority of 24 seats. And only on 19th September, few days ago, Sweden elected to its Riksdag the right-wing and anti-immigration Sweden Democrats (SD) party with 6% of the popular votes that translated into 20 parliamentary seats.

Later, we had two further - and rather major - galvanising incidents that stoked the momentum of anti-Muslim feelings. Both headline-grabbing incidents were based in the USA. The first is the ongoing controversy surrounding the Cordoba House / Park 51 Project proposed by Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf close to Ground Zero in a city, New York, which has prided itself as a stronghold of progressive ethics and cultural diversity but one that also witnessed the horrible atrocities of 9/11 in 2001. Yet it is ironic, coincidental even, that it took almost a full decade for the proverbial 9/11 fallout to literally fall out, for anti-Muslim xenophobia to reach fever pitch as a result of the plans to build this multi-functional and inclusive complex near Ground Zero that even sports - at least on the maps - a swimming pool.

The second incident was the decision by Pastor Terry Jones, head of a tiny Pentecostal church in Gainesville, Florida, to turn 9/11 into a Qur’an-burning day in order to voice his objection to what he perceives as Islamic terrorism. This story received an inordinate amount of media sensationalism and turned an inconsequential and frankly ungainly man into a latter-day publicity-friendly Samuel P Huntington for his sparse followers. His project received numerous denunciations from Christians world-wide - including the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the World Evangelical Alliance.

I am sure there will be further eruptions in future as anti-Muslim frenzy - pretty much like other religious frenzies on our history pages - ebbs and flows hither and thither in our hemisphere. So let me reflect for the space of a moment over the realities that such tensions create in different cultures and affect willy-nilly not only our own societies but by either osmosis or proxy also have insidious repercussions on countries as far away as Sangin, Lahore, Jos or Gaza.

But let me start off with a couple of clarifying obiter dicta about those two American instances. It is crystal clear that the seven million American Muslims enjoy the full legal constitutional freedom to undertake initiatives anywhere in the USA - including at Ground Zero - although the project itself is actually not on Ground Zero but two blocks away. Those who know the topography of Lower Manhattan would realise the distances involved in such a distinction.

Conversely, the Florida pastor also enjoys the legal protection of the First Amendment to burn the Qur’an - or any other sacred book for that matter - and the courts of law cannot indict him save under limited rules of incitement to hatred.

But my reflection today is not strictu sensu a legal one. I am not discussing juridical tools inter partes that might placate or exacerbate inter-faith and societal tensions. Rather, it is the inchoate human dimension at the street - in other words at the gut - level that I am seeking to underline as it defines the need to find common ground between different peoples of differing faiths. I am also conscious that I cannot be singularly diplomatic as I try to overstep for a moment the deep fissures that divide - decisively at times - the followers of different religions. Instead, I will endeavour to fingerprint some of the misperceptions - and therefore responsibilities and liabilities - entertained time and again by citizens of both the Muslim and Western Worlds. After all, a group of bearded and vociferous young Muslims heckling with prejudice against the Christian faith and its past crusades in the middle of any European country is as daunting and frightening a stereotype for countless ordinary Europeans as it is for many equally ordinary Muslims when Europeans in return blaspheme Islam by burning the Qur’an or caricaturing the prophet whom they regard him as the seal of all prophets.

So let me start off by stressing that this ever-emerging Islamophobic phenomenon - for want of a better term - is not novel, although it has quite clearly augmented somewhat dramatically in the last few years. Perhaps this has to do in part with the immigration of many millions of Muslims to the West and the concomitant failure of some of them to integrate into their new - and chosen - societies. Whilst it is true that many Muslims have accepted Europeanised norms, numerous others have not done so. This has evoked tensions relevant to the spread of polygamy in Sweden, the radicalisation of mosques in Britain’s fading industrial cities, riots over affronts to the Prophet Muhammad in Denmark, opposition to conservative dresses in France or Belgium and religiously inspired murders in the Netherlands. Moreover, one cannot easily discount culturally moot examples such as pockets of wife-beating, forced marriage, homophobia and female genital mutilation across some countries. Only a couple of weeks ago, threats by some Islamists forced a cartoonist, Molly Norris from Seattle, to go into hiding after she drew a cartoon about the prophet Muhammad that went viral. All this spells bigotry whereby extreme reactions to equally extreme actions eventually undermine our democracy, risk violence and indirectly empower jihadists. Macabre as this might all seem, such instances translate in many Eurocentric mindsets as catalysts for terrorism, and therefore become causally the threats of such terrorism.

Immigration issues aside, I would also argue that the recent global recession and dire economic hardships most of us face today in Europe and the USA have exacerbated this ill-feeling and lack of tolerance toward ‘others’ coming over and “taking away” our established social and other benefits. Some writers I have read recently even suggest that the solution might well be to re-enfranchise the economic underclass so it becomes more accepting of others.

But is this all to do with immigrants and economic woes? No, not really!

In my opinion, there is a vexatious absence - if not also a lamentable failure - of communication on many parallel levels between many Muslims on the one hand and many other Muslims and non-Muslims on the other - not only in the West but equally so in the Middle East, Africa and other parts of the world. Such tensions are not virtual ones since they highlight a simple paradox that has been articulated and typified by thinkers and believers alike. Whilst much of the world denounced - and quite rightly too - the pyromaniac designs of a largely unknown and frankly irrelevant pastor in Florida who was intent on burning copies of the Holy Qur’an that he had never even read once, would a majority of Muslims have reacted with similar outrage if one of their radical imams had planned to burn the Christian Holy Bible?

This is a dubious relativist discourse, I agree, one of asymptomatic logic perhaps, but the fact remains that many people will recreate those morbid scenarios in their minds. And even if we put issues of communication to one side and tackle such concepts ad abstractum, is it not legally alarming that the mens rea of any person would lead them to burn a book? Have we forgotten that the Nazis burnt books too? One moving quotation at the memorial on Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazis publicly destroyed texts, comes from the German Jewish essayist and poet Heinrich Heine who admonished in his play Almansor that those who begin by burning books will end by burning people.

The ancillary reasons of immigration, recession and cultural divergences aside, the incipient tensions between the followers of those three faiths that trace their roots back to their common forefather Abraham (albeit with divergent interpretations of what this patriarch-prophet actually represents for them) is that the transcendental, affirming and uplifting essence of faith in an Almighty that should be inclusive and respectful of others has sadly but savagely been hijacked by some parties or individuals for improper personal motivations or solipsistic justifications and has intruded not only into the realm of inter-faith relations but much more so of broad populist politics. Whilst God and Caesar must have their separate albeit inter-related domains in organic, living and developing cultures, it is sometimes a fact that many other pretending caesars (with an unassumingly small c) grant themselves the arrogant and frightening right to interpret or speak in the name of their very God that they then reject unequivocally and boorishly in the neighbour.

In my opinion, one of the main roots of such mounting tensions can be tracked down to the wars between the West and the Muslim or Arab worlds let alone internally within Muslim and Arab countries. The wars we in the West have unleashed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years with an abundance of tactics but a dearth of strategies - often under dubious if not mendacious pretexts of edifying democracy, good governance and human rights - have played straight into the hands of those hatred-mongering fanatics who have mobilised the masses against a supposedly Christian West by engineering spasms of religious hatred. The excesses and abuses we have also committed in many countries, let alone our convenient support for some regimes that are anything but ethical in their own governance, have contributed toward the popular notion that Islam is being targeted by “crusading” forces. Superimposed with such misconstrued policies is the unconditional support for Israel despite its ongoing colonialist policies against Palestinians in particular and Arabs in general. All this has helped convince those same masses that the West is a partial force supporting injustice and siding with occupiers whereby any attack against its institutions - including martyrdom - becomes not only a God-friendly act but also a salutary religious duty. This fanaticism has sadly been monopolised by movements or militias whose very existence and ethos are not based on cooperation or understanding but on an ideological mentality that is divinely led but temporally funded by corporate or even virtual groups whose faith is annealed in confrontation.

Coupled with such aggression catalysed by extrinsic factors is the fact that a number of Muslim and Arab regimes are power-hungry entities that dominate their citizens through intelligence-controlled environments. Any form of popular expression is frowned upon and quashed without due process of law, and so the anger of Arab masses that is disallowed from finding its outlet in the natural exercise of fundamental rights is at times directed at outside forces - usually against a stereotypical West that serves as a ready scapegoat. In fact, some regimes are happy to “encourage” such diversionary and regressive tactics since they re-route the pressure away from their own fragile positions toward another target - often mislabelled the Christian West. Radical Muslims with exclusivist, apocalyptic and ultimately messianic agendas are happy to assume the role of religious vigilantes and spread fear that translates into deadly intolerance.

Yet, what we do affects foreign policy levers not only across one region alone but also across the wider world. So the question for me is not an academic one whereby we debate the merits or demerits of Islam versus Christianity by perusing our scriptural references but where we realise that this is not the only question we should be asking and that political manoeuvres should be met by equally astute and sharp-edged counter-manoeuvres. The burning of the Qur’an is an impious expression of frustration at best and of Christian extremism at worst. We need to understand this new political landscape, something we in the West have miserably failed to do, and in our failure have dragged noble faiths with faithful followers into political and dogmatic tensions that mutatis mutandis will debilitate good peoples and strengthen bad ones. If Christianity, Islam or Judaism subscribe to such aggression that is odious in its hypocrisy if not barbarism, would it then not be preferable simply not to be a Christian, Muslim or Jew? Mind you, this is a personal - some would gleefully add heretical - stance, and we need also to counter such metastasising venom through strategy, not tactics, and include in our proactive response the elements of vision, courage, outspokenness, steadfastness and patience.

In reflecting upon the meeting point between the teachings and values of Islam and a supposedly Christian West, let us not confuse fact with fiction as well as the real teachings of faith from its supposed ones. We also need to distil faith from politics, fundamentalism from a radicalism that eventually ushers in extremism, violence from peacefulness, catharsis from introversion, frustrations that lead to violent expressions of anger from genuine dialogue leading to conviviality, criminality disguised as conservatism from curiosity defended as confidence in our identity. This is a tall order, but so is the challenging essence of faith, and that is what we should aspire for, a space most people would wish to find themselves in if only given half a chance. So can we help clear away the detritus of wars and violence or the aggression of a misunderstood space versus the connectedness between all well-meaning peoples of faith or of none? Can our imams, priests, rabbis or public figures and model-setters come out of their convenient warren holes and use the tools of education, learning and awareness-raising to challenge those designs that misuse religion for irreligious purposes and that distort beliefs for the sake of political gains or absolutist goals? Or are they simply too afraid to do so?

But let me return to the Ground Zero project again for a moment. I have already stated that Muslims have the right to build a centre on Ground Zero, and one part of me would suggest that they should stand by their decision not only as an exercise in US constitutional freedom but also as a way of forcing this issue to be debated openly and publicly. After all, they are not the first community to be persecuted or vilified in US history. However, I am also conscious that despite the wise and moderate Sufi-led beliefs of the imam in charge of this project, such a decision could prove a tad premature and spill more vitriol into the public domain. This is why I would humbly suggest - inasmuch as my suggestion matters - that Muslim Americans would collectively be scoring much political kudos with their fellow Americans if they decided unilaterally to move the project away a few blocks. This is not a retreat or a defeat: rather, it is a victory of wisdom that shows spiritual sensitivity and emotional growth toward others and will inevitably disempower the rowdy hecklers from all sides who are using those tensions for their own ends of destroying any real dialogue and encouraging instead unwelcome failures. Such a decision, namely one that goes backward one step in the hope of advancing two steps forward later, would reap for Muslims multiple benefits and remove some unnecessary tensions whilst also proving to this amorphous entity called the West that faithful Muslims who distinguish Islam from Islamism are not trying to destroy the American way of life or occupying their human landscapes and hallowed spheres.

Indeed, many authors have also shown that this wave of confrontation that pits Islam against the West is also affecting other continents such as the Middle East and Africa. Take Egypt for instance, where the Coptic Orthodox community alongside its ecclesial hierarchy is at loggerheads with Muslim scholars and ordinary citizens on a variety of issues from forced conversions to religious authenticity and even to arms-smuggling. Some Egyptians are also accusing the Coptic Church of being “a state within the Egyptian state” and of following a Western design of fomenting instability within some countries through the manipulation of minorities. Or take Nigeria that is divided into two halves that are at war with each other and where the Christian Berom and Muslim Fulani farming tribes are caught up in unending cycles of violence. But also take the conversely positive examples of dialogue and coexistence in, say, Qatar, Jordan or Syria where citizenry as a public responsibility is encouraged over and above religious affiliations and confessional loyalties.

Much as we should all wake up, “smell the coffee” and realise that the clock is ticking and that we need to reflect - and therefore act - intelligently to avert more runaway tensions, let me also submit to my readers the quintessential and overriding question of my reflection. Given the political confrontations, transgressions or excesses from all sides, have we stopped for one moment to ask ourselves why we deem our Holy Books so ephemeral and unenduring, and our faiths so fragile and fugacious, that we allow ourselves to be totally seized up by the physical or verbal violence of vocal and militant minorities against the peacefulness of the silent majority? What does that say about the immanence of those centuries-old traditions supposedly quaking in the face of such attacks? More importantly, what does it say about us?

I come back to my Martian visitor to Planet Earth. What would s/he conclude today? S/he might be perceptive enough to disagree with those who profess total doom and gloom on the one hand or those who pretend that everything is fine on the other. Rather, s/he would shake his/her head with amazement at Homo Sapiens that has not managed to overcome its primal instincts despite its high levels of sophistication. And if my Martian guest is an erudite member of his planet, s/he might even refer us to the Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz, the renowned Egyptian writer and winner of the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, who famously wrote that “the problem is not that the truth is harsh, but that liberation from ignorance is as painful as being born”. Perhaps what is truly necessary is a rebirth that would liberate us from an ignorance that leads to self-righteousness or a dogmatism that breeds intolerance.

In conclusion, perhaps it is high time we grew up enough to overcome our elementary and oft-times doctrinaire zealotry and rabid chauvinism toward the other who disagrees with us. Is it not time we showed the Almighty enough reverence - as we often loudly claim to do anyway - by leaving Him out of our own sordid political battles and self-justifying paroxysms? Can we accept that He is not so vulnerable that he would need our pitiful efforts to defend Him?

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2010   |   24 September


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