Urgency of Paradigm Shift for the West's Relationship with Muslims
By Siraj Islam Mufti, IslamOnline.net, 28 December 2001
With much talk of a conflict brewing between Islamic and Western civilizations, it is essential that we critically examine the current situation and sensibly resolve it before it gets on an irretrievably dangerous course. Despite media stereotyping and a misinformed public, Islam is not an unknown entity in the West, nor is the West unknown to the Islamic world.
In fact, the first contact occurred at the initiative of the Prophet of Islam through a letter that he sent on May 11, 628 to Emperor Heraclius (610-641 CE), the ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire - sharing the message of Islam in the wider interest of humanity, and received a gentle response from the Emperor. And despite the occasional skirmishes, the one thousand-year history of Islamic supremacy is characterized by a friendly relationship and healthy exchanges between the two. Today, there is a similar need for communication in order to smoothen the course of future in common destiny for humankind.
Islam as an ideological phenomenon is based on an unalienable transcendental faith system working in coordination with the best of human intellection for dynamism. It has a specific vision for the individual, society, and indeed, for all of the humankind. It represents a distinct way of life, a worldview and a historical tradition as well as a social movement for the change of human conditions. It has a universal message. It started in the general region of monotheistic religions and with the passage of time its message and tradition reached all over the world, and there is hardly a place now that does not boast of its followers. Thus it is truly universal, not only in its message but also in its very presence.
On the other hand, the West is a geographical location with its specific political-economic system. Although it has developed its distinct cultural and civilizational dimensions, its ethos and interests are tied to the Western world - Europe and the U.S. in particular. The concepts of secularism, individualism, economic liberalism and nationalism derive their origins and relevant institutions in the West. These values achieved their global realization through colonial expansion and missionary activity and continue to do so, albeit in a different form. Despite its global outreach, however, it is ethnocentric (i.e., Eurocentric) and its interests are unmistakably European-North American, and looked upon by people in other parts of the world, Muslims and non-Muslim alike, as a Western intrusion into their affairs.
While the above distinctions remain valid in any discussion of Islam and the West, their existing inter- and intra-relationships are more complex. The 1.2 billion Muslims worldwide inhabit more than 55 countries, most of which not only are strategically important but also are resource-rich (specifically petroleum), which also is the reason for their troubles, because the ex-colonial and neocolonial Western powers also depend on their resources and for their geopolitics.
Also, while Islam is a great unifying force, it cannot be described as the ideology practiced in areas where Muslims rule at present. But there is a worldwide Islamic resurgence led by an overwhelming number of Islamic intellectuals. Their efforts are primarily directed at reforming their societies and setting their own house in order. There are differences in approach, but mainstream Islamic leaders and their movements are not against the legitimate interests of the West; and they are committed to bringing about a change for the better through peaceful democratic means. However, there is a growing frustration with current regimes maintained in their status quo with the active support of ex-colonialists (British and French) and neocolonialists (the U.S.). They are ineffective - having not only failed their people, but also are corrupt, extremely repressive and run counter to the Islamic ideals of their people. Thus they are the cause for any impending instability. Islamic leaders are the only credible alternative for the Muslim people and it is about time that the Western nations agree to reconcile their differences with them.
The Euro-American civilization, despite its geographic identity, has also conflicting political and economic interests within and outside of itself. There is growing resentment of a heavy-handed U.S. attitude and its sole superpower hegemony among European populations. And there are emerging power centers that must be taken into all considerations, such as the reunified Germany, China's resurgence, Japan's growing assertion and the regrouping of the Muslim world.
It is essential to re-appraise the current situation in view of gloomy forecasts by prophets of doom that civilization is faced with crises and that a miserable future awaits humankind. In this paranoia, new "demons" and "evil empires" are created, and Islam is posed as a new "threat" to the West. In reality, a strategy is being adopted to keep the West dominant. Ever since the demise of the Soviet Union, the policy pursued by the U.S. is to ensure that no new power center emerges - even in the West - that could challenge its global hegemony. But this policy is flawed because it is based, not on any universally applicable ideal, but on fear and a neo-imperial mentality of dominating others through a variety of local and global mechanisms that thrives on creating divisions and offers only conflicts to the wider humanity.
Unless we desire a catastrophe for humankind, this situation calls for a drastic change in mental attitudes of those concerned, and to develop a new paradigm of equitable relationships. It means adopting different set of policies that would pave the way for a healthy exchange of ideas and creating opportunities for dialogue between civilizations. This is required in order that a new world order is constructed where different civilizations could coexist peacefully, and even compete healthily without resorting to war and mutual destruction. We are past those times when alien ideas and values could be imposed upon a people through blatant use of force - political, military or any mix of the two.
Islam abhors compulsion; it believes in freedom of choice. Affirmation of faith, according to Islam, is a moral decision. It practiced civilizational pluralism and coexistence from day one, when the Medinan Islamic State came into being. The Qur'an advocates that superiority of a system is established through its moral excellence and that its acceptance or rejection by people must be free from any duress. It also affirms that human differences arise naturally because God has created us as unique individuals. Thus pluralism is the divine framework where human societies and civilizations coexist, and tolerance is essential for their healthy coexistence.
Indeed, technological advancements in war machinery impose added responsibilities on humankind because a clash would inevitably result in the complete annihilation of humanity. Therefore, any illusion of promoting one civilization over the destruction of another must be discarded; the only viable alternative is dialogue and free exchange of ideas between different people. Thus, through open and unhindered discussions, alternative ways of life could be presented and people everywhere allowed to choose for themselves. Perhaps a great achievement of these times is the opening up of the entire world to all thought processes. As a result, the free interchange of ideas is taking place everywhere, and people with similar ideas can freely interact and network their ideas in vastly different places. It would be a tragedy if enjoining phony wars between civilizations destroyed this historic opportunity.
Therefore, the need of the times is to build bridges of understanding between the Muslim and the Western worlds through meaningful dialogues in order to arrive at a new realistic ideal for humankind. Their relationship should be based on mutual understanding and respect. It would be wrong to base it on conflict scenario models - whether they pertain to re-enacting a variation of the Crusades or an imposition/continuation of hegemonic neo-colonialism through ruthless client regimes. Such a situation is untenable in this day and age and, therefore, is bound to change one way or the other.
A resurgent Muslim population is destined to affect the course of any emerging world order and it would be in the interest of the West that this change is brought through its help, not antagonism, peacefully, rather than violently. Muslims are not asking the West for any special treatment, but one that is just, fair and equitable with others. They would like to benefit from the technological and scientific achievements of the West, but they do not want to lose their Islamic heritage and values in the process. In return, Western societies could find genuine solutions for their endemic moral and societal problems through a progressive discourse based on Islam's representation of its sacred tradition (ijtihad) in a new age of possibilities.
Islam advocates peace (Isn't that everyone wants?) and stability with universal justice (justice is the pre-requisite for peace and stability; without it, neither could be had) as well as popular consultation and consent (isn't that what real democracy about?) and accountability (one based on internalized God-consciousness; the only one that works perfectly). Which is what the West also aspires for. The long history of the peaceful relationship and coexistence of Muslims and the West with frequent cultural exchanges that were conducive to cross-fertilizations between them, serves as a worthy example. Islam's contributions to the West have been enormous; all serious students of history acknowledge that. The need of the hour is to look into the real causes of frictions and sincerely work to eliminate the existing irritants - thus rekindling those enrichment lessons, and making this world a safer and happier abode for all of humankind.