Present-day images of Muslims and Islam in Western media vary considerably. However, since the collapse of the Soviet Union the general drift of Western concerns has been to portray Islam as the main enemy of the West and the Muslim world as a hotbed of terrorism that threatens Western civilisation and its democratic values. Thus in the present-day hegemonic world order — under which all norms of civilised behaviour in the conduct of foreign policy have been discarded by the Bush Administration and its allies in London and Tel Aviv — Muslims are associated with terrorism. We have seen over the last few years the expansion of President Bush’s destructive war, the inhuman treatment of captive population of Iraq and Afghanistan, rampant abuse of prisoners from Muslim countries by American and British forces, total indifference towards the human rights of prisoners of war or of those suspected of resisting or opposing the American occupation of their countries and false propaganda to cover up the real objectives and crimes against humanity of the neocon rulers in Washington and London.
Needless to say, the so-called ‘Islamic challenge’ is based on assumptions that have no basis in reality. They misrepresent, distort and mislead rather than enlighten and inform. Over the last fifteen years a number of publications have appeared that have borne sensational titles like ‘Sword of Islam’, ‘The Islamic Threat’, ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, ‘Islam’s New Battle Cry’ and ‘What went wrong with Islam?’. They reveal the sort of preconceived image of Islam their writers had intended to convey to their readers. According to such projections, Islam is a challenge to Western values as well as to West’s economic and political interests. But in view of the real power wielded by the West in general and America in particular throughout the Middle East and beyond, the so-called ‘threat of Islam’ is quite groundless.
But right-wing political manipulators and Christian fundamentalists can very easily provoke major crises between the Muslim world and the West; we have only to recall the case of the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. The real aim of some Danish and Norwegian right-wing newspapers to publish these cartoons was to provoke hostile reactions from Muslims and thus cause more bitterness and resentment between Muslims and Christians. They tried to cover up their anti-Islamic campaign behind the smokescreen of the argument that publishing the cartoons was a demonstration of the West’s freedom of expression. They were xenophobic, racist and disrespectful of immigrant cultures in Europe and the Islamic culture in particular. How could hurting the feelings of over one billion Muslims was to serve the interests of free Press, freedom of expression or civil liberties? An anti-Islam fundamentalist Christian by the name of Mr Selbekk, the Norwegian editor of Magazinet reprinted the cartoons which were first published in Denmark. He was asked if he would also publish any cartoons that insulted Jesus, said: No. Thus this gentleman’s vaunted ideal of ‘freedom of expression’ was limited to insulting the Prophet Muhammad and obviously did not extend to insulting the gods, prophets and spiritual avatars of any other major religion.
However, it is important to look at the strategic goals of such editors and publishers. They did succeed in their objective, which was to cause maximum provocation to Muslims worldwide and to create an atmosphere of contempt and hatred towards them among the followers of other religions. Muslims were predictably and understandably offended and their reactions led to some horrible incidents in various parts of the globe. What those who reacted violently did not realise was that they had fallen in the trap of anti-Muslim mischief-mongers, who, through provocation had achieved their goal. Now the stage was set to repeat the old charge: Muslims were fanatics, volatile and irrational — they were ‘terrorists’! The divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as cultural opposites was reinforced and widened.
The anti-Muslim media keep on churning out the common stereotypes that portray Muslims, compared to Westerners, as more prone to conflict and violence. These media publish accounts of conflicts in the Muslim countries as self-evident truths to reinforce the image. There is a general tendency to oversimplify or ignore altogether diverse trends and complex socio-economic factors that lead to instability and conflicts in various Muslim countries. The explanations offered and conclusions drawn sometimes are based on implicit, but more often, explicit assumptions about the superiority of Western, ‘Judaeo-Christian’ culture, while the Islamic world is thought to be an epicentre of brutality and disharmony.
A very common stereotype in the Western media is that Islamic countries are inherently prone to violence, fanaticism, medieval ideas and prejudices. This means that Islam, both as a religion and as a cultural influence, is to bear the responsibility for all such regional ills. The West is the harbinger of sweetness and light (but occasionally also darkness and misery), peace and civility (but occasionally predatory wars and barbarism), rationality and open-mindedness (but occasionally irrationality, racism and prejudice, and always is focused on its own interests). All those who have taken the trouble to look at the last few centuries’ history of Western colonialism, extending from the time of the so-called ‘discoveries’ of America by Columbus in 1492 and of India by Vasco de Gama in 1498 by sea routes, the ‘discovery’ of Africa by the European for slave trade show the ‘noble’ hands of Western nations that were extended to the people of Americas, Asia, Africa and Australia have left their marks on every continent. We cannot go into historical details here. But the global expansion of Western colonialism is the story of plunder and destruction across continents. No doubt, the seeds of Western civilisation were sown in this way. Within Western societies, the internal conflicts, violence and wars present us with a gory history. This superior culture when seen in the limited sphere of geopolitics and international relations in the last one hundred years only leaves a legacy of two World Wars, more wars (Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq), invasions and coups (Guatemala, Grenada, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, Chile, Argentina, Congo, southern Africa), concentration camps, racist massacres undertaken on a large scale by the flag-bearers of Western civilisation.
It is obvious that cultural differences between nations and peoples of the world are a fact of history. And in this context generalising about cultural differences is unavoidable. But in no way can such differences be equated with mutual exclusiveness or inevitable hostility between different cultures. Where the initial instinct is not to enter into an anthropological or historical study of comparative cultures, but rather to foment strife and hatred between nations and religions for ulterior motives the consequences can be disastrous. Let us take the events in the aftermath of the bombing of Oklahoma City in the United States on 19 April 1995. The media rushed to spread rumours that a ‘Middle Eastern man’ [i.e. a Muslim Arab] was responsible for the carnage. As a result Muslims throughout the United States were targeted for physical abuse, rough treatment and social ostracism. Their mosques were desecrated, Muslim women ere harassed and cars belonging to ‘Middle Easterns’ damaged. A British newspaper Today published on its front page a frightening picture of a fireman carrying the burnt remains of a dead child under the headline ‘In the name of Islam’. Identifying the perpetrator of such a reprehensible act alone would not be sufficient; Islam also had to be brought in to ignite the communal passions of people against members of another faith. However, it soon became evident that the bomber was a fair-haired American soldier, a decorated Gulf War (1991) veteran. The religion of this right-wing terrorist was not Islam but Christianity. But no one in either American or British media labelled him a ‘Christian terrorist’ or apologised to Muslims for the wrongs done to them. Once again the freedom to tell the truth and report events fairly had taken a back seat.
The second instance is the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon by a few persons, most of whom came from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a close ally of America. They saw the policies pursued by the US in the Middle East and its support for the anachronistic rule by the House of Saud as the stumbling block towards a fair social order in their country as well as the rest of the Middle East. No matter what the nature of their grievances, I regard this attack terribly wrong. It provided ammunition to the neocons and right-wing fanatics in Washington to unleash the reign of terror, war, death and destruction in the Middle East and the petroleum regions in the general vicinity. At the same time, we ask a simple question: What had these bombings to do with millions of ordinary Muslim citizens of Europe and America? The answer is: nothing whatsoever. We witnessed that they were victimised everywhere by many white Westerners in the most grotesque and despicable ways.
During my stay in Europe for more than four decades, I have become acutely aware that the negative images of Islam and Islamic civilisation need a serious historical analysis for general readers as well as academic scholars that enables us to rise above oft-repeated and worn-out clichés of media and partisan scholarship and thus show the facts of the problematic relations between the two world religions and their civilisations. My book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms (2006) deals these themes and issues. It is clear that both Islam and the West suffer from the perceptual problems of adversary relationship going far back in history. Their mutual perceptions have been distorted by religious dogmas, political developments and traditional prejudices. If we take a look at the history of European colonial expansion in Americas, Australia and in the East (China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc.) the old balance of power between the East and the West had changed. The colonial power over other nations also strengthened the collective consciousness of the industrial West, or its assumption that it was more powerful and therefore superior to the rest of the world. The colonised and subjugated people also started to perceive the West as materially, culturally, and morally superior. It is true the West was superior in producing machines, modern weaponry and efficient armies to invade and subjugate other countries of the world. This made Western nations more powerful, but that did not mean they were morally or intellectually superior. But the subjugated races were not in a position to advance such challenging views. In such uneven power relations under colonialism no genuine communication was possible. The same is true of the current neo-colonial war in Iraq by the Bush Administration to achieve full control over the oil resources and assert political hegemony over the entire Middle East.
The Western ways to see Islam as a monolithic religious and political force is against all historical facts and contemporary political realities. Islam is not a monolithic force; the diversity within the Islamic world is wider than most Westerners think. Within three decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim community split into Sunni and Shia factions following a civil war. This division proved to be permanent, and further divisions within the two main branches have characterised Islamic faith and polity for fourteen centuries. The spread of Islam followed different paths in different countries and regions of the world. At present over one billion people of all races, languages, nationalities and cultures are Muslims. Their socio-cultural conditions as well as their doctrinal affiliations show much diversity and complexity. What this means is that Islam as a universal religion, like Christianity, is not a monolithic entity; this is despite the fact that Muslims share some fundamental beliefs in One God and His revelations through the prophets.
However, historical and religious traditions and myths have a life of their own. Once they have become part of a culture they continue to shape and restructure the collective consciousness of vast populations. The anti-Islamic tradition in the Christendoms has a long historical pedigree and it continues to be a dynamic factor affecting and determining international relations. The study of history helps us to see facts in their historical evolutionary process and thus lighten the cultural baggage that has often poisoned relationships between the two religious communities. An honest and balanced study of the past and the present-day geopolitical realities of the global hegemonic world order means that we no longer have to passively accept distorted legacies and close our eyes to what is happening in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan, and also in Pakistan at the hands of the United States, its allies and the marionette Muslim ruling cliques.
The question of ‘Islamic terrorism’, the denial of women’s rights under Islam and the alleged irreconcilability of Islamic and Western values appear all the time in the Western media. But such accusations reveal a deep-rooted ignorance and confusion. They have no relationship to reality. We should bear in mind that a follower of a religion is not necessarily a true representative or spokesperson of that religion. Neither can the individual acts of terrorism, state-terrorism or superpower-terrorism be imputed to religion whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. If an individual or group from a Muslim community resorts to extremism in political or religious spheres for whatever reason or commits a crime, the general tendency is to hold the whole Islamic tradition responsible. What happens if someone from Western culture or a Christian right-wing extremist resorts to violence or commits a crime? He is held responsible as an individual and no one blames the Western culture or Christianity for his actions. Do we not have some powerful leaders in the West who are Christian right-wingers and are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children? Does anyone blame Christianity for that? We ask these questions and expect our readers to ask these questions and then try to find some answers.
With regard to women, the Qur’an gave them legal rights of inheritance and divorce in the seventh-century, which Western women would not receive until the 19th or 20th century. There is nothing in Islam about obligatory veiling of women or their seclusion, either. In fact, such practices came into Islam about three generations after the death of the Prophet Muhammad under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium. In fact there has been a high degree of cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims from the beginning of Islamic history.
The fundamental values of fraternity, respect, justice and peace are common in all the major civilisations and the five major religions. To call democracy ‘a Western value’ is simply bizarre; the monarchical system prevailed in Europe where the kings held absolute powers under the divine right to rule. The evolution of democratic and constitutional form of government took shape much later. Contrary to what the media and populist politicians assert, there is nothing in Islam that goes against democracy and democratic values.
Nasir Khan, Dr Philos, is a historian and a peace activist. He is the author of Development of the Concept and Theory of Alienation in Marx’s Writings and Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey. He has written numerous articles on international affairs and the issues of human rights.