January February 2006Leading Posts

Islam and the West: How We Can Bridge the Gap

Dr. Ali Al-Hail

The contemporary relations between the West and the countries of the Muslim world are characterized by mutual fear, suspicion, mistrust and misunderstanding, a condition that I call “moral panic.” This state of moral panic is deeply grounded in historical stereotypes that go back many centuries. Yet, I believe that it is possible for people on both sides of this divide to overcome this emotional condition through an intellectual effort. I would like to share with you here some of my thoughts about how thoughtful people in the West and in the Muslim world can negotiate a relationship that can help us build a better future for all of us, a future based on justice, peace and mutual respect for our differences and appreciation of the many things that we have in common.

In order to bridge the gap between the West and the Muslim world, Westerners and Muslims must promote a two-way flow of accurate and objective information about each other’s cultures as a way to establish mutual recognition, mutual respect and mutual understanding. Both sides should recognize that there are many political, economic and cultural values and interests that link them together. Providing that other peoples recognize and support those interests equally and unconditionally that they have in common with Muslims, it is fully within the traditional interpretation of Islam for Muslims to treat other peoples the same way. And until and unless the West stops its double standard policy not only in regard to the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, but adopts this important perspective of the value of human life in the whole Arab and Muslim Worlds, many in the Middle East will feel disenfranchised and be open to violence. Islam is not a religion that summons Muslims to separate themselves from others, or that calls on Muslims to make war against those who are not of their faith in order to force them to accept their own beliefs and way of life. However, Muslims are urged by Allah not to initiate an aggression against other peoples unless other peoples initiate an aggression against them in a form of invading or occupying Muslim countries (to cite one example). Under such a circumstance, Muslims have every single right given by global respectable constitutions and by the international law to resist the aggressors invaders occupiers through all means available in their possession. The recurrent manifestation of this right is quite blatant in Palestine, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Kashmir and elsewhere throughout the Muslim World. Muslims are called on to honor the dignity of their religion by protecting their community (which embraces all those who are non-Muslims, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality) against external and internal threats that endanger the community’s integrity and existence. Thus, Muslims are held responsible both for respecting the ways of others who are not of their community while maintaining their ways against the efforts of others to change or destroy them. The observed attempts by the West to brand resistance movements as terror organizations are completely misleading. The ultimate ‘wishful’ aim is of course, to make the Muslim World bow to the Western control over Muslim countries. For their part though, Muslims must recognize that there are grounds for establishing international relationships with Western countries on the basis of common interests in economic development, security, political stability and cultural empowerment. Muslims must not let exclusively moral judgments about the West prevent them from recognizing the extent and the importance of these common interests.

People in Western countries need to recognize and acknowledge their own lack of understanding about Islam, which presents a significant barrier to mutual relations of respect between Western and Muslim countries. The West must make more of an effort to understand Islam, and to understand it in the way that it is believed and valued by that large majority of Muslims who adhere to a moderate interpretation of Islam. The West needs to acquire a broader exposure to the ways in which Islam is understood by mainstream Muslims by seeking out media productions from approved outlets in Muslim countries, rather than allowing themselves to be influenced by the false representations of Islam promoted by radicals pursuing a political agenda or by those hostile critics who deny the right of Islam to exist as an established historical religion.

Both Muslims and people in the West must realize that there exist all over the globe great variations in social organizations, political institutions and cultural values, including the values associated with religion and ideology. These differences cannot be ignored or neglected. People of both civilizations must give up the unrealistic notion that a single civilizational or political model can be imposed everywhere in the world. We must recognize, accept and honor the differences between our civilizations and embrace the notion that our distinct (though related) civilizations can co-exist and work peacefully to promote a better world for all peoples. The basis for this view of the world is clearly established in Islam, which encourages its followers to think critically and rationally about the world and view separate events and developments as part of a greater whole. Islam understands itself in humanistic terms, as contributing to the improvement of all of humanity in accordance with Allah’s will and His plans. Properly understood, Islam condemns the actions of those who focus only on one part and act in ways that harm the good of the whole, as extremists do.

In Muslim countries and in the West, the mass media have a vital role to play in developing the conscientious awareness of all people so that individuals are able to construct a broader and deeper understanding of their own traditions as well as a knowledge of and respect for the traditions of others. This will provide the foundations upon which we can build a bridge to span the gap between the Muslim and Western worlds.

I pray the greatest common attribute between these great cultures will not turn out to be deprivation, injustice, prejudice and other related grievences as ingredients for resentment of the West. It is the hope of this study that many more people of similar caliber and insight become more involved in the processes culturally, socially and politically to bring the human world together in positive common interests.

* This article is based on several lectures delivered to Drake University and Simpson College at Iowa State, US. It is also based on half an hour talk on ‘Talk of Iowa’ Radio at Aims, Iowa.

* The term ‘Conscientization’ refers to the capability of a person, to become critical of what she he views, reads and listens to.

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