Islam and the West: distorting realities

Published in the Dawn on April 25, 2004

While the subject of "Islam and the West" is vast and one on which much has been written throughout the ages, the time frame of this article is contemporary and the focus of enquiry limited. The discussion here revolves round on how the West, more precisely the United States, and the Islamic world have come to perceive and treat each other in the wake of 9/11.

The European view of Islam is a little nuanced and tempered, at least in appearance, but has been submerged in the flood of American perceptions that have somehow overwhelmed the debate.

In the US, Islam has come under severe scrutiny through the filter of some narrow issues defined by the "prism of pain" of 9/11. This is an age of media, mass politics and popular democracy in the West where governments have come to live and lead at the level of public opinion. They are especially deferential to the interests of their core constituency.

And the media, more specifically American, powerfully reflects as well as affects the public mood and perceptions. It has magnified the threat of terrorism as much as the response, and endlessly plays out the drama of an angered nation that soothes its anxiety by wringing out its trauma by beating up on the "enemy".

Indeed, the entire range of America's intellectual life as well as intelligence agencies and the political leadership have joined the media in this daily ritual. Much of the intellectual effort is inspired or sponsored by ideologically laced institutions or special interests; and the intelligence agencies have either been tempted by survival instinct to exaggerate the threat or seduced by an extreme rightwing government to adapt analysis to political purposes.

Of course, there are saner voices out there, specially of well-reputed and non-partisan think tanks and institutions, but these are in a minority and too faint to influence either government policies or public opinion in a nation polarized by politics but united by a paralysing fear of "radical Islam". When it comes to terrorism there is but one America.

Each of the dominant and influential strands of opinion and analysis as well as government policy has responded to Islam from its own perspective. First, the academia. Most US academics are conditioned by a secular bias, almost secular fundamentalism, and historical misrepresentations about Islam. Religion helps to emphasize and exaggerate historical memories and feeds contemporary issues; and the fact is historically, Islam and the West have not had the happiest of relations.

Both expanded at each other's expense and the story of their seesaw struggle is all too familiar. The Arab and the Ottoman empires prospered in the decline of the West whose own rise to domination later led to the colonization of much of a faltering Islamic world.

The western domination was capped by the planting of Israel in the heart of the Islamic world, a monument to the defeat and decline of the glory that Islam once was, a strategic instrument of future Western primacy in the region, and an alibi for much of the Arab world to wallow in the past.

Except for European literature, western writings on Islam are by and large silent about the fact that the West and Islam in their collision and cooperation had also learnt from each other raising the potential of their societies. For them somehow their relations have always seemed so irreconcilable. Unfortunately, the contemporary extremism in the Islamic world helps to sustain this anti-thesis.

Religion and socio-political issues across civilizational divides do not lend themselves easily to objective analysis. There is no scientific truth involved - only opinions, perspectives and moral or didactic impulses are at play. That is why you have exceptionally smart people from the West, on the one hand, and some of the brightest intellects from Asia, on the other, disagreeing vehemently, and sometimes in utter honesty, about the same issue.

One is speaking from a western, liberal, Judeo-Christian perspective, and the other from the framework of Asian or Islamic values. The two sides' terms of reference are different; their concepts, philosophies, values irreconcilable. Even their perspectives on history clash, one representing the colonialist or imperialist view, entertaining a sense of cultural superiority and material advancement, and the other that of the colonized nursing its historical grievances. And where the subject happens to be religion the disagreement is sharper, particularly against the background of 9/11.

As for the media, its approach to Islam, often bereft of any intellectual pretence or dissimulation, is even more partisan, driven largely by the sweeping changes in American society in the recent past. The overwhelming power has somewhat disfigured American idealism and masked the strains caused by rising prosperity but uneven distribution of wealth, an extraordinary ascendancy of individualism, declining family and moral values, and growing influence of the Christian right.

This has led to two contradictory trends in American society; it is getting politically conservative but culturally liberal. Indeed the Islamic world also faces its own dilemmas and contradictions. On top of that, both the West and Islam find themselves in a disordered world which seems to have come specially unstuck after the end of the Cold War to which globalization and the worldwide ascendancy of fundamentalism have made no small contribution.

The powerful American media feeds on these tensions within Islam and between it and the West. Unfortunately, for the last few years Islam has attracted overwhelmingly disproportionate attention of the international media for radiating a wide array of negative and troubling impulses. It is thus bristling with subjects of intense media interest, many of which have direct impact on the security of citizens and quality of life in advanced societies

The media feeds on myths of an expansionist and revivalist Islam, the "looming" clash between the dominance of American power and resurgent nationalism in the Islamic world - to which religion imparts a sense of mission - fear of another tragedy like 9/11, and the increasingly assertive identity of the Muslim immigrant population in America and Europe.

Take the controversy about the scarf in France which Muslim girls insist on wearing, in part as a compromise with their traditional past, and partly as a badge of individual freedom and cultural identity in a democratic, pluralistic and tolerant society that paradoxically has become scornful of it. Such is the fear of "radical Islam".

The media has abdicated its traditional role of educating society and panders to the pleasure seeking mass population which is hungry for entertainment, and looking for fast news like the food of the same name - appetizing, quick to ingest but lacking nourishment. The media is led by the visual image, that is television, as the prime source of news. To hold the attention of viewers, who have the choice of scores of channels is a big challenge.

To achieve the optimum results issues are presented in stark terms, not beyond average understanding. Indeed the line between entertainment and news is getting blurred. This makes it still harder to disentangle truth and fiction.

To be fair, there are some excellent programmes also disseminating knowledge and quality entertainment for those who care, but their opinion-building role is only marginal. For the discerning audience or readership, there are also erudite analyses in print but they are scanty and written often from a perspective. Very few are strictly objective.

Indeed, the same holds true of the media in Islamic societies. When it writes about the western world does it not write from its own perspective? Whether it is about the "arrogance" of the sole remaining superpower or about its perceived anti-Islam bias, or most recently, the Iraq war, or the promiscuousness of western society, the perspective is singularly its own.

Now the role of the US government. What contribution has it made to exacerbate the debate on Islam? President Bush's war on terrorism, resting on a neat division of the world between those who are with the United States and those who are with the terrorists, is reminiscent of the early Marxists who too differentiated the world into "us" and "them". The war also shares their ideological zeal, and is being fought single-mindedly as a military conflict.

Yet again the world seems to have been divided in two armed camps - one led by the religious extremists and the other by Washington neo-conservatives. One is peddling a dangerously false version of a great religion to dominate the Islamic world. And the other using its post Cold War monopoly of power to guarantee unchallenged assertion of its will on the world.

Ironically, the 9/11 tragedy has played into the hands of both, one using it as a provocation and opportunity to seek public support for the conservative agenda, and the other exploiting the perceived excesses of the war on terrorism to similarly arouse an indignant Muslim world.

The administration's approach has resulted in a paradox. On the one hand terrorism is being treated as if it were a rootless and self-sustaining entity that requires no understanding or remedying of what has caused it. This is a self-serving approach as it pins no responsibility on the US or its vital strategic ally Israel to own any responsibility for the causes of terrorism; and ironically on the other hand, a dangerous war hysteria has led to the profiling of Islam as a universal creed of terrorism thus bearing sole responsibility for this phenomenon.

This obscures the reality of terrorism as well as of Islam making the war on terrorism look like a war on Islam.