Perception and reality: Islam and the West-II

Published in the Dawn on April 26, 2004

By Touqir Hussain

AT the heart of the mutual perceptions of the West and the Islamic world is each side's view of the other as a monolithic entity whose life, culture and worldview is consistent with the stereotype image that the viewer's own media paints.

On the other hand, they both suffer from an exaggerated self image - a sense of righteousness and superiority of their own moral values that is not reflected in the actual conduct of their societies. Each feels that being Muslim or an American, or for that matter European, is by itself an insignia of goodness - the name is enough. They each believe in their own exceptionalism and a sense of mission, even a crusading zeal.

The fact is both the Islamic world and the West have fallen short of their ideals, but unfortunately, each judges the other's performance by the yardstick of its own ideals, to which it no longer adheres itself but which it uses to denigrate the other. There is enough self-deception to go around. And unfortunately, the war on terrorism has not only exaggerated these distortions and the underlying tensions but also brought them out into the open

Wars are rarely ever confined to single issues. Domestic political considerations at home and strategic objectives abroad, some stated and some unstated, have of course enlarged the agenda of the West's war on terrorism and helped magnify the profile of Islam as a defamed enemy.

And smitten by this vilification of Islam, the Islamic world too, in its own counter offensive, has enlarged the debate, focusing on the West, specially America, as a deadly enemy responsible for all that afflicts Muslim societies. Each thus finds in the faults of the other a convenient refuge to obscure its own shortcomings.

It would be hard to penetrate the substance of issues facing contemporary Islamic society without a brief reference to history. Because of the unique nature of our religion, where faith and politics are intertwined and mutually absorptive, political Islam never disappeared in history.

In its early history, Islam had given mankind a progressive, ethical and humanitarian value system. Its practical application as a social agenda had brought about revolutionary changes in the Arab societies leading to the emergence of a great Islamic civilization.

Added to the revolutionary ideals of social justice of Islam were the religious zeal of its early practitioners, the sagacity of rulers and the remarkable creativity of its men of learning and intellect.

Although early leadership adhered closely to the guidelines set in the Quran and Sunnah, the transformation of the community from a small state to a large empire was facilitated by the adoption of many of the practices and structures of earlier non-Islamic empires.

Successive Muslim empires, the Arabs, the Safavids, the Ottomans, and Mughals would not have succeeded on their own; they all drew upon each other's strength, culture and historical experience as well as those of the societies they displaced. Bear in mind, these were Muslim societies all right but the substance of their political supremacy transcended religious values.

In the ultimate analysis, it was more than a religious ideal that moved men and spurred them on to exceptional achievements. The knowledge, scholarship, organizational superiority, resources, leadership abilities and statesmanship counted for as much if not more than piety. It is just that Muslim societies in human progress were all ahead of their times.

As the great Islamic civilization began ebbing away in the 17th century, Islam was thrown into confusion and despair. In modern history, currents flowing from different directions and at different times impacted on the Islamic world: the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, rivalries of successor imperialist powers, colonialization and decolonization, the discovery of oil in the Middle East, the establishment of Israel and the beginnings of the Arab-Israel conflict, the Cold War and East-West tensions.

By design or default, colonialism and Western domination, by introducing modern values selectively, to suit their own purposes, left them only half modernized. I use the word modernization not in a secular but in a positive sense where a workable blend of religion and enlightenment representing such values as rational thought, scientific method, respect for human rights, freedom, democracy and constitutional liberalism, is not only possible but desirable.

One major challenge for Islamic societies in post-colonial times hinged on the type of societal model they should accept. The choices before them included the secular and western, inherited from exposure to foreign influence, and reflecting the assumptions of the ruling elite, whose rule was patronizing in the beginning but became unjust over time, or the religious and conservative, representing the traditional way of life of the vast majority, specially the poor. The struggle thus had the seeds of a potential social conflict.

The Islamic peoples' transition to a free, democratic and modern society was further impeded by three reactionary or status quo forces in their contemporary experience: clergy, feudalism/ tribalism, and weak institutional architecture.

Oil and the anti-communism stance of conservative regimes also played no small part by giving the West a common cause with the ruling elite thus helping to reinforce the status quo. Social change was blocked to ensure a stable order; and religious quietism and conservative values provided the best guarantee for stability.

Modernization of these societies was thus sacrificed to the West's strategic and economic interests and personal, dynastic or oligarchic power interests of the local ruling elite which in time led to despair and social tensions, an ideal environment for radicalism.

The fact that religious radicalism also came to receive official sanction and the financial patronage of both Islamic countries and the West in furtherance of some political and strategic objectives gave it strength, momentum and an agenda of its own. Yesterday's underlings now want to be masters.

Unfortunately the extremists in contemporary Islamic societies are trying to re-enact Islamic glory without the knowledge, resources and organizational skills of the modern world, and the great humanistic values that our religion stands for.

I am not talking here of moderate Islamists or Islamic political parties who are open to adaptation or adoption of modernization to varying degrees and may have an agenda worth looking at.

I refer here to radicals who have rejected modernization and embarked on an unremitting hostility to everything that the West represents. Their confrontation may shut Muslim societies off completely from being irrigated by modern thought, science and technology.

In doing so, the radicals have accentuated divisions in Islamic societies and sharpened ethnic, class and sectarian conflicts. With their incendiary anti-West rhetoric, sounding deceptively nationalistic and patriotic, they are confusing the youth and subverting the minds of the educated class who had been earlier attracted by modern ideals.

Modernization is being equated with everything that is wrong with the West. The West too has not helped its own cause or that of the Muslim societies by equating everything that is wrong there with Islam.

The war on terrorism has targeted the terrorists and the societies they live in alike and indiscriminately. Every Muslim has become an object of humiliation and a target of suspicion in the West. And Islam itself faces inquisition at the hands of extremists in the West.

America's anticipation, therefore, of being received with open arms and confidence in reforming Muslim societies may be misplaced, because it is seen as part of the problem not the solution.

If at all the US succeeds in Iraq, this may owe a lot to the fact that the population's relief from Saddam's tyranny and the pain of sanctions may have exceeded its anti-Americanism, not to mention the billions of dollars being spent on Iraq's reconstruction.

At best, it will be an exceptional and qualified success where at the end of the day it might be hard to disentangle America's gains and losses making it difficult to extrapolate the broader significance of this war in the rest of the Islamic world.

The US will be surprised to know that the moderates and liberals it might be counting on as allies in its professed intentions to reform Islamic societies are as anti American as the traditional and conservative elements of the population.

And for the sake of argument, where is the US going to find billions more of the taxpayer's money to finance this massive reform effort, assuming that this was indeed the intention which nobody in the Islamic world believes anyway?

Liberals have their own reasons to be disaffected with the US to which has been added the reaction to the war on terrorism and a sense that the US has fallen short of its ideals, and its foreign policy has lost its moral superiority. They also feel the US is closing its doors on them with the rather heavy-handed approach of the Homeland Security.

Besides, the US has provoked anger all around by denominating Muslim societies as backward and by patronizing them with offers of help with modernization. They are inheritors of a glorious civilization which, unfortunately, has failed to march with history, owing to the combined policy failure of both the West and the Islamic world

The differences between the West and Islam are neither generic nor permanently insoluble. What is really needed is a flow of ideas and values and mutual understanding between the West and Islam. There should be a shared commitment to a just, enlightened social order in the Islamic world that is respectful of religion and traditional culture but is imbued with libertarian and humanistic social and political values.

These need not be inconsistent with the spirit of the great faith. The West can help by bringing its own perceptions and reality of its policies that affect the Muslim world closer to the values it preaches.