OP-ED: Islam and the West: obstacles to understanding

Published in the Daily Times on May 14, 2004

If the Islamic world wants to challenge the unjust international system it could do so only by acquiring knowledge and effecting social reform and political liberalisation. It needs to search for its own strength rather than define itself in opposition to the flaws of the West

Tensions between the Islamic world and the West are not merely owed to a general misunderstanding of each other. The problem is far more serious. At the heart of the conflict lie policy issues on both sides of the divide and their significance transcends any limited or spontaneous causes.

Most of these issues are embedded in the past, but in recent times have accumulated a new and more complex dynamic. This makes the task of explaining to the West the Islamic faith and the challenges facing the Muslim societies more than a public relations or academic exercise, though this may help to an extent in containing the tensions. Indeed, these differences test even the limits of diplomacy.

Interestingly, both the Islamic world and the West vehemently deny they are in conflict. Yet, each feels threatened and accuses the other of waging a war against it. The result is an adversarial relationship.

Samuel Huntington talked about the clash of civilisations. Is he right? Up to a point. Social scientists cannot be totally exact but they do tend to startle the readership out of their inherited patterns of thinking and in so doing contribute to the restructuring of knowledge on important current issues.

What is happening today may not be an epic clash between Islam and the West but it certainly represents a battle over real issues being led by extremists on both sides who weave the grand narrative around civilisational markers. Even so, the conflict looks more like a ‘struggle of civilisations’ than an irreversible clash between them.

The war on terrorism and the war on Iraq have played a seminal role in boosting the extremist agenda on both sides of the divide. There is no denying a sense of outrage in the Islamic world over the US policy in the Middle East (most recently in Iraq), and other regional disputes such as Kashmir and Chechnya. But that is not the whole story. The Islamic world thinks the West has contributed to blocking social change, political reform and modernisation within the Islamic world. And it has done so to advance its (West’s) imperial policies and the oil and geo-political interests.

So the fight has two dimensions: inter-civilisational and intra-civilisational. The status quo in the Muslim societies is being challenged even as parts of the Islamic world are at war with the West. This status quo is too modern in the eyes of some and too regressive in the eyes of others. Both the conservatives and the liberals are now trying to overthrow the present systems and replace it with other mechanisms. But the agendas move in radically opposite directions and radiate serious tensions both within and beyond their boundaries. The regimes, oppressive, are seen as allied with the West even as the West talks about democracy and freedom of expression.

Old tensions have become acute with the rapid spread of knowledge. Knowledge has raised social consciousness and awareness of humanistic ideals. It has also violently disrupted traditional institutions and social structures as well as personal and religious values of much of the population in the Islamic world that has not been able to absorb this assault of culture and ideas. Traditional institutions of stability lie in disarray while new ones have not been born. This has disturbed the politics and social stability of the Muslim societies.

The propagation of ideas is no longer monopolised by the state or the intelligentsia. They are now available at the grassroots level making this truly an era of mass politics and activism. As a consequence the political thinking in the Muslim societies has come to reflect predominantly the values and assumptions of the masses, who are more traditional and religious than the elite, and of the disaffected youth whose anger finds an easier outlet in an ideology and politics of protest and rejection than in the non existing institutions of democratic change.

The baton of politics in the Islamic world is thus slipping away from the pseudo-liberal elite (that was long underpinned by the political primacy of the dominant social groups, and has led a bankrupt, vulgar and exploitative imitation of the Western model of government) to religious demagogues and educated radicals. Unfortunately the middle ground seems to be eroding under pressure from the extremes as many moderate liberals who for years waged a silent struggle for reform are now tempted to make compromises with the system or with the extremists. Tragically, even the normally idealistic educated youth feel seduced by reactionary ideas. These are confused and turbulent times in the Islamic world.

Nationalist, anti-West and populist rhetoric in the Muslim societies resonate well with the population. The extremists have helped release enormous anger, especially among the disenfranchised, the powerless and the vulnerable. They all seek empowerment and are frustrated for want of institutions for peaceful social change. In that vacuum Islam holds the promise of social justice and an egalitarian system. After all it had brought a great humanitarian and ethical revolution in the world and still attracts many Muslims as an alternative model of society. Islam also seems to be an answer to the moral dilemmas detonated by rapid modernisation and globalisation.

But is the Islamic world strong enough to respond to these social and political aspirations with the Muslim societies fractured and divided as they are –nations in conflict, classes in tension, sects in confrontation, and tradition clashing with modernity?

If the Islamic world is fractured and feels under siege so does the West. Neither side has a differentiated perception of the complexities of the other. The West has come to blame Islam for everything that is wrong with the Muslim societies and the Islamic world has equally been denigrating the Western civilisation by judging it solely by its unjust international politics and secularism, and by equating whatever is wrong there with modernisation.

If the Islamic world wants to challenge the unjust international system it could do so only by acquiring knowledge and effecting social reform and political liberalisation — i.e., by embracing, not shirking modernisation and by taking a strong moral position against extremists, however, seductive their nationalistic and populist rhetoric. The Islamic world needs to search for its own strength rather than define itself in opposition to the flaws of the West.