(The following article was published in the Pakistani newspaper The Frontier Post, 2 June 2006 and a slightly edited Norwegian version, Islam i Vestens øyne, appeared in Ny Tid, No. 24,  23—29 June 2006)

 

 

Islam in Western mirror

 

Nasir Khan

 

Present-day images of Muslims and Islam in the Western media vary considerably. However, since the end of the Cold War the general drift of Western concerns has been to portray Islam as the main enemy of the West and Muslim world as the hotbed of terrorism that threatens Western civilisation and its democratic values. How easily can the right-wing political manipulators and Christian fundamentalists provoke major crises between the Muslim world and the West was the recent case of the insulting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. On surface it seemed a harmless prank but its real aim was to provoke hostile reactions from the Muslim world and thus cause more bitterness and resentment between the Muslim and Western/Christian world. The Danish and Norwegian miscreants tried to cover up their anti-Islamic campaign behind the smokescreen of defending the freedom of expression! They strengthened the divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ as cultural opposites. Now the old charge was reinforced: Muslims were fanatics, volatile and irrational—they were ‘terrorists’!

 

It is true that generalising about cultural differences is unavoidable but impulsive responses to stereotypes can be tragic. Take, for instance, 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-looking man was responsible for the carnage. Muslims throughout the United States were targeted for physical rough treatment and abuse. Their mosques were desecrated, veiled women harassed and car windows broken. 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’. However, it soon became apparent that the bomber was a fair-haired American soldier, a decorated Gulf War (1991) veteran. But no one labelled him a ‘Christian terrorist’.

 

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. They saw the policies pursued by the US in the Middle Eastern region 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 the rest of the Middle East. But we ask a simple question: What had these bombings to do with the millions of ordinary Muslim citizens of Europe and America? The answer is: Nothing whatsoever. We witnessed that they were victimised everywhere by the white people in the most grotesque ways and their life made unbearable.

 

During my stay in Europe for more than four decades, I became acutely aware that the negative images of Islam and Islamic civilisation needed 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 the media and partisan scholarship and thus objectively show the facts of the problematic relations between the two world religions and their civilisations. The result is the present historical survey of the views and perceptions of Islam that arose in the various geographical areas of Christianity. 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 thus been distorted by traditional prejudices and myths. Since the pendulum of power has swung back and forth at least twice in the last fourteen centuries, the dominant themes in this relationship have been fear, imitation, rejection and ultimately grudging acceptance and sometimes respect. The swings of power and civilisation from the Roman and Persian Empires to the Islamic Empires of the 7th to 13th centuries, and back again to the modern industrial Europe after the Renaissance and Reformation show that history does not stay still. The European colonial expansion in Americas, Australia and in the East (China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc.) changed the balance of power between the East and the West. It also fortified the collective consciousness of the industrial West that it was superior to the rest of the world. The colonised and subjugated people also started to perceive the West as materially, culturally, and morally superior that needed to be imitated. In this lop-sided relationship no authentic communication was possible.

 

The Western ways to see Islam as a monolithic religious and political force is against the historical facts and contemporary realities. Islam is not a monolithic force; the diversity within the Islamic world is wider than most people think. Within three decades after the death of the Prophet, Muslim community split into Sunni and Shia factions after 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 was in different countries and regions ranging from Gibraltar in the western-most tip of North Africa to the Philippine Islands in the Pacific; it comprises over a billion people of all races, languages, nationalities and cultures. There is an extraordinary diversity and complexity of socio-political conditions and movements as well as doctrinal differences among the followers of Islam in five different continents. What this means is that Islam, like Christianity, is not a monolithic entity. This is despite the fact that Muslims share a common belief in One God and his revelation through the Prophet Muhammad.

 

However, historical and religious myths and traditions have a life of their own. Once they have become part of a culture they continue to shape and reshape the collective consciousness of vast populations. The anti-Islamic tradition in the Christendoms, as I have tried to show in my present book, has a long historical pedigree and it continues to be a dynamic factor affecting and shaping 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 civilisations. An honest and balanced study of the past as well as 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 and its allies and the puppet 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 relevance 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 any major religion whether Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.

 

But the irony is that at a time when the armies of the New Crusaders (Bush, Blair) and their allies are ravaging Afghanistan and Iraq by killing hundreds of thousands of Muslims, and Israel continues to kill and crush the occupied and defenceless Palestinian people, the victims get the blame and are called ‘barbarians’ and ‘terrorists’! 

 

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 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 under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium. That also shows a high degree of cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims.

 

The fundamental values of fraternity, equality, 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. There is nothing in Islam that goes against democracy and democratic values as the misleading media and populist politicians assert.

26.05.06

 

Nasir Khan’s recent book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms: A Historical Survey was published in 2006 by Solum forlag, Oslo.