Islam and the West: Recognition, Reconciling, Co-existence or Collision
In a personal contribution, Ashur Shamis calls for a dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. This is a chapter from the e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.
It is all about history, or how you read it. A question. Where do the roots of conflict between the West (formerly referred to as Christendom) and the world of Islam, really lay? For, it is this conflict that has shaped and bedevilled world history over the last millennium, fuelling mistrust, giving way to conspiracy and counter-conspiracy on both sides, and leading to subjugation and armed resistance. In this paper I will argue for a proposal for a non-political forum in which intelligent, enlightened and well informed individuals from the western and the Islamic worlds can share in dialogue and debate to arrive at solutions that can make a difference. By doing so, it is hoped that the idea itself will be honed and developed by others. However, before we can do that, it is necessary to provide a historical overview.
A new power is born
Barely two decades after the death of prophet Mohammed (570 – 632), the Islamic conquests exploded in all directions. In its first century, Islam swept over North Africa, the Levant and Asia Minor, meeting varying degrees of resistance. It reached Spain by 711 AD and crossed over to France in 730 AD. In all the regions that Islam went to, it was adopted by people of all colours, race, or ethnicity. The majority of the new societies and populations also adopted Arabic as their lingua franca. Within less than two generations, it became the language of daily transaction, laws, philosophy, literature, arts, commerce and sciences, from Spain to Iran and from Tajikistan and Bukhara to central Africa.
The Muslims built up a multifarious civilisation and an empire that brought together different ethnic and racial groups including Asian, Indian, Chinese, Persian, European, Turk, Balkan, as well as Arab. Islam created a truly global identity where one could travel, and settle, from the Indian to the Atlantic Oceans without any restrictions. The Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid (763 to 809 AD), seeing a cloud in the sky was reported to have said “let your water fall where it may, the benefit shall be mine”.
Nonetheless, the Muslim empire, or caliphate, had its share of divisions and internal civil strife. The vast majority of these internal conflicts were due to political and economic greed, and the ambitions of powerful men. Nevertheless, the underlying body of Muslims largely remained intact, representing what is called in Arabic, al-Ummah, the nation of Islam.
Professor Albert Hourani sums it up, saying: “the political changes did not destroy the cultural unity of the world of Islam; it grew deeper as more and more of the population became Muslims and the faith of Islam articulated itself into systems of thought and institutions”.
The contribution of Muslims, of every genre, to the world during that period is undisputed, even in the West. It is due to this human heritage, which was partly inherited by Muslims from the classical world, that human civilisation was able to progress through some tough times. It was the tremendous translation movement, initiated and cherished by the ninth-century Muslim Caliph al-Ma’moun (786 – 833 AD) that paved the way for major developments in Europe including the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the scientific and the industrial revolutions.
The advantage of these developments was that they adopted a secular approach, totally divorced from the Church. Freed from dogma, thinkers focused on human achievement: they studied classical texts, including Arabic and Persian ones, history, literature, science and philosophy. Thus, a creative mix of Islamic, Western and classical cultures occurred.
Zealots turned Crusades
However, before these developments could take place a darker chapter in Christian-Muslim relations was opened early in the 11th century. In 1095 European Christians, mainly from France and Italy, arrived in Palestine bent on taking the city of Jerusalem back from the Muslims, whom they called ‘pagan Persians’. They came to be known as ‘crusaders’ and they were fuelled by religious zealotry. Their arrival was a monumental event based on a sustained European propaganda campaign of misinformation, distortion, and manipulation, lead by heads of Churches from Western Europe. They sowed the seeds of animosity between Islam and Western Europe, and they started something whose ripples are still with us today.
Following roughly 400 years of crusades, the conquest of Constantinople, now called Istanbul, in 1453 gave Islam a crucial toehold in Europe once again. The resulting rise of the Ottoman Caliphate, a symbol of Islamic rule, gave the Muslims a new impetus to pursue their goals and expand far and wide. This allowed for a crucial new energy for Islam to keep going for another four centuries or so.
The West turning the table on Islam
By the late 19th century, the Ottoman Empire had self-destructed. Then in the early 20th century Europe and the United States vied with one another to carve up and share out the lands of Islam. The ‘sick man of Europe’ was dying. India and most of Mesopotamia went to the British. The Arab Maghreb fell to the French. Egypt went from the French to the British. And in 1916 the notorious Sykes-Picot agreement put paid to Islam’s central power in Istanbul, tearing most of the land under its control to pieces.
In many ways, the newly fashioned Muslim/Arab world has been in a state of fluid transformation ever since. It has never seemed to take control of its social, political and economic destiny. Internally, it has been in a constant state of turmoil, with factionalism, sectarianism, dictatorships, political disunity and military coup d’états. Externally, it has not been able to decide what direction to take. Divisions, foreign interference, and chasms of all description have been visited upon it. The propensity to subjugation is arguably as palpable today as it was during the years of colonisation.
A century of disasters
Over the last 100 years the break-up of the Muslim world has proceeded at an unprecedented scale. During the period of the two World Wars, which should be called the European wars (1914-1943, with 57m dead and more than 100m maimed), the Muslim world was still, in the main, under the direct dominance of the West. By the end of the second war Muslim countries started gaining a sort of token ‘independence’ from their colonial masters. However, in 1948 the creation of the state of Israel added another complicating factor to the Muslim world.
The fifties and the sixties were the years of the oil boom, which proved a double-edged sword. It brought numerous advantages; a game-changer that propelled some Muslim countries to the forefront of modernity. But some consider it a curse that brought the evils of corruption, profligacy, excess, and the squandering of wealth on an unprecedented scale. For example, it made the whole of Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and Algeria the focus of the West, for whom oil and gas are so critical. And a new geopolitical strategy was developed in order to secure control over the Middle East. In those oil-producing countries differences between rich and poor were quickly accentuated, resulting in huge social and economic problems. This dichotomy continues to bedevil the Arab / Muslim psyche until today.
Throughout the fifties to the nineties the Muslim nations were plagued with military take-overs and the emergence of dictatorships. Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Yemen, Libya, the Sudan and Tunisia all were under such regimes for years. They have often proven catastrophic, with the plunder of national wealth on a colossal scale, the degradation of freedom, governance, human injustice, and a total distortion of the Arab and Muslim character.
The 1980s were particularly determinantal. The Iranian Revolution (1979), the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1980), the assassination of President Sadat of Egypt (1981), the rise of Jihadism and so-called ‘political Islam’, the emergence of al-Qaeda (1989), and Iraq’s war with Iran.
Fractured but resilient
The Muslim world at the moment looks fragmented and hopeless; impossible to be able to put together again for all the goodwill in the world. Its most vexing internal division is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Throughout the Muslim world this division plays itself out through discrimination, local conflicts, interstate warfare and regional rivalries. It also provides opportunities for the West and others to interfere in the affairs of sovereign Muslim states. If Muslims are to move forward, they have to tackle this aspect of their being.
Emblematic of this is the contemporary tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the stance of influential allies such as the US and Britain. However, for Saudi Arabia to open a new front with Iran, encouraged by the West is clearly foolish. It would represent the continuation of a historic pattern in which the West has had undue influence in the region. For example, America and Britain colluded in 1953 to overthrow the elected national government in Iran. Following this, it took the Iranians nearly thirty years to wrest their country back from dictatorship and forge their own future.
The West writ large
Is the West’s attitude toward Islam and Muslim nations the result of deliberate policy or misunderstanding? Is it a ‘clash of civilisations’ born out of a fundamental mismatch between the two, or is it a product of greed, jealousy, and hatred.
On the other hand, is the Muslim image of the West the outcome of religious fanaticism, or a deep-seated animosity and mistrust that goes all the way back to the crusaders and their misguided sojourn to ‘free’ Jerusalem from ‘the pagans’?
Is this ‘clash of civilisations’, which has in our time given birth to Islamophobia, inevitable or imaginary? The political elite, the Church officials and the tycoons of international media have played a central role in this sordid narrative, fuelling an aversion to Islam and the spread of Islamophobia. Is there a way that these two gigantic sections of the human race can be reconciled? Or, are they condemned to a war of attrition against each other in which one is a loser and the other a winner, a zero-sum game, for generations to come? Is this collision inevitable?
Arab Spring and its aftermath
In 2010 the so-called Arab Spring came sweeping over the Arab world. Coming suddenly and without proper leadership or a considered strategy, the Arab world was thrown into unchartered territory - a black hole the limits of which no one seems, as yet, to be able to fathom. However, the Arab Spring has achieved one thing.
Now, in 2017, looking at what is unfolding in Europe and the US, one cannot help but notice the repercussions of Arab Spring playing in this part of the world. The Arabs rose against their dictators demanding their freedom back, while in Europe and the USA people turned away from their elites and ‘professional’ politicians and political parties demanding their countries and their tribal identities back. The ‘wind of change’ is already blowing throughout the West and the Muslim world.
The rise of populism in Europe and the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA, in the wake of the UK decision to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit), was the inevitable response. We all seem to have rediscovered our identity, each in our own way, and gained a newfound desire to assert it. What we are witnessing, both in West and in the Arab world, is a rejection of elitism and the monopoly of political ruling cliques, be they military or one-man style regimes. What we want is ‘politics for the ordinary man’.
What we need is to rationalise this belief. It is also innovative and self-confident. In the Muslim world these feelings are very strong, and tempered with a certain degree of inferiority complex towards the West, a love-hate relationship. With such demeanour on both sides, it is perhaps naïve to expect very much in the way of tolerance and reconciliation. It runs contrary to the ideas, banded about in recent years, of the ‘end of history’ and the dreaded ‘clash of civilisation’. That indeed would be the end of human civilisation, as we know it. Even the concept of Western liberal democracy, the bedrock of modern Western civilisation, as a universal system of governance, has become a matter for debate and controversy. A tense situation affected with hostility and conflict and mistrust is not conducive to reconciliation or understanding.
The Kipling paradigm
As the poet Rudyard Kipling once said: ‘east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet’. This is rather superseded by the rest of the phrase: ‘But there is neither East nor West... When two strong men stand face to face’. This is the juncture of history, where Islam and the West are ‘face to face’. They in fact not only stand face to face, but they often blend and coalesce one with the other. Therefore, they, more than anything, need to recognise, respect and tolerate each other. That could very well be the key to world peace, in future. The past century was mainly taken up with Christian-Muslim dialogue, as a means of bringing about understanding and conciliation. But, to no avail. What is required now is to launch and empower reconciliation and dialogues between Islam and the West.
These two giant human forces, the West and Islam, are in control of unsurpassed moral and material powers, in differing degrees, one supported by science and technology, the other underpinned by morals, durability and resilience. Geo-politically, they occupy more than half of the physical world. Peaceful engagement and interaction between these two blocs of mankind offer the best prospects for peace and progress.
A sleeping giant
The Muslim populations in Europe (around 13m) and in the USA (around 3.5m) are the fastest growing in the world. Apart from a few twisted and criminally minded individuals they, on the whole, are well-positioned, educated, assimilated, and living in peace. The Muslims have now become a part and parcel of the fabric and the lifestyle of Western society in the USA and Europe. It is this relationship we must work at and cherish. Those anti-social elements must be uprooted and treated as either criminals or psychologically imbalanced, mostly the first. The media has to deprive them of the glorification that was their greatest aim.
History has played the Muslims a wrong hand. It left them in a state of shock and stagnation. It looks as if they lost their pride and mislaid the purpose that drove and motivated them in the seventh century to go out and offer their human resources and spread their ideas.
Muslims have to look into their system of governance with serious attention so that they can give more participation to their citizens. Their political and economic situations must be viewed with much fairer and improved distribution of their wealth, their human rights and their governance.
Foreign intervention, penetration and manipulation continue to plague the Muslim/Arab world. This state of affairs is unjustified and unjustifiable. The west claims to ‘police’ the world and to be the custodian over this part of the world and, therefore, has the right to control its politics, economic resources and moral destiny. A large section of humanity is bereft of the ability to determine its own future. This loss of control by the Arabs and Muslims has left them a victim and a laughing stock in the world.
Islam is a global way of life that is adopted by all human groups. Globalism is here to stay, and Islam is ready for it. Therefore, there ought to be a worldwide campaign or initiative, a remedy, for this universal misapprehension, this historical travesty. The Muslims have fallen victim of this great fallacy that reflected negatively on their life and existence. The vast swathes of people are being judged by the acts of a few extremists. Their life and history are being interpreted under a wrong to be righted. It is paradoxical how the Muslims never branded Christianity as terrorist when the Christian world was inflicting violence upon them, while the West (the Christian) today brands Islamic as terrorism.
The West has to stop intervening in Muslim and Arab countries by force and at will. It does not even have the right to intervene, willy-nilly, for purposes of goodwill. The Muslims have to be allowed to sort out their own differences and problems. What happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya over the last four decades is a form of colonisation by a different name. Under the mantra ‘our vital interest’ the West has justified interference in, and manipulation of, the affairs of Muslim countries.
This love-hate relationship between the West and Islam has to lead to some sensible compromise. Many people see the West’s intervention as necessary, but what has to be done is to remove the arguments that lie at the root of it that have made intervention justified and acceptable. All interventions in the recent past, under the humane-sounding “responsibility to protect” have proven disastrous, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The interpretation of international law must not be left to the powerful nations. Just look at the sixty-year record of countries like Israel, a pivotal ally of the USA and Britain, and its abuse and total disregard for international law. An honest and rational debate has to take place, urgently, between the West and Islam.
NATO and the intervention in Libya
Of the recent interventions we can look at Libya, my own country, as an example. NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, was to protect civilians and impose a no-fly-zone to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from gaining advantage over unarmed civilians. It worked for the first nine months when Gaddafi was killed and his regime decimated. But the Libyans then were left to their own devices, hanging in the air after 41 years of dictatorship. A perilous political vacuum was created. Those who interfered earlier did not either have the stomach to pursue their task or simply ignored the facts on the ground and withdrew from the scene. They completely failed to understand the post-Gaddafi Libyan mentality. All the efforts by the European Union and the United Nations at dialogue to carve up a political solution, ended in failure. The so-called ‘international community’ underestimated the perilous situation and left a huge ungoverned space in Libya.
Their biggest snag was a lack of understanding of the society they were dealing with. The Libyans were made up of various groups, all of whom had no political experience for decades, the main one of which may be called the ‘Gaddafi generation’. These were brought up and educated, and conditioned, under Gaddafi’s xenophobia and self-centred, self-serving persona. They were the product of Gaddafi’s ‘rule of the people’ during which they were constantly bombarded with fake ideas such as ‘people are the masters’, the ‘power is in the hands of the masses’ and that ‘power, wealth, and weapons’ belong the people. They were convinced that they are the ruler. All the means of power and the resources of the country are in their hands and under their control. A new political dynamic was in the making. This group is the largest and the youngest of all groups and it began, based on this self-belief, to grab and accumulate power and wealth by all means. From this group emerged the militias and the armed factions.
Another group is the exiles and expatriates who flooded in from outside the country. These are mainly well-educated, who spent between ten to thirty years outside the country. They saw freedom in some of the democratic countries like the USA, Britain and other European countries. Of course they did not participate in the democratic process but were keen observers of it. They went into Libya with high hope of sharing in the building of a democratic country similar to the ones they lived in abroad. Not bothering to understand the society they have left many years ago and now had returned into, they gave the impression that they were overbearing and cocky. They were detested by the ‘Gaddafi generation’ group and seen as a threat to their own power and future standing in the new dynamic. They were dubbed ‘double chip’ because they had earned another nationality, or passport, having lived abroad for so many years. They were treated with suspicion and derision, and accused of opportunism and therefore branded not fit to take office in Libya.
A third category is that of people who spent long terms of incarceration in prison for political reasons. These were thousands of young educated people who spent long terms of various type of confinement inside and outside of prison. They saw the toppling of Gaddafi and the ending of his regime as a once in lifetime chance to exact their vengeance and revenge.
The NATO intervention is an example gone wrong due to lack of understanding or conflict of interests. Not understanding the temperament and the culture of the people you are dealing with could lead to disaster.
The need for a cultural, civil initiative
What is needed at this juncture is to think carefully along the following broad outlines:
- To organise cultural programmes and joint activities at international level involving lecturers, university professors, academics, thinkers, cultural icons, artists, journalists, media figures, social experts, luminaries, and role models from different disciplines on both sides, must be brought together to hold talks and discuss all the major issues of the day.
- The aim would be to narrow the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims by continuous contact and interaction at the highest intellectual and educational levels. Similarly, there are several areas on which the Muslims do not trust the West that must be introduced to the debate.
- The West views Islam as backward, cruel, repressive and restrictive, while the Muslims view the West with doubt tinged with fear. They believe the West is constantly plotting and harbours conspiratorial policies against them. Seeds of doubt and mistrust were sown between the two camps and a great effort is needed to clear this mistrust and mutual lack of confidence. Both the areas of agreement as well as the differences must be discussed.
- A non-governmental approach is required. One or more top international universities, or international Think Tanks, have to take up the initiative and propose the formation of an international forum or network to devise and conduct dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. This effort should be sponsored by civil society organisations or Think Tanks. The political approach has failed us, and we must go the cultural, or the civil society, approach.
- The dialogue can take place in the form of seminars, lectures, workshops, discourses, symposia, and conferences. It can be developed into short courses and exchange programmes.
- We need a common understanding on cultural differences, religion, and historic interpretation. We need to agree on the redefinition of certain terms such as Jihad, Ijtihad, Hijab, Shariah, Kufr, Khilafah, democracy, human rights, liberalism, modernity and freedom. We need to be speaking the same language instead of speaking at cross-purposes.
- There is a need for a sober, deliberate approach that leads to a workable pragmatic vision. There has to be a process of transformation through this vision that the Muslims view themselves as they really are, and restore that positive outlook toward the role they can play in the world.
- The aim is to devise a programme for engaging in global, open and frank discussion and dialogue about all the subjects that are causing much consternation, stagnation, suspicion and friction between Muslims and the West. In the process the religious, cultural, and social differences must be identified and recognised. Each side is to be given the benefit of the doubt, to readjust its view of the other. We have to modify the mindset, built over centuries of prejudgments and prejudices, about the West and Islam, for the sake of future generations of all mankind.
- World leadership is in crisis, in the West as well as the East. With the rise of China as a power aspiring to be equal to the United States, not necessarily militarily, but in a number of other areas, both sides need to understand the common grounds on which they stand. They will need to highlight the positive aspects of their historic relationship and build on it. Let us not focus on the few extremists who are bent on spreading fear and mayhem amongst us. Let us give prominence to the millions of Muslims, all over the world, who do not participate in these vile acts.
It is Rudyard Kipling again, who was reported to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. We certainly can see it rhyming today. We can learn from it, if we approach it with honesty and a view to building a future of harmony, recognition, tolerance and peaceful co-existence, rather than one of destruction and annihilation.
Ashur Shamis is a distinguished Libyan writer and long-time political activist. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he was studying Aeronautical Engineering in the United Kingdom. In 1977 he obtained an MA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Birmingham. Since 1971, he lived in exile in the UK. He turned to journalism and political activism. From 1980, he was a target for Gaddafi’s physical “liquidation squads”, and, with others, instrumental in founding one of the most effective opposition groups, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He went on to oppose the Libyan regime until its fall in 2011. From 2002, he was founder and editor of the influential website ‘Akhbar Libya’ until his return to Libya in 2011, after 40 years in exile. He has a long record of political and human rights activism on Libya. He is also an associated editor of http://international.minbarlibya.com/