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West's obstinacy responsible for Muslims' alienation

By Hywel Williams and Vali Mahlouji, DAWN, 16 August 2001

LONDON: Europe and Islam: the very words give the game away. The one is a geographical term, the other religious. Europe, proud of the advance to its own model of the secular, the liberal and the modern, defines itself by opposition - over there is something oriental, eastern and alien.

Islam in the West is still a synonym for reactionary fundamentalist anti-modernism. It means the veil and segregated skiing, hostages and fatwas, mullahs and four wives. Shakespeare's Shylock is now deemed shamefully anti-semitic. But his Othello, an irrational compound of nobility and savagery, still seems an acceptable, though racist, view of the Moor.

Western liberals and conservatives play the same game. Liberals have their own model of progress - a proud and easy march to the secular and the individualist, the private conscience and the neutral state. They forget that it took Europe centuries of tribalism and oppression to emerge from the initial renaissance enjoyed by the elite to the enlightenment that spread to the many, and they are bemused by Islam's resistance.

Conservatives nourish their fears - Islam may share its monotheism with Judaeo-Christian culture, but politically there is a persistent Middle Eastern rejection of Anglo-American diplomacy. The hypocritical dance of Washington's diplomatic initiatives is founded on the reality of manipulation and the glint in the oil man's eye.

Some of Europe's bafflement is genuine ignorance. Greece's glory and Rome's grandeur are acknowledged renaissance founts. But in the school room and lecture theatre, who is told the truth about the West's debt to Islam?

The cultural mingling of Syriac, Jew and Greek, of Persian, Christian and Arab, created dialogue and debate. Ideas and goods were traded along the caravan routes. Experience, scholarship and art mingled along the pathway of a broad inclusive culture. Socio-economics alone can't explain why the Arabs burst out of their peninsula with such revolutionary consequences in the seventh century. The adjacent great powers, the Byzantine and Sassanian empires, were tired of being world-historical. But among the subject peoples there was a longing for renewal, and the simplicity of the Holy Prophet's (PBUH) call was also its radicalism.

The Holy Prophet (PBUH) offered no miracles other than the fact of revelation. He swept away the dark tribal gods sustained by polytheism and conflict, as well as the old imperial hierarchies. And what emerged was less an empire replaced than a network civilized, a confederation of cities from Cordoba to Samarqand, a collectivist faith united by language and tolerance.

Twelfth-century Europe was a mass of tiny states on the make, and creating the enemy outside was a useful stratagem. Nothing unites like a common foe. Hence the crusades - that first episode of European colonialism - and the Christian fundamentalism transplanted to Middle Eastern soil.

When it comes to understanding how Islam turned fundamentalist, we have to look at the motes in our own Western eyes, rather than just at recent history. Islam in its golden age taught the world to look at itself as a global entity. But the West invented the east-west divide. The crusades started it all, but with capitalism and industrialism the division acquired an extra, deranging twist.

Fundamentalism was the reaction to this enforced and coercive model of what it meant to be modern. These ancient societies were being forced by capitalism to do in 50 years what it had taken the West 500 years to achieve, and the reaction fed an explosive mixture.

Internal dissolution and external attack were grave enough, but there was a psychological drama here as well - the humiliation of a culture by a power arrogant in its selective ignorance. There is something unseemly about the beneficiaries of a settled political world criticizing those who lack that security - the starting point of so much Western commentary.

-Dawn-Guardian News Service