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Islam and the West

Dr. Mahmoud Hamdy Zaqzouq(*)


The relationship between Islam and the West is an old and ever evolving one. Through the ages, this relationship has swayed between ebb and flow, war and peace. It seems that very few know that the first stirrings of this relationship go far back in a history as old as Islam itself, and even preceding the first encounter ever between the two blocs. Yet, these beginnings heralded good times to come, at least on the part of Muslims. Indeed, long before the great exodus (hijra), Muslims in Medinah expressed their compassion with the Christian Romans when war broke out between them and the then pagan Persians and ended with the former's defeat. The infidels of Mekkah celebrated the victory of the Persians with whom they shared the practice of paganism while Muslims were saddened by the Romans' defeat. Addressing Muslims, the Mekkans said: “You claim to be People of the Book and the Christians are People of the Book. We are illiterate (meaning we believe not in a god-sent religion). Our brothers in Persia have triumphed over your brothers the People of the Book, and, should you fight us, we shall triumph over you as the Persians vanquished the Romans”.

The first verses of the 'Romans' chapter were then revealed, giving Muslims the glad tidings of a Roman victory over Persia in a few years' time. The victory was achieved nine years later and gave Muslims much joy.

The Holy Quran says: “The Roman Empire has been defeated in a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious- Within a few years. With Allah is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice- With the help of Allah. He helps whom He will, and He is exalted in might, most merciful”(1).

It is not our intent to engage in an in-depth analysis of the nature of these relations, but we would like to turn to the future by pondering the current reality. The fast-paced changes and successive events occurring these days have made the need to rally against the dangers threatening this world a pressing emergency. Any event unfolding in any part of the world is bound to impact on all other parts of the world sooner or later. We are all riding the same boat now and facing the same threats.

In the past few months, I had the opportunity of speaking about the future of the relationship between Islam and the West at two lectures in Switzerland and Germany. I stressed in my lectures that the future of this relationship was conditional upon fruitful dialogue and constructive cooperation in any field likely to serve the interests and wellbeing of the two parties. I drew attention to the emergence of some radical movements in Europe; movements that do not wish for this relationship to proceed in the right direction, develop and prosper for the benefit of both sides. They seek to muddy the waters, divert attention away from any effort to reinstate trust between the two sides, and strive to replace these efforts by designs to sow Islamophobic sentiments.

I personally had my fair share of the fierce onslaught waged by these movements, before and after my lecture in Germany in October 2007, claiming that I was urging for the death of any Muslim who revokes his faith. I was flabbergasted by the immensity of the onslaught on the internet and through other media channels. Although I responded to these allegations through the press and the radio stations there, the barrage did not stop. At a talk show for the German radio, I was asked as to why the onslaught had reached such proportions if the accusation was false. My response was that only one explanation could exist for such vicious campaign, namely that those behind it do not wish to see relations between Islam and the West improve and prosper. For that reason, they will continue to portray Islam and Muslims in a frightening light and entrench islamophobia in the West. They refuse to give a chance to a moderate Muslim voice to shed light on some facts for the Western audience.

The mayor of Osnabrük and the president of the faculty, both of whom had invited me to speak on this occasion were able to verify the fallacy of these allegations. Preparations were then resumed and proceeded in a normal way for the organisation of the conference and reception in the historical hall that had witnessed, in 1648, the signature of the peace treaty that put an end to the famous Thirty-Year War.

Notwithstanding the hostile attempts targeting anything related to Islam, I am still totally convinced that what unites the two parties - Western and Islamic- exceeds by far what divides them. This fact was further stressed by British Crown Prince Charles in a lecture he delivered in 1993 at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies and in which he said: “Islam is part of our past and our present, in all fields of human endeavour. It has helped to create modern Europe. It is part of our own inheritance, not a thing apart”.

In the same vein, Robin Cook, the late British Foreign Secretary stated in a lecture given at a centre in London in 1998: “The roots of our culture are not just Greek or Roman in origin, but Islamic as well. Islamic art, science and philosophy have helped to shape who we are and how we think. Islam laid the intellectual foundations for large portions of Western civilization”.

If the Mediterranean Sea has separated the European and Arab Islamic peoples living on its shores, it has at the same time served as a link and a bridge bringing them together. Cultural interaction has uninterruptedly existed throughout all times, even through the wars and military clashes that marred these relations at certain points in history. Those who advocate the clash of civilizations do not wish to acknowledge the facts of history. They want to kindle fires that would not die and wars that would not end. For this reason, the image of reciprocal enmity has been and continues to be promoted. Islam is the green enemy now that the spectre of the red enemy has vanished.

Recently, we have been hearing slogans that beat the drums of war. One of such slogans says: the West against the Rest of the World, the 'rest of the world' here referring specifically to Muslims. Insinuations were made about a crusade war against Islam as the only solution to all problems. And once again, a scapegoat is designated to carry all the sins. Jews were yesterday's target, now it is the turn of Muslims. Today, the party holding the reins of power monopolizes all the rights, “If you are not with us you are against us”. Can there be a clearer message than this?

Those who advocate the clash of civilizations rely on cultural and religious differences, killing in the process all hope for convergence. In their perception, the clash is unavoidable. Yet, anyone pondering the history of humanity will clearly see that the diversity of peoples and cultures and their civilizational interaction has always served as a crucial catalyst of positive progress in all fields.

The Holy Quran did not consider the differences of peoples and cultures as grounds for strife and division but for the opposite. In the Islamic view, these differences are a starting point for acquaintance, harmony and cooperation in all endeavours likely to bring about the wellbeing of all and asunder: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other”(2).

Furthermore, and in this age of globalisation, peoples no longer live in the vicinity of each other as they used to do in olden times, they live with each other. If we wish to bring about fruitful cooperation through cultural interaction, we should refrain from any form of generalization or categorization of peoples, cultures or races. Our premises should be the common denominators that we have and, most particularly, the common conditions that we experience.

If we have to put out a fire that breaks out in a house, we do not waste time asking who lives in it or insist on knowing each member's particulars. Our priority is to put out the fire the quickest possible and ensure that it does not spread to neighbouring houses. This is the stance of Islam when it calls for solidarity among all as a way of pre-empting the dangers threatening the world in which we live, our world, all of us.

The Prophet (PBUH) drew a parable of humanity as people on board a ship. Some rode on the lower decks and others on the upper ones. When in need of water, those who were on the lower decks had to climb up till they tired to climbing up and down and of disturbing the others. To avoid all this movement, they thought of tearing a hole in the body of the ship and thus have access to water whenever they needed it. In this hadith, the Prophet (PBUH) says: “There are people who do not transgress the limits (laws) of Allah, and there are others who do. They are like two groups who boarded a ship; one of them settled on the upper deck, and the other on the lower deck of the ship. When the people of the lower deck needed water, they said: 'Why should we disturb the people of the upper deck when we can easily have plenty of water by making a hole in our deck”. Now if the people of the upper deck do not prevent this group from such foolishness, all of them will perish, but if they stop them they will be saved”(3). Thus, there is no better way than cooperating with each in order to keep all out of harm's way.

It is indisputable that our age has surpassed all previous ages in unprecedented achievements that resulted from scientific and technological progress and the information and communication revolution. This is a tangible fact. Unfortunately, these developments did not stop at providing peace and security to societies, but also affected the tools of war. While in bygone times battles used to break out between some countries or even within the same country, the situation has changed today as our age has come up with certain innovations, namely world wars and the atomic bomb.

As a result, the issue of war and peace -meaning destruction and reconstruction- is now affecting the whole world, albeit at varying degrees. Consequently, world solidarity has become a pressing need and deserves priority over all other forms of solidarity that involves blocks or elitist alliances. We will not be able to solve our common problems unless we are, both in the Western and the Islamic world, ready to let go of our old prejudices, and to respect one another and each other's culture and civilizational heritage.

As we gear up to take critical decisions, we must not focus our thought processes on the present moment and on our immediate and personal interests. We have to think first and foremost of the future we are shaping through today's decisions. The future does not start in the long term, it starts tomorrow, or more precisely at the moment. Once we accept that, our responsibility for this future is engaged.

Those who promote the so-called creative chaos in the Islamic world close their eyes to this common future and fail to appreciate universal responsibility at its just value. They only think of their short-term policies designed to ensure hegemony and serve small interests. Allegedly, the purpose behind this creative chaos is to advance cultural superiority and ensure the control of the powerful over the rest of the world, thus drilling another nail in the coffin of the trust between the Islamic and Western civilizations. In truth, selling the theory of creative chaos will lead to nothing but plain chaos, confusion, strife, race-triggered upheavals and division within society, with no creativity whatsoever in the process. Many examples of this are unfolding before our eyes, in the systematic destruction being visited upon countries such as Iraq, and the destruction being planned for other countries. Any observer of these conditions will clearly see that the course that globalisation is taking today will not lead to the globalisation of mankind and their culture, but to that of machines and wars.

Would it not be more fruitful to inject the hundreds of billion dollars being spent every year on wars and further armament in the fight against poverty, the main cause of all conflicts, including international terrorism?

Respecting the culture and beliefs of peoples is essential in paving the way for human cooperation. Every nation has the right to its own culture, to a social and political system and to its own set of values. Only continuous dialogue among cultures can guarantee their continuity and renewal and foster the values of tolerance, mutual respect and cultural diversity.

Destruction has not only affected our cultural worlds and universal values through the unrelenting wars, it has also involved the unconscious exploitation and continuous destruction of our planet. True enough, the earth does not respond to what it is subject to with terrorist acts but with increasingly frequent natural disasters which threaten to destroy our whole planet. For example, some of the factors steadily destroying the environment are environment-unfriendly gas emissions, the green house phenomenon and nuclear waste. Needless to say, the West carries the largest share of responsibility in damaging the environment.

What we are seeking at the end of the road is the same: a decent life as members of a human society. To achieve this, we must endeavour, within our globalized society, to bring about peace in our world and everything that is related to or a condition of this peace, namely the respect of the rights of all human beings as individuals and groups. Unfortunately, we often stray far from this quest and tumble into stupid senseless wars.

We believe that the goodwill that is crucial for cooperation in the pursuit of this noble human objective lies with the rational thinking people on both sides, notwithstanding the radical formations emerging here and there. Today, Our universal responsibility is no longer just a commandment among religious commandments that we can choose to either adhere to or disregard. The issue now has become one of fate, a matter of life and death.

We need to stress that the diversity of peoples, cultures and religions is not a hurdle on the way to reaching mutual understanding and cooperation. It is more of a factor for enriching human experience. Understanding each other helps us understand ourselves, and therefore we do need the other and the other needs us. The other 'is not hell'-as claimed by Jean-Paul Sartre(4). The other represents a precious opportunity to foster in ourselves the values of tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect, and therefore a chance to solve the problems common to all of us.

However, all of this remains conditional upon rebuilding trust between the two parties before they can engage in any form of fruitful dialogue. It is unacceptable that the West continues to perceive Islam and the Muslim world as a source of terrorism or a breeding ground of terrorists. This perception has not only become shallow but is totally erroneous and devastating to the relationship of the two parties. Terror is not the nature of Islam and reality has shown that terrorism is a universal phenomenon, that terrorists exist in East and West, but that they remain a minority, hence the need for the large majority to cooperate in order to reach a common ground.

But what is truly alarming for the Islamic world and even casts dark shadows is the way the West uses double standards in dealing with the Islamic world amd its issues, particularly in the Middle East, in addition to igniting the fires of war in the region under the pretext of spreading democracy and defending human rights. Such values should spring from an internal conviction and cannot be imposed through the use of force. Violence only breeds counter-violence and counter violence can lead to terrorism. In the midst of these muddied waters that mar relations between Islam and the West, some sensible voices do rise in both camps. These voices are worth listening and responding to.

One of these voices is that of Hans Kung, a renowned theologian whose fame exceeded Germany and spread to the whole world. He published three volumes where he studied Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In a lecture delivered a few years ago in the German city of Freiburg, Kung said that so far no Islamic state has ever attacked a Western one, but the opposite was true, and that, in the eyes of Muslims, places the West in the position of the aggressor.

The famous Islamic studies specialist Fritz Steppat says in his book “Islam as Partner” that Islam did not constitute a threat to the world but that many Muslims feel persecuted and threatened in our world. He contends that in such circumstances, these feelings could possibly trigger irrational impulses and rash and aggressive behaviour. He adds that fundamentalism is seen in the Islamic world as a reaction to a specific historical stance, and as such, we should not expect this fundamentalism to abate and lose its pull before a radical change occurs in this stance(5).

Islam has been a partner of the West throughout the history of its development. That is a fact which cannot be disregarded. When the Muslim civilization was at its peak in Andalusia, the Muslim world gave the decisive boost that allowed the emergence of the modern Western civilization. Through civilizational influence, Europe managed to shed its Middle Ages backwardness and stagnation. It is an established truth that Europe only became acquainted with Greek philosophy through Arab books and only towards the 15th century was it able to source this information directly from its Greek origins.

One crucial element that we should draw attention to and that is also stressed by many sensible people in Europe is that the security of Europe can no longer be envisaged in the absence of peace and stability in the Middle East. Peace cannot be imposed through the use of force. It is to be reached through dialogue, partnership and cooperation by both sides, for their respective wellbeing.

In this quest for peace, we must not forget to take into consideration the interests of the coming generations that represent our future. Since they carry no responsibility whatsoever in the war crimes and destruction of the past, they deserve the chance to survive and live, and therefore the chance at peace and stability, thus creating cycles of peace that expand as we go.


(*) Minister of Religious Endowments, President of the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs, Arab Republic of Egypt.

(1) Arrum, verse 2-5.

(2) Al Hujurat, verse 13.

(3) Reported by Al-Bukhari

(4) 'L'enfer, c'est les autres', this quote came up in the theater play 'Huis Clos' published in Paris in 1944.

(5) The Arabic translation of 'Islam as Partner: Studies on Islam and Muslims from Germany, was part of the Kuwaiti 'Alam Al-Maarifa' series, page 83, issue 302, April 2004. Dr Abdulghaffar Makkawi.