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Islam and the Two Faces of the West

How can modern Muslims reconcile Islam with globalization?

October 11, 2001

How can modern Muslims reconcile Islam with globalization?

For a long time, Muslim intellectuals and thinkers have had to contend with the power of the West and the power of Western ideas, while interpreting and understanding the condition of the Muslim Ummah, or community. Many of them openly admired the West for its achievements in the arena of civil society as well as in science and technology. They have even remarked that, culturally speaking, the West was “Islam without Muslims.”

For them, the West was indeed worthy of emulation in many areas, such as democracy, human rights, respect for the rule of law and dedication to science.

Other Muslim thinkers have found the West responsible for the moral and material decline of the Muslim world. They blame Western imperialism and the era of colonial domination for the present backwardness and lack of self-government in the Muslim World.

They imagine it as the embodiment of Satan and have postulated Islamization as the complete rejection of all that they see as Western, including democracy and freedom of speech. These thinkers are widely represented as Islamic fundamentalists in the West, and often contrasted with Islamic liberals.

Needless to say, both views have an element of truth in them. But both suffer from a lack of balance. While the former suffers from a lack of self-esteem and exaggerates the virtues of the West, the latter confuses polemics and diatribe against the West for Islam. Both views are to some extent valid, and even necessary, but only as supplements to a discourse which is both balanced and constructive.

To modern Muslims, the West is essentially like a centaur — half-human and half-beast. The human face of the beast allows the West to appreciate the virtues of democracy, equality and freedoms of speech and religion.

It provides the moral basis for protecting and treating its own citizens with utmost respect and dignity, while also striving hard to advance their interests, understood in terms of political and material development.

The bestial dimension of the West has led it to commit huge crimes against humanity. Slavery, racism, imperialism, colonialism, the holocaust and the world wars are just a few of the atrocities that the West has committed in the past.

In recent decades, the United States caused over a million casualties in Vietnam — and France matched that number in Algeria.

In both cases, these Western nations — always acting in the name of freedom — were barriers to the independence and integrity of third world nations. In 1953, the United States replaced an elected and democratic regime of Mossadiq Hussein in Iran with a monarchy through a coup. The CIA even to this day describes it as one of its finest achievements.

While Western nations brag that democracies do not wage war upon each other, they do not reflect upon how often democracies — advanced democracies — have waged war on poor underdeveloped nations in the name of national interest.

This double-sidedness of the West is puzzling. How can societies that have so much respect for human life at home be so insensitive to the deaths of so many Iraqi children? According to a recent UNICEF report, the death rate for small children in Iraq has nearly doubled since the Gulf War in 1991 and the subsequent imposition of UN sanctions. How can societies that stand for equality and democracy allow so little freedom to other societies to disagree with it?

Understanding the puzzle that is the modern West is essential for modern Muslims because its enormous power — both material as well as cultural — has attained hegemonic proportions. There is very little resistance, except from some Islamists and some Asianists, to the growing influence of the West on the cultural and moral fabric of this planet.

Muslims such as myself not only have to understand the modern West in a more balanced way, but we must also develop a discourse for the reconstruction of an Islamic identity. This new Islamic identity must be neither weakened nor distracted by the enormous shadow of the West.

Until Muslims can go beyond blind imitation of the West or outright rejection of its values, they will not be able to construct an Islamic-self, independent of Western influence. It is essential that Muslims develop a positive and constructive understanding of the “other.” Only through such a positive and creative act will Muslim people be able to reconstruct a vibrant and meaningful self.

It is therefore doubly important that Muslims in the West develop a “first hand” understanding of what the West really is. It is rather ridiculous that Muslims who have been living in the United States for decades put aside their own experiences and, in order to understand the West, turn to the polemics of Muslim intellectuals of the 1960s who have not experienced the contemporary West.

Only those who have had a sustained experience of the West and have witnessed both its human and its more bestial dimensions can develop a meaningful understanding of it. Others will continue to rely on caricatures, one way or the other.

Of course, readers must understand that notions such as the West and the Muslim World are more heuristic than realistic. The Muslim World is highly westernized in many ways and there are nearly 40 million Muslims in the West. Within NATO, the military face of the West, there are nearly 100 million Muslims (Turkey’s population is 65 million).

For Muslims over 50 years ago, the term “West” primarily referred to the British and French empires. Today, when Muslims speak of the West, they basically mean the United States and Israel. These two nations have taken similar positions on issues such as containment/ engagement with Iran, the Palestinian issue and sanctions against Iraq. The European Union, led by France, has adopted softer postures towards the Muslim World.

What does it mean to have a balanced view of the West? It means that we have the ability to live with the contradictions of modern existence. Because Muslims are upset that the United States has chosen to be friends with Israel and not with the Arabs, or because the United States has committed crimes against Iraqi children, we must not reject democracy, human rights, respect for freedom and the rule of law.

A balanced view of the West should recognize the material impulses that shape many Western foreign policy choices — and resist as well as condemn them. But in an endeavor to resist Western domination we must not foolishly reject the laudable results of their moral impulses. These impulses are so elegantly manifested in their self-governing, rights-respecting societies.

A balanced view of the West will rise far above simple associations. Because democracy is found in the West does not mean it should be labeled Western. Since we now can find Islam in the West as well, does that mean Islam, too, is Western?

An unbiased analysis of the West will seek to understand the sources of Western values and also their implications for social welfare before passing judgment upon them. A balanced view of the West, then, is essentially a considered and enlightened opinion of Western institutions and practices that does not allow negative emotions to cloud one’s rational faculties.

Only when such an attempt to understand the West is made by Muslim intellectuals as well as the general public will the basis of a healthy Islamic identity emerge. Until then, reactions to the West will continue to subvert the construction of Islamic identity. And the responsibility of advancing such an understanding is the communal obligation of the Muslims of America.