During my stay in Europe for more than four decades, I have become acutely aware that the negative images of Islam and Islamic civilization need a serious historical analysis for general readers as well as academic scholars that enables us to rise above oft-repeated and worn-out cliches of media and partisan scholarship and thus show the facts of the problematic relations between the two world religions and their civilizations. My book Perceptions of Islam in the Christendoms (2006) deals these themes and issues. It is clear that both Islam and the West suffer from the perceptual problems of adversary relationship going far back in the history. Their mutual perceptions have been distorted by religious dogmas, political developments and traditional prejudices.
If we take a look at the history of European colonial expansion in Americas, Australia and in the East (China, India, the Middle East and North Africa, etc.) the old balance of power between the East and the West had changed. The colonial power over other nations also strengthened the collective consciousness of the industrial West, or its assumption that it was more powerful and therefore superior to the rest of the world. The colonized and subjugated people also started to perceive the West as materially, culturally, and morally superior. It is true the West was superior in producing machines, modern weaponry and efficient armies to invade and subjugate other countries of the world. This made Western nations more powerful, but that did not mean they were morally or intellectually superior. But the subjugated races were not in a position to advance such challenging views. In such uneven power relations under colonialism no genuine communication was possible. The same is true of the current neo-colonial war in Iraq by the Bush Administration to achieve full control over the oil resources and assert political hegemony over the entire Middle East.
The Western ways to see Islam as a monolithic religious and political force is against all historical facts and contemporary political realities. Islam is not a monolithic force; the diversity within the Islamic world is wider than most Westerners think. Within three decades after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim community split into Sunni and Shia factions following a civil war. This division proved to be permanent, and further divisions within the two main branches have characterized Islamic faith and polity for fourteen centuries. The spread of Islam followed different paths in different countries and regions of the world. At present over one billion people of all races, languages, nationalities and cultures are Muslims. Their socio-cultural conditions as well as their doctrinal affiliations show much diversity and complexity. What this means is that Islam as a universal religion, like Christianity, is not a monolithic entity; this is despite the fact that Muslims share some fundamental beliefs in One God and His revelations through the prophets.
However, historical and religious traditions and myths have a life of their own. Once they have become part of a culture they continue to shape and restructure the collective consciousness of vast populations. The anti-Islamic tradition in the Christendom has a long historical pedigree and it continues to be a dynamic factor affecting and determining international relations. The study of history helps us see facts in their historical evolutionary process and thus lighten the cultural baggage that has often poisoned relationships between the two religious communities. An honest and balanced study of the past and 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, its allies and the marionette 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 relationship 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 religion whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. If an individual or group from a Muslim community resorts to extremism in political or religious spheres for whatever reason or commits a crime, the general tendency is to hold the whole Islamic tradition responsible. What happens if someone from Western culture or a Christian right-wing extremist resorts to violence or commits a crime? He is held responsible as an individual and no one blames the Western culture or Christianity for his actions. Do we not have some powerful leaders in the West who are Christian right-wingers and are responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Muslim men, women and children? Does anyone blame Christianity for that? We ask these questions and expect our readers to ask these questions and then try to find some answers.
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 or 20th 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 Muhammad under the influence of the Greek Christians of Byzantium. In fact there has been a high degree of cultural interaction between Christians and Muslims from the beginning of Islamic history.
The fundamental values of fraternity, respect, justice and peace are common in all the major civilizations 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. Contrary to what the media and populist politicians assert, there is nothing in Islam that goes against democracy and democratic values.