November 2, 2015 By Saad Salmi AP

West and Islam: Beyond Conflicts and Resolutions

In what appeared to have been uploaded four years ago, a YouTube video has Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, adored in the west as a traditional Islamic scholar with deep moorings in modern streams of thought and knowledge, having friendly chat with a motley group of scholars who straddled the diversity camouflaged in the binary expression Islam and West. The team included Salman Sayyid, the famed de-colonial intellect whose unapologetic works in political philosophy A Fundamental FearRecalling Caliphate, and Thinking through Islamophibia, inter alia, have exposed the constructs of colonial imagination about Islam, which still remain in different costumes and approved categories across the world; William Dalrymple, an ardent exponent of bridging cultural gaps, is a writer of well-read histories, the Last Mughal-a take on the last days of Mughal Empire in India, and City of Djinns, about the rich efflorescence of culture lying hidden under the urban and political squalor of India’s capital city, being the best among them; and Jonathan Freedland, someone credited with the thriller genre-‘religious thriller’- whose columns in the Guardian, Jewish Chronicle and New York Times have been widely popular. A decade and a half after the ineffable darkness in and after September 11, which dictated the terms of this discussion, the ideas and insights they share can be seen as being relevant today.


Salman Sayyid: A conflict is being created for particular reasons (so as to make it seem) that there is tension that people do feel in terms of Islam and the west. This is inflamed by the last 100 years. But that is not to deny the historical tensions. I think that exits. We are seeing how memories have been used to give depth to conflict rather than actual historical records, which is actually very mixed.

William Dalrymple: I think you can easily overemphasize the conflictual element in the relation between Islam and Christianity. Certainly it was there. But there have been so many periods when the two of them come together peacefully. I think it is important to remember Islam’s contribution to Christianity. Islam grew up in what was then a Christian near east. A lot of the very basic conventions of Islam come from Christianity. Ramadan, which at first seems a very alien, Islamic foreign practice, is nothing more than the Islamization of Lent. This will be clear if you see how eastern Christians fast during Lent. The Islamic way of praying, the prostration, is very close to the pre-Islamic Syrian orthodox practice. So it is not just a situation of conflict. It is very deep and intertwined relationship.

 Jonathan Freedland: I feel, as a western, there is no conflict between Islam and the west. People really haven’t thought about Islam that much. They are not really aware of centuries of histories. A lack of respect contained in that. Because they don’t even regard Islam as an equal enemy, let alone as an equal.

 Hamza Yusuf: It is really good point. I don’t think people understand the extent of humiliation that the Muslim world has endured over the last years. In fact, Usama Bin Laden mentioned that: “We have been living in humiliation for 80 years. I think the aggression of Nazi Germany was a result of the humiliation that had occurred after World War I. I think it is a testimony to the patience of the Muslim nations that they really have felt incredible humiliation. Another aspect of it is that Muslims’ were a very successful religion. Islam was an imperial force almost right from the start. The Muslims are not comfortable with being objects. They have been subjects of history throughout the vast majority of Islamic history. I would like to add another point that we are post-Christian in our world view. Generally the cosmology of the west is that of secular humanist. I think that while Muslims see a crusade, it is not so much a religious Crusade; it’s more of a commercial Crusade. Because I think instead of sending missionaries now, the western powers send McDonald’s executives to set up accounts in the Muslim world.

 Salman Sayyid: when the Enlightenment took place, there were many people, not just among Muslims but Chinese, Indians who actually kept distance from it. There are accounts of clock works being sent to the courts of the Chinese emperor, and they were sent back with the question: what uses are these to us?

Once it became clear that this technical revolution had really changed the relationship of power in the world within Europe, I think Europeans came to worry about how to explain this. So the quest for European miracle now turned upon what was so specific about Europe. Was it found in its culture? Was it found in its geology? It resulted in the exclusion of the possibility of anyone else imitating it. Because the idea was that what happened in Europe was due to the unique circumstances of Europeanness and the only way that people could do this is by actually imitating Europeanness. To be modern, you have to become European eventually. That is why you have Mustafa Kamal banning headscarf. Thus, if you don’t imitate Europeanness,  you will not be able to achieve whatever Europe has achieved.

 Hamza: Modernization in the Muslim world is interpreted as westernization. That is where you get a serious conflict. Islam, by no means has a serious problem with the achievements of human beings. However, I think that in some ways the western achievements have been seen in this scientific milieu of progress in a sense abandoning religion. I think many scientists in our time say that we are moving into a stage beyond religion whereas for the Muslim, science is constrained by religion. There is real humanistic impulse in Muslims to make sure that science is to benefit humanity.

 Salman: I think one of the affects of colonialism was that you could have liberal democracy at home and tyranny abroad. So the fact that you can have the idea of democracy and the tyranny abroad is something that is inexplicable for most of the Muslim world.

 Hamza: There is a type of hypocrisy or Double standard that the west plays. On the one hand, it espouses all of these wonderful enlightenment ideas which are in fact not very much compatible with traditional Islamic understanding.

What happens when religion is used in the west for extremist purposes, for instance , even in Japan with the Buddhist sect. There is a general knowledge that Buddhism is a passive religion. Nobody associates the extreme acts of that sect with Buddhism. In America, there are extremist acts done by Christians. Nobody in the west associates that with Christianity. Whereas because of such profoundly deep misconception about Islam, people in the West do regard the extreme acts of Muslims somehow intrinsic to Islam. I think the media has some responsibility for creating this misconception.

 William: I think theologically it is quite clear that anyone commits terrorist acts is out of the religion of Islam. The Quranic injunctions for the conduct of any sort of war are very clear. There must never be any non-combatant killed. If War is declared, women and children must be protected. This is far more clearly expressed in the Quran. So to use Islam or Quran as legitimizer of terrorist act is a grave mistake.

 Salman: I don’t think the issue is theological. The issue is political. What is the definition of terrorism? What about half a million people who are dying in Iraq? What about Palestine? What about Afganistan? You can go through this very long list. Question is what the definition of terrorism is. Is there actually an agreed definition of terrorism which transcends the US and its allies?

The exercise of power is not just the ability to use force. It’s actually to make that force just and legitimate. The first victims after the events of September were Muslims or Sikhs who look like Muslims.

In 1924, the Caliphate was abolished by Musthafa Kamal. When the abolition occurred, Muslims were forced to imagine new ways of being a Muslim in the world. When you no longer have a sanctified answer to the question of how to build a good society, you then start to construct movements. Through the formation of all these movements that people call fundamentalist, what they really want is an Islamic order. What that actually means in practice varies from place to place. Why do  people actually follow them? Because for them Islamic order means a just order or good governance.

 Hamza: I think that the vast majority of Muslims are silent majority. I do feel that the majority Muslims are as troubled and frightened by what is happening as western people, I really believe that.

 Salman: I think that we still have not developed a language to understand and describe Islamic movements. The word fundamentalism has a particular connotation about literalist readings and things like that. Of course there is a variant in that. What has happened in Iran since the revolution? You actually have a working electing system, you have until the last election more women in Iranian parliament than you had in Britain. At the same time you have something like Saudi Arabia which is considered to be non-fundamentalist, even though it does not allow women to drive. What we understand by fundamentalism tends to become colored whether it is a political agenda or whether it opposes certain set of ideas and ideals. For example, why Hezbollah has supports in Lebenon? Because they carried out war against occupation. You can’t just dismiss these ideas and say these people are wrong. Most of these people actually have an innovative reading of the Quran rather than just literalist reading.

I think having similar roots does not actually make the problem less tense. It actually makes the possibility of problem more greater in many ways. I think what we need is a movement away from where you have one kind of cultural formation which is used as a way of understanding everything else. I think that is the issue here. Muslim experience quite often gets interpreted as when Europe looks into the mirror and see its past. So we talk about all the kind of medievalism, superstition, violence etc. and that comes from this kind of gaze.

 Hamza: The sanctity of life is shared by secular humanists and by all religious traditions. However, those people that perpetrate crimes like September 11 have a blatant disregard for the sanctity of life. This is a human problem. This is not a religious problem. This is not rooted in any individual religious group. I think what we are dealing with is an element of humanity. But it is an extremely small element. The problem is we are allowing very small group of people to suddenly dictate the world agenda. I think we have to recognize that.

Salman: We have to recognize that having common values, having these agreements does not necessarily bring about the notion of peace. Before you talk about crime, you need to have an agreement on what is law and what is just. Unfortunately the level of world politics is not that clear-cut. So you can’t just say this act constitutes crime, the other one doesn’t. What actions do we consider to be illegitimate and what reasons?  Who actually does the writing of history about what was just or unjust. We are dealing with political concepts which themselves are very much contested. Theology does not help us in that matter. Because it becomes the subject of contestation.

Hamza: I think the Machiavellian approach to world politics is no longer viable after September 11.  That is what I would say. The cynical approach about human conditions that affect millions of people is no longer acceptable. I would hope that we reject Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilization. It is an unacceptable, untenable proposition.

William: There has been a denial in the US that the Middle east is dropping bombs in America and the conflict has to do with American middle eastern policy. And the thing which wounds the Islamic world is continual and often ridiculous support by America for Isreal.

Salman: The support for Israel by the United States also means support for regimes that support Israel. That is one of the arguments that go around. The US policy towards the Muslim world, as it exists, largely is concerned about its relationship with Israel.



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