john esposito
John Esposito
University Professor as well as Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University.

Islam and the West in a post Sept. 11 world

The Sept. 11, 2001 attacks against New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington and subsequent attacks in Europe have reinforced the voices of those in the West who speak of a “fundamentalist” holy war exported to the West. The tendency of many governments, the media and political analysts was to conclude the existence of an inherently anti-Western global Islamic threat.  Muslim rulers in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia, and the Central Asian Republics as well as Israel, India, the Philippines have used the danger of Islamic radicalism to attract American and European foreign aid and to deflect from the failures of their governments or the indiscriminate suppression of opposition movements, mainstream as well as extremists.

A Clash of Civilizations?

Proponents of a clash cite Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as clear indicators of an unbridgeable gulf between two very different worlds. Similarly, the declared war of religious extremists and terrorists against entrenched Muslim governments and the West – all in the name of Islam – are also cited as proof that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  However, while the actions of extremist groups and of authoritarian governments, religious and non-religious, reinforce this perception of a clash of civilizations, the facts on the ground present a more complex picture.

Neither the Muslim world nor the West is monolithic. Common sources of identity (language, faith, history, culture) yield when national or regional interests are at stake. While some Muslims, as in the Iranian Revolution, have achieved a transient unity in the face of a common enemy, their solidarity quickly dissipates once danger subsides and competing interests again prevail. The evidence that there is no monolithic Islam is abundant. The inability of Arab nationalism/socialism, Saudi Arabia’s pan-Islam, or Iran’s Islamic Republic revolution to unite and mobilize the Arab and Muslim worlds, the competition and conflict between countries like Egypt, Libya, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, the disintegration of the Arab (Iraq and the Gulf states) coalition against Iran after the Iran-Iraq war, and the subsequent Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and divisions in the Muslim world evident in the Gulf War of 1991 are but a few examples.

Bin Laden’s failure to effectively mobilize the vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims in the world or the majority of religious leaders in his unholy war despite his global terrorist network is a reminder that Muslims, like every global religious community, are indeed diverse. As Islamic history makes abundantly clear, mainstream Islam, in law and theology as well as in practice, in the end has always rejected or marginalized extremists and terrorists from the radical groups of the past like Kharijites and Assassins to contemporary radical movements like al-Qaeda.

Coexistence or Conflict?

The political as well as religious challenge in today’s increasingly global, interdependent world is to recognize not only our competing interests but also our common interests. America’s policy toward Japan, China or Saudi Arabia is not based primarily upon a sense of shared culture, religion, or civilization but upon common political and economic interests. Cooperation can result from common religious and ethnic backgrounds; however, more often it comes from the recognition of similar or shared interests.

A clash of civilizations can become the clarion call that justifies aggression and warfare. However, future global threats will be due less to a clash of “civilizations” than a clash of interests, political, economic and military. While there are distinctive differences of doctrine, law, institutions, and values between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are also a host of similarities. They all see themselves as Children of Abraham, are monotheists, believe in prophethood and divine revelation, have a concept of moral responsibility and accountability. This shared perspective has been recognized in recent years by the notion of a Judeo/Christian tradition, a concept that is slowly being extended by some who speak of a Judeo/Christian/Islamic tradition.

Historic clashes and violent confrontations have occurred, but they do not represent the total picture. Positive interaction and influence have also taken place. Islamic civilization was indebted to the West for many of the sources that enabled it to borrow, translate and then to develop its own high civilization that made remarkable contributions in philosophy, the sciences and technology while the West went into eclipse in the Dark Ages. The West in turn reclaimed a renovated philosophical and scientific heritage from Islamic civilization, retranslating and re-appropriating that knowledge, which then became the foundation for its Renaissance.

In the modern period, Muslims have freely appropriated the accomplishments of science and technology. In many ways, they face a period of re-examination, reformation, and revitalization. Like the Reformation in the West, it is a process not only of intellectual ferment and religious debate but also of religious and political unrest and violence.

Today it is critical to distinguish between the “hijacking” of Islam by extremists and mainstream Islam in order to appreciate that all members of the international community – Muslims and non-Muslims alike – are in one way or another caught in the current confrontation between the civilized world and global terrorism.

The continued tendency of many to see Islam and events in the Muslim world through explosive headline events of violence and terror hinders the ability to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the actions of extremists who hijack Islamic discourse and belief to justify their acts of terrorism. It reinforces the tendency to equate Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism with all Islamic movements, political and social, non-violent and violent. The Taliban’s narrow, tribal, militant interpretations of Islam – from their restrictions on women to the destruction of ancient Buddhist monuments – have little to do with Islamic doctrine and law. Muslim governments and religious leaders have criticized them across the Muslim world. Similarly, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda are no more representative of Islam than Christians who blow up abortion clinics or the Jewish fundamentalists who assassinated Yitzak Rabin, or, like Dr. Baruch Goldstein who slaughtered Muslims at Friday prayer in the Hebron mosque.

Yet, a deadly radical minority does exist; they have wrought havoc primarily on their own societies from Egypt to Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Osama Bin Laden and others appeal to these through real as well as imagined injustices and prey on the oppressed, alienated, and marginalized sectors of society. The short-term military response to bring the terrorists to justice must also be balanced by long-term policy that focuses on the core issues that breed radicalism and extremism.

Muslims today face critical choices.  If Western powers need to rethink, reassess their policies, mainstream Muslims worldwide will need to more aggressively address the threat to Islam from religious extremists. Governments that rely upon authoritarian rule, security forces and repression will have to open up their political systems, build and strengthen civil society, discriminate between free speech and mainstream opposition and a violent extremism that must be crushed and contained. Societies that limit freedom of thought and expression produce a sense of alienation and powerlessness that often results in radicalization and extremism. Formidable religious obstacles must be overcome: the ultra conservatism of many (though not all) ulama; the more puritanical militant exclusivist brands of Islam; the curriculum and training in those madrasas and universities that perpetuate a “theology of hate,” the beliefs of militants who reject not only non-Muslims but also other Muslims who do not believe as they do. The jihad (struggle) will be religious, intellectual, spiritual, and moral. But it must be a more rapid and widespread program of Islamic renewal that not only builds on past reformers but also follows the lead of enlightened religious leaders and intellectuals today who more forcefully and more effectively engage in a wide ranging process of reinterpretation (ijtihad) and reform (islah).

Relations between the Muslim world and the West will require a joint effort, a process of constructive engagement, dialogue, self-criticism and change. The extremists aside, the bulk of criticism of Western, and particularly American policy, comes from those who judge the West by its failure to live up to its principles and values. Regardless of cultural differences, Muslims and Christians share common religious/civilizational principles, values and aspirations: belief in God and His prophets, revelation, moral responsibility and accountability, the sanctity of life, the value of the family, a desire for economic prosperity, access to education, technology, peace and security, social justice, political participation, freedom and human rights. An increasing number of Muslims, like non-Muslims, are concerned about the excesses of modernity and globalization: a secularism that instead of denying privilege to any one faith in order to protect the rights of all its citizens, is anti-religious in its identity and values; an emphasis on individual rights and freedoms that is not balanced by an equal concern for the public good; a free market capitalism that is not balanced by the common good; a process of globalization that threatens a new form of western, especially American, economic and cultural hegemony.

The climate post September 11 challenges governments, policymakers, religious leaders, the media and the general public to all play both critical and constructive roles in the struggle against global terrorism. The process will have to be a joint partnership which emphasizes the beliefs, values and interests that we share in common; addresses more constructively our differences and grievances; and builds a future based upon the recognition that all face a common enemy, the threat of global terrorism, which can only be effectively contained and eliminated through a recognition of mutual interests and the use of multilateral alliances, strategies and action.