April 7th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED: BHP goes offshore as Australia goes broke and ill

EDITORIAL: IMF or UN intervention - what's the difference?

New Zealand sets up a People's Bank

BRITAIN: Foot and mouth: the real costs

Straws in the Wind

QUEENSLAND: Horan has the hardest job in Queensland

DRUGS: Beazley's drug policy: more of the same



TRADE: Europe's Common Agricultural Policy flourishes

ECONOMICS: The Aussie peso is dropping; but so is the penny


COMMENT: Islam and the West

BOOKS: 'Damaged Men: The Precarious Lives of James McAuley and Harold Stewart', by Michael Ackland

BOOKS: 'LIFE IS A MIRACLE: An Essay Against Modern Superstition', by Wendell Berry

BOOKS: King's servant: 'David Collins: A Colonial Life', by John Currey

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Islam and the West

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, April 7, 2001
Sharif Shuja surveys the origins and current role of Islamic fundamentalism, and suggests how the West should respond to it.

In our time, Islam has not only spread spectacularly as a religion, but has helped also to give birth to languages which are today spoken by many more non-Muslims than Muslims. Kiswahili in Africa is today the most important indigenous language to have emerged out of Africa - but its origins lie in the interaction between Islam and African culture. Islam and the Arabic language have bequeathed the Arabic alphabet for languages like Farsi, Urdu, Old Hausa and others. The Arabs have given the world the so-called Arabic numerals, through which the 20th Century has computerised the human experience. Today the Quran is the most widely read book in its original language in human history.

As the 21st Century begins, almost one out of every five human beings is a Muslim. In the course of the 21st Century a quarter of the human race will probably be Muslim.


In America there are now over a thousand mosques and other Islamic centres, serving some six million American Muslims - and the number is rising impressively. Currently Islam is the fastest growing religion in Central Asia also. After the USSR's collapse, all five states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Kyrghystan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan) made an official place for Islam as the dominant religion.

In Europe as a whole, there are now 20 million Muslims (excluding the 50 million Muslims of Turkey), and eight million Muslims live in Western Europe alone. Mosques now flourish in cities from Munich to Marseilles.

In France, Islam is becoming the second most widely practised religion after Catholicism. In Britain, some Muslims have experimented with an Islamic parliament; others demand state subsidies for Muslim schools. Germany has belatedly realised that the importation of Turkish workers in the 1970s was also an invitation to the muezzin and the minaret to establish themselves in German cities. Australia has mosques, Islamic schools and Quranic centres from Brisbane to Perth; its neighbours include the world's most populous Muslim country (Indonesia).

Westernisation, on the other hand, is also a major globalising force. In the first half of the 20th Century, the West had colonised more than two-thirds of the Muslim world.

Other forces facilitating the Muslim world's cultural Westernisation included the replacement of Islamic and Quranic schools with Western-style schools; the increasing use of European languages; and Western media's impact upon the distribution of news, information and entertainment. Therefore the West has in turn spread not only its technology and market ideology but also its languages (especially English, French and Spanish), its educational systems, and its consumer culture (including the dress code for men world-wide).

The net result has indeed been a form of globalisation of aspects of Western culture. But at what cost? The further question arises: can the Muslim world enter the positive sphere of globalisation without risking the negative aspects of Westernisation?

One of the remarkable things about the 20th century is that it has combined the cultural Westernisation of the Muslim world, on the one hand, and the more recent demographic Islamisation of the Western world, on the other. The foundations for the cultural Westernisation of the Muslim world were laid mainly in the first half of the 20th century.

Islamic Revivalism

There are scholars and policy-makers in the West who are concerned with recent Islamic revivalism. As one observer put it:

"Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three Abrahamic creeds of world history. In the 20th century the Western world has often been described as a 'Judeo-Christian civilisation', thus linking the West to two of those Abrahamic faiths. But if in countries like the US Muslims will soon outnumber Jews, is Islam becoming the second most important Abrahamic religion after Christianity? Numerically Islam may overshadow Judaism in much of the West, regardless of future immigration policies."

That it is resistance to Western domination and control - and not some threat to the West as such - which is taking place within the Muslim world, is a reality largely concealed from the general public. What Islamic movements are opposed to is the annexation and occupation of their lands (as in the case of Palestine and Lebanon), the usurpation of their rights over their own natural resources (as in the case of the Gulf Sheikhdoms), and the denigration of their religion (as often happens in the Western media, sometimes abetted by local Žlites and writers - Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses is a case in point).

Such Muslim resistance is portrayed as an "Islamic threat" by some Western academics, including Samuel P. Huntington. Conflict between Western and Islamic civilisations, Huntington (in his article, "The Clash of Civilisations") points out, "has been going on for 1300 years. The Gulf War is only the most recent important example".

As the 21st century begins to unfold, it is crucial to consider whether Islam is a monolithic force; whether the clash between Islam and the West is inevitable; and whether the so-called Islamic civilisation poses a credible threat to the West.

Huntington depicts the Islamic countries as part of a wider pan-Islamic movement, united in their hostility to the West and the United States. So convinced is Huntington of the "kin-country" syndrome that even the 1990-91 Gulf War (which pitted Islamic rulers against Islamic rulers) becomes, to him, clear evidence of the brewing Islam-versus-West clash.

The depiction of Islam as a monolithic entity may reflect the errors of the Western Orientalist mind-set, which refuses to understand the diversity within Islam, preferring the convenience of a simple explanation. This myth has, so far, refused to adapt itself to reason.

If the notion of a political and monolithic Islam should be taken with some scepticism, it is still true that a fundamentalist movement has emerged with the specific political task of reforming Muslim societies.

This, however, is essentially a reaction to Westernisation, though not modernisation, and constitutes an attempt to check a perceived social drift and weakening of morals. In the West, modernisation is synonymous with Westernisation, but Muslim fundamentalists clearly dissociate the two.

Religious fundamentalism, especially Afghanistan's Taliban leadership, alarms the civilised world. Yet with all their zeal for Islam, and their desire to impose their vision on society, the Taliban violated two basic tenets of Islam in a manner calculated to cause offence to many.

First, their discrimination against women and the beatings that they administer, contrast with the gentleness of the Prophet of Islam towards women. Muhammed's famous saying, "Heaven is under the feet of the mother", sums up the traditional attitude of Islam to women. Secondly, the Taliban's harshness towards minority groups, the non-Pathans, is also against the spirit of Islam, which encourages tolerance. This suggests an ethnic attitude, rather than a religious one, as the Taliban's main motive.

Moreover the fundamentalist movement, most active in the Shi'ite countries of Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, is also diverse and a minority movement in most Islamic countries.

Therefore, even if we grant that Islam forms a united movement in comparison to Western culture, it is not certain whether the Islamic civilisations will constitute a true adversary to the West. It would be helpful if commentators in the West recognised that the pursuit of modernisation need not be accompanied by Westernisation, and that a rejection of Westernisation is not an inevitable call to do battle with the West.

In many ways Islamic revivalism is the successor to failed nationalist programmes, and offers an Islamic alternative or solution, a third way distinct from capitalism and communism. After all, Islam is not just a collection of beliefs and ritual actions, but rather a comprehensive ideology embracing public as well as personal life.

Islamic fundamentalism's depth of frustration and anger is a reaction against European colonial rule, support for unpopular rŽgimes and the internal weaknesses of numerous Muslim governments. In this context, the Muslim demands for change are little different from the demands in Eastern Europe in 1989-91.

In many Muslim countries secularists, nationalists and Islamists are united in the common cause of popular democracy: of the right to gain legitimate power with ballots rather than bullets. These forces are also co-operating with each other to topple absolute monarchies, military dictators and other authoritarian governments.

State terrorism has destroyed the lives of large groups of Muslims: up to 100,000 killed in Kashmir during recent decades; further bloodshed in Chechnya and in Bosnia. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have been displaced, bombed, uprooted and dispossessed in Palestine, Lebanon and, most recently, Kosovo. Not all this violence has come from non-Muslims. Muslims themselves have been equally harsh to each other because of a leadership that has failed in compassion and vision. In Algeria over 50,000 were killed during the 1990s in the most brutal manner possible; the dispossessed Kurds have been persecuted by several Muslim states; Sunni Muslims have fought Shi'ite Muslims; and the intra-Shi'ite Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) may have killed a million people.

Military means, however, do not form a lasting solution. Devising appropriate mechanisms for their resolution continues to require scientific method, rational inquiry and balanced argument. Because you dislike war doesn't mean you shouldn't study it. And because we don't like the behaviour of Islamic politicians doesn't mean we can ignore them.

The road ahead

In this context one needs to be clear about the teachings of Islam. Some analysts in the West take the view that the rapidly growing Muslim population in Europe and the United States, and Islamic revivalism generally, are potential threats to Western culture. Study of Islam demonstrates that it is not an inherently violent doctrine. In fact, Islam is as universalist as Christianity, and offers generous consolation when it comes to finding purpose and guiding the soul in a confusing world. Hence, the key message to Western scholars is that they should oppose the extremist Muslims, but not blame all Islam.

Now that the Muslim world, through Pakistan, has an "Islamic nuclear bomb", Muslim leadership matters more than ever. There is a likelihood of other Muslim nations joining Pakistan in the near future. The West should not ignore that danger.

Bill Clinton and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, predicted that the events of 1998 (when both Pakistan and India exploded nuclear devices) were a foretaste of things to come. They may be right. But the response of the Muslim world will depend on whether the militancy model prevails, or that of moderation. Meanwhile, leaders in the Muslim world should be made to feel that the West is on their side, particularly if the movements that specifically champion the values of democracy arise there.

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