When a Welsh resistance leader was captured and brought before the emperor in Rome, he said: “Because you desire to conquer the world, it does not necessarily follow that the world desires to be conquered by you.” Today one could offer an echo of this sentiment to western liberals: “Because you wish your values to prevail throughout the world, it does not always follow that the world wishes to adopt them.” The imperial voice is based on ignorance of the rich traditions of other civilizations, and on an undue optimism about what the West is doing to the world politically, economically and environmentally.
The entrenched beliefs many westerners profess about Islam often reveal more about the West than they do about Islam or Muslims. The Ottomans were history’s longest lasting major dynasty; their durability must have had some relation to their ability to rule a multi-faith empire at a time when Europe was busily hanging, drawing and quartering different varieties of Christian believers.
Today Islam is said to be less, not more, tolerant than the West, and we need to ask which, precisely, are the “western” values with which Islam is so incompatible? Some believe Islam’s attitude towards women is the source of the Muslim “problem”. Westerners need to look to their own attitudes here and recognize that only very recently have patriarchal structures begun to erode in the West.
The Islamic tradition does show some areas of apparent incompatibility with the goals of women in the West, and Muslims have a long way to go in their attitudes towards women. But blaming the religion is again to express an ignorance both of the religion and of the historical struggle for equality of women in Muslim societies.
A careful reading of modern female theologians of Islam would cause western women to be impressed by legal injunctions more than 1,000 years old that, for instance, grant women legal rights to domestic help at the expense of their husbands. Three of the four Sunni schools consider domestic chores outside the scope of a woman’s legal responsibilities toward her husband. Contrast that with US polls showing that working women still do 80% of domestic chores.
Westerners, in their advocacy of global conformism, often speak of “progress” and the rejection of the not-too-distant feudal past, and are less likely to reveal their unease about corporate hegemony and the real human implications of globalization.
Neither are the missionaries of western values willing to consider why Europe, the heart of the West, should have generated two world wars which killed more civilians than all the wars of the previous 20 centuries. As Muslims point out, we are asked to call them “world wars” despite their reality as western wars, which targeted civilians with weapons of mass destruction at a time when Islam was largely at peace.
We Muslims are unpersuaded by many triumphalist claims made for the West, but are happy with its core values. As a westerner, the child of civil rights and anti-war activists, I embraced Islam not in abandonment of my core values, drawn almost entirely from the progressive tradition, but as an affirmation of them. I have since studied Islamic law for 10 years with traditionally trained scholars, and while some particulars in medieval legal texts have troubled me, never have the universals come into conflict with anything my progressive Californian mother taught me. Instead, I have marveled at how most of what western society claims as its own highest ideals are deeply rooted in Islamic tradition.
The chauvinism apparent among some westerners is typically triggered by Islamic extremism. Few take the trouble to notice that mainstream Islam dislikes the extremists as much as the West does. What I fear is that an excuse has been provided to supply some westerners with a replacement for their older habit of anti-semitism. The shift is not such a difficult one. Arabs, after all, are semites, and the Arabian prophet’s teaching is closer in its theology and law to Judaism than it is to Christianity. We Muslims in the West, like Jews before us, grapple with the same issues that Jews of the past did: integration or isolation, tradition or reform, inter-marriage or intra-marriage.
Muslims who yearn for an ideal Islamic state are in some ways reflecting the old aspirations of the Diaspora Jews for a homeland where they would be free to be different. Muslims, like Jews, often dress differently; we cannot eat some of the food of the host countries. Like the Jews of the past, we are now seen as parasites on the social body, burdened with a uniform and unreformable law, contributing little, scheming in ghettoes, and obscurely indifferent to personal hygiene.
Cartoons of Arabs seem little different to the caricatures of Jews in German newspapers of the Nazi period. In the 1930s, such images ensured that few found the courage to speak out about the possible consequences of such a demonization, just as few today are really thinking about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the extreme-right parties across Europe. Muslims in general, and Arabs especially, have become the new “other”.
When I met President Bush last year, I gave him two books. One was The Essential Koran, translated by Thomas Cleary. The second was another translation by Cleary, Thunder in the Sky: Secrets of the Acquisition and Use of Power. Written by an ancient Chinese sage, it reflects the universal values of another great people.
I did this because, as an American, rooted in the best of western tradition, and a Muslim convert who finds much of profundity in Chinese philosophy, I believe the “Huntington thesis” that these three great civilizations must inevitably clash is a lie. Each civilization speaks with many voices; the best of them find much in common. Not only can our civilizations co-exist in our respective parts of the world, they can co-exist in the individual heart, as they do in mine. We can enrich each other if we choose to embrace our essential humanity; we can destroy the world if we choose to stress our differences.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson is the director of the Zaytuna Institute. Visit their website at http://www.zaytuna.org/
Originally published in the Guardian, Wednesday June 19, 2002
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002
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