Muslims and the West

Maulana Waris Mazhari (tr. Yoginder Sikand)

Posted Nov 14, 2008      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Muslims and the West

By Maulana Waris Mazhari

(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

The issue of strained relations between Muslims and the West is a long-standing one, and it has taken a new turn following the attacks of 9/11. In recent years, much has been written on the subject by both Muslim as well as Western scholars. Following the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations in the late 1990s, a large number of Western scholars have concluded that reconciliation between Muslims and the West is impossible and that a clash between them is inevitable.  Influential Western think-tanks have aggressively pursued this line of thinking, as have extremist religious and political forces, particularly Christian evangelicals and Zionist organisations, all across Europe and America. In this context, the crucial question arises as to how the situation can be changed, as indeed it must. Do Muslims have any proper strategy or programme in this regard? My answer is firmly in the negative.

Despite the massive anti-Western movements and sentiments that have characterised much of the Muslim world since the last one hundred and fifty years, the fact remains that Muslim intellectuals, particularly the ulema, have only a very superficial understanding and knowledge of the West. In actual fact, there has been no serious attempt on the part of Muslim scholars to properly study and evaluate Western thought, civilization and history. Today, our religious scholars’ views about the West are about the same as the West had about Muslims and Islam several centuries ago in the wake of the Crusades. Many Muslim scholars have the same sort of stereotypical understandings of the West as the West had about Muslims at the time of the Crusades. Our religious scholars believe, and this is what they tell their followers, that the West simply stands for drunkenness, sexual license, immorality and all other sorts of wanton desires and pleasures. Because of this approach we have not been able to learn from the good things that the West has to offer, not even about aspects of the Muslim scientific heritage that the West had taken from us and had then built on. Instead, in many Muslim circles hatred of the West is considered to be the biggest sign of religiousness. This mentality was formed in the colonial period, and it should have been done away with the end of the European colonial empires. However, instead of that happening, it has been greatly reinforced and strengthened, and has now become so deep-rooted that Muslim reformers find it virtually impossible to combat.

Scores of institutions for the study of Islam and Muslim culture and history have been established in the West, and several Western universities have special departments concerned with these fields. They have produced a massive amount of literature. In contrast, there are probably not even two or three scholarly institutions in the Muslim world devoted to the study of the West using modern scholarly methods. Universities in Muslim countries should have set up departments of Western studies, and there should have been private- and government-funded institutions for the study of the West, but, unfortunately, these do not exist. We desperately need such institutions, to study Western history and culture in a critical yet dispassionate way, so that Muslims can understand what the limitations or drawbacks of contemporary Western civilisation are and also its virtues, which they could adopt.

Today, most Muslims have a double-standard approach to the West. On the one hand, many of them are vociferously opposed to the West and insist that Muslims should stay away from Western culture as far as possible. At the same time, many of them fervently desire to migrate to the West! I have been twice to America, where I met several Muslims who brand America as ‘the Great Satan’ but still continue to live there for the economic benefits and opportunities that America provides them. They show-off their American passports or, if they do not as yet have them, are impatiently awaiting the day when they would receive American citizenship. Why, one must ask, these double-standards? If these Muslims are so anti-America, why don’t they leave that country and return to what they consider as dar ul-Islam, ‘the abode of Islam’, where many of them came from?

I believe that there are numerous aspects of Western culture and society that reflect the virtues that characterised the early history of Islam. In contrast, look at many Muslim countries, where groups that want to serve the cause of Islam are under severe restrictions. It is unfortunate that almost the whole focus of Muslim groups in the West is on seeking to get recognition for Muslim cultural identity, often to the point of excess. Take, for instance, the case of women’s dress. Hijab or modest dress, is adequate, but some Muslims in the West make a big hue and cry demanding that the face-veil (naqab) be allowed, and some even go beyond that, unmindful of the fact that this might lead to further escalation of anti-Muslim sentiments in society. Some extremist self-styled Islamic groups in the West, such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, even raise the simplistic slogan of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the West, completely forgetting that the liberty to do all this is not available even in the so-called dar ul-Islam.

The real conflict between Muslims and the West today is in the realm of ideas. Militarily, Muslims were defeated by the West two centuries ago, and, far from seriously hoping to militarily overwhelming the West, Muslim countries are thoroughly dependent on them for military aid. To effectively defend themselves, Muslims must first intellectually understand the West, and for this we need a group of Occidentalists, counterparts of the West’s Orientalists. But, unlike the classical Orientalists’ approach to the Orient, these scholars should not be blindly critical of the West, but should, in an objective fashion, examine both the drawbacks and the virtues of the West. Most Orientalists, as Edward Said so brilliantly brought out in his magnum opus Orientalism, did not adopt such a balanced approach, and actually served as tools of Western imperialism, but the sort of Occidentalists that we require must seek to objectively evaluate the West.

Islamophobia in the West

Some time ago, I met a Muslim professor who teaches in an American university, and I asked him about the future of Muslims in America. He seemed very pessimistic about this, and even said that Western powers might one day ask their Muslim citizens to leave. Personally, I do not think that this would be an easy task. Muslim and Western countries are too inter-dependent for this to happen. This is why it is imperative for them to seriously work to counter the present climate of hatred and mistrust between Muslims and the West. Unfortunately, the simplistic approach and egotism of some Muslim groups in the West and the propaganda of some Christian and Jewish religious and semi-religious forces are giving a tremendous boost to Islamophobic sentiments across the West. The practice of the Prophet Muhammad was to seek to create normal or settled conditions and for this to accept the terms and conditions set by his opponents so that the climate of hatred and conflict could be done away with. This is also what Muslims must seek to do, without compromising on the necessities of their faith. Muslims must also desist from viewing the West and Western culture in stark, Manichaean terms. They must seek to learn from the good things that the West has to offer while abstaining from its draw-backs, for everything that is good, no matter what its source, is of value to the whole human community.

Maulana Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, is the editor of the New Delhi-based Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Old Boys’ Association of the Deoband madrasa. He can be contacted on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)