Dialogue Between Muslims and the West
By Maulana Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand/Noor Mohammad Sikand)
Relations between Muslims and the West are a hotly-debated subject today. Many Western intellectuals and political leaders are acutely aware that these relations have rapidly deteriorated in recent years and that they urgently need to be improved. Most Muslim intellectuals and leaders feel the same way, too. Both sets of intellectuals and leaders are deeply conscious of the fact that if relations between Muslims and the West continue to remain tense or further deteriorate, it would prove disastrous for Muslims and the West alike. Improving these relations is thus a formidable challenge that both of them today face.
In this regard, inter-cultural dialogue assumes particular importance. Several steps have already been taken in this regard by some groups and organizations. At the same time, the fact cannot be overlooked that many Muslims look at such dialogue with suspicion and have deep reservations as to what they perceive is its actual agenda. They regard such dialogue as a new weapon wielded by the West to pursue its own interests. This way of thinking is not restricted just to the ulema or other Islamic groups but is also to be found among a large proportion of secular-minded Muslims as well. The basic cause for this is not just the memory of the colonial past but also the present-day, continuing Western imperialist aggression directed against numerous Muslim countries. This cannot be ignored, particularly the vexed issue of Palestine, which, in fact, is the most potent cause for widespread anti-Western sentiments among Muslims across the world. Without a just solution of the Palestinian question it is simply impossible for relations between Muslims and the West to witness any major qualitative transformation and improvement. Those who seek to promote genuine dialogue between Muslims and the West must keep this uppermost in their minds.
A major disease plaguing the West today is the evil of egotism. It is an insurmountable barrier to changing the West’s attitude towards, and behavior with, Muslims. The West is convinced of what it believes to be the utter superiority of its way of life, which it wants to impose on the rest of the world. George Bush was an extreme case of such cultural imperialism, but he was no isolated exception. It can be safely said that the vast majority of Westerners still fiercely uphold such supremacist beliefs, consciously or otherwise. Obviously, and needless to say, this is a major hurdle in the path of any respectful and sincere dialogue between Muslims and the West.
The basis of meaningful dialogue between Muslims and the West must be a willingness on the part of both to sincerely seek to understand each other, not through their own lenses but, rather, empathetically—that is to say, to see the ‘other’ as the ‘other’ views itself. In this regard, one must mention that the Muslim world has not seriously sought to understand the West in this way. In contrast, the West, one might say, has sought to understand Islam and Muslims, but the purpose in doing so has been, by and large, to exploit the Muslim world and to promote Western interests and also to project Muslims as a foil against which to assert Western claims to superiority. Underlying this quest to understand the Muslims and Islam was a marked feeling of hostility or even downright enmity, so much so that even positive aspects of Muslim culture came to be projected as faults in the Western imagination.
This attitude, on the part of both Muslims and the West, needs urgently to be changed if we are to make any progress towards genuine dialogue. Gaining the confidence of the ‘other’ would be impossible without this. The main responsibility in this regard falls on the shoulders of the West, because it is presently so much more powerful. In the Middle Ages, the context of which was vastly different from our own, numerous negative developments in the Muslim world did indeed serve to build up anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic prejudice in the West. In today’s vastly different world, different forms of Western imperialism and aggression, open and hidden, have led to a heightening of anti-Western sentiments across the Muslim world. The West continues with this policy but, at the same time, mouths lofty slogans of dialogue with Muslims. It poses itself simultaneously as champion of dialogue between civilizations and as champion of the clash of civilisations. It may be that there are more advocates of inter-civilisational dialogue than of inter-civilisational conflict in the West, but it cannot be denied that among the former are many for whom dialogue is simply a means for advancing their own interests or of the West more generally.
For dialogue between Muslims and the West to succeed, both parties must be clear, and should also make it clear, that they also have the goodwill and welfare of the ‘other’ in mind. Further, both parties should be accepted as equals, and the principles and outcomes of dialogue must apply to them equally. It cannot be that one party is excluded from abiding by the demands of serious dialogue and insists that the other does its bidding. Both parties must accept each other’s rights, cultural identity, religions and other such differences. One party cannot be allowed to force anything on the other, including in the name of adherence to a particular ideology. A necessary aspect of mutual recognition and understanding that dialogue must be based on is mutual respect. Each party must respect the beliefs of the other, and where there are differences seek to address them through peaceful persuasion, rather than through force. The minimum or basic form of tolerance or acceptance in this regard is to listen, study and seriously seek to understand the views or beliefs of the other, no matter how different they may be from one’s own.
Another essential step that must be urgently taken if dialogue efforts between Muslims and the West are to succeed is for Western powers to give convincing assurances to immediately halt their imperialist offensives against Muslim countries, and for Muslim leaders to prevail upon extremist Muslim groups to immediately halt their violent activities against the West. This, of course, is easier said than done, especially since today many Muslim governments are themselves victims of violence unleashed by such Muslim groups. It is imperative that Muslim governments, intellectuals, ulema and civil society groups work out a strategy to halt violent attacks against the West by such groups. At the same time, there is an urgent need to dialogue precisely with these groups as well. For this to happen, the policies and attitude of the West must also change and become more flexible. The West must realise that while it can subordinate governments in most Muslim countries to its will, it cannot do this with regard to the Muslim public. Needless to say, for Muslim public opinion to be transformed, the West’s policies towards Muslim countries must suitably change.
One cannot deny the fact of considerable difference in the worldviews of Islam and that of the West in general. On certain aspects there are deep contradictions between the two. Rudyard Kipling’s famous lines ‘East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet’ holds true at least as far as these aspects are concerned. Efforts to promote dialogue between Muslims and the West cannot ignore these aspects. The only feasible way to deal with them is to refrain from employing one’s own worldview as the criterion for others. Both Muslims and Westerners have the right to hold on to their worldviews, but, at the same time, they must understand that the worldview of the other is not wholly without anything positive, contrary to what extremists on both sides might claim. It is not proper, nor even feasible, to seek to condemn wholly and outright the worldview of the other. In fact, both can learn and profit from the positive aspects of the worldview of each other and their contributions to bettering the conditions of humankind.
Reviewing traditional understandings on several issues, particularly those related to the rights of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, is indispensable if Muslims are to be properly equipped to engage in meaningful dialogue with others, including the West. If Muslims demand equal rights in non-Muslim countries, it is but to be expected that non-Muslims should enjoy equal rights in Muslim countries. According to the Prophet Muhammad, one should desire for others what one desires for oneself. Both the West as well as Muslim countries need to introspect and change in accordance with this principle. For the West, this required change is more in terms of practical action, rather than ideology, for this principle is, by and large, accepted in theory in the West. For the Muslim world, the required change is more in terms of ideology, particularly since, despite this principle being enunciated by the Prophet Muhammad, many rules of traditional fiqh or Muslim jurisprudence clearly militate against and violate this principle.
The need for dialogue between Muslims and the West is particularly acute today, given the context of heightened conflict and violence between them. Most Muslims and Westerners realize that they cannot live in isolation from each other. In fact, they both need each other. Consciousness of that need must be translated into positive practical action based on sincere dialogue to counter misunderstandings and to work together for a better world.
Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore.