Islam in the eyes of the West

Islam in the eyes of the West

Islam in the eyes of the West


The representations prevailing in the West about the Muslim world stem from a complex elaboration process where historical and political factors are intertwined.

Historical and geographical proximity always means complex and competitive relations between the geopolitical entities concerned. And this has certainly been the case between the European and the Muslim world since the Middle Ages and implied handing over an historical memory of conflicts. The rivalry between Islam and Chistianity, between Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms, between the Christian and Ottoman empires triggered conflicts of interests and ideologies tending to turn the other into the Devil. You just have to read Amin Maalouf's book "The Crusades seen by the Arabs" or to sea Youssef Chahine's film "Saladin" to realize that their interpretation of such historic events is just the opposite of the one we have built in the West with a reverse symbolism. Nevertheless, the distorsions brought about by such a situation did not prevent the development of mutual influence. The Bizantine Empire had close links to the Omeyas and th Abbasis in the East (even closer than with the European Christian kingdoms), there will be constant economic and cultutral exchanges between Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms just as the westernization of medieval Islam is an undeniable historic process (Sicily, the Iberian peninsula, the Balkans).

However, the modern and contemporary times witnessed the development by the West of an ideology based on western cultural superiority, which will be the corner stone of its relations with others, and more intensively so with Islam, giving rise to what apparently looked like a cultural gap but that had, in effect, deep political roots.

The time when Jews and Muslims were expelled from Spain, as well as the discovery of America represent the starting point of a process whereby Europe sees itself as a close identity and proclaims it is the only one to possess the attributes of mankind, considering as a consequence other peoples as inferior. The ideological elaboration process that supports this European vision was completed during the Renaissance and is still at play nowadays. It has to do with a selective interpretation of History, which eradicates the East from European thinking and gives birth to the myth of Greco-roman culture being its sole and only original source. In other words, the founding mith of European thinking expelled radically the oriental contribution, and within this contribution, the significant role played by Muslim thinking in the safeguard and revitalization of hellenistic philosophy as well as in the development of a rationalistic philosophy of its own. As a result, the concept of two different isolated worlds that do not have the least common heritage, flourished.

Later on, with the development of colonialism, we came to consider European culture as superior to all others and to look upon the cultures of colonized peoples as inferior. Since then, Europe is infused with a deep cultural ethnocentricism through which it looks upon other cultures in an essentialist manner (that is to say as if they were closed up, inmutable and monolithic, incapable of progress nor evolution, in a way that is determinant for their future). As a result we tend to consider that the notions of progress, dynamism and innovation belong to European civilization, that was then transformed in Western, and it should be universally imitated. At a later stage, when the anti-colonial movement developed in Europe, it will question the legimacy of the methods used (political domination and economic exploitation), but not the vocation of the West to serve as the cultural model that would enable the world to modernize. Progress and development could not be but the identical reproduction of what had happened in the West.

In the Arab and Muslim world, the colonial vision at work will look upon the native cultural heritage and trsnmit the idea that everything that came from from the Islamic heritage was backward and contrary to progress and modernity. From then on, the idea according to which Islam and modernity are mutually exclusive gained more and more strength, the only valued contribution will be the one coming from Arab and Muslim intellectuals who are close to European thinking, since this is yet an other way to stress their dependance vis à vis Western supremacy.

The problem is that the belief in such a supremacy prevailed also among the nationalist elites that lead the way to independance and then constitued the governments of the newly born Nation - States, which were convinced that the ideal solution lied in the imitation of the West.

As a consequence, the post-colonial value system in the Muslim world turned its back on islamic legitimacy and culture as it launched its political and economic modernization process, and thus took over the symbolic anti-islamic vision of the Western model. Far from renovating or updating the pre-colonial legal, political and cultural framework, the principle of "islamic authenticity", that was obsessively repeated by the official propaganda, turned into the intouchable pilar of islamic heritage, and remained completely left out of the process of building a modern State.

As a consequence, the State will leave behind, and even suppress, just as the Europeans had done, thecmodernist trends within Muslim reformist movements. On the contrary, it supported the more traditional ulemas, and granted them official status through the "Councils of Ulemas" that were set up by governments, so that their fatwas could be used as devices to give islamic legitimacy to any position, opinion or decision taken by the regime. In turn, The governments rewarded these ultra-conservative ulemas by allowing them to control the social model of Muslim society. They became the censors of society and caretakers of tradition, and thus prevented any change or social reform as well as any modernist interpretation of Islam. This is how the Arab States closed the door on new interpretations or readings of Muslim tradition aimed at adapting it to the modern world, for the greatest satisfaction of the Western world, convinced that the world od Islam is incapable of producing modernity.

This concept shared both by the West and the westernized elites of the Arab and Muslim world came to a crisis in the seventies when the value system put in place by the first post-colonial generation revealed all of its failures. The value system was based on the socio-economic model of the all protecting state, on pan-arabism. socialism and anti-imperialism, focused on the fight against Israel. The overall failure of such principles (acute socio-economic crisis, corruption, authoritarian political system, loss of political influence as a regional group within the international community and striking defeat in the fight against Israel with the loss of the 1967 war as a symbolic date) created a growing gap from the seventies onward between government and society. And within society, the gap was even wider with the most relevant sector, (in demographic terms) that is to say the young people, the following generation who make up for the vast majority: over 60% of the total population in the Arab world to-day are under 20 years of age. Confronted with the overall failure of the political and ideological models derived from the West, this new generation will feel attracted by a new model, that contrary to what the first nationalist generation had done, was inspired by their own cultural heritage and would build an up-dated model based on their own cultural, historical and legal universe. This explains why, from the eighties, this part of the world has gone through a process of Islamic cultural affirmation, that politically identifies with the reformist islamist parties.

Or, to say things differently, after the experience of failure, in terms of political and economic independance, there is in the Arab and Muslim world to-day a strong feeling rising from the sphere that was long most neglected by the nationalist elites who built the State, that is to say the sphere of cultural identity and independance, which in the Arab world is closely linked to the Islamic framework. This is where reformist islamism anwers, in sociological terms, the need felt by a vast proportion of Muslim populations to build a new, modern, democratic order based on their own culture and identity. What is expected from the West is respect and acknowledgement, however this revitilazation of Islam is not aimed against the West. What is questioned is the way the specificity of the Western cultural universe has been arbitrarily raised to the status of absolute universal standard. When islamists express their resentement against the West, this does not mean that they despise its values of progress and development, or of public liberties, but simply that they reject the arrogance of the West, and the double standards that it applies to question such as the fight for human rights, democracy or the ever pending Palestinian question.

In the West, instead of trying to understand the causes and depth of the social and political evolution going on in the Muslim world, we have concentrated on "islamic fundamentalism" while focusing the analysis of what happens in this part of the world on the cultural difference between "them" and "us", with no proper attention as to what consequences international politics have on the Middle East region.

The phantasm of "islamic fundamentalism" has proved useful to feed prejudice and strengthen essentialist cultural visions of Islam as well as legitimate authoritarian governments in many Arab and Muslim countries. However, the most important aspect probably is the analytical confusion around the notion of islamist fundamentalism which prevented western societies to understand the diversity of the social and political situation in the Arab and Muslim world and what the real problems in the area are. The dominant opinion on islamists in the West has been unable to make the difference - and this is where the problem lies - between reformist islamists (the majority, respecful of law and opposed to violence), religious ultra-conservative circles (supported by goverments themselves) and radical islamists (a minority, blown out of proportion by the media). This lack of insight reveals the great ignorance of Western public opinion about the Muslim world.

The cultural explanation of political situations

In the beginning of the nineties, an other historic process took place that reinforced Western superiority complex vis a vis Islam and the overall anti-islamic vision presert in Western societies, I mean the legitimacy of a one-polar world and in is wake, the globalization process. With this new situation, the West set up a mecanism that tends to locate the origin of conflicts in the cultural difference between peoples, eliminating thus other relevant factors, such as the growing economic gap between various regions in the world.

Globalization means a global capitalist system but not a global market, social problems are not a priority in development programs, foreign investment mainly target developed countries, economic growth in the developing countries takes place in a catastrophic social framework and as a consequence does not have positive effects for the population. Globalization also means giving up gradually the fight for human rights since economic interests prevail over democratic political reform, it also means having to face the consequenses of the ever growing depreciation towards non-Western cultures (the Muslims being at the fore front, but we should not forget other parts of the world, like the fight of nativeLatin American Indians).

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