My personal thoughts on Islamic Topics, not a form of ijtihad rather than applying my mind.

My Photo
Location: Cairo, Egypt

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

The Good, The Bad And The Confusing

Shortly before he died on November 23, 1976, André Malraux (French novelist, adventurer, art historian, and statesman, Minister for Cultural Affairs 1958-1969) said, "The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all." He didn't live to see 9/11, the day the world would change.

And ever since this fateful day Islam as a religion has been looked upon differently by the West. Swiftly it became the focus of interest, whether for knowledge purposes or merely to be able to attack it. Polls were conducted, reports written, lectures given and hate-crimes against Muslims took place. The Koran was introduced into many a curriculum, universities received funds to start an Islamic Studies Program, stereotyping happened, the media demonised or justified events. Numerous books were printed and both, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, seemed to be competing for a place to voice their viewpoints about Islam. It became a point of debate whether Islam is a peaceful religion after all, or only a means to supply terrorists with a reason to kill, destroy and maim. This didn't only happen in the USA, but also in Europe: "September 11 has in some cases merely acted as a detonator of feelings that we have failed to adequately address," Bob Purkis, the EUMC (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia) chairman, said in Brussels.

Two trends seem to have developed or even matured simultaneously. On one hand we saw a rising Islamophobia against all things Islamic, and on the other hand Islamophilia became the other side of the coin, perhaps as a stubborn reaction. But where does the truth about Islam lie?

Perhaps we should start by defining both terms. Wikepedia defines Islamophobia as "the fear or hatred of Muslims or Islamic Culture. Islamophobia is characterized by the belief that Muslims are religious fanatics, have violent tendencies towards non-Muslims, and reject, as directly opposed to Islam, such concepts as equality, tolerance and democracy. Given the strong association between Arabs and the religion of Islam, Islamophobia often expresses itself as a form of anti-Arab racism, though not all Arabs are Muslim and the majority of Muslims are in fact not Arab."

Hence the term 'Islamophobia' seems to be just another form of prejudice. While phobia shouldn't be confused with racism, as only phobias against people because of their race and not their ideology or religious beliefs are racism (like xenophobia), it is still a form of discrimination. Islamophobia is based upon an 'unfounded' hostility towards Islam. It may be directed against individuals or groups because of their actual or perceived religious background or identification and results in unfair discrimination and harassment, such as the exclusion of individuals or groups from the mainstream areas of social, economic or political life.

But the term wasn't coined after 9/11. In the early 1980s and 1990s there was a popular anti-Muslim prejudice, reflected in the 'mad mullahs' stereotypes, perhaps due to Khomeini's Islamic Revolution in Iran. Yet the term Islamophobia was not used until 1997, when the race relations think-tank The Runnymede Trust published their report, Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All. The section called 'The Nature of Islamophobia' suggests a very broad notion of prejudice - "examples of Islamophobia included people seeing Islam as inferior to the West, rather than just distinctively different; seeing Islam as monolithic and static, rather than diverse and progressive; seeing Islam as an enemy, rather than a partner to cooperate with." But despite the word "Islamophobia" being new, the underlying sentiments are not. The negative image of Muslims and Islam began as early as the Crusades, when Christian and mercenary soldiers marched to Jerusalem in order to "free" the Holy Land, the birthplace of Jesus, from Islamic influence and authority. Songs were then sung by marching Crusaders characterizing Islam and Muslims not only negatively, but as infidels and idolaters. Ever since the early Crusades, Islam and Muslims have been portrayed in a derogatory fashion. Leaving aside the political and economic aspects of the crusades, they still appeared to be the logical religious move then, as Christianity was the major religious power in the world until Islam burst onto the scene. Christianity naturally feared a loss of its followers to Islam and needed to respond. More so, since the Koran challenged the Christian notions about the nature of God and Jesus. So, anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination were based upon claims that Islam is an 'inferior' religion and a threat to the dominant values of the Christian society. This has been more confirmed and has taken deeper roots with the ever rising numbers of Muslim immigrants in the 20th century to Western countries, which made the difference between both religions and mentalities even more apparent. However, Islamophobia is not restricted to a hatred of Islam, but also prejudice and hatred directed against people who are or who are perceived to be Muslim. As such, Islamophobia today cannot be entirely separated from the problem of anti-Muslim discrimination.

Looking at the other side of the coin, "Islamophilia", I have failed to find a published definition in any encyclopaedia I have access to, but the closest one I can devise would be a strong tendency towards Islam or an irrational or even obsessive attraction to it. We can see this trend increasing by reading about the statistics of numerous new conversions to Islam, the growing numbers in women who take the veil and other such acts. But Islamophilia also had its roots long before 9/11, even if it was not called as such then.

Mohamed Kotb, an Islamic scholar and brother of the infamous Sayyid Kotb, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, identified and wrote about this phenomena as early as the 1960s saying : "The best way to counteract hostility to Islam and Muslims is through faith. Faith is what let early Muslims win battles against impossible odds such as 300 to 1. It was the faith of the early Muslim warriors that defeated the more politically sophisticated and better-equipped Roman Empire and also the Persian Empire. Then, a Muslim soldier entered any battle with the idea that he would either die a martyr or win a victory."

But the nostalgic glorification of earlier Islam, which comes with Islamophilia, does not stop at praising the Prophet's time, but goes on to remind the Western World over and over again that they owe their progress and culture to the Islamic World. They are reminded ad nauseum of how the European scholars escaped the dark ages by translating the Arabic manuscripts (of preserved translated Greek originals nonetheless) into Latin. They are told how they copied the principles of Islamic scholarship and academic organizations in building their own. They are prodded to remember that the language of algebra and the concepts of "zero" and decimal numbers were also vital to the growth of Europe and were essentially based on what Arab mathematicians had learned and transferred from the scholars of India, another part of the Muslim Empire then. Mathematics, astronomy, geography, philosophy, medicine and many more subjects were said to have been transferred from the Arab Islamic World to Europe, via Spain, then part of the Muslim Empire. There are many other examples, including the Arabic roots of European music and musical instruments, and the rich Islamic/Arabic influence spanning the people and cultures of southern and eastern Europe, to name but two. The common view is that, during the so-called dark ages of European Christendom, Islam preserved the philosophical, literary, and scientific wisdom of the classical period to be used later by the Western world. Islamophiles go on and blame the Western world for repaying their teachers with hostility and bloodshed in the Crusades.

But even some islamophobic writers, such as Bat Ye'or, a Jew born in Egypt, who now lives in Europe, implicitly acknowledge the Arab/Islamic contributions to the European World, albeit colouring it with her own interpretation. In the book The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude first published in 1991, we read : "Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, conquered by nomadic bands, taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries, the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, . . . the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge-in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization. Later, some of those whose civilizations had been ravaged by the barbarians went into exile. The elites who fled to Europe took their cultural baggage with them, their scholarship and their knowledge of the classics of antiquity. Thenceforth, in the Christian lands of refuge-Spain, Provence, Sicily, Italy-cultural centers developed where Christians and Jews from Islamized lands taught to the young Europe the knowledge of the old pre-Islamic Orient, formerly translated into Arabic by their ancestors." The author's view still does not diminish the role the Arab/Muslim World played in the transfer of knowledge.

But where does this leave us? Trying to divide Islam into good and bad, moderate and fundamentalist, harmless and poisonous does not help us bridge the gap between the religions. The fear of things unknown can only be battled through knowledge. So let us try and get to know Islam a little bit better without judging it or labelling it as good, bad or ugly. Perhaps it would be repetitive of me to write that the word 'Islam' is significant to a Muslim, for it has a two-fold meaning: peace and also submission, surrender or commitment to Allah, as this has been written many times before. But I would like to draw attention to the fact that Islam is not just a religion, rather it is an all-encompassing way of life that must be practiced continuously for it to be Islam. Every Muslim is asked to practice the five pillars of the religion: the declaration of faith in the oneness of Allah and the prophet-hood of Mohamed, five daily prayers, fasting the entire month of Ramadan, alms-tax or "zakat", and the pilgrimage for those who can afford it; as well as believe in the six articles of faith: belief in God, all three holy books, all the prophets and messengers, all the angels, judgment day and God's decree, whether for good or bad.

It was a lot easier back in the days of Prophet Mohamed, for then there was only one Islam for all, unlike today where we have too numerous sects and divisions to count. Nowadays there exist many different sects and many different schools of jurisprudence, each with their own interpretations of how Islam should be practiced and they are not necessarily the same. For the purpose of not confusing anybody, I shall stick to the original version of Islam, as practiced during the times of the Prophet before the many different interpretations crept into it. Since I am not a Muslim scholar, but just a scholarly Muslim trying to explain my religion, I would like to take you with me and look at some of the news stories emerging from or about different countries in the Islamic World since that fateful day in 2001, and the reactions to them in the Western World, as well as the basis of them in original Islam, which will be the subject of this series and might perhaps give some insight to my religion.