‘How does a nice, sensible Welsh girl like you end up joining a religion of militant fundamentalists who suppress women?’ Interviewers have endlessly asked me this question. The question is predicated on the proposition that nice and sensible people do not become Muslims, and by implication therefore that no Muslim is either nice or sensible. The lack of niceness or reason is proved by the second assertion: Muslims in totality, and presumably by their nature, are militant. Militancy is synonymous with the dread word fundamentalist that clearly needs no definition. The logical consequence of militant fundamentalism is the self-evident observation that all Muslims suppress women. In the perception of the interviewer these terms belong together: because Islam offers no alternative, become a Muslim and that is what you get.
Of course, interviewers often play devil’s advocate asking aggressive questions to stimulate robust rebuttal. In which case, they must be aware of the possibility of an alternative view. So why does it never occur to them that devilishly reductive stereotypes actually impede and often preclude sensible discussion of the alternative view. Neither the conventional questions nor the rote answers they are designed to elicit describe or help anyone understand who I am, the world I inhabit, how I know and understand Islam, and the condition of being a Muslim.
Why has this question, and variations on its themes, become the essential norm, the set examination to which a Muslim’s existence must be subjected? The answer is Orientalism, the tradition and scholarship by which Western civilization portrays and perceives Islam and Muslims. Right from its inception, Islam was perceived and represented in Europe in a particular way. One can begin with the polemics of John of Damascus c748 AD and move forward to the production of propaganda and popular literature produced to stimulate, explain and justify the centuries long project known as the Crusades. The Crusades were a seminal project for the repossession of the Holy Land by Western Christendom. It required a rationale to explain why the Muslim rulers and population of that region were illegitimate and unfit occupants of the place where Christ had walked on Earth.
The basic representation of Muslims that emerged was of militant, barbaric fanatics, corrupt, effete sensualists, people who lived contrary to the natural law — a concept defined by canon laws and philosophy of Christianity. Even when Muslims were portrayed in popular medieval literature as equivalents of knightly Western counterparts, they were completely Other because they were beyond the pale of Christianity, addicted to wrong religion which they persisted in passionately believing. The failings of Muslims stemmed from their beliefs. What medieval Europe made of Islam and Muslims has been described by British historian Norman Daniels as ‘knowledgeable ignorance’, defining a thing as something it could not possibly be, when the means to know it differently were available.
The essential features of the medieval representation of Islam and Muslims found a new lease of life with the rise of the Ottoman Empire. After the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 the Ottomans became a new threat on the borders of Europe, a continent increasingly aware that it was hemmed in and cut off from the riches of the world by Muslim territory and power. English philosopher Francis Bacon described the Ottomans as the ‘present terror of the world’. What Europe calls the ‘Age of Discovery’, when it explored and began to establish its colonizing presence around the globe, was an exercise to circumvent its dependence on Muslim lands. It brought Europeans into closer contact with and eventual control of Muslim lands.
Medieval ideas about Islam and Muslims got a new lease of life during the colonial period when they were used as justification for ruling and managing the subject people. Such European disciplines as anthropology, political science and development studies, as well as the study of non-Western civilizations such as Islam, India and China, evolved and developed on the tenets of Orientalism. It is the literary convention of much of the fictional and travel literature of Europe. Thus, Orientalism is not simply prejudice, it is also knowledge. The real problem with Orientalism and the authority it gives to Western experts on Islam and Muslim affairs is not that it is knowledge, but that it is knowledge that does not appreciate it is wrong. The authority of Orientalism is that it makes Muslims incomprehensible yet predictable. And its persistence in history and modern times means that Islam and the West have been engaged in a clash of civilizations since Prophet Muhammad began preaching his Message. Is today’s ‘war on terrorism’ the prelude to a clash of civilizations? The question is in every newspaper and magazine. It did not need the right-wing American political scientist Samuel Huntingdon to devise the question; the idea has never actually gone away. There is a sense in which Osama bin Laden is utterly predictable, since he embodies so many of the essential details of the time-honoured image of what the West expects from a Muslim iconoclast in ideas, rhetoric and action.
Fear and discomfort
The authority of Orientalism as knowledge has immense practical consequences. It structures the learned books as well as the popular press, it finds its outlets in plasterboard movie villains as well as strategic political thinking. But most of all it inhibits, constrains and provides an edge of fear and discomfort in the relations between ordinary people, the non-Muslim and Muslim populations of Western nations. Racism and discrimination in towns and cities across Europe and North America exist not only in the attitudes and actions of an obnoxious extreme fringe: they can be implicit in the commonplace attitudes and information of well- meaning and well-intentioned nice, sensible people. But in recent years Orientalism has become an even greater problem. It has become the scapegoat, the shield and sword of Muslims themselves. Among Muslims the existence of Orientalism has become the justification for every sense of grievance, a source of encouragement for nostalgic romanticism about the perfections of Muslim civilization in history and hence a recruiting agent for a wide variety of Islamic movements. It has generated a sense of exclusivity, of being apart and different within Muslim communities and societies that has no precedent either in Islam as religion or Muslim history.
Because Orientalism, or its latest buzz word Islamophobia, has been demonstrated to exist, then, from the Muslim perspective, by definition that which is offended against must be defended. That which is the subject of discrimination, prejudice, oppression and all manner of wrongs is thereby established as both innocent and good, no matter what its actual imperfections in practice.
The most subtle and for Muslims perilous consequence of Orientalism and Islamophobic actions is the silencing of self-criticism and the slide into defending the indefensible. Muslims decline to be openly critical of fellow Muslims, their ideas, activities and rhetoric in mixed company, lest this be seen as giving aid and comfort to the extensive forces of condemnation. Brotherhood, fellow feeling, sisterhood are genuine and authentic reflexes of Islam. But Islam is supremely a critical, reasoning and ethical framework, a system of values applicable first and foremost to Muslims. Islam cannot, or rather ought not to be manipulated into ‘my fellow Muslim right or wrong’.
The existence and increasing focus on Orientalism provide the perfect rationale for modern Muslims to become reactive, addicted to a culture of complaint and blame that serves only to increase the powerlessness, impotence and frustration of being a Muslim.
Armed with the conviction of being misunderstood, Muslims blithely proceed to misunderstand themselves. The self-description that has become commonplace among Muslim groups, organizations and movements is not a critical agenda for addressing actual problems but a projection of perfections that makes arriving at a contemporary interpretation of how to enact and live by Muslim beliefs and ideas almost impossible.
So, what we have is not a clash of civilizations but mutual complicity in proliferating mutual incomprehension. On both sides, wilful, determined, distorted, imaginings and knowledgeable ignorance propels, fuels and then justifies aggression, oppression, dispossession and dehumanization of anyone who is not ‘us’. The consequences are real, appalling human suffering whether in Palestine or Israel, Baghdad or New York or on the streets of Britain.
With two complicit systems of self-justification and self-fulfilling incomprehension reinforcing the divide, is there any way forward? There is. In the root of antipathy, where difference and distance were manufactured, we can recover the building blocks of a new sense of interrelationship, compatibility and mutual enlightened interests. Orientalism makes Muslim civilization the dark alter ego of European civilization. Muslim Occidentalism makes the West the dark, despoiling nemesis of its contemporary existence. Both leave out an essential detail. There would be no Europe as we know it without Islam, without the constant interconnection with Muslim civilization. And there is no Muslim existence today or in the future that can be conceived without interconnection with the West.
We have to go back to history and see how much Europe gained from the knowledge and ideas in science, technology, philosophy, literature and culture of Muslim civilization. There are thousands of words in English — such as algebra, zenith, alcohol — that are route maps of the positive contribution Muslims made to European ways of life. Indeed, Europe acquired its crowning glory, liberal humanism, from Islam. Islam taught Europe the very idea of reason as well as how to reason. Muslim thinkers like ibn Rushd, ibn Sina and al-Haytham, who had their names Latinized, became integral parts of the rise of knowledge and technical progress in European life. This contribution occurred and was possible because both Islam and the West had a common context and legacy from the Greco-Roman world and both, as monotheistic worldviews, had to revise and critically evaluate the ideas of Greek thought. Christianity and Islam share the common legacy of the Abrahamic tradition. There are values, precepts and ideals, as distinct from specific doctrines, that are common to both or markedly similar. There is a retelling of history and ideas to be undertaken.
The West has the task of learning to think differently about where it came from. The Muslim world must rethink where it is. It needs to learn how it values: its moral and ethical impulses are not a separate order but integral part of the common concerns of contemporary human dilemmas. Muslims want sustainable improvement, human betterment, are concerned about where science is going, how to save the Earth, how to attain a just, equitable and inclusive social and political order. To these common concerns they bring a particular way of seeing problems, and no simplistic definitive answers.
The trouble with hopeful alternative strategies is they begin with a change of mindset. They can operate only if we are prepared to unlearn, become self-critical and conscious of the false constraints we have taken for normality and authoritative knowledge, that deform our potential, divert us from the most constructive use of our insight and abilities. In short we have to admit to errors and remedy what we have got wrong. To do that we have to be able to explain ourselves, make our debates not predictable but comprehensible to each other.
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