Saturday, May 18, 2013

Religion: Field of Muslim-Western relations as crucial today as ever

by Ambassador Akbar Ahmed
Washington DC – From the time Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was published over two decades ago, when I was at Cambridge University, I have been fully involved in promoting dialogue and understanding between the West and the Muslim world.

I have met with great minds at the White House, Pentagon and Federal Bureau of Investigation, and spoken with rabbis, priests and imams, only to find that, despite countless hours spent as a goodwill ambassador among civilisations, there is a persistent, divisive misunderstanding between Muslims and the West, and it manifests in tragic displays of violence.

Post 9/11 thinking conflates religion and culture in the Muslim world, brands it as dangerous, transforms the mosaic of Islam into a monolith and pits it against the globalised West, which is seen as modern, decadent and secular. These conceptions are both inherently flawed and worryingly reductionist. As a bridge between cultures, worldviews and religions, Muslim-Western relations, which seeks to unpack and decode each culture for the other, has much to offer.

Indeed, anyone questioning whether the field of Muslim-Western relations is still relevant has only to look at current – and unfortunate – events in American and international news.

In the United States, fear and retaliatory anger from the tragedy at the Boston marathon has been directed towards innocent Muslims by their fellow Americans, who are confused and upset by the death and destruction visited upon runners and spectators. Some have made the miscalculation to lump all Muslims together into one threatening, homogeneous group. We have even seen senseless acts of violence directed at Sikhs, who fit a stereotypical – and inaccurate – profile, which holds that all Muslims are bearded and wear turbans.

I have found that ultimately it is ignorance, a lack of compassion, a feeling of helplessness and overwhelmingly misplaced rage that drives individuals to lash out at each other and commit acts of aggression.

A gap exists between Muslims and the West, demonstrated to shocking effect by a study compiled by Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in April 2012. A full 47 per cent of “millennials” – 18 to 24 year olds – questioned on whether Islam was at odds with American values answered in the affirmative. Similarly, the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2013 survey on Religion, Values and Immigration Reform also found that 47 per cent of people asked this exact question agreed that the values of Islam were contrary to the American way of life.

In light of these findings, the necessity for interfaith understanding becomes even more urgent. It is much more difficult to hate – or even dislike – a person based on religious beliefs alien to you when you have met them, shared a meal or a cup of tea, listened to their successes or defeats and allowed yourself a moment to recognise them as human.

Like me, my friends at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC have demonstrated admirable support for interfaith dialogue through endeavors such as the Sunday Forum, where intellectuals of all faith traditions come to the Cathedral to explore the roots of religious intolerance, building a pluralistic future for our children, and fostering understanding among all faith communities.

The Anti-Defamation League, an organisation made up of a predominately Jewish membership, is also committed to the protection of their fellow Americans, including Muslims. They condemn the spread of hate literature about Muslims, attacks on mosques and legal campaigns that would limit the ability of American Muslims to freely practice their religion. Similarly, the Islamic Society of North America collaborates with both Christian and Jewish organisations to promote tolerance and cooperation among faiths.

While some Islamophobic individuals turn to scripture to shore up their claims that Islam and Western values are categorically destined to be at odds with each other, I would charge them to look past the fragments of information they collect to thoroughly examine the entire tapestry that is Islam—a religion whose very definition means peace. I would remind them that just as Timothy McVeigh did not represent Christianity, neither does Tamerlane Tsarnaev represent Islam.

Labelling each other as monolithic, static cultures has yielded nothing positive – misunderstanding leads to negative consequences, whether in daily communication or on a global, political scale. It is only by adopting the wisdom of Harper Lee’s immortal character, Atticus Finch, that we will achieve clarity: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

* Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, DC, former High Commissioner of Pakistan to the UK and Ireland and author of The Thistle and the Drone: How America’s War on Terror became a Global War on Tribal Islam. This article, the third in a series on contemporary Muslim-Western relations, was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 14 May 2013,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.