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|How ignorance and prejudice sour the West's view of Islam|
|08/15/01 at 07:09:14|
|below is an atricle about islam www.dailytelegraph.com/opinion |
How ignorance and prejudice sour the West's view of Islam
By John Casey
A FORMER secretary general of Nato, Willy Claes, claimed that, after
the fall of communism, Islam is our new world enemy. Anyone who writes
sympathetically about Islam in the press is likely to get a letter or
two informing him of the worldwide Muslim conspiracy. Liberals and
feminists denounce the position of women in the Muslim world.
It is quite acceptable - almost de rigueur - to express vehement
anti-Muslim sentiments in polite society without being accused of racism. Indeed, to disagree with these sentiments is to invite suspicion.
No wonder Muslims feel misunderstood - denounced as blind male chauvinists at best, as terrorists at worst.
Nor is it surprising how warmly Muslims greet any attempt by a
Westerner to understand their religion. Any show of genuine respect is greeted with a touching delight. Near the Afghan border last year, I visited a madrasseh (religious school) that has close connections with the Taliban.
That a foreigner was prepared to engage in serious discussion seemed to
astonish them. That he had heard of Ibn Rusht (alias Averroes, the
philosopher from Cordova who influenced St Thomas Aquinas) delighted
few years ago in Beirut, I heard a member of Hizbollah talking with
enthusiasm about Thomas Carlyle - because Carlyle had written
about Mohammed in the 1840s.
There must be something to worry about in the fact that so many Muslims
convinced both that their religion contains the final truth, and that
are entirely misunderstood by the outside world. Add to that the
Western islamophobia, and you have a dangerous brew.
Ignorance does not help either. Even well-informed people tend to
that the Muslim world is ruled by religious fanatics and that secular,
socialist dictators such as Gaddafi and Saddam are the local
Ayatollah Khomeini. They are surprised to discover that Gaddafi is in
trouble with the fundamentalists and that Saddam's deputy prime
Tariq Aziz, is the most infuential Roman Catholic in the Middle East.
In the face of such elementary misunderstandings, the BBC is performing
genuine service with its excellent new series, Islam UK. With the boxer
Prince Naseem as the friendly face of British Islam, they are trying to
that our own Muslims are normal, unthreatening and rather nice.
You see four British Muslims performing the Haj (pilgrimage) and
realising, as they encounter two million fellow-pilgrims at Mecca, that
are part of the worldwide Muslim community. There is the scholarly,
frail imam who, when he is not deciding points of religious law, seems
spend most of his time at kick-boxing. You also follow the fortunes of
Muslim football team. More surprisingly, young girls are taught the
method of washing and laying out a corpse.
I would guess that viewers would be particularly struck by the
way in which these people talk about their individual beliefs. They
range from believers in a vague, almost Anglican, sense that one of the
worst sins is to maltreat animals, and that a decent life will ensure
get to heaven, to those for whom "surrender" to God (the root meaning
"islam") is a living reality.
Many will be surprised to discover how intimate are the relations of
to Christianity and Judaism: that the Kaaba in Mecca is reputed to have
built by Abraham; that Abraham's non-sacrifice of his son inspires one
the great Muslim feasts; that Jesus is received as prophet and Messiah.
The best thing about the programme, though, is not its avowed aim to
that British Muslims are fairly ordinary folk, but the sense it gives
quite extraordinary the history of the faith is. Within a century of
Prophet's death, Muslim arms had acquired an empire that reached to
southern France, central Asia and India. At its apogee, the Muslim
stretched from Canton to Lisbon, and Arabic was a semi-universal
At its most culturally glorious period - around the 10th century -
learning in mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy was vastly
superior to anything going on in Europe. Islam transmitted ancient
texts to Europe and, through Averroes, enabled Christendom to establish
lines of demarcation between religious and secular knowledge. The
mosque in Damascus, the Friday Mosque of Isfahan, the Dome of the Rock
the mosque at Cordova are as fine as any Christian cathedral.
In Muslim countries, Jews and Christians were recognised as genuine, if
imperfect, believers - an attitude reciprocated by Christianity only
recently. The capture of Jerusalem by the Crusaders - in which 70,000
Muslims were slaughtered and the Jews burnt alive in their synagogue -
contrasts with the re-taking of the city by Saladin, when religious
was proclaimed for all "peoples of the Book".
Writers of the Enlightenment admired Islam. Gibbon thought that the
understanding of God was "too sublime" for ordinary people, and was
astonished at the resolute way in which Muslims have never degenerated
worshipping Mohammed or attributing miracles to him. The only miracle
have believed in is the language of the Arabic Koran itself, which
can understand it in the original claim to be as magnificent as Homer
It is only if you confront Islam at this level, freed of the miasma of
prejudice, that you can reasonably talk also about the defects - that
current religious revival in Muslim countries has not been accompanied
any equivalent intellectual or cultural renaissance; that modern
scholarship in studying the Koran (as Muslim scholars themselves will
you) has begun actually to go backwards in some of the great centres of
Muslim learning; that the corrupt despotisms that rule so much of the
East make a mockery of the Muslim claim to establish social justice.
at that is what most of all drives the fundamentalists.)
I hope that our own Muslims do not become too English, but keep a sense of their worldwide community, its astonishing history and its current intractable problems. The cost of becoming comfortably "normal" might be to become less interesting.
The author is a fellow of Gonville and Caius, Cambridge
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