By Khaled Diab
Despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit, European and American Muslims can help bridge the chasm between “West” and “East”.
Tuesday 5 January 2016
As Marine campaigns to prove that Le Pen is mightier than the sword of Islam and Donald plays his Islamophobic Trump card, a sense of gloom has descended upon European and American Muslims and their sympathisers.
The latest poll by Brookings reflects the depth of mainstream hate and distrust in America: over three-fifths of those polled have unfavourable views of Islam, with this rising to a whopping 73% amongst Republican voters.
However, there is a sliver of a silver lining. Despite years of neo-con scaremongering, the vast majority of Americans do not subscribe to the “clash of civilisations” theory, with fewer than two-fifths believing that the values of Islamic and Western societies are incompatible.
As a longstanding critic of Samuel P Huntington’s simplistic theory, I am pleased with this finding. Interests clash, civilisation do not tend to. In fact, as I’ve argued numerous times before, the clash within civilisations is far greater than the conflicts between them.
Though Americans dislike Islam, over half of them expressed favourable views of Muslims, rising to two-thirds among Democrats. Those who knew a Muslim tended to be even better predisposed. For example, while only 22% of Republican voters who knew no Muslims viewed them favourably, this shot up to 59% for Republicans who were well-acquainted with some Muslims.
My own personal experiences back this up, especially in Europe. Europeans I know who live near Muslims or have actually visited a Muslim-majority country generally have a more positive view of Muslims than those who live in white suburbia.
“The presence of millions of Muslims living, working, voting in Europe and North America is a constant reminder that there is no clash between Islam and the West because Islam is part of the West,” contends New York-based Rula Jebreal, the prominent Palestinian-Italian journalist and novelist, who is the author of the compelling fictionalised autobiography Miral.
Although many on both sides of the divide see Islam and the West (Christendom) as being two discrete entities, I regard them as a single “mash of civilisations”. Islam is hardwired into Western civilisation through its philosophy, science, mathematics, medicine and more.
Even culturally, the West wouldn’t be the same without Islamic culture. Take just one man, the legendary though largely forgotten Ziryab, who single-handedly revolutionised European fashion, cuisine and music.
The same goes the other way around. Islam’s very roots were profoundly influenced by Christianity and Greco-Roman civilisation and philosophy. In modern times, the process of modernisation has largely been synonymous with Westernisation, first brought home in the minds of 19th-century Egyptians who moved to study and work in France. Even more recently, the Arab Spring drew large numbers of Western Arabs and Muslims back to their ancestral lands, especially Tunisia and Egypt.
Despite periodic animosity, this ancient link between Europe and the Middle East means that Europeans generally understand and sympathise with Muslims more, with Islamophobia largely the preserve of the far right – for now. “Here in America, however, Islamophobia has been mainstreamed,” notes Jebreal.
Throughout my long years as a journalist, I have drawn on my dual Arab and European heritage to highlight the nuances, ambiguities, diversities and subtleties of history, politics, culture and beliefs. This is out of a conviction that the devil, and demonisation, lie in sweeping generalisations, while the human and humanising reside in the detail. Simplistic narratives and solutions are appealing. However, in a complex world, reductionism lead to misdiagnosis and complications, fuelling ever greater mayhem and hatred.
And the growing prominence of Western Arabs and Muslims is helping in this humanising mission. “We see more people of colour and Muslims succeeding as journalists, story tellers, entrepreneurs, community activists,” explains Pakistani-American Wajahat Ali, a journalist and host with Al Jazeera America. “Tragedy and pain also compel urgency and inspire work. Post 9-11, you see a more proactive, progressive, engaged Muslim-American and Arab-American communities.”
Humour, from satire to parody, is a powerful tool in this effort, as it deploys laughter as a devastating weapon against bigotry. In my own writing, I have used satire to mock everything from far-right conspiracy theories about the Islamisation of the West to ISIS’s a-historical caliphate, which, unlike its predecessors does not tolerate science, literature, gay poetry or odes to wine.
Similarly, other Muslims, from stand-up comics to writers, have been employing gallows humour to draw attention to the plight of their community. For instance, when Donald Trump suggested that Muslims should carry special identification, Wajahat Ali quickly obliged and created his own Muslim ID card. In it, he described his ethnicity as “Bollywood” and his religion as “Sunny-side Sunni”.
Regardless of whether you employ reason or humour, it often feels futile, especially when hate seems to be gaining the upper hand. It seems to me that it is far easier to burn bridges, and scorch the surrounding earth, than it is to build them and plant the seeds of understanding and compassion.
This is a frustration shared by others. “The biggest challenge is overcoming the sheer scale of unawareness and miseducation people in the US suffer from,” laments Ayman Mohyeldin, one of the few Arab-American journalists working in a high-profile position for a major US news network, NBC. “That can only be achieved through grassroots awareness and macro level visibility in the public sphere.”
“I don’t know if I made a difference,” admits Wajahat Ali. “I’ve been at this for 12 years and the level of anti-Muslim hysteria and bigotry is higher now than it was in 9-11.”
But this must not dissuade us from trying to reach out, even if the chasm is widening. “With every individual trying to blow up the bridge both from within and outside, there are 10 willing to build,” points out Ali.
“I am not willing to cede the ground to extremists on both sides – the jihadists and the Islamophobes,” insists a determined Rula Jebreal. “But in an age of 24/7 cable news and social media on phones, we don’t have much time on our side.”
And with fires blazing in the Middle East and the larva bubbling under the surface in Europe and America, I share this sense of urgency. “[We] need a multicultural coalition of the willing – a global justice league – to come together to bridge the divides,” proposed Wajahat Ali.
In my view, despite their under-utilisation and the suspicion they elicit on both sides of the growing divide, European and American Muslims are the best-positioned to play this role. They can help explain the so-called West to the so-called East and vice-versa, dispel the myth that some sort of “jihad” or “crusade” is in motion, and help replace animosity with co-operation.
This article first appeared in The National on 19 December 2015.