Western Muslims: The neglected link

 
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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.

Rula Jebreal.

Rula Jebreal.

“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.

Wajahat Ali

Wajahat Ali

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.

Ayman Mohyeldin

Ayman Mohyeldin

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.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in The National on 19 December 2015.

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ISIS and the mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIS is proof that the clash of civilisations is a myth. The reality is that interests clash, while cultures mix.

Thursday 26 November 2015

When the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the atrocities which took place in Paris, its message was sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “Crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”.

This has added fuel to the notion that a monumental battle between Islamism, or even Islam, and the West is underway. “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,” said the far-right Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen who is previously alleged to have compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation of France.

Almost inevitably, with the precision of a Swiss timepiece, some evoked the late Samuel P Huntington. “This is not a grievance-based conflict,” opined Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Marco Rubio. “This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East.”

Although ISIS undoubtedly hates Christians and other non-Muslims with a passion and believes in just such a clash, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” is a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was largely motivated by France’s “military assets” in Syria.

“The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.. and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” ISIL’s statement mentioned above expressed explicitly.

This highlights how clashes of interests, far more than ideology, inform “foreign policy”, even of a fanatical, ideologically driven group like ISIS.

Since its inception, ISIS’s “jihad” has been about territory politically and resources, economically. Ideologically, its main enemy has been what it regards as errant Muslims who are worse than the “infidel”, in ISIS’s reckoning, because they claim to belong to Islam but walk the path of “kufr” or “unbelief”.

Despite ISIS’s horrendous and merciless persecution and ethnic cleansing of minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, in numerical terms, its main victims, like those of most jihadist and violent Islamist groups, have been fellow Muslims.

In fact, a kind of global war is in motion, both in Syria and elsewhere, between ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist outfits, each of which considers the others to be Godless and not true to Islam, whereas their real motivation is greed for power and influence, and envy of one another’s “successes”.

This was illustrated in the assassination by al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front of Abu Ali al-Baridi, the commander of the ISIS-affiliated al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In a statement about the killing, al-Nusra placed al-Baridi firmly outside the community of believers.

In a similar vein, the latest attack in Paris may have partly been spurred by the rivalry between the world’s two leading jihadist groups. With al-Qaeda claiming the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, ISIS may have been seeking to one-up its bitter rival’s grim record.

To my mind, this highlights the oft-overlooked clash within civilisations, which I believe far outweighs, in terms of ferocity, intensity, passion, and sheer carnage the clash between Islam and Christendom. This can be witnessed in the conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, as well as the traditional Sunni-Shia schism.

In Europe, this is visible in how, despite the fears of this or that society or culture bringing down the West (or Christendom before it), the two occasions in which European civilisation came close to annihilation – World War I and II – was due to internal ruptures and rivalries.

Ideologically, it is apparent in the numerous schisms within Christianity – between the Western and Eastern churches, or between Catholics and Protestants. These schisms enabled the early Islamic conquerors to easily overcome the Byzantines who were hated in, for example, Egypt, because Copts were regarded as “heretics”. During the Dutch Revolt, Protestants used the slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”).

In fact, despite the headline ideological conflict between Islam and Christendom, pragmatic and even friendly alliances have, for centuries, been forged across this divide. This can be seen in the long-lasting alliances the Ottomans forged with France and later Germany. This was also visible everywhere from Andalusia to the Crusader kingdoms to the Arab alliance with the British against the Turks or today’s longstanding US-Saudi axis.

Perhaps most significantly of all, and what gets left bleeding by the wayside in these polarised times, is what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have so influenced each other, over the centuries, and been influenced by the same traditions, including Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian, that it is impossible to speak of them as separate civilisations.

They are sub-groups of a single civilisation, and the diversity within each is greater than the differences between them. And it is by recognising and highlighting this mash of cultures that we can combat the divisive ideologies propagated by the fanatics in our midst.

The Middle East and the West belong to the same Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which is merely a subset of human civilisation.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 November 2015.

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Europe’s invisible “Islamisation”

 
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By Khaled Diab

The murderous Paris attacks have reignited fears of “Islamisation”. But Islamic civilisation is encoded in Europe’s cultural and intellectual DNA. 

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Ziryab is the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

Monday 12 January 2015

The brutal and tragic murders of 10 people at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, two police officers and four customers at a kosher supermarket by masked gunmen has triggered an outpouring of shock and grief, not only in France but around the world.

Large, spontaneous vigils filled the streets of many French cities, while social media was awash with solidarity and condemnation, including the hashtags #JeSuisCharlie and #NotInMyName, which was used by Muslims condemning the attacks.

On Sunday 11 January, this culminated in rallies across France which drew nearly 4 million people from all walks of life who walked shoulder to shoulder in solidarity against extremism.

Eyewitness accounts reveal that the attackers shouted “Allahu Akbar”, and the designer who was forced to let the assailants in says they told her they were with al-Qaeda. According to AFP, the police claim that one of the killers remarked: “We have avenged the prophet.”

Why Muhammad would need anyone to “avenge” him is beyond me. The prophet endured far more mockery, humiliation, insult and rejection during his lifetime without needing or ordering hitmen to defend his honour than that meted out by a group of equal-opportunities French cartoonists who despise and satirise all forms of organised religion.

Despite the massive show of solidarity, the collateral damage to French and European Muslims has already been done, even though one of the fallen police officers was a Muslim and the “hero” who saved a number of customers at the kosher supermarket was also of Muslim background.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword... of Islam.

Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam.

The far-right Front National has already cynically and undignifiedly taken advantage of the tragedy. Declaring that Islamists have “declared war on France”, FN leader Marine Le Pen called for the reintroduction of the death penalty. Claiming that the atrocities were predictable, FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, no friend of Charlie himself, engaged in classic fear-mongering: “This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism.”

Exhibiting shameless self-promotion, Jean-Marie has already launched his daughter’s presidential campaign by tweeting a poster in which he suggests that Le Pen is mightier than the sword… of Islam. The poster features a photo of Marine with the English caption: “Keep calm and vote Le Pen.” Ironically, this slogan is lifted from a anti-fascist British poster published at the outset of World War II.

The ethno-regionalist and xenophobic Bloc Identitaire which advocates “remigration” believes that “no-one can claim to fight against jihadism [and] not question the mass immigration and Islamisation of our country.”

But like Muslims who fantasise about an a-historical caliphate, conservative Europeans who dream of a bygone utopia of a Europe uncontaminated by Islam or immigration, miss the reality that the “Islamisation of the West” occurred centuries ago.

Islamic civilisation is so hardwired into Europe’s cultural, social and intellectual DNA that it would be impossible to expunge its influence. The same applies in the other direction, in light of Christendom’s and the West’s powerful influence on Arab and Islamic society.

In addition to the philosophy, science, literature and art of the Muslim world which profoundly shape the European Renaissance, Islamic culture had some far more unexpected and surprising influences on Western civilisation.

One man in particular, for whom no statues or memorials stand anywhere in Europe and very few Westerners have heard of, is possibly the most unsung cultural, style and musical icon in European history.

In the ninth century, Ziryab, Cordoba’s most sought-after hipster, brought into vogue the idea of seasonal fashions, steering history’s catwalk towards the fashion slavery of the 21st century.

This Sultan of Style also added a fifth pair of strings to the Arab oud, paving the way to the European lute, which would become the modern guitar. He also introduced Europe to the idea of dining etiquette, from table cloths and crystal decanters to the three-course meal.

Fashion, fine food and rhythm are not what Europeans tend to associate with Muslims or Islam today. Instead, they are haunted by images of fundamentalists, not fun-loving eccentrics, and fanatics, not fans of refined culture.

As someone who is well aware of the destructive influence of violent Islamism in the Middle East, I can, at a certain level, sympathise with fears in the West over radicalisation. But Islamic extremism is mostly a threat to Muslim societies, not to Europe, as a minority has never, in history, imposed its will on a majority, except in the form of a military conqueror.

This exaggerated sense of threat can be seen in the enormous hysteria in segments of the media and among some politicians regarding the small trickle of European jihadists who have gone to fight in Syria. Although one gets the impression that Europe has sent forth a veritable Islamic army to the Levant, the real number is around 3,000 from across the continent, including the dead and returned, according to an estimate by Gilles de Kerchove, the EU’s anti-terrorism chief.

While it is important to be vigilant and to find effective ways to deal with the threat posed by returning fighters, society must steer clear of stigmatising Europe’s already marginalised and distrusted Muslim communities.

This is because it is unfair to blame an entire group for the behaviour of a tiny minority and it is also counterproductive, as marginalisation is a significant, but not the only, factor in radicalisation.

In addition, the demonisation of minorities is what nurtures the truly threatening radicals in Europe’s midst: the far-right and neo-Nazis. Since the end of World War II, Western Europe has worked consciously to build and celebrate diversity. Despite its weaknesses and failings, Europe needs to cherish, build and strengthen its multicultural experiment.

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Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 8 January 2015.

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