It is time to dispel the myths that conservative Muslims often propagate about ‘the West'.
My first foray under the banner of the war on error provoked strong passions. Sadly, the voices of moderation were more often than not drowned out by the fierce exchange of fire which ensued.
This underlines clearly just how polarised the debate about relations between the “West” and “Islam” has become and how rigidly the battle lines have been drawn. Despite numerous attempts to blow up the bridges of understanding that were being constructed, it is important to push on with the campaign to capture the middle ground.
In this second piece, I will shift to the “eastern front” and look at a few of the common myths and misconceptions about the West that Muslims entertain. I should start by making clear that I cannot speak on behalf of the entire Muslim world and will limit myself to some of the fanciful ideas enjoying currency among certain Egyptians and Arabs, particularly the more conservative ones and those less exposed to the West.
Error 1: There is a western “crusade” against Islam
Perhaps taking their cue from Samuel Huntington's questionable theory of a “clash of civilisations” or drawing on post-colonial distrust, quite a few Muslims seem to be convinced that the West is undertaking a modern-day crusade against Islam.
They point to the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine, the earlier ethnic cleansing in Bosnia/Herzegovina and even Kashmir and the spat with Iran to support their view. But what they overlook is that each of these conflicts has its own peculiar geo-political dynamic which usually has little to do with religion and more to do with resources, land, long-standing ethnic feuds or arresting the disintegration of a crumbling empire.
If it is all about religion, why invade Iraq, one of the most secular of all the Muslim states, and not Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most oppressive theocracy in the world? The fact that Iraq sits on the world's second largest oil reserves and threatened the security of oil supplies is more pertinent than its religious identity. If it were a Buddhist country, some apologist academic would probably be conflating Buddha's eschewal of material ambition in his four golden truths and his “middle way” with anti-capitalism and communism and depicting it as the new “red threat”.
Nudity is a civilisational taboo, as is avarice. No society likes to see its naked greed strutting around, exposing its vulgar parts. And so an ideological cloak is always handy – and what could be easier to slip into than one that is nearly a millennium and a half old.
It has always been about clashes of interest, not civilisations: Christian lands conquered by the Arabs; the early wealth and knowledge of Islam; the spice trade; the later wealth and knowledge of Christendom/the West; mineral resources, etc.
In addition, for Muslims, the idea of a new-fangled “crusade” helps to cloak the shame at their own failure to match the West's levels of scientific and material progress, whatever the complex reasons behind it are: from colonialism to socio-economic and scientific stagnation.
Error 2: Muslims are a persecuted minority in the West
This relates quite closely to Myth No 1, i.e. if there is a “crusade”, then it stands to reason that the West must also be fighting Islam at home. Of course, there is quite a lot of Islamophobia and racism in the West, with Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular, among the most despised minorities.
This is partly due to events in other parts of the world: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, etc. The Muslim minority has also fallen victim to the rise in violent Islamic terrorism on western soil.
Then there is the residual distrust of centuries of rivalry, with many Europeans nursing an irrational fear of “conquest by migration”; that the Turks are figuratively back at the gates of Vienna and the Moors have, this time, got beyond Poitiers. European Muslims, particularly those from North Africa, sometimes wonder if a new Inquisition, in which hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Jews were expelled or forcibly converted, might be around the corner.
But this is mostly unfounded. There are certainly European bigots, but there are also millions of Europeans who do not discriminate against Muslims or Arabs. In addition, the protection of minorities is such in western Europe that, sadly, many Muslims are treated better here than they would be in their home country.
Error 3: Families have broken down in the West
Conservative Muslims are often horrified by what they perceive to be the degenerate and dysfunctional state of the western family: alcoholic husbands battering their wives; out-of-control youth disrespecting their parents and elders; rape; teenage pregnancy and drug addiction.
What this simplistic and warped view overlooks is that these issues know no borders and that the differences between individual Muslim families are often greater than between subcultures on both sides. For instance, conservative Muslim and Christian families often uphold the same traditional values regarding premarital sex, virginity and homosexuality.
Some conservative Muslims confuse alternative models for the family with breakdowns in familial ties. Just because modern families value individualism, independence and relative egalitarianism, it does not mean they do not enjoy a filial bond and take care of their own.
Error 4: Homosexuality is a western invention
This is one of the more absurd ideas around, not only because it ignores all the biological evidence to the contrary, it is also completely counter to actual recorded history.
Although Muslim society has never had the kind of “gay lib” the West has enjoyed increasingly over the past four decades, up until the 20th century it was more tolerant than the West. The general Muslim attitude was “whatever turns you on” and even kissing and telling was tolerated, particularly if the teller was a talented artist. The homoerotic poetry of Abu Nuwas, the 8th century court poet of Harun al-Rashid, was freely available in Egypt until the first censored edition of his work appeared in 1932. And the position of homosexuals in many part of the Muslim world has deteriorated, although there have been promising developments in some countries.
When two cultures are in conflict, they seek to depict the other side as being their polar opposite. This is particularly so for cultures which are so similar that the competition between their individual brand identities is all the fiercer – a bit like washing powder.
Interestingly, the way Muslims describe the “licentious” and “promiscuous” West is recycling the same language orientalists once used to describe the Muslim world. For instance, the celebrated British diplomat and orientalist Richard Burton came up, in 1885, with what he termed a “Sotadic Zone” where, he claimed, homosexuality was most prevalent. The globe's homo-erogenous zone supposedly covered most of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, stretching all the way to the Punjab and Kashmir.
The current Muslim intolerance and puritanism also stems from the shallow Islamist discourse that the reason for the relative weakness of “Islam” is due to the fact that Muslims have deviated from the true morality of their faith. The fact that the society they dream of never existed and that the Muslim world during its heyday was nearer to the contemporary western model than the one espoused by Islamists. It did not stifle creativity; it tolerated diversity and valued science and learning – something many modern Muslim countries have lost sight of.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 24 May 2007.