New Age Islam
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Islam and the West ( 4 March 2018, NewAgeIslam.Com)

Islam and the West: What Went Wrong and Why? Part One


By Amir Nour

March 01, 2018

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born, now is the time of monsters”

(Antonio Gramsci)

Introduction: Between “Apparent” And “Real” History

Alvin Toffler, one of the world’s leading futurists, is often quoted, and with good reason, as saying that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.

In the same vein, in an interview given in 2014, Noam Chomsky was invited to comment on his book “Masters of Mankind”[2]—a collection of essays and lectures written between 1969 and 2013. Pointing out that the world has changed a great deal during that period, his interviewer asked him whether his understanding of the world had changed over time, and if so, what have been the most catalytic events in altering his perspective about politics. Chomsky—who was voted the world’s top public intellectual in 2005—offered the following answer “My understanding of the world has changed over time and I’ve learned a lot more about the past, and ongoing events regularly add new critical materials. I can’t really identify single events or people. It’s cumulative, a constant process of rethinking in the light of new information and more consideration of what I didn’t properly understand. However, hierarchical and arbitrary power remains at the core of politics in our world and the source of all evils”.

Such an answer underlines the relevance in the truthful, cold and hard words once famously uttered by Winston Churchill “Truth is the first casualty of war (and) history is written by the victors”. Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code [3], didn’t think otherwise when he wrote “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books—books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe”. And as Napoleon once said, “What is history, but a fable agreed upon?”

This is also what Malek Bennabi[4]—arguably one of the greatest Muslim thinkers of the 20th century—alluded to when he stated “The real history of the modern world has yet to be written, because only its apparent history has been reported (and) it takes a certain sense of esotericism to actually penetrate the secrets and arcane of history (…) and to leave to the generation that comes sound and reliable information about the heredity of its own world”.[5]

Surely, one of the illustrations of this state of affairs is the history of Islam—a religion, a civilization today, more than ever before, finger-pointed by some as the source of many evils. For them, Islam has mutated into “Islamofascism”, a “new sworn foe” that a “coalition of the willing” from the “civilized world” is determined to confront by all available means in a looming “World War IV”.[6]

But what is, in fact, the truth of this matter through the ages? And what are the significance and the impact of the momentous events of 9/11 on that history? And, most importantly, what can one reasonably forecast with regard to the future of Islam and the Islamic world, particularly in view of what appears to be the twilight of the empire age and the dawn of a digital era, in the midst of a global moral vacuum and spiritual influx?

A Brief History of a Long Struggle

What a large proportion of Muslims believe is a prophesied “Global war against Islam” is found in a popular Hadith (a saying of Prophet Muhammad) dating back to over fourteen hundred years, according to which “the Messenger of Allah said: The nations are about to flock against you [the Muslims] from every horizon, just as hungry people flock to a kettle. We said: O Messenger of Allah, will we be few on that day? He said: No, you will be many in number, but you will be scum, like the scum of a flash-flood, without any weight, since fear will be removed from the hearts of your enemies, and weakness (Wahn in Arabic) will be placed in your hearts. We said: O Messenger of Allah, what does the word Wahn mean? He said: Love of this world and fear of death”.

Whether or not authentic, this Hadith all but rings true with both the present chaotic situation prevailing in the entire Muslim world, and with the ongoing ominous antagonism between the West and Islam. As a result, the much-feared “clash of civilizations” seems closer at hand than ever. Indeed, as exemplified by the testimony of Graham E. Fuller “Islam seems to lie behind a broad range of international disorders: suicide attacks, car bombings, military occupations, resistance struggles, riots, Fatwas, jihads, guerrilla warfare, threatening videos, and 9/11 itself (…) Islam seems to offer an instant and uncomplicated analytical touchstone, enabling us to make sense of today’s convulsive world”.[7]

Precisely, in order to make sense of this awful “apparent reality” and put it into an appropriate historical and geopolitical perspective, it certainly helps to recall some of the forgotten or misremembered history that prepared for it, from its remote origins to its different contemporary manifestations dramatically brought into focus by 9/11.

To this end, any retrospective overview of the relations between the West and Islam would likely be incomplete if it did not refer to Arnold J. Toynbee’s monumental study of history, which has been acknowledged as one of the greatest achievements of modern scholarship.[8] It is worth noting that Toynbee published an interesting book[9] on the interactions between the West and Oriental civilizations, and that he worked for the British Foreign Office (within the Political Intelligence Department) during World War I.

Thus, addressing the issue of Islam’s place in History and its relations with the West, he wrote in 1948 “In the past, Islam and our Western society have acted and reacted upon one another several times in succession, in different situations and alternating roles. The first encounter between them occurred when the Western society was at its infancy and when Islam was the distinctive religion of the Arabs in their heroic age (…) Thereafter, when the Western civilization has surmounted the premature extinction and had entered upon a vigorous growth, while the would-be Islamic state was declining towards its fall, the tables were turned”. The British historian further noted that in that life-and-death struggle, Islam, like Christendom before it, had triumphantly survived.

Yet this was not the last act in the play, for “the attempt made by the medieval West to exterminate Islam failed as signally as the Arab empire-builders’ attempt to capture the cradle of a nascent Western civilization has failed before; once more, a counter-attack was provoked by the unsuccessful offensive. This time, Islam was represented by the Ottoman descendants of the converted Central Asian nomads.” After the final failure of the Crusades, Western Christendom stood on the defensive against this Ottoman attack during the late medieval and early modern ages of Western history. The Westerners managed to bring the Ottoman offensive to a halt in the wake of the battle of Vienna that lasted from 1683 until 1699 when a peace treaty between the Sublime Porte and the Holy League was signed at Karlowitz. Thereafter, having encircled the Islamic world and cast their net about it, they proceeded to attack their old adversary in its native lair.

The concentric attack of the modern West upon the Islamic world, according to Toynbee, has inaugurated the present encounter between the two civilizations, which he saw as “part of a still larger and more ambitious movement, in which the Western civilization is aiming at nothing less than the incorporation of all mankind in a single great society, and the control of everything in the earth, air and sea which mankind can turn to account by means of modern Western technique”. Thus, the contemporary encounter between Islam and the West “is not only more active and intimate than any phase of their contact in the past, it is also distinctive in being an incident in the attempt by the Western man to ‘westernize’ the world—an enterprise which will possibly rank as the most momentous, and almost certainly as the most interesting feature in history, even for a generation that has lived through two world wars.”

Toynbee drew the conclusion that Islam is once more facing the West its back to the wall; but this time the odds are more heavily against it than they were “even at the most critical moments of the Crusades, for the modern West is superior to it not only in arms, but also in technique of economic life, on which military science ultimately depends, and above all in spiritual culture—the inward force which alone creates and sustains the outward manifestations of what is called civilization”.[10]

From Deus to Prometheus

Has this perception evolved over time in the West? And who, better that Bernard Lewis, a leading Orientalist and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, could address that story? In the academic world, he is considered as the most distinguished living expert on the Middle East, and he is indeed amongst the very few historians who have ended up as historical actors in their own right. In his memoir [11], he recounts his wartime service in London and Cairo as an intelligence officer for MI6, and how after World War II he was granted the privilege to be the first Western scholar to enter the Ottoman archives. He further explains how he coined the phrase “clash of civilizations” in the 1950’s—which is historically untrue since this notion was first recorded in a book[12] written by Basil Mathews in 1926—and how September 11 catapulted him onto the world stage as a prominent mentor for a whole generation of American Neoconservatives. He can therefore hardly be viewed as a steadfast sympathizer of Islam.

And so, in another book precisely titled “Islam and the West”[13] published in 1993, Lewis recalls that in the great medieval French epic of the wars between Christians and Saracens (i.e. Arabs), the Chanson de Roland, the Christian poet endeavours to give his readers or, rather, listeners some idea of the Saracen religion. According to this vision, the Saracens worshiped a trinity consisting of three persons: Muhammad, the founder of their religion, and two others, both of them devils, Apollin and Tervagant”. He adds that “to us this seems comic, and we are amused by medieval man unable to conceive of religion or indeed of anything else except in his own image. Since Christendom worshiped its founder in association with two other entities, the Saracens also had to worship their founder, and he too had to be one of a trinity, with two demons co-opted to make up the number”. Lewis then rightfully draws a parallel saying that just as medieval Christian man could conceive of religion only in terms of a trinity, so his modern descendant can conceive of politics only in terms of a theology, or, as we say nowadays, ideology, of left-wing and right-wing forces and factions.

Bernard Lewis also pointed out to the recurring unwillingness on the part of many Westerners to recognize the nature of Islam, or even the fact that Islam, as an independent, different, and autonomous religion persists and recurs from medieval to modern times. One can see it, he explains, in the nomenclature adopted to designate the Muslims since “it was a long time before Christendom was even willing to give them a name with a religious meaning”. Indeed, for many centuries, both Eastern and Western Christendom called the followers of the Prophet “Saracens”, a world of uncertain etymology but “clearly of ethnic and not religious connotation (…) in the Iberian Peninsula, where the Muslims whom they met came from Morocco, they called them the Moors; in most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, or, farther east, Tatars, another ethnic name loosely applied to the Islamized steppe peoples who for a while dominated Russia”. And until recently, Lewis further clarifies “even when Europe began to recognize that Islam was a religious and not an ethnic community, it expressed this realization in a sequence of false analogies, beginning with the names given to the religion of its followers, Muhammedanism and Muhammedans”.

The deeper history, as asserted by James Carroll [14], shows that this supposedly inherent conflict between Islam and the West “has its origins more in the ‘West’ than in the House of Islam. The image of Muslims as prone to violence by virtue of their religion was mainly constructed across centuries by Europeans seeking to bolster their own purposes”.

If truth be told, how else might we justify, for instance, the astonishing statement made by William Ewart Gladstone, four-time Prime Minister of Great Britain[15], in the House of Commons in the 19th century? Holding up a Qur’an, he cried out “As long as a copy of this accursed book survives there can be no justice in the world”.[16] And how else might we interpret the following opinions later expressed by Basil Mathews and Bernard Lewis, both of them agents of MI6 and true believers in the “Clash of Civilizations”—well before Samuel Huntington’s essay and later book which generated a global debate?[17]

Mathews writes in his book [18] that the Qur’an “is a fixed system of theocracy, conceived in a tribal desert chaos. In the modern world it defies every tendency of modern, democratic, responsible, secular government. This is why Turkey has thrown over the Quran as a rule of the state. And if it does not rule the state, it rules nothing; for the religious attitude and social regulations of Islam are two sides of the one coin. They cannot be separated and remain Islam. Mohammedan Islam is the negation of progress erected into a divinely ordained system. We are tied by Islam to a reverence for Mohammed himself. Our minds, however, are appalled at the murders, the unnatural marriages, the cruelty, the brigandage and the sensuality. As a seventh century Arab the Prophet was wonderful; as a twentieth century hero and leader—not to say saint—he is impossible”.[19]

Lewis’s opinion on Islam is no different. Thus, in an attempt to explain “why so many Muslims deeply resent the West, and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified” he says in a supercilious Atlantic Monthly article [20] of September 1990, “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both. It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival”.

Aladdin, the Travel Ban and the Hate Factory

It is a fact that Americans are among the most educated people in the world. Yet, it is also a fact that they are among the least educated about the world in general and the Arab and Muslim world in particular. They themselves admit the truthfulness of this flaw and many among them would wish to see it corrected.

This “knowledge gap” about the region was the subject of a wide-ranging poll of the American public entitled “The Arab Image in the US”, conducted by Arab News/YouGov between 17-21 March 2017.

Respondents answered 24 close-ended questions mainly pertaining to news-related behaviours, knowledge and interest in visiting the Arab and Muslim world, the rise of Islamophobia, opinions on Arabs who have migrated to the United States, and the perceived role of media portraying the real image of this part of the world.

Among other results of this survey, 81% of respondents couldn’t identify the Arab region on a map; over three-quarters said they would not consider travelling there because it is too dangerous; 65% admitted to knowing little about the region, with 30% having no interest in understanding it further. But, the most staggering finding was that more than a fifth of those surveyed said the “Sultanate of Agrabah”—the fictional city from Disney’s motion “Aladdin”—is a real part of the Arab world. An even higher proportion (38%) said they would be happy with a “Travel ban” on citizens of Agrabah should they be proven a threat. A previous poll conducted by Public Policy Polling during the 2016 American presidential campaign found that 30% of Republican voters supported “bombing Agrabah”, though, thankfully, 57% of them said they were not sure!

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP)—a polling expert who has studied attitudes in the region and US-Arab relations for a long time—agrees that it is a negative and grim picture and believes it is due to a combination of factors. For some people in the US “it is a general sense of isolationism” and “a trend where people are like this with all foreign countries and not only the Arabs,” he said. Others are “prejudiced” but most importantly, “there is a kind of tendency to associate the whole region with terrorism, refugees and civil war. The region does not have a positive image and a lot of it is based on ignorance and narrow-mindedness.”

The shocking findings of this poll would’ve probably gone unnoticed had they not been the reflection of the true measure of the lack of knowledge, if not ignorance, driving both the American longstanding and often unwise policies of the successive administrations and people’s perceptions toward this tormented region. It is a feature that is all the more incomprehensible today as this region has become the main, if not the sole graveyard for thousands of young American and other Western soldiers sent into the fray to foreign lands under the guise of a foolish “war on terror” turned into a “war for terror”.

Prior to these and other numerous similar surveys and studies, American Professor of Mass Communications and award-winning film authority, Jack G. Shaheen, had dissected this topic. He did so in a ground-breaking book [21] published in January 2001, and later in a film [22] produced by Media Education Foundation, both with the same title “Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People”.

In this meticulously researched study of one thousand films—dating from cinema’s earliest days in 1896 to contemporary Hollywood blockbusters featuring machine-gun wielding and bomb-blowing “evil” Arabs—Shaheen documented the tendency to portray Arabs and Muslims as “Public Enemy number 1”, who are “brutal, heartless, uncivilized Others bent on terrorizing civilized Westerners”. He found that out of those 1000 movies that have Arab and Muslim characters, 12 were positive depictions, 52 were neutral portrayals, and 936 were negative.

He was thus able to spotlight anti-Muslim and Arab stereotypes and to probe the intersections of popular culture and foreign policy. To this effect, he recounted how, historically, the strategic stereotyping of populations has been used to garner popular support for governmental policies, citing the career of Leni Riefenstahl and speeches by Lenin and Goebbels to illustrate film’s long history as a propaganda vehicle.

Shaheen explained that what he tried to do was “to make visible what too many of us seem not to see: a dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes, stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity (…) All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain. That is a given. There is no deviation. We have taken a few structured images and repeated them over and over again (…) We inherited the Arab image primarily from Europeans. In the early days, maybe 150 years, 200 years ago, the British and the French who travelled to the Middle East, and those who didn’t travel to the Middle East, conjured up these images of the Arab as the Oriental other[23]. These fabricated images have then been taken by Americans”. The Arab image in the U.S. began to deteriorate further immediately after World War II according to Shaheen. Three major events have impacted the change: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in which the United States has unequivocally supported Israel; the Arab oil embargo in the 1970’s, which angered Americans when gas prices went through the ceiling; and the Iranian Revolution, which increased Arab-American tensions when Iranian students took American diplomats hostage for more than a year. These three pivotal events “brought the Middle East into the living rooms of Americans and together helped shape the way movies stereotyped Arabs and the Arab world”.

Of all the Department of Defence films, Shaheen pointed out, the one that will stand the test of time as being the most racist is “Rules of Engagement”, which was written by former Secretary of the Navy James Webb. And “if you go and you see the new film called ‘The Kingdom’, Arab children again are portrayed as terrorists. So what’s happening now is the trend has taken us to a point where we look at all those people, namely Arabs and Muslims, as the enemy other, even children”.

Commenting on the film in an interview given to Democracy Now! Jack Shaheen said that “the humanity is not there. And if we cannot see the Arab humanity, what’s left? If we feel nothing, if we feel that Arabs are not like us or not like anyone else, then let’s kill them all. Then they deserve to die, right? Islamophobia now is a part of our psyche. Words such as ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ are perceived as threatening words. And if the words are threatening, what about the images that we see in the cinema and on our television screens?” He concluded by affirming that “Politics and Hollywood’s images are linked. They reinforce one another: policy enforces mythical images; mythical images help enforce policy”. Indeed, as Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America has said “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA”.