Recent European Scene: Islam on Clash with the West?

M. Akhtar, Professor of Psychology; Chair, MCA

Clash of Civilizations between the Muslim world and the West, suggesting the two are on a course of mutually assured destruction. The Pundits have long warned of the so-called imagery to reinforce the destruction was taken from crusades. These ’protectors ’would have you believe the Crusades (the source of the Clash) were fundamentally wars between the two religions. This assertion raises a question, however. If the hostility of the crusades came directly from the incompatibility inherent in these religions, how would one explain the present closer relations between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – whose similarity of missions and commonality of purposes are reflected in current interfaith initiatives showing in better understanding and feelings of closeness? These are the same religions that were implicated in the crusades. But the linkage to these religions is sharply different in the present context. The people involved with religions in the inter-faith perspective are searching for knowledge to appreciate and not for the new territories to expand, for example.

Also, there is globalization that brings us closer together more so than any other time in history, we hope this closeness has encouraged a greater desire for peace and coexistence over violence and prejudice- tends to be true in many instances. The tragedy, however, is that the “Clash of Civilizations” worldview serves those most influential among us – political leaders, community custodians, and even media outlets alerting the nation supposedly with no vested interests. By perpetuating the “us vs. them” mentality – crying war, fueling hate, selling the “Clash of Civilizations” and above all seizing the role of protector of the nation, they advance themselves in power and influence and have to continue playing the same game to be able to maintain power and popular favor, while the nation pays a heavy cost in blood and tears and the humanity gets into permanent divides for centuries to wrestle with.

What we are witnessing in Europe, especially in the last 20 years, seems to be sufficient evidence that the “Clash” specter between Muslims and Christians has been revived, demonstrated most quietly in France and Germany’s ghetto-ization of Muslim communities and most frighteningly in the ethnic cleansing and continued religious tensions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of Eastern Europe. But this destructive worldview presents itself more insidiously in other examples. Denmark points to the infamous Jyllands-Posten controversy, whose caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) incensed Danish Muslims. This acrimony spread to the wider Muslim world, leading to violent public demonstrations against Western corporations. In one Muslim country, for instance, the riotous mob set Kentucky Fried Chicken to fire, as the mob mentality turned outrage at the mistreatment of their sacred symbols to violent action. This group was seized emotionally and became blind to their own interests, which were Islam and fellow Muslims they wanted so ardently to protect. The Kentucky Fried franchise in question was owned by the local Muslim who, and it was he who was punished and not the West. Little they contemplated how the Prophet (PBUH) would have acted in the situation; the group went ahead and acted out irrationally. Little they paid attention to Islamic principles, which dictate that you do not punish someone who has no intent or due knowledge of the offense. The Danish cartoonist is expected to be familiar with his own culture -where most sacred figure like Jesus Christ can be embodied as in the form of statue, but Muslims taboos against images of the Prophet (PBUH) would be unknown to him. The difficulty on his part has to be duly recognized as double; it arose only because he lacked the needed knowledge of the Muslims norms but also because he was required to act in opposition to his customary ways and norms. The Danish Muslim community went too far and acted too fast against the cartoonist for the perceived attack on Islam – at the worst, he could be considered to be ignorant of the gravity of portraying the prophet that would warrant better education and understanding of Islam (and a further education of Islam would benefit these Muslims as well). It was the Muslims action that should be seen as clear violation of Islam’ s principles; furthermore, it was their group reaction that ultimately served to more greatly divide Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Denmark, incite hate all over the world, and further the image of Islam as a religion of violence. The Clash theory would view this violent incident as the conflict of Islam and Denmark or, broadly considered, as the conflict between Muslims and the West. But looking more closely, the reality of this inheres in group-driven psychology and the conflict lies right within Muslims themselves in their moral principles on one hand and their group following behavior on the other; ultimately or at the individual level, the conflict can be brought down to be seen in their thinking and rationality versus their emotionality and violent tendencies

Tensions between Muslims and Christians are on the rise across Europe, and this tension seems to be a result of group psychology – the fear and anger of a group is agitated and exploited by political pundits and community leaders. All it takes is one charismatic voice insisting your ills lie with the “other” to incite destruction and violence. This conflict has guilty parties on both sides – Muslims communities fan the flames of hate in the same way as Christian communities. I like to emphasize the responsibility of the Muslim communities in this regard, if only because that is my group. The murder of Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker of “Submission,” which negatively portrayed Islam and a woman’s place within Islam, is one concrete example of Muslims responding badly to European ignorance of Islam. Rather than seek out Theo Van Gogh to educate him about his hugely misinformed understanding of Islam and Muslims, the violence against him only served to reinforce European belief that Islam is a dangerous, violent, radical religion. The outrage is more than understandable, but the response hurts us much more than it could ever help us. In the Angus Reid Global Monitor (December 19, 2009), they reported 33% of Germans were “anxious about the growth of Islam” in Europe while 29% were only “moderately concerned.” On December 13 of the year 2009, Hilo Sprain, a former Berlin finance senator and current member of the German Central Bank committee, said Muslim headscarves should be banned in Germany. This is remarkable because Muslims are the second largest religious demographic in Germany. Germany, Britain and France have been some of the most attractive countries to Muslim immigrants because of their vast economic opportunities. The growing Muslim presence, sadly, has led to a climate of hate and fear in these countries. Native Germans, Britons, and French justify this hateful disposition by claiming the Muslims will outnumber them, endangering their democracies and their cultures. Case in point, the UK has been responsible for blatant anti-immigrant agendas in its electoral campaigns based on such xenophobic notions.

In France, Parliament has banned headscarves in schools (citing students should not display religious symbols) as well as the burke (ostensibly for security reasons). The actions of the French government have stirred up a defensive fervor in French Muslim communities, which serves to heighten tensions between native French and Muslims. Parliament has done a great disservice to its country. Women who don burka in France make up an incredibly small percentage of the country’s Muslim population. Usually such an insignificant portion of a demographic would not demand the government’s attention, yet the image of Muslim women has so greatly galvanized the debate about Islam in France that burka becomes (officially) a threat to security and (socially) a reinforcement of the mentality that Islam oppresses women, and French secularism will liberate them. This climate of fear and anger has led both sides to act defensively with manifest aggression meant to “protect” their respective cultures, but the result of this irrational aggression furthered destruction of their communities and shared society. Burka and the headscarf are not a religious mandate in Islam (God only asks that the faithful be modest and cover their ornaments), and the “veiling” and seclusion of women is a practice that originated in Byzantium and Ancient Rome, not 7th century Arabia. Ironically, the French have taken something minor to a Muslim’s religious identity – headscarves and burkas – and so offended its Muslim population that hijab has become a symbol of Muslim identity and resistance to secularization and imperialism among French Muslims. In effect, the French created a self-fulfilling prophecy – by insisting headscarves are a marker of radical Islam; the French have created radical Muslims.

The latest development of inter-religious tensions in Western Europe is the case of Switzerland, where a nation-wide referendum banned the sounding of the call to prayer from minarets. The vote was decisive – 57% in favor versus 42% opposed. Once again, this isolating measure is a response to irrational fear. Posters in favor of the referendum feature a woman wearing a burka and minarets depicted as missiles all projected on a colonized Swiss flag. The poster further demonstrates a frighteningly common mentality: we are under siege, the Muslims are taking over, and we are losing our roots and culture in our own homeland. The Swiss have a laudable history as tolerant and open-minded, but this clear case of discrimination has shocked Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Special due goes to the United States. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others, denounced the Swiss decision as an attack on religious freedom and found it highly discriminatory. “They have managed to violate religious liberty, anger Muslims, and avoid dealing with reality – all in one simultaneous act,” (Christian Post December 3, 2009). The New York Daily News (December 2, 2009) called the Swiss vote “utterly idiotic,” adding that “passing laws target Muslims for being Muslims is not part of any clash of civilizations, it is a failure or one.” Finally, the Springfield New-Leader (December 18, 2009) commented, “Does anyone seriously think that banning minarets will stop terrorism? Minarets are no more indicators of Muslim terrorist plots than steeples are indicators of Christian intolerance.” These thoughts demonstrate a willingness to engage and to uphold rights for all. It needs to be highlighted that these voices are raised by the most powerful nation of the WEST and is not against Muslims. It encourages visionary and thinking community to pronounce the death and end of the perceived clash between the Muslim world and the West. The American voice is asserting only what are recognized as the high principles of the West A new world is emerging, less concerned with nations and indigenous cultural norms and focused more on peaceful and tolerant coexistence, humanism, and universal moral values. Positive forces need to join hands as one camp; organizations need to collaborate to feed into the world level massive force in its own right.

For as much as Muslims must deal with lack of acceptance and misunderstanding, they have a great amount of responsibility to shoulder. They have a responsibility to be a part of the fabric of their societies. Discriminatory European policies targeting hijab, burka, and minarets are a symptom (albeit a dangerous one) of a social illness comprised of ignorance. and fear. It takes both parties to disable this cycle of isolation, hate, and misunderstanding, but it falls to the Muslims to begin educating, begin engaging native French, Germans, Danes, et cetera. Education of Islam with non-Muslims and among us is necessary for understanding. But the huge task of updating and contemporary interpretation of Islam is the solo responsibility of Muslims alone.

As regards fear, it is rampant in many forms and feeding into mistrust of each other. The people of the host country are worried over loosing their homeland to the immigrant Muslims who are outgrowing them in number and are violent in their behavior; they do not want to loose their culture and values. Muslims are similarly afraid of loosing their values and being forced into complete assimilation. The action taken by one party defensively becomes the source of increasing the fear of the other party which in turn brings a more violent reaction to lead to a vicious cycle that seems to be self feeding .and unending. How to break this cycle is the biggest challenge for the whole world.-specially for Muslims.

Most of the insightful analyses of the clashes between West and Muslims in the recent Europe pinpoint correctly fear as the root cause but stop short of suggesting the remedy. If fear is the correct diagnosis, as a psychologist, I will not hesitate but stress the need to use a certain approach. It lies not so much in reasoning with this fear,take a drastic, confrontaction to control it but in a psychological approach that quietly undercuts the sources of fear in both parties by building inner strength in then and supporting a positive group climate.If the Swiss people were not pushed by fear, which was turned into anger at Muslims, they would have ignored the minarets simply as insignificant issue since there were only 4 out of the total 150 mosques that had minarets. For the same token, if Muslims had the inner confidence, they would have belittled the act of banning as inconsequential since only 4 mosques were to be affected, and would have found further support for this positive thought in the fact that Minaret s are not to be considered as integral part of Islam- good many mosques do not have minarets, they represent just an architectural device. That would have saved Muslims from finding the ban as an affront to Islam or to them. It would have rendered the act of a Muslim in Turkey senseless but violation of Islam when he went to a church and threatened the pastor to take the sign of cross down. Of course, it is no Islam but a distorted version of tit for tat reaction. Relying on your own faith in the true Islam , not getting influenced by the group pressures of your co-religionists, or getting caught in the retaliation trap to save your honor and your religion, when done out of strength and forbearance is the better way for American Muslims to grow-as modeled by our prophet. True,that sounds ideal but difficult to practice. If one were looking for an easy practice and the simple reality, that is only what is happening now, but it is not working .So, it has to be taken as a challenge to all. A new climate has to be created by the collaboration of many groups that will change the sordid reality and bring the new reality of peace

The key ingredients in the approach advocated above can be identified as two

1) to act positively rather than react in kind - to educate and engage rather than respond aggressively

2) to enhance the perception that the other group is also willing to see and move to the fair and just side of the equation- that means reciprocity in action.

From the Muslims side, as a start, we have taken the initiative to form an organization in America for this purpose of engagement. We have a two-pronged program for Muslims:

a) positive community participation and community service and

b) adoption of an American identity.

Will it work? Initially, it cannot be but a modest initiative, but over time it will grow and gain collaboration from all sides obviously, it is going to be an uphill task working with the Muslims group and sorting out and resolving several identity-related issues. But the sensible segment of this group should be able to appreciate the need and benefits of this approach. They would see it is better to choose and design their new American identity on their own- that would allow them to retain some of their key and select values, rather than face a forced and complete assimilation. Education and diffusion of these ideas is necessary to gain support with time. Of course, from the side of the West, it should welcome such an initiative. The main thing is that our organization works to deepen the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslims, and the movement of American identity will help undermine the ’us’ versus ’them’ mentality. Our hope is that our society becomes all ‘us’ without fear and mistrust, comes together to strengthen what is positive and valuable in America, grow to have tolerance for our differences and continue to work through our rough differences through the framework of American pluralism and democracy.

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