Muslims and the West

Desperately Seeking Occidentalists

If relations between the West and the Muslim world are to be improved, writes Maulana Waris Mazhari, Muslims must make a serious attempt not only to study both the positive and the negative aspects of Western thought, civilisation and history, but also to learn from them

Maulana Waris Mazhari (photo: Yoginder Sikand)
Maulana Waris Mazhari: "In many Muslim circles, hatred of the West is considered to be the biggest sign of religiousness"

​​The issue of strained relations between Muslims and the West is a long-standing one, and it has taken a new turn since the attacks of 9/11. In recent years, much has been written on the subject by both Muslim and Western scholars. Following the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations in the late 1990s, a large number of Western scholars concluded that reconciliation between Muslims and the West is impossible and that a clash between them is inevitable.

Influential Western think-tanks have aggressively pursued this line of thinking, as have extremist religious and political forces, particularly Christian evangelicals and Zionist organisations across Europe and America. In this context, the crucial question arises as to how the situation can be changed, as indeed it must. Do Muslims have any proper strategy or programme in this regard? My answer is firmly in the negative.

Superficial knowledge of the West

Despite the massive anti-Western movements and sentiments that have characterised much of the Muslim world over the last one hundred and fifty years, the fact remains that Muslim intellectuals, particularly the ulema, have only a very superficial understanding and knowledge of the West. In actual fact, there has been no serious attempt on the part of Muslim scholars to properly study and evaluate Western thought, civilization and history.

​​Today, our religious scholars have the same sort of stereotypical views about the West as the West had about Muslims and Islam several centuries ago at the time of the Crusades. Our religious scholars believe, and this is what they tell their followers, that the West simply stands for drunkenness, sexual license, immorality and all other sorts of wanton desires and pleasures.

Because of this approach we have not been able to learn from the good things that the West has to offer, not even about aspects of the Muslim scientific heritage that the West adopted from us and then built on.

Instead, in many Muslim circles, hatred of the West is considered to be the biggest sign of religiousness. This mentality developed during the colonial period, and it should have been done away with the end of the European colonial empires. However, instead of that happening, it has been greatly reinforced and strengthened, and has now become so deeply rooted that Muslim reformers find it virtually impossible to combat.

Critical, dispassionate study of the West necessary

Scores of institutions for the study of Islam and Muslim culture and history have been established in the West, and several Western universities have special departments dedicated to these fields. They have produced a massive amount of literature. In contrast, there are probably not even two or three scholarly institutions in the Muslim world devoted to the study of the West using modern scholarly methods.

Universities in Muslim countries should have set up departments of Western studies, and there should have been private- and government-funded institutions for the study of the West, but, unfortunately, none exist. We desperately need such institutions to study Western history and culture in a critical yet dispassionate way, so that Muslims can understand not only the limitations or drawbacks of contemporary Western civilisation, but also its virtues, which they could adopt.

Muslim double standards

Today, most Muslims have a double-standard approach to the West. On the one hand, many of them are vociferously opposed to the West and insist that Muslims should stay away from Western culture as far as possible. At the same time, many of them fervently desire to migrate to the West!

​​I have been twice to America, where I met several Muslims who brand America as "the Great Satan" but still continue to live there for the economic benefits and opportunities that America provides them. They show-off their American passports or, if they do not as yet have them, are impatiently awaiting the day when they will be granted American citizenship. Why, one must ask, these double-standards? If these Muslims are so anti-America, why don’t they leave the country and return to what they consider dar ul-Islam, "the abode of Islam", where many of them came from?

I believe that there are numerous aspects of Western culture and society that reflect the virtues that characterised the early history of Islam. In contrast, in many Muslim countries, groups that want to serve the cause of Islam are under severe restrictions. It is unfortunate that virtually the whole focus of Muslim groups in the West is on seeking to get recognition for Muslim cultural identity, often to the point of excess.

Take, for instance, the case of women’s dress. Hijab (modest dress) is adequate, yet some Muslims in the West make a big hue and cry, demanding that the naqab (face-veil) be allowed. Some go even further, unmindful of the fact that this might lead to a further escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment in society. Some extremist self-styled Islamic groups in the West, such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir, even raise the simplistic idea of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in the West, completely forgetting that the liberty to do so is not even available in the so-called dar ul-Islam.

The real conflict between Muslims and the West today is in the realm of ideas. Militarily, Muslims were defeated by the West two centuries ago, and, far from seriously hoping to overwhelm the West with military force, Muslim countries are thoroughly dependent on the West for military aid. In order to defend themselves effectively, Muslims must first understand the West, and for this we need Occidentalists, counterparts of the West’s Orientalists.

However, unlike the classical Orientalist approach to the Orient, these scholars should not be blindly critical of the West, but should, in an objective fashion, examine both its drawbacks and its virtues. Most Orientalists, as Edward Said so brilliantly pointed out in his magnum opus, Orientalism, did not adopt such a balanced approach, and actually served as tools of Western imperialism. The Muslim world, on the other hand, needs Occidentalists who evaluate the West objectively.

Islamophobia in the West

Some time ago, I met a Muslim professor who teaches at an American university. I asked him about the future of Muslims in America. He seemed very pessimistic and even said that Western countries might one day ask their Muslim citizens to leave. Personally, I do not think that this would be easy. Muslim and Western countries are too inter-dependent for that to happen.

This is why it is vital that they work seriously to counter the present climate of hatred and mistrust between Muslims and the West. Unfortunately, the simplistic approach and egotism of some Muslim groups in the West and the propaganda of some Christian and Jewish religious and semi-religious forces are giving a tremendous boost to Islamophobic sentiments across the West.

The practice of the Prophet Muhammad was to seek to create normal or settled conditions by accepting the terms and conditions set by his opponents in order to do away with the climate of hatred and conflict. This is what Muslims must seek to do, without compromising on the necessities of their faith.

Muslims must also desist from viewing the West and Western culture in stark, Manichaean terms. They must seek to learn from the good things that the West has to offer while abstaining from its draw-backs, for everything that is good, no matter what its source, is of value to the whole human community.

Maulana Waris Mazhari

© Qantara 2009

Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand

Maulana Waris Mazhari, a graduate of the Dar ul-Ulum Deoband, is the editor of the New Delhi-based Tarjuman Dar ul-Ulum, the official organ of the Old Boys’ Association of the Deoband madrasa.

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