The West and Islam

1,001 Prejudices

People to the south and north of the Mediterranean attribute negative characteristics to one another. In this essay, Hassan Hanafi, professor of philosophy at the University of Cairo, contributes a few thought-provoking ideas

Hassan Hanafi (photo: Mohamed Masad/DW)
Hassan Hanafi: "Can both sides of the Mediterranean become equal partners?"

​​The north and south Mediterranean coasts are cradles of ancient civilizations. Tensions between these regions frequently rest on misperceptions.

The North thinks the South is a place of terrorism, violence and bloodshed, as well as the breeding ground of 11 September and the bomb attacks in London and Madrid.

Islam has allegedly produced a culture of violence that opposes Christianity, the religion of peace and love. This misperception is based on a reductionist fallacy that reduces the whole to a part. In reality, Islam has given rise to such jewels in history as Granada, Seville and Cordoba on the north coast of the Mediterranean.

The other is regarded as a part of one's self

The South is also commonly seen as an underdeveloped region or, at best, a developing region – not only with regard to the economy, social policy and culture, but also in relation to women, democracy and social justice.

Ibn Sina, also known as Avicenna (photo: DW)
The North learning from the South: for centuries, Avicenna's <i>Canon of Medicine</i> was the most widely used medical work in the world

​​This, too, is a fallacy, as the South, with the centres of Fes, Kairouan and Cairo, was once at the cutting-edge of science and culture, and the North learned from the South.

The North also believes the South rejects the other – non-Muslims at home and Westerners abroad – that it sacrifices dialogue to monologue, and has produced a culture based on exclusion instead of integration.

This is supposedly the reason for the ongoing tension between religions and ethnic groups. Yet Islam is a religion of peace that honours the diversity of Creation and mankind. The other is regarded as a part of one's self.

Furthermore, some believe that legal and illegal worker immigration from the South poses a threat to the North and that headscarves, Muslim male dress and mosques endanger Europe's identity.

It is also widely believed that every European city has Muslim districts that follow their own customs and laws. But this is true of all religious and ethnic minorities.

Culture of double standards?

On the other hand, the South also has its misperceptions about the North, regarding it as colonialist and imperialist. From the Greek and Roman Empire to the medieval crusades and then modern colonialism, the North, it is felt, has pushed forward its borders.

Crusade to the Holy Land: the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 (photo: dpa)
For many in the South, the crusades and modern colonialism are irrefutable evidence of the North's eternal desire to expand

​​Western culture is believed to be based on power, not justice; and on control, not liberation. At the least it is held to be a culture of double standards: promoting culture, liberation, equality, justice, progress and science at home, while pursuing control, inequality, injustice, regressiveness and ignorance abroad. The question is: can a new universalism exist beyond Eurocentrism?

The South also believes that the North exploits resources, raw materials and labour and dominates markets in the South. This is seen in multi-nationalism, globalisation and a unipolar order.

Much has been written about the "plundering" of the "Third World". The West has taken more from Africa, Asia and Latin America than it has given. The question is: can both sides of the Mediterranean become equal partners?

The South believes that the value system of the North is more materialist, positivist and relativist, and places more value on change than constancy. Idealism, it is felt, is a new version of ancient beliefs.

Can there be such a thing as universal ethics?

The South feels that the "categorical imperative" has been replaced by situation ethics, and that abortion, homosexuality, nudist culture, egoism and self-interest are common social practices beyond morality. The question is: can there be such a thing as universal ethics?

The South also believes that the North's predominantly humanist worldview is rationalist, secular, even atheist, and that it tends towards scepticism, agnosticism and nihilism.

Postmodernism and deconstructivism are two symptoms of a Western crisis described by Max Scheler as the overthrow of values, by Henri Bergson as a machine for making gods, and by Oswald Spengler as the decline of the West. The question is: will the leadership role in culture pass from the West to the East?

Hassan Hanafi

© KULTURAUSTAUSCH II /2009

Hassan Hanafi was born in Cairo in 1935. After receiving his bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1956, he studied at the Sorbonne in Paris for ten years. Since 1966, he has been professor of philosophy at the University of Cairo, and since 1983 Vice President of the Arab Philosophical Society.

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