Islamophobia: The Challenge of Pluralism in the 21st Century
ISLAMOPHOBIA – Book Sample
Foreword – ISLAMOPHOBIA
“Islamophobia and the Challenges of Pluralism in the 21st Century” is a timely topic in a world in which the relationship between Islam and the West matters more than ever before.
The increasing interdependence and coexistence among dissimilar peoples makes mutual acceptance and respect requisites for social harmony in our interconnected world; thus, the need for the Muslim and the Western worlds to accommodate each other is especially important given the central role these two large communities have been playing in global relations for the last fourteen centuries.
Religion is an indispensable component of human life. From time immemorial, religion has shaped the cultural identity of individuals and communities as well as the building of civilizations. In addition to the importance religion carries for all peoples of the world, Islam has been a central factor in the lives of its adherents.
Its system of faith has guided them not only in spiritual and moral matters but also in their total world outlook. Islam has a distinctive place in Muslim life; as a sociological reality it inﬂuences and guides attitudes and behavior. It is therefore natural that Muslims cannot dismiss attacks directed against their religion as mere opinions but feel deeply offended and sometimes react strongly.
The weight of Islam in social life differs from one country to another. State systems and intellectuals’ attitudes vary signiﬁcantly, ranging from the Islamic to the secular-oriented, creating a diversity
of opinions about the place of Islam in the public sphere, as to where the line between religion and politics should be drawn. Such diversity certainly depends in part on the existence and sustainability of democracy in Muslim countries. Democracy, engaging civil society and public opinion, together with socioeco- nomic development, can lead to the modernization of societies and help them ﬁght marginalization and radicalization.
Notwithstanding the diverse orientations of governments, the teachings of Islam generally constitute the basic code of ethics that guides Muslims in their daily lives, as witnessed throughout the history of Islamic civilization. These teachings include moral excellence, honor, virtue, justice, piety, equity, compassion, and human dignity.
Christianity and Islam share a common monotheistic vision, as well as these basic teachings. However, despite this closeness and the fact that our histories are tightly linked—offering compelling reasons to live together and cooperate—much of the history of the Muslim world and the West has too often been marked by mutual hostility, giving rise to an enduring tradition of distrust and animosity.
We have always looked at our past and our present from different and, more often, contradictory angles, trying to disavow or ignore each other. I do not think that theology and religion have been a major factor in this antagonism.
To ﬁnd the root causes one has to look elsewhere. Islam, since its incep- tion, has recognized Judaism and Christianity, biblical prophets, and the Torah and the Gospels as revealed religions and their adherents as “the people of the Book.” Islam sees both Judaism and Christianity not as “others” to tolerate but as standing de jure, as revealed religions from God.
Moreover, their legitimate status is not sociopolitical, cultural, or civilizational but religious. Islam does not see itself as coming to the religious scene ex nihilo but as reafﬁrming the same truth presented by all of the prophets of Judaism and Christianity.
Muslims have always been committed to pluralism and tolerance. Historically, Muslims played a pioneering role in acquiring knowledge and disseminating expertise in various ﬁelds and sharing it with other civilizations. Under the centuries-long rule of Islam, non-Muslims could practice their faiths: Their religious institutions and places of worship were repaired and maintained with public funding, and their respective personal laws remained in effect. Islam adopts religious and cultural pluralism as a guiding principle in social admin- istration. As Karen Armstrong points out, “in the Islamic empire, Jews, Chris- tians and Zoroastrians enjoyed religious freedom.
This reﬂected the teaching of the Koran, which is a pluralistic scripture, afﬁrmative of other traditions. Muslims are commanded by God to respect the ‘people of the book,’ and reminded that they share the same belief and the same God.”1 Muslims, Chris- tians, and Jews lived together under Islamic rule in Jerusalem, Andalusia, Cairo,
Istanbul, and many cities and towns throughout the Ottoman Empire, and communities ﬂourished throughout the Muslim world.
Today, Islam is increasingly regarded by some in the West as a source of intolerance, extremism, and terrorism, one whose adherents are out to destroy Western values. By contrast, the Muslim world is increasingly regarding the West as an arrogant, imperialistic colonizer prone to propagate Western materialism and mass culture, to destabilize and destroy Islam, and to exploit the Muslim world’s potential while imposing Western values and way of life on the rest of the world.
In recent years, some newspapers in Europe, under the guise of opening debate on taboo issues, have proclaimed that the West has been silenced by Islam and found it ﬁt to publish the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed. However, their attempts have proved to obscure rather than enlighten and have also needlessly offended and thus been condemned by many Muslims.
Such an approach adds fuel to the ﬁre and merely reinforces prejudices on both sides.
This controversy was also an occasion for some in the Western media to invoke the fundamental right of freedom of expression.
Nobody can contest this right, which is at the heart of every enlightened society. However, while we consider this a clear indication of growing Islamophobia and discrimination toward Islam and Muslims, we also see behind this imposed polarity between freedom of expression and respect for religious beliefs an attempt to test the people’s will and a lack of understanding of their sensitivities to the sacred constants of their faith.
I ﬁrmly believe that one should recognize the inalienable right to freedom of expression; however, this right should be exercised responsibly and judiciously.
One of the principal causes of the rising intolerance of Islam in many parts of the world is ignorance or, if I may say so, lack of proper understanding of Islam, often rooted in a failure to distinguish between mainstream Islam and Muslims and the words and actions of extremists. In my own life as a scholar and now as the head of a center for Muslim-Christian understanding, I have had a chance to devote time to commonalities and differences between religion, culture, and history of science.
I have come to the conclusion that every culture and religion has goodness embedded in it and that all of these together have enriched human civilization. The pioneering works of Muslim, as well as Western, philosophers, scientists, and scholars in the ﬁelds of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography, jurisprudence, the arts, and architecture, to name a just few, have contributed enormously to the shape of modern civilization.
Islamophobia has two basic causes: One is related to political attitude, and the other to the interpretation of history. The former stems from the reaction
that has been directed toward Islam in the face of terrorist attacks, in particular 9/11 and the post-9/11 attacks in Europe, whose culprits’ religious afﬁliation happens to be Islam. Attributing the acts of these terrorists to their faith suggests a prejudice against Islam and Muslims since no similar association is at- tributed to terrorist attacks by criminals of any other faith.
To equate these acts of terrorism, which are prohibited by Islam and which violate its essential principles and rules, with mainstream Islam empowers and encourages these extremists. Accepting the claims contributes to legitimizing both the claims and their goals.
Unfortunately, today some political commentators and “experts” promote Islamophobia. Their basic premise is that Muslims, from the rise of Islam to the present, have sought to annihilate Christianity and Islamize Europe.
This unfounded and reductionist historiography denies or deliberately overlooks Islam’s fourteen-century-old history of religious, political, demographic, and intellectual interactions with other cultures and its share in the development of the world’s common heritage and its humanistic outlook. While this antagonistic view has not enjoyed support in most scholarly circles, it negatively affects public opinion.
The dangerous mindset of centuries-old prejudices must be addressed, and work toward harmony and understanding must become a priority in both the West and the Muslim world. Sadly, in recent years the reports of the Organization of the Islamic Conference and other international organizations, including Western institutions monitoring Islamophobia in Europe, have warned the world of the emergence and continued growth of Islamophobia, a new form of racism in Europe and the United States based on discrimination and intolerance of Islam and Muslims.
Based on this concern and threat to our relations, I have called for a genuine “historical reconciliation between Islam and Christianity” that will mark a new era in the history of humankind and human civilization. Similar initiatives were taken between Judaism and Christianity in the face of anti-Semitism a few decades ago and have proven successful and productive.
This would further develop the initiative taken by the Eucharistic Congress of the Vatican in 1965. This body issued a document titled “The World of Light Encyclical: Dia- logue between Christians and Muslims,” which called for an Islamo-Christian dialogue and acknowledged the value of the Islamic faith, Islam’s favorable at- titude toward Christianity, and Islam’s contribution to the advancement of hu- man civilization.
Neither Christianity nor Islam is monolithic; therefore, reconciliation ef- forts should involve representatives from all sects of both religions along with all stakeholders such as scholars, thinkers, policymakers, and the media.
These efforts should promote a mindset anchored in the moral imperative of respecting each and every human being and unstintingly foster the concept of plural- ism. This task must be supported and nurtured by international leaders and organizations. Both education and a fair and objective media have prominent roles to play in this endeavor.
Islam and the West could and should co-exist in peace and harmony, as the common denominators that link them outweigh their differences and facilitate this reconciliation between them:
- Geographical proximity: The present reality is that Muslims and Westerners are living together under the same rule in almost all Western societies.
- Similar spiritual reference: As part of the entire history of monotheistic religions, Islam is a continuity of Abrahamic tradition and culture.
- Shared values: There is no inherent conﬂict between Islam and modernity, and Muslims are committed to pluralism and the right of people to cherish their diversity.
Certain common strategic interests for the West and Islam need to be developed and nurtured in the coming decades. Our world is going through a rapid development, and new realities and new centers of power may emerge. This makes it all the more imperative for the West and the Muslim world to reconcile their differences, dispel their misunderstandings, and look to the future with a new spirit.
Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference
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