muslims homeportraitsthemesinterviewsfaqsdiscussion

islam and the west
Islam, like any religion, is facing challenges to evolve and adjust to modernity and in particular to the economic and cultural power of a dominant West. Historically, what have been Islam's ancient and modern conflicts with the West? In a modern globalized world, what issues are confronting Muslims? And what is the impact on the West of the Islamic resurgence? Here are excerpts from the full interviews with: Chandra Muzaffar, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, Akbar Muhammad, Nilufer Gole, and Amina Wadud.

>Chandra Muzzafar
President, International Movement for a Just World and Professor at the Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Could you tell me what the key points are that have led to the misunderstanding of Islam in the West?

read the interview

There are both historical and contemporary factors which would explain this misconception of Islam within certain circles in the West. I suppose one should begin with the fact that Islam occupied parts of Europe -- which had never happened to European civilization before that. That was one of the factors.

Then you had the Crusades, which was Christendom trying to, I suppose, impose its will upon the Middle East. And I use the term "Middle East" deliberately, because it was not just imposing its will upon the Muslim population; the Jews were also victims of that process. And, some would argue, the Orthodox Christians were also victims of that process. So it was basically western Christendom imposing its will with the Crusades, and because it stretched over centuries and it ended in defeat for the Christian princes. This, I think, had an impact on the psyche of Western civilization.

Then, of course, you had colonialism, which affected both sides and created a situation where the antagonism became even more serious.

Now, after the colonial period, I think the major factor as being oil. The one commodity which is most important to industrial civilization, Western industrial civilization, happens to flow beneath the feet of Muslims, in the Arab world in particular. And I think the desire to control this source of power, as it were, on the part of the West has heightened the antagonism between Islam and the West. ...

Now today, you have Muslim communities living all over Europe. It's the Muslim that constitutes "the other" in Europe on European soil today. Now there is also, I think, complicated relations between the two civilizations. So you have all these factors which have led to a certain misconception of Islam and Muslims in the West. But let me also add very quickly that I find that, in the last decade or two, there have been some very sincere and serious attempts to overcome the prejudices and antagonisms of the past.

Do you think the Crusades actually affected the way Americans perceived the Islamic world? Can you take the American perception that far back?

This is an interesting question. To some extent, these historical events have influenced the American perception, too, because America in that sense is part of the larger European Western civilization, and it carries that baggage, to some extent.

But I suspect that the more important factor has been the United States' economic and geopolitical position in the world today. And this one should link with not just oil, but also I think the whole question of Israel. In the case of the United States of America, more than in the case of Europe, I think Israel is a very important factor. The United States is perceived throughout the Muslim world as that superpower that protects Israel. And Israel is seen as the state that has usurped the rights of the Palestinians and the Arabs. The conflict of the last five decades which has also got a certain history behind it, has made it very difficult for Muslims to accept the United States of America as a friend. So you can see how the whole question of Israel has bedeviled relations between Islam and the West.

Talk about the impact of colonialization on the Muslim world.

As with other colonized people, Muslims were victims of the colonial process in almost every sense. It's not just the loss of control over administration, politics, the economy... These are the more obvious aspects of colonialization.

What is not that obvious -- but is certainly far more insidious and perhaps in the long run, much more fatal for the colonized -- was the colonization of the mind. This has had a very profound effect upon people everywhere, and Muslims have reacted to it, partly because they are much more conscious than other colonized people of their own history and of their own identity. This is why you'll find that, even in countries like India, where the majority of the population was Hindu, it was the Muslims who first asserted their will against colonial dominance in various parts of the British Empire in India.

This is also true of colonized communities in other parts of the world. So I think this whole question of reasserting identity, discovering oneself, trying to define one's space -- it has become very, very important to Muslims everywhere. Partly because of historical process, which in the long run, is perhaps much more powerful than the colonialism of the past, and that's globalization.

Can you tell me what the impact of globalization, the dominance of the West, has had on the Muslim world? On Muslims?

There is the cultural dimension of globalization which Muslims are very conscious of. They feel that the sort of values and ideas, notions of living which are emanating from the West and beginning to penetrate their societies, influencing their young in particular -- that these are harmful; at least some of the more obvious aspects linked to music and dance forms and films and so on. They see these things as injurious to their own culture and identity. ...

They're also conscious of the fact that the global political system is dominated by the United States, to a great extent, and some of the other big powers. And somehow there is perhaps wittingly, perhaps unwittingly, the exclusion of Islam from the global process. And they've also been reacting to that, I think. ...

There have been I think two major trends. There is a dominant trend which is, to a great extent, negative. Meaning that Muslims have become very conscious of the fact of dominance and they have become exclusive. They have become inward looking, in some respects. They have become very reactive and sometimes very aggressive. While one can understand the historical circumstance that may have given birth to some of these trends and tendencies, I don't think there is any justification for this from an Islamic point of view, or from the point of view of the relations between civilizations.

Now there is a subordinate trend, which unfortunately remains very weak at this point in time. These are Muslims who say that, in the midst of globalization, you have to reassert the essence of Islam. And that is its universalism, its inclusiveness, its accommodative attitude, its capacity to change and to adapt, while retaining the essence of faith. In other words, expressing faith as something that is truly ecumenical and universal. Now that is a trend which has its adherents in almost every Muslim country, but it has remained on the margins. ...

Has there been a history of positive relationships between Western civilization and the Muslim world?

As in most other interactions between civilizations, there are always both positive and negative dimensions. And if one looks at some of the positive aspects of this relationship, one could argue that the way in which centers of learning in the West absorbed knowledge from Islamic civilization in the earlier period through the Iberian peninsula, in Sicily and even via the Crusades. The Crusades had a certain dimension to it which is not often emphasized. It was not just the wars. There was also the exchange of ideas by conquest and trade. You find that ideas pertaining to science and technology and navigation, all those ideas crossed borders and boundaries. So that was positive.

You had a person who later became pope studying in one of the great centers of learning in the Muslim world. And he adopted a very open approach towards Islam. There wasn't the antagonism that his predecessors had shown. So that sort of interaction had existed in the past. And one could argue that, at the level of the mystics, there was a great deal of exchange -- even if some of it took place without the mystics themselves being conscious of this. These were idea that traveled across time and across boundaries.

Now if one looks at the modern period, I would say that as far as politics and government go, Muslims have absorbed a great deal from the West, especially in relation to democracy, human rights, democratic forms of governance. There's been as great deal of absorption on the part of Muslims from the West. And I don't think there's any Muslim society today including those which have remained closed and cloistered ... that can ignore the force of democracy. It's been one of the greatest political forces of the 20th and 21st century.

It seems the West has forgotten much about what Islamic civilization has brought to it. What do you think the main thing that has been forgotten that it should try and remember and learn about its debt to Islamic civilization?

I suppose the debt that the West owes to Islam in the realm of science would be something which the present generation should be made aware of, because science is so central to life in Western society. And if people are aware of the roots of science, and the evolution of science, the scientific method, for instance, which is so central to scientific inquiry, if people become aware of this, then I think the attitude towards Islam would also change.

And I suppose they should also be aware that there are ideas pertaining to inter-gender relations which would put Islam in a very positive light, because one doesn't see that today. One sees Islam partly because of the media, but partly because of the behavior of certain Muslim groups as a religion that is somewhat contemptuous of the role of the woman. But if one is told, for instance, that chivalry as an idea actually grew out of Islamic civilization, that it was absorbed by the West... That there are all sorts of rights which are given to [to women], and these were rights that [Muslim] women enjoyed 1,400 years ago. If that sort of knowledge, that sort of information is disseminated in the Western world, then I think Western perceptions of Islam would change.

You talked about the colonization of the mind. Explain more about what that process was.

The essence of the colonization of the mind is how it influences the way in which we see ourselves. How we see the other, and the world as a whole. The way in which we see ourselves, for instance, in the larger hierarchy of things. The Muslim, like the Hindu, or the Christian, or the Buddhist who had been colonized sees himself as inferior to the West.

I think that perception is something that's very, very serious, because what it means is that your history, your heritage, your patrimony, as it were, doesn't have the sort of status that it should enjoy. You begin to judge everything that you have in terms of the West. So that becomes the yardstick. It becomes the ultimate criterion for determining whether something is good or bad.

You look at something very, very simple and yet profound, like notions of beauty. Why is that if you go to Shanghai, for instance, the mannequins now look very Caucasian? They don't look Chinese at all. So there's a certain notion of beauty which has come to be associated with the West. And others who will not be able to embody that notion of beauty, because physically, they are different. But somehow they see that as the ultimate, as far as beauty is concerned. So there's something wrong. ...

And it goes [further], for instance, if you look at the way in which the colonization of the mind expresses itself in things like the economy. We have come to accept the market and the way the market functions as a sort of God-given truth, if you like. You know that this is the only way in which it can function. And yet we forget that this is something very recent in human history. Markets have existed for a very, very long while, but markets operated in a different way. But today, you have a certain notion of the market that has become all pervasive.

One can say that of almost everything else. And I think this is what the colonization of the mind is. If you look at textbooks used in many parts of the post-colonial world, you'll find that the way in which they look at world history is conditioned by this. The way in which they look at the history of their own societies somehow is defined and determined by the colonial experience.

When I was in school, for instance -- and most of my primary and secondary school was after [Malaysian] independence, after 1957 -- the history books told my generation that Francis Light had discovered Penang, Stanford Raffles had discovered Singapore. I mean, that is a lie. Because Penang and Singapore had existed before Francis Light and Stanford Raffles came to these places.

They had flourishing communities. They traded. They did all these things. They were part of larger empires. And yet somehow, the history books will tell you that they discovered these places. That is the myth of discovery, which is very, very dangerous, because what it means is that you did not have a history before that. You didn't exist. This is what it means. And if you look at this myth of history, myth of discovery, as it were, that is a very, very dangerous idea.

So I used to tell my students when I was teaching that it's not Francis Light that discovered Penang; it's the people of Penang who discovered Francis Light standing on their shore one day. You know, this is what really happened.

So I think it's this process of rewriting history that has to take place. But at the same time, one should be very careful about this. One should not go to the other extreme and deny everything that had happened, and try to glorify a past which should not be glorified. There are all sorts of warts and pimples on our own face, and we should acknowledge that. I find that sometimes Muslims, when they talk of their past and the glories of the past, tend to ignore the dark side of history. That, I think, is wrong.

They must also acknowledge this openly that if you look at, say, the first four caliphs, three of them were assassinated. That is historical fact that you can't run away from. There were factions, that there were feuds. You did not have stability for long periods. You had corrupt caliphs. All these things are part of our history, and we must be willing to acknowledge that. And I think this is true of people everywhere. We must be willing to come to terms with our past. ...

[Regarding] worldviews and a Western worldview versus an Islamic worldview, what do you see as the differences between those two different ways of seeing the world?

One should qualify the use of these two terms, "Islamic worldview" and "Western worldview" by saying that these are generalizations. Reality is much more complex.

But having said that, at this point in time, one can argue that faith is perhaps the principal distinguishing element between these two civilizations -- that Islam is very much a faith-based civilization. Everything, at least in the theoretical sense, centers around faith, that you believe in God and as a result of that, you hold on to certain practices and rituals. And you believe that politics should be conducted in a certain way, the economy should be run along certain lines and so on. All that emanates from faith and the oneness of God and God's revelation over time and the place of the Prophet Muhammad -- may peace be upon him. That's part of one's belief system, rooted in faith.

Western civilization, contemporary Western civilization as a product of the enlightenment, is a civilization that centers much more around reason. It's an enlightenment of the head, not of the heart. If you look at the way in which the Buddhists, for instance, talk of enlightenment, it is from the heart. But in the West, it's basically, the head. It's a rational attitude, it's empirical, it's secular in the sense that it's not linked to the revealed truth or to a scripture. It's different in that sense.

But if you begin to look at these two civilizations at another level, you'll find that there are a lot of similarities. Today, for instance, in the West there's tremendous concern about the environment. That is a value, a virtue that exists in other civilizations, from the Taoists and the American Indians, and to Islam. This is a very important principle: living in harmony with the environment.

And these are the meeting points that one should emphasize in a world where civilizational dialogue is, to my mind, the prerequisite for peaceful coexistence. We really have no choice. We have to learn from one another. We have to dialogue with one another. I've been very involved in this. I see this as my mission, to promote dialogue between civilizations and cultures.

You mentioned the environment as one example of what the West can learn from Islam. What other things do you think the West should and can learn from the Islamic world?

The nexus between faith and action, the way in which faith interpreted in a very universal inclusive manner can inform deeds in different spheres of human existence. In politics, for instance, it would mean a more ethical approach to power. In the economy, it would mean a more ethical approach to profits and to markets and so on. And the same thing with culture; a greater emphasis upon character, rather than what is sensate and immediate. And so on and so forth.

So I think that's where faith comes in, this link between faith and action that's very important. As I said a while ago, it's faith interpreted in a very broad manner; it doesn't mean that one has to attach oneself to a particular notion of God. It's a notion of transcendence and a certain sense of awe, the mystery of life. I think this has to be restored in our lives.

I find that this is something that really separates very ordinary Muslims and people of other faiths -- Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and in Asia and Latin America -- from ordinary people in the West; this idea that life is a mystery, that there is something transcendent beyond all this. This, I think, is very important. ...

[Some people] think that the idea of human rights is [somewhat] different in the West and the Islamic world. Can you just clarify to me how that is seen?

Many of the rights which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 are rights which Muslim political thought would be able to accept and accommodate without any difficulty at all, whether it's freedom of expression or the right to a fair trial, the right to food, shelter, the right to found a family. Those things are all there.

The difference is at another level. It is at the level of the underlying philosophical premises, because if you look at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is a document which is postulated on the notion of the individual. Now, in the case of Islam, as in some other civilizations, there is also a communitarian dimension that is very important. So it's not just the rights of individuals; there is also a certain notion of the community that is very crucial. And you must bring that community dimension into your articulation of rights.

To give an example of this, which it would be very pertinent to our discussion, you take the Salman Rushdie phenomenon, the Salman Rushdie episode. He had a certain right as an individual, and he expressed that right. But in the course of expressing that right, Salman Rushdie hurt the collective feelings of a people. And one would argue that one should have taken that into account, too, while saying, "Look, a person has a right to articulate his position, this freedom of expression. [But] there is also a collective notion of honor that a community has." The community felt that it had been demeaned, that had it had been denigrated.

So that sort of notion is something that one shouldn't ignore, either. So this is something which Islamic philosophy is concerned about, where when you talk of rights, you must also think of the communitarian dimension. ...

With the Rushdie affair, was this fatwa -- this death threat -- a suitable response?

A number of us wrote articles at that time criticizing Ayatollah Khomeini for issuing that edict. We argued that it was wrong, because a Muslim has a right to leave his faith and to take whatever position that he wants. And one cannot compromise as far as that right is concerned. You can criticize him for what he wrote, which is something else. But the right response to that is to write another book and attack the man. But you don't put him to death. That was wrong. I think most Muslim intellectuals were appalled at Khomeini's fatwa.

Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf
Imam of Masjid al-Farah, New York, New York

In what ways do Western values, morals, and cultural practices, intrude upon, and [in what ways] are they at variance with Islamic ideals?

read the interview

I think there are two aspects to this question, in the broader sense of the word. There are Western values regarding governance; Western values regarding separation of powers; Western notions regarding what the role of government is in society; Western notions in terms of democratic institutions and principles and ideas. And to a large extent, Muslims are very enamored of these systems, and would like to implement them in their own societies ... because these principles and norms are completely in sync with the principles of the Quran and the teachings of the prophet. And Muslims would like very much to implement these norms within their societies.

When you come to speak about things like behavioral norms, gender relationships, or the kind of things that people will do, this is a separate issue. And there is another aspect of the West, and that is the attitude of the West towards the non-Western countries, in terms of trying to be presumptuous in telling them how they should even live their lives in ways that they are not accustomed to -- like modes of dress, for instance. In the 1930s, when the first shah of Iran forced his soldiers at bayonet point to force Iranian women to take off the chador, for instance.

People don't like to be told how to dress. This is a matter of personal individual conscience. Even we here in the West do not insist that our students in public schools wear uniforms. We give them that level of freedom. People do not like to be told how to do certain things in their personal lives. ...

Do you think we have witnessed a period of reactionaryism against the Western influence within the Muslim world in the past 50 or 100 years?

The 20th century was a century in which the Muslim world experienced at the hands of the West -- in the perception of the Muslim world -- a dismantling of some of its important constructs. The most significant of that was the dismantling of the Ottoman caliph. Because for the first time, the collective consciousness of Muslims, there is no caliph anywhere. And especially in major population centers of the Muslim world, those that were important at the turn at the beginning of the 20th century: Turkey, Egypt, Iran -- the traditional forms of rulership were replaced by militantly secular regimes; not only secular regimes, but militantly secular regimes, which did not even support traditional values which were cherished by the people.

In Turkey, for instance, Ataturk himself forbade the calling of the prayer in the Arabic language. They changed the script of Ottoman Turkish from Arabic script to the Roman script. So the Muslim world felt that there was a deliberate attempt to create a split in that bond which Muslims had. ... So what happened create[d] a split between Arabs and Turks ... and refigure[d] the map and create[d] new identities of people.

People [had] thought of themselves as part of a group -- you had the family, the clan, the tribe and extended notion of a tribe, a people, a nation. So you have for example the Uzbekis were split geographically. So you have some Uzbekis in Uzbekistan, some in what we call Afghanistan. The Pashtun people were split some in Pakistan, some in Afghanistan. The Hazaris were split between Iran and Afghanistan. We tell these people, this segment of Uzbekis, "Pashtuns and Hazaris, now think of yourself as ... a completely new identification based upon geography" which people did not have before. And this seeded conflict. ...

We did the same thing in Iraq, and the Kurds lost out; they are split between Iraq and Turkey. So the West planted the seed for some grave problems in the Muslim world. But at the same time, they robbed the Muslim world, in the minds of the Muslims, of a sense of identity that was based upon people, and also a sense of pluralism that existed within the Muslim dialectic. Within, let's say, the Ottoman caliphate, they had had a principle of different peoples. So they had the notion that the sultan had political power over these different people. But these peoples had their different cultural norms, different religions, different religious leaders. As long as political homage was paid to the sultan, and they didn't act in a way which was treasonous politically, [they could all live together under the sultan]. They had their own court system, dealing with matters of religious affairs and so forth.

So we had a method of pluralism which worked. There were instances of intermarriage between the people and so forth, but people lived harmoniously. [The Western influence] created what Samuel Huntington calls "torn societies."... Huntington describes a torn society as "a society whose leadership, those who hold the reins of the power, identify with a different set of cultural norms than the people on whom they govern."

And what would be the key implications that came of this fracturing, tearing apart, in the way Islam has been lived?

I think the major thing is that Muslims now think have been taught to think in certain ideas that are peculiarly Western -- the idea of nationalism, the idea of nation states. And in their attempt to fulfill their natural urge to perfect themselves as Muslims individually and collectively, they therefore try to create some peculiar hybrids.

Like the notion of an Islamic state, for instance. Several generations of Muslims now have been educated in ways that their mindset and ways of thinking, if not their language even, is very much Westernized. So they think in terms of Western ideas and concepts, even if they speak their own native languages. So the urge therefore to develop an Islamic nation state -- a concept which some people may regard as being an oxymoron, because the nation state is not something which developed out of the Islamic tradition ... The Islamic philosophical tradition was based upon identification of grouping of peoples, who had governed themselves according to living in certain ways and structured in a slightly different way. ...

There seems to be a growing conservatism, or conservative interpretation of Islam, taking hold. Is that something you have seen, or agree with?

I think that in the 20th century there are certain waves that occurred. When you go back to the first part of the 20th century, there were some well-known voices who grew out of Islamic tradition but who were exposed to the West ... who felt the need to restate what it means to be an Islam in the 20th century, and they found many aspects of Western society to be highly admirable, and wanted to bring it to their own countries. ...

So there was an attempt to meld the best of the of the East with the best of the West. These movements ...were interrupted by events of World War II and the rise of militant dictatorial regimes, which completely changed the sociological complexion, the political complexion of much of the Muslim world. During that period of time -- I would say 1950s and 1960s -- there was a time when these regimes had the upper hand. And they felt that the way to fast-forward as societies, in terms of the industrial development, was to emulate the West in all of its aspects.

Their policies didn't succeed. And this resulted in a reaction to much of these policies, because "This newfangled way of doing things didn't work; let's go back and revisit our traditions, and let's find comfort in those traditions." ...

MUSLIMS IN AMERICA

What are the key differences between being a Muslim in America and being a Muslim in the Muslim world?

There are many aspects to that. There is the political aspect, the sociological aspect, the social and family aspect, the economic aspect. So there are many aspects to the to the difference between living in a Muslim country as a native especially, and living in this country. ...

If I were to look at maybe the broadest difference -- there is a sense of freedom in the United States. So one practices one's faith in the United States as an act of deliberate choice. If you are not [doing so, it's] not so much because of social pressure. There may be a certain amount of social pressure. But at a certain point in one's life, one is relatively free to live one's life as one chooses in this country.

And that sense of freedom makes one's religiosity or the defining lines of one's religiosity much sharper. Religion is a much more personal thing here. It is also a deeper experience within the personal envelope. One is forced to attach oneself to one's religion in a personally deeper way in terms of the existential issues.

Another aspect about living in the United States is that one experiences a lot of negative media attention to one's Islamicity. And that has resulted, and can result in, a reaction one way or the other by many people. Many Muslims feel in this country like the Christians did in Rome when they were fed to the lions. And here the lions are the media. We hope that perhaps things will change in the United States, as they did in Rome, as well.

It seems there is a societal dimension to being a Muslim, in terms of the ways one would like one's society to be organized. Are there conflicts in that sense between how one would like society to be, and the realities of American society?

I would say that Muslims in America, especially those who come from other countries, experience both an attraction, a strong attraction, to the positive things that America offers: freedom, political freedom; economic mobility and well being -- the ability to live a materially comfortable life. These are all the things that draws people from all over the world, Muslim and non-Muslim, to this country.

However, there are certain things that people even when they come from their own country, don't like to give up. They don't like to give up certain aspects of their cultural norms. Their practices of family relationships they try to maintain. Their cuisines they like to maintain. Those values, which they consider to be their ethics, they like to maintain.

And so Muslims who have come to this country generally believe that the democratic principles, the political principles, the economic structure of this country really resonates with the faith of Islam, and draw them to this country. In the sense that, let's say, American social norms or values are not supportive of the families -- in those issues, Muslims may happen to have a different opinion. [On] those values which violate their sense of decency, they may have a different opinion.

In a certain sense, much of the ethical and moral issues which Muslims feel strongly about in this country are shared by what you might call the Christian majority in this country -- more of the moral mooring, or the sense of decency, which is commonly shared in other faith traditions.

... I also believe that, as the American Muslim community matures in this country, that the American Muslim community will be an interlocutor, and important intermediary between the West and the Muslim world. And more so today, because today, we have much easier communications between the immigrant Muslim population and their extended families in the Muslim world ... unlike those who immigrated a century ago from Europe, there are maintained contacts with the Old World and the New [World]. And this phenomenon will give rise to a much different sense of what it means to be a Muslim in the world.

Tell me more about that. What is an American Muslim -- if there is such a thing as "an American Muslim" -- what is that?

I think it is very much a work in progress. If you look at what happened to the Muslim-American community over the last, say, 40 years, it is a mosaic; it is a cross-section of the Muslim world.

We look at the Muslim centers, or mosques, starting with the early 1970s as waves of immigration began to occur from the Muslim world. You found, as certain ethnic groups reached critical mass, that mosques sprouted with a very ethnic complexion. So we have a Turkish mosque in Brooklyn, an Albanian mosque. You will find a West African mosque, mainly from French-speaking West Africans from Senegal and Mali [in] the Bronx, for instance. You have also always had African-American mosques. You have Arab mosques, Hindu-Pakistani mosques, Bangladesh mosques. However, what we are seeing is that these mosques tend to be maintained in terms of their cultural complexion and their general collective psychology by the continued immigration from the from the Old World.

The second generation, the children of these immigrants, are finding themselves with a different psychic complexion, or psychological complexion. And I see a development of an American Islamic identity, which is currently a work in progress which will be kind of the sum total of these influences.

But amongst those who are born in this country, or came very early into this country at a very early age, they grew up with a sense of belonging to the American scene, which their parents did not have. The immigrants tend to come here with a little bit of a guest mentality. But those who are born and raised here feel they are Americans; we have to define ourselves as Americans. And just as I said earlier, when Islam spread to Egypt, and Iran, and India, it restated its theology and its jurisprudence within the cultural context of those societies. I also anticipated that Islam will restate itself within the language constructs, within the social constructs, within the political constructs of American society, as well. ...

[What do you think will come of the American influence on Islam?]

I think the major lesson that will that will come out of it is the increased democratization of Islamic societies, and the sense of greater equality amongst people, whether on the basis of gender, the elimination of any vestiges of a class society. ...

Akbar Muhammad,
Associate Professor of history and Africana studies at Binghamton University in New York

[Has there been a resurgence of Islam and if so, what are its goals?]

read the interview

Yes, there is a resurgence. That's very clear. Many non-Muslim peoples, after the end of colonialism, have attempted -- in fact, during the period of colonization or European colonialism of the 19th, early 20th century -- people have attempted to return to their roots, as it were, to give life to their earlier cultures. "We don't want to be like Europe; we want to return to our roots." Now, one can view the resurgence of Islam in a similar way.

We want to bring back Islam. One might ask, for example, "Well, why didn't they do it at the time of independence, and immediately after independence?" The answer to that question is very simple. Governments which ruled Muslims were very often like colonial governments. They suffocated Muslims. They suffocated those wanted to go back to their original culture. With all due respect to Kamal Ataturk, in Turkey, I mean, this man attempted to suppress Islam. Now, there are several others who did the same thing, or they attempted to manipulate the repositories of Islam, the ulema, and to sort of thwart their efforts to bring Islam and Islamic values back to the public and make those values widespread and to rebuild Islamic institutions.

The question here for me is, are those Muslims who are engaged in this Islamic resurgence, this Islamic rebirth, if you like... Do they aim at building or rebuilding Islamic institutions? I would answer yes. Are they necessarily anti-West? I would say no. But I would say that they're against anyone who would attempt to forbid them this rebuilding of these institutions.

And the reason I think that they're so successful is because they're working at the mass level. They are helping the masses, where governments have not helped. They are giving aid to poor people. They are giving them medical help. They are treating them. They are trying to find jobs for them. Therefore, these ordinary people are joining these ranks as well.

"The resurgence of Islam." What does resurgence of Islam mean to me? It means to me the resurgence of Islamic principles. ... For example, social justice: propagation of, advocacy of, work and earning. Don't be lazy. Treat your neighbor, treat the other person, with equity, with love, et cetera, et cetera. Mercifully.

I think there are a lot of values that these people are, in fact, instilling in the mass population that governments have sort of ignored. I think here we must look at the resurgence of Islam amongst ordinary peoples. To a large extent, this is what Islam did in the seventh century. I mean, after all, a lot of the prophet's converts had been slaves, or were freed slaves, and what we would call now low-income and uneducated people. These formed a large part of his following.

If the principles and values that are being reintroduced are work, earn, don't be lazy, treat your neighbor -- if those are the values that are being taught and reawakened, why does it seem so threatening?

Threatening to the West? I'm not so sure that the West is saying that it's threatening to them. I don't believe that the average Muslim on the streets of a Muslim city wants to threaten the West. I don't believe that.

What I do believe is that the average Muslim is anti Western-overbearing-influence. What do I mean by that? I mean by that that their governments are following the West, doing the bidding of the West. Their governments seen as implementing programs which are easily connected to what some have called the "arrogant West." In other words, you don't rule us directly anymore; you rule us indirectly. ...

I don't particularly think that the ordinary Muslim is necessarily anti-Westerner. By that, I mean I don't think the average Muslim is against the average Westerner. I think a lot of Muslims are against Western politics, Western governments, because of what they perceive that Western governments do and the influence they have in their countries -- pure and simple.

In what ways is the morality of the West threatening?

I think that any cultural export of the West which violates Muslim sensibilities [would] be considered threatening. ... Western perceptions of what is correct, for example, for women to wear, how they appear in public. They are against, for example, certain kinds of music, certain kinds of movies, even certain kinds of discussions on radio. For example, VOA and BBC carry certain kinds of discussions which Muslims find, not anathema, but against their moral values. Therefore they see this as a kind of imposition. You're imposing your values on ours. "Our society should not become like Western societies." ... I mean, you're talking about differences in values.

But there are so many inconsistencies with that. For example, when we met at the train station yesterday [you gave me] a warm handshake. Some Muslim men will greet me and not reach out their hand at all. There are places in Iran where men would like to, but it's socially taboo for them to shake hands, so they don't. What's the value there? What is the truth?

Again, it's interpretation. There was a long time when, for example, Saudi monarchs would not shake the hands of even female prime ministers or ministers from government. And that has changed. ...

There is such a hadith which is attributed to the prophet. Now, the point is, how does one interpret touching? How does one interpret the circumstances in which the prophet made this statement? Does that circumstance apply? Should one not touch a woman who is not one's relative, et cetera, et cetera, in a different circumstance? This is a matter of interpretation.

So there will be those who will take this literally and say, "I apply this across the board." Then there are those who say, "No, this situation is quite different now. So I don't mind shaking the hand of a woman, though she is not my wife's sister, cousin," or whatever. "No, I don't mind shaking her hand." Interpretations themselves become law for those who interpret it as such. Who interprets a text as such, that interpretation becomes law.

Nilufer Gole
Professor of Sociology at Bogazici (Bosphorous) University in Istanbul, Turkey

What we're witnessing is a revival of Islamic civilization. If that is the case, what are the key things that differentiate it from dominant Western civilization?

read the interview

Coming for those at the edge of Western modernity, like in Turkey ... this was the formula. In order to be civilized, you have to be Westernized in your clothes, in your mind, in your education, in your habitation, the way you organize your interior space, nuclear family, even how you walk in the streets with a man.

...I would say, Islam challenges this formula today. Islam wants to be modern, but civilized not in the Western way, but Islam. So they are trying to tell us, like with the "black is beautiful" formula, Islam is beautiful and trying to be a reference point in different sets of civilizations. You take it, you don't take it. You can be critical or not, as I am too, but they are trying to give a reference to a different source of being civilized in the modern world, with a lot of complexities. ...

...Modernity is constructed, shaped, produced, invented by values which were not values of Muslim countries.... [Earlier, there] was this either/or thing. If you are modern, you can't be a Muslim. Now we are going beyond this either/or and you can be both Muslim and modern. ... I think this is one of the basic stakes that we face today. ...

There is no other way. If these two cannot work together, there will be always authoritarianism, either coming from secularism or modernity. Secularism or modernity will be imposed from above and by authoritarian means, or from any fundamentalist movement, religious or ethnic, seemingly opposing itself to that, but also imposing another kind of authority. So there must be a kind of give-and-take, a kind of borrowing between two different cultural values, between two different sets of values. ...

... When you look carefully to Islamist movements today, they speak more to modernity than to traditional religious rules. That's the interesting thing. The majority of these people in Islamic movements...are not, I would say, religiously defined. They have maybe less knowledge of religion, but they have a lot of knowledge on what's going on in modern society. They are more social-science students than coming from schools of religion. They have both religion and secular knowledge--but they are more in dialogue with modernity. Why today? Because, I think, it's almost the end result of modernization in these countries. More and more social groups are [being included] into the areas of modernity, like education, market, politics, mass media.

So the question is, the moment you are included into the system, what is your reaction? Either you want to be more assimilated, as we have seen in the first wave of even feminism, because the first wave of feminism was a feminism of assimilation, right? We wanted to be like men, equal to men. Then the second wave said, "No, why should I take an example and be a second-class man? First of all, I'll just be myself as a woman, different, and let them accept me through my difference and let me enrich the society through the values which was the real reason of my stigmatization, like emotionality, irrationality, or other things--privacy, intimacy."

So I think it's like this feminist mode of behavior, I would say. Islamists, the moment they are included into the system, instead of choosing to be assimilated to modernity, or to people like me or you, they say, "No, first of all, we want to reconstruct our identity through our difference and the reasons for our stigmatization, like Islamic faith, the dress code. We make it the forefront of our battle." That's an interesting thing.... Why don't they leave behind their Islamic codes, because they have succeeded? Well, they have said, "No, we want to be even more Muslim than what you expect."

There is this kind of exaggeration of this Islamic identity that we see today, which even disturbs their families, because their families were happy that their children were succeeding. So why do they make it so radical, so visible? I think this is because, instead of assimilation, that's something which I would say is very common in all new social movements. In that respect, Islamism today, or the Muslim movement, is not different from other social movements like feminism, like migrants in Europe, the second-generation migrants saying that we want to be accepted through our difference.

It goes back to identity?

It goes back to identity politics, yes, exactly. This can be an enriching process as well. ... If there is a kind of debate which is not purely political but more cultural, and we become aware of the questions which are raised by these new Islamic figures, movements--questions which concern not only Muslims but all societies--that's my point. I think there is something to be enriched through that.

Where do you think that would lead? Where do you think this is going?

...The broader context is that I think Islam is the real dialogue with modernity today. It is not a clash of civilizations, as [Samuel] Huntington would put it, but on the contrary. In a way, Islam makes us aware of different aspects of modernity. So that is this intertwining process which interests me. I'm not working just on Islam being separate, but to what extent this dialogue, or this intertwining process--although, as with all intertwining process, there is a lot of cleavage, lots of conflict underlying it... I think it makes us aware of different problems, like different aspects of feminism--feminism seen from the Western angle, but now from Islam's. They bring almost a new horizon, to Western feminism as well, I would say--reminding boundaries, reminding more ties among women, and so on.

Because Islam is working with modernity, it's almost raising a mirror up to it and saying, "Look at yourself"?

Yes, exactly. We are used to reading modernity from the West, from the centers of the Western countries, right? Now we understand that modernity is not only under the monopoly of Europe already, neither only in the United States, but it spreads out. Through colonization it started, but also through voluntary modernization like in Turkey. But now it is becoming more and more indigenous. That's something very important. We have adopted voluntarily modernization in Turkey, but without criticism. We thought we have to take it. And without processing it, in a way, without criticism.

But one of the basic aspects of modernity is this capacity of self-criticism, I would say. In a paradoxical way, I would say that Islam indicates another stage of indigenization of modernity, through criticism, because the only way to process modernity and to make it more indigenous is to criticize it, to take it through a kind of filtration. That's what is happening. ....

Amina Wadud
Professor of Islamic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University

To what do you attribute the Islamic resurgence movement in recent decades?

read the interview

I think the globalization of the economy, as an aftermath of colonialism, has pretty much universalized capitalism. The way to negotiate one's relationship to the overall economic structure has been to identify one's political agenda: to either be with or against that overall globalization of economy. And the democratic systems have shown themselves to be the most amenable to that. And the question of Islam and democracy has been a very strong component of the resurgence, articulation of Islam. And that is also one of the reasons why it's deemed to be a political resurgence, even though I think that the stronger components have to do more with sort of a psychospiritual re-identification of the Muslim self in the context of modernity. And modernity means politics as well as economics. But also it has to do with the basic definition of what it means to be human.

And the notion of modernity comes because of the increased communications planetwide? How does modernity fit into this?

... I think postmodernity is really part of the reconfiguration of the idea of unity across the planet...meaning a greater homogeneity. Postmodernism has allowed us to understand that unity across the planet will be much more diverse. And that includes Islamic diversities. So the more recent manifestations of Islamic resurgence is very intimately tied to reconfigurations of identity, not only among Muslims, but across others. And that's why I say that it dovetails very well with a reformation of what it means to be [a] human being. And therefore, it relates to issues like human rights, because now we are questioning, well, what does it mean to be human, and therefore how do we ascertain what are human rights. And then Muslims have to ask, well, are these human rights commensurate with our own tradition? Are they in contradiction to our tradition, etc.? So, the basic identity of a Muslim now is being aligned with rethinking what it means to be a human being in modernity.

home · portraits of ordinary muslims · introduction · major themes · interviews · faqs
readings & links · discussion · teacher's guide
producer chat · tapes & transcripts · press · credits · privacy
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

Solitary NationApril 22nd

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS