A civilised peace between Islam and the West

On Tuesday, in Madrid, politicians, non-governmental organisations and civil society leaders from across the globe begin two days of dialogue aimed at addressing the growing polarisation between nations and cultures worldwide. The objective is not only to promote cross-cultural understanding, but also to create and develop partnerships and joint initiatives aimed at promoting an “Alliance of Civilisations”.

This is, in my view, an honourable objective, and one around which we should all unite. But in doing so we need to ensure that the voice of the weak and marginalised is heard. A striking characteristic of the modern era is the rapid diffusion of ideas and values from the centres of global power to the rest of humanity. Unfortunately, there is a tendency among the powerful to expect the rest to accept their world view without question. This is not always possible, nor is it desirable.

Non-western civilisations and cultures have their own unique history, traditions and theology, which often embody ideas and values that are fundamentally different from what the west has to offer. Nowhere is this divergence more apparent than on issues pertaining to religion.

Many in the west expect that as Muslim societies develop materially, they will separate religion from the public sphere, treating it as a purely private matter, as happened during the period in Europe termed the “Enlightenment”. However, as many Muslim societies urbanise and modernise, what we witness is a growing attachment to Islam. The reasons for this are complex; people often want to protect their identity from being subsumed by a global norm. In some cases, the attachment to religion is a reaction against the monolithic forces of globalisation, forces that sometimes clash with Islam’s own search for deeper meaning and purpose, and concern for the needy. For Muslims, then, religion can never be a purely private matter for, unlike other prophets, Mohammed steered a state and established principles of governance that embody these values.

This does not mean that Muslims are driven to create Taliban-like states everywhere. Nor does it mean that Islam is anathema to economic growth. The identification of Islam and the Muslim world with violence, instability, poverty, illiteracy, injustice and intolerance is highly misleading.

In spite of this, it cannot be denied that large parts of the Muslim world are indeed among the most backward and economically underdeveloped. In many cases, Muslim countries have fallen behind because they have rejected the pursuit of knowledge, a fundamental injunction of Islam. Some Muslims have closed their minds and allowed the weight of tradition and narrow religious interpretation to stifle inquiry and innovation. Limiting knowledge to religious matters and an overemphasis on rote learning extinguishes the spirit of discovery. This is a disservice to Islam.

Similarly, Muslims often forget that work is also a form of worship and that Islam calls for diligence and industry. If Muslims adhere to these values, then Islam presents itself as a progressive world view, one that in the modern day should be focused on the furthering of knowledge and the development of human capital. While many Muslim countries are rich in natural resources, our greatest resources will always be our people. The Muslim world will progress farthest when it unlocks and develops this potential, through quality education at all levels. Moreover, this will never be achieved if some Muslims continue to neglect the right to education and work for women. Women constitute half the Muslim world’s human capital and in marginalising women we only impoverish ourselves.

The teachings of Islam can be faulted neither for economic deprivation in the Muslim world nor the recent discord between it and the west. Moreover, the problems that persist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are the vestiges of earlier projections of world power. The resulting humiliation felt by Muslims continues to engender a loss of trust and confidence towards the west. But, whatever the cause, these strategic issues have now become interwoven and interdependent, and their resolution will require greater understanding and trust, as well as the creation of economic opportunities.

If, in the coming days, we are successful in taking the first steps towards an Alliance of Civilisations, both the Muslim world and the west have much to learn from one another, as well as much to gain.

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