Part 3 • Islam and the West

Part 3 • Islam and the West

 

 

By Farhang Jahanpour

September 17, 2018


1. Islam as the new post-Cold War enemy

The journalistic attitudes towards Islam that we referred to above have their counterparts in the academic writing on the Middle East and Islam.
In recent years there have been many academic writings portraying Islam as the new enemy of the West. After the end of the Cold War, the increasing intensity of this historical antagonism has again emerged by portraying Muslims as inherently different from Western people.

Almost immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many scholars started writing about a new era of hostility between Islam and the West, and Muslims have assumed a prominence on the security agenda that they have not held since before the establishment of the modern European states system.

For instance, Barry Buzan, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and honorary professor at the University of Copenhagen, saw many reasons why a societal cold war was emerging “between the West and Islam, in which Europe would be on the front line.”

He wrote:

The collapse of communism as the leading anti-Western ideology seems to propel Islam into this role by default, and many exponents of Islam will embrace the task with relish. The anti-Western credentials of Islam are well established and speak to a large and mobilized political constituency. In part this can be seen as a straight clash between secular and spiritual values, albeit underpinned by an older religious antagonism between Christendom and Islam.
(See Barry Buzan, New Patterns of Global Security in the Twenty-First Century, Blackwell publishing 1991, pp 448-449)

He pointed out that this development partly had to do with “jealousy of Western power, partly to do with resentment over Western domination of the post-colonial political structuring of the Middle East, and partly to do with the bitterness and humiliation of the invidious comparison between the accomplishments of Islamic and Western civilizations in the last two centuries.” (ibid)

In addition, he noted a “societal Cold War with Islam would serve to strengthen the European identity all round at a crucial time for the process of European Union.”

It is amazing that as soon as one hate figure in the form of communism has left the scene, another enemy should be found to act as a tool for the process of European unification.

 

The bazaar in Arak

 

A leading scholar of Islam and Middle Eastern affairs, the late professor Bernard Lewis, also came more or less to the same conclusion.

In an article in 1990, he analysed what he called “The Roots of Muslim Rage”, and concluded:

”It should now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilisations — that perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both”.
(See Bernard Lewis, “The Roots of Muslim Rage: Why So Many Muslims Deeply Resent the West and Why Their Bitterness Will Not Be Easily Mollified,” Atlantic Monthly, 266 (September 1990), page 60).

He then went on to say: “It is crucially important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but also equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Lewis’s use of the term “the clash of civilisations” was later on used by Professor Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard, as the title of an influential article. (See Samuel Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations”, in Foreign Affairs, 1993).

He expanded that idea in a best-selling book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, which had a great deal of influence on right-wing politicians. (See Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Simon and Schuster, 1996).

The characterisation between the West and the disparate Islamic world was of course theoretically very problematic and superficial, but it had the desired effect of dividing the world between the “West” and “Islam” and fanning the flames of anti-Islamic sentiments.

The use of the term Judeo-Christian civilisation by Bernard Lewis and others has been a welcome recent addition to the political and religious vocabulary of the West. During many centuries of animosity, persecution, pogroms, discrimination and expulsions, culminating in the Holocaust, the Jews were accused of deicide and portrayed as the enemies of Christ and Christianity and were hardly regarded as an influential part of the Christian civilisation.

 

 

 

 

In view of that long history of hostility and mistrust, it is important that the West has finally realised that the Christian culture has many things in common with the Jewish culture, and indeed the Gospels are firmly rooted in the earlier books of the Hebrew Bible or the Old Testament.

However, in the hands of some scholars, instead of this term being used as a step towards reconciliation between various civilisations, it is being used as another dividing factor between the Judeo-Christian civilisation and the Islamic world.

 

2. Judeo-Islamic civilisation

However, one can argue that there has been a much longer and more meaningful “Judeo-Islamic civilisation” than the “Judeo-Christian civilisation”.

The Jews, who had been expelled en masse for the last time from Palestine by the Romans in 70 AD., were allowed to go back to Jerusalem when the city was conquered by the Muslims in 638 AD.

When the Crusaders poured out of Europe to fight the Muslim heathens, en route for good measure they massacred all the Jews they could find.

When the Crusaders conquered Jerusalem, they indiscriminately massacred both the Muslims and the Jews. When the city was re-conquered by the Muslim ruler Saladin (Salah al-Din), the first sultan of Egypt and Syria, the Jews once again regained their freedom and were allowed to settle there.

Throughout the Middle Ages when the Jews were severely persecuted in Europe and were subjected to pogroms and forced conversion, there was a great deal of co-operation and coexistence among the Jews and Muslims, both in Spain, as well as in the Middle East.

 

 

Iran Collage # 1 – © Jan Oberg

 

 

Great Jewish scholars and mystics lived and worked not in the Christian West, but in the Muslim Middle East. Sa’adia Gaon, often referred to as the first Jewish Aristotelian philosopher, lived and worked in Egypt.

The greatest Medieval Jewish Scholar Maimonides (Moses ibn Maimun) who was forced to flee his native Spain where he had lived under Muslim rule, took refuge and composed most of his philosophical work in Alexandria and mainly in Arabic.

The systematic and continuous persecution and expulsion of the Jews, and above all the dreadful Holocaust, did not take place among the Muslims, but among the European Christians.

It is sad and ironic that now a leading Jewish scholar of Islam talks about the “Muslim Rage” against “our Judeo-Christian heritage”.

Maybe the time has come for us to acknowledge the contribution that Islam has made to the evolution of Western civilisation, and start talking of Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage?

 

3. ”Them” versus ”us”

However, Bernard Lewis’ remarks are quite indicative of what many people in the West now think about the Middle East and Islam.

According to Edward Said, at the basis of what Europe and America think about the “Orient” lies the reality of power.

It is this power which perpetuates the distinction between “them” and “us” and by so doing, distorts even what may seem to be the most academic and detached work.

As a discipline of mind, “Orientalism” has become a closed system, having an internal consistency, ‘self-perpetuating, with little essential relationship with the reality it purports to be describing, having less to do with the Orient than with “our” world.’ (See Edward W. SAid, Orientalism, London 1978, pp 2).

Although some of the modern views about Islam and the Middle East have to do with the events of the past few decades, many of them have unconsciously much longer and deeper roots in history.

They have to do with the historical encounter between Islam and the West over the past 1,400 years.

 

 

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Photos

All from today’s Iran by Jan Oberg.
You can see many more here and purchase limited, signed editions here.
© Oberg PhotoGraphics

 

 

 

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