In the opening years of this century, the world was presented with a historic confrontation between the West and Islamic and Arab worlds. This confrontation has been used in the pursuit of imperial agendas. American failure in Iraq has left underlying reasons exposed. Can the damage done be repaired?
Why the West attacks us
The West and the Islamic world clash not because of religion, but because a Darwinian current has taken hold in the West that reduces life to mere production and consumption, writes Abdel-Wahab Elmessiri*
Our relationship with the West began with Alexander the Great, the founder of the colonialist Ptolemaic Dynasty that ruled Egypt and the Levant for several hundred years. In that distant past there existed a form of parity; a certain give and take, an alternation of victory and defeat between the two sides. Even to today, however, it is possible to point to factors that can as easily form the basis of mutual understanding and cooperation between Islam and the West as they can trigger conflict. For example, we share with some Western nations the border of the Mediterranean, whose importance for trade and maritime wealth should compel neighbours on either side towards closer cooperation, especially in this age of the global village.
Illustration by Fathi
Yet that very proximity has also been the source of intense friction because of the lure of land and resources on the other side. In its height, Islamic civilisation expanded geographically at the expense of the West as defined by the ambit of Christian civilisation, and the reverse was also true: the expansion of the West took place at the expense of the Islamic world, and tensions reached a zenith when Western powers moved to partition that world amongst themselves. Conversely, the further removed societies and civilisations are from one another geographically, the lower the potential for conflict between them. At least before the rise of Western colonialism, which staked out the entire world as its field of enterprise, there existed no tension between the West and Thailand, for example, simply because land and resources were so far out of reach.
There are many similarities between the Muslim and Christian creeds that, similarly, could motivate closer communication and understanding just as they could also exacerbate tensions. Islam and Christianity share the belief in a single transcendent universal deity who has sent mankind holy books to guide them. The moral and ethical systems contained in these books are similar in many respects and could, therefore, serve as a common ground between the two religions and a framework of moral authority to which peoples of both could appeal. History in Islam and Christianity has an ultimate aim, in which mankind figures centrally; in both the existence of man on earth is not futile or absurd. The stories of creation in Islam and Christianity are similar: God breathed His spirit into matter He created from the void, thereby imparting in man certain qualities (a body and a soul, the capacity for good and evil, and other such dualities) that distinguish him from other creatures.
These very commonalties between the two creeds can also constitute a source of tension between their respective adherents. The West is reluctant to classify Islam as an autonomous creed with its own vision of the universe. In spite of commonalties -- or rather because of them -- it regards Islam's rejection of incarnation, of a clerical interface between worshippers and God, and of elaborate rites and rituals and the mystical concepts these engender as deviations from Christianity and heresies. (The West does not adopt this approach towards such Eastern religions such as Shinto and Buddhism; because they are so far removed from Christianity in their view of the universe and doctrines, the West regards them as distinct and authentic creeds in their own right.) But Islam behaves similarly: it regards the New Testament as a holy book that has been tampered with and distorted by Christians themselves and it regards itself and its own revealed text as the only true religion.
Another factor that works to create a gulf between the Islamic and Western worlds is that each defines its own identity with respect to the other. Generally such a phenomenon is normal, but when it is taken to the extreme it becomes pernicious, because of latent antagonism bred by the antithesis. Since the middle of the 19th century, the West sounded the alarm against the "yellow peril" (China) and then the "red peril" (Communism). Now that these bugbears have been put to rest, it has begun to speak of the "green peril" (Islam).
Temperatures have risen recently between the Western and Islamic worlds with the growing influx into Europe of immigrants from Islamic societies bordering Europe (notably Turks, Moroccans and Kurds). One would think that these immigrant communities could have formed a bridge of understanding between the two worlds. However, because of declining birth rates in Western societies (even in Catholic societies which once had high rates) at a time when Muslims still adhere to their traditional epistemological and ethical systems, and because of increasing secularisation in the West, Westerners have also raised the spectre of the Muslim demographic threat.
A related phenomenon that tends to fuel animosity between the West and Islam today is "Eurocentrism", by which is meant the tendency to view others, and specifically Muslims and peoples of the Third World, through a purely European perspective and to pass judgement on those societies or peoples in terms of European cultural values. In this sense, therefore, the West's war against the Islamic world is a religious one. But religion, here, is not just doctrine and ritual, but a fundamental component of the Muslim's universal perspective and socio- political identity.
If most of the factors above could either serve to promote reconciliation and mutual understanding or ignite and fuel acrimony and antagonism, why has the latter tendency prevailed at this time? Why, in other words, has the relationship between the West and Islam become so openly hostile? Why has "terrorism" in the war on terrorism become synonymous with Islam?
Surely one of the foremost factors to have fanned the flames between the West and the Islamic world is the West's Darwinian modernism, which has translated itself into a voracious consumerism requiring an imperialist edifice with an unquenchable thirst for the world's energy resources to feed it. Most of the world's energy resources happen to be situated in the Islamic world. It is little wonder, therefore, that the modernist imperialist order fired by its rabid consumerism set its predatory sights on this part of the planet and swooped down so rapidly on Afghanistan and Iraq. It needed to get its clutches on the world's largest reserves of oil, in the Caspian Sea and in the Middle East, in order to protect its national security, as it defines it, and safeguard the flow of oil at reasonable prices and in sufficient quantities to nourish exponentially growing consumer demand in the US and elsewhere in the West.
The West is not hostile to Islam, per se. It is hostile to a resistant Islam, an Islam that challenges the West's Darwinism and consumerism. A docile and obsequious Islam is something else; the West is perfectly willing to accept and work with this. Western antagonism towards Islam is not of an abstract metaphysical order; it has tangible historical roots. When this part of the world attempted to resist the onslaught of Western colonialism via the banner of Arab nationalism, the West allied itself with Islamist movements against Arab nationalism. It was only when Arab nationalism receded and Arab resistance raised an Islamic banner that the West began to lash out at Islam. Remember, Bin Laden was originally trained by the US to fight Washington's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Western Darwinian modernism is not only hostile towards resistant Islam, but also towards all movements that espouse humanitarian values. It, therefore, opposes left-wing Christian groups that defend the poor and environmentalist groups. But it nonetheless perceives Islam as the greatest potential threat. As such, the West does not perceive Muslims and Arabs as autonomous human societies with their own legitimate aspirations and goals, but rather as pliable matter that must be made to submit and be forced into an iron cage -- the cage of ever spiralling production and consumption for the sole purpose of material comfort and worldly pleasure. For us merely to suggest other values and aspirations, such as attachment to the land, the defence of pride and dignity, the rejection of laws of competition as the ultimate arbiter, is to doom ourselves to being pegged, in Western eyes, as irrational creatures.
There has been much talk, recently, of the "clash of civilisations", by which is generally meant a clash between Islamic civilisation (or Oriental civilisations in general) and Western civilisation. I do not believe the concept holds water. History is replete with evidence of considerable positive and constructive interaction between the two. Even in the modern colonialist era, the Islamic world opened itself to many Western ideas, not to mention modern technology and goods. But while there is no "clash of civilisations", I would suggest that there exists a clash over the mode of civilisation.
Many in the Islamic world as well as in the West abhor the rapacious capitalism that accords the highest value to ever increasing production and consumer rates and that believes it the right of the militarily fittest to protect this economic order at home at the expense of others abroad; to send out armies to seize control over the energy and mineral resources that feed this order, to create and support proxy governments to assist it in its rapaciousness, to open their markets to its products and to kowtow to the global economic system. This insatiable consumerist capitalism is not identical with Western civilisation, but rather only one of many trends within that civilisation.
Many in the West have been deeply distressed at how this trend has succeeded in manoeuvring itself into power in the US and propelling the world to war and doing whatever it could to promote the interests of big business at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged and to the lasting detriment to the global environment. The millions who took to the streets in Europe and the US to protest American intervention in Iraq are indicative of growing opposition there to rampant capitalism. I believe that we in the Islamic world should ally ourselves with representatives of that trend in the interest of putting a stop to Washington's military rampage in the world.
There is a very real possibility for dialogue and mutual understanding. However, we must first take stock of the fact that the ruling elite in the West, with its Darwinian imperialist vision, is irrational. Rationalism presumes the existence of humanitarian and moral criteria that stand on their own as absolutes above the fray of human selfishness and bias. So how are we supposed to talk in the absence of a set of moral humanitarian criteria that all are willing to respect and abide by? Clearly, dialogue alone is not sufficient. Nor are media campaigns, however forceful. We must sustain the resistance, for otherwise the Darwinian mentality will perceive our willingness to engage in dialogue as a sign of weakness and our media campaigns as a sign of laziness. Darwinists respect only strength and they yield only to the type of pressures that they can feel with their five senses, since it is impossible to appeal to their minds that are unable to apply rational humanitarian thought. Dialogue will only succeed when backed by strength and the power of resistance.
* The writer is author of The Encyclopaedia of the Jews, Judaism, and Zionism: A New Explanatory Paradigm.