The Western Dialogue With Islam

I want this article to be a “timid” attempt to dispel the myths surrounding the Islamic faith in the West with its mysteries, the misunderstanding and the unwillingness to “rediscover” it.  The West had to wait for the terrorist attack on New York on the 11th of September 2001 to finally explore Islam and its secrets.  It was like a “godsend” for many traumatised by the attack who until that day have led such a sheltered, naïve life, cut off from the world’s serious concerns.

As an MA student, majoring in British social history in the University of Manouba, I can never pretend to be a social reformer, even worse a “moralist” (I have in mind a friend of mine, a British convert to Islam who has always complained about Arabs’ arrogance towards him in terms of religious teaching: Sharia’a [Islamic law], Hadeeths [the Prophet’s sayings] etc.).  As an observer with a critical outlook on things in life, I would humbly like to take part in the “intellectual debate on the so-called “dialogue between religions”/civilisations.  Huntington’s most acclaimed book  “The Clash of Civilisations” became widely read, criticised, admired, loved, hated, attacked, laughed at, censored throughout the world.  Muslims saw (and still do) it as an “instigator to Islamophobia, a 20th century Inquisition of their religion and way of life.  Again, we have the syndrome of the Persecuted People, the West’ scapegoats (since Dante’s satirical depiction of Satan and so called “vehement attack” on Islam in “the Divine Comedy” in the Middle Ages).

Then came the MOST CONTROVERSIAL book in modern Muslim history, Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses”, which had (and still does) the same effect as Hiroshima’s disaster on the Muslim Ummah’s (Nation in Arabic; nothing to do with the Nation of Islam, which is an Afro-American dissident religious group) dignity and faith.  When I was in secondary school, Rushdie’s book was A TABOO. I was told that this apostate’s book is the Most Insulting Book of all times for Muslims, which smeared Prophet Muhammad’ and His wives’ image. I thought it was a political pamphlet, to be censored by Iran’s highest religious authorities.  I later learned that the boycott was made unanimously in the Muslim world of anything pertaining to Salman Rushdie and that it was Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran who called for a fatwa” (a religious decree) to sentence Rushdie for death.  Having been brought up in an unorthodox environment, different from the mainstream, my sense of criticism was sharpened by the different readings I have made, allowing me to have a sense of judgement capable of discriminating between different opinions.  I enjoyed Averroese’s liberal mind and highly philosophical thinking; he was certainly one of his time’s victims: his fanatic society and later Christian Inquisition.

Muslims were honoured to see that finally the West has recognised him and hailed Averroes, the Cordovan as one of the greatest thinkers of all time (in 1998, Cordoba has celebrated the 800th Anniversary of his death).  I have no intention when saying all that to be the devil’s advocate for Rushdie or an apologist of his book because I am in no position to pass any judgement on his book and I ironically haven’t read it.  Rushdie is hailed in the West as a great novelist.  “The Satanic Verses” is not the only book he has written.  He has many others; one well known is “Midnight’s Children”, in which we have another Rushdie, writing in a poetic style.  His recent book, ironically written before the 11th of September 2001, is entitled “New York, New York”, in which he satirises the megalopolis in strong words and which surely makes of him an unpatriotic citizen in the eyes of several Americans (Rushdie is an American citizen today).  In a recent interview on French TV, he seemed enthusiastic about his popularity in the world and related to his “host” an anecdote that happened to him when he was having a dinner in a New York restaurant.  The owner approached him and asked for an autograph for his book.  The man was an Egyptian, who has read, “The Satanic Verses»; but still felt embarrassed to speak openly about the book, but nevertheless thanked him for the book describing it as a “masterpiece”, worth to be read by Muslims.  Rushdie was very touched after the fatwa was cancelled with the new Iranian regime.

One other concern for the Muslim world is the state of affairs in their countries.  Globalisation has affected people’s lives, not only in the Muslim world but worldwide, too.  It has brought its own inventions as well as problems.  “The Macdonaldisation” of people’s eating habits brought a huge transformation in their daily lives.  Strong reactions came from Gulf countries where big corporations such Mc Donald and KFC made their appearances in the last decade, exacerbating Muslims’ hostility towards “American Imperialism”. For many, they have become the new “mosques”, because of their popularity among Arab youth.  Swiss philosopher of Egyptian origin, Tariq Ramadan, and based in Freiberg, Switzerland, warns about the “MacGyverisation” of some Muslim societies, which has swept the Arab world during the 1990s, bringing along other American manufactured products from US TV networks: “Baywatch” and the like.  Muslim youth are being inundated with Hollywood products, at anyone’s easy reach: TV, cinema, magazines etc. Ramadan was complaining on French TV about the “mediocre show” on French TV: TV reality, (“Loft Story”, the French version of “Big Brother”), which made French youth more prone to voyeurism, a desire to show off, to defy the parents’ authority.  North African parents were dismayed to see their offspring taking part in the “show”.

Muslim families have become tired with problems affecting their “kids” in French “banlieues” and more and more exasperated with their behaviour in a secular society that asks them to “integrate” in French culture in order to become “good French citizens”.  This shows us the failure of such a programme and Muslim youth’s alienation from the system is alarming.  French political analysts warn about the feeling of social injustice felt by these youth towards French authorities. The media tried to justify «Islamic terrorism» in the world by recuperating the slogan «moral panics» among young people, taken advantage of in several European countries.  This was mainly caused by the fear of acts of retaliation on Western European countries from Islamic fundamentalists.  That didn’t solve the problem because it overshadowed other concerns: the rise of extreme right movements in countries, whose political traditions have never been linked to Neo-Fascism.  Think about the Netherlands’ extreme right leader “Pim Fortyuin” or about Italy’s “North League” and its charismatic leader Fini.  As for some European countries’ “passivity” and “lack of cooperation” in the dismantling of terrorist networks, this is an issue that concerns those countries’ policies.  There needs to be a real dialogue, not only between religions, but also between world leaders and politicians about the future of the world dialogue of cultures. The gap between the North and the south NEEDS urgently to be bridged.

Houda Mzioudet

(University of Manouba). Tunis.

September 2002.

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