Islam and the West

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You may well ask why I am talking to you on the subject of Islam and the West. The reason is, ladies and gentlemen, that I believe wholeheartedly that the links between these two worlds matter more today than ever before, because the degree of misunderstanding between the Islamic and Western worlds remains dangerously high, and because the need for the two to live and work together in our increasingly interdependent world has never been greater…

The depressing fact is that, despite the advances in technology and mass communications of the second half of the 20th century, despite mass travel, the intermingling of races, the ever-growing reductionor so we believeof the mysteries of our world, misunderstandings between Islam and the West continue. Indeed, they may be growing. As far as the West is concerned, this cannot be because of ignorance. There are one billion Muslims worldwide… Ten million or more live in the West, and around one million here in Britain…

Islam is all around us. And yet distrust, even fear, persist. In the post-Cold War world of the 1990s, the prospects for peace should be greater than at any time in this century. In the Middle East, the remarkable and encouraging events of recent weeks have created new hope for an end to an issue which has divided the world and been so dramatic a source of violence and hatred. But the dangers have not disappeared…

In Yugoslavia the terrible sufferings of the Bosnian Muslims, alongside that of other communities in that cruel war, help keep alive many of the fears and prejudices which our two worlds retain of each other. Conflict, of course, comes about because of the misuse of power and the clash of ideals, not to mention the inflammatory activities of unscrupulous and bigoted leaders. But it also arises, tragically, from an inability to understand, and from the powerful emotions which, out of misunderstanding, lead to distrust and fear. Ladies and gentlemen, we must not slide into a new era of danger and division because governments and peoples, communities and religions, cannot live together in peace in a shrinking world.

It is odd, in many ways, that misunderstandings between Islam and the West should persist. For that which binds our two worlds together is so much more powerful than that which divides us. Muslims, Christiansand Jewsare all “peoples of the Book.” Islam and Christianity share a common monotheistic vision: a belief in one divine God, in the transience of our earthly life, in our accountability for our actions, and in the assurance of life to come. We share many key values in common: respect for knowledge, for justice, compassion towards the poor and underprivileged, the importance of family life, respect for parents. “Honor thy father and thy mother” is a Qu’ranic precept too. Our history has been closely bound up together. There, however, is one root of the problem. For much of that history has been one of conflict; 14 centuries too often marked by mutual hostility. That has given rise to an enduring tradition of fear and distrust, because our two worlds have so often seen that past in contradictory ways. To Western school children, the two hundred years of the Crusades are traditionally seen as a series of heroic, chivalrous exploits in which the kings, knights, princesand childrenof Europe tried to wrest Jerusalem from the wicked Muslim infidel. To Muslims, the Crusades were an episode of great cruelty and terrible plunder, of Western infidel soldiers of fortune and horrific atrocities, perhaps exemplified best by the massacres committed by the Crusaders when, in 1099, they took back Jerusalem, the third holiest city in Islam. For us in the West, 1492 speaks of human endeavor and new horizons, of Columbus and the discovery of the Americas. To Muslims, 1492 is a year of tragedythe year Granada fell to Ferdinand and Isabella, signifying the end of eight centuries of Muslim civilization in Europe. The point, I think, is not that one or the other picture is more true, or has a monopoly of truth. It is that misunderstandings arise when we fail to appreciate how others look at the world, its history, and our respective roles in it.

The corollary of how we in the West see our history has so often been to regard Islam as a threatin medieval times as a military conqueror, and in more modern times as a source of intolerance, extremism and terrorism. One can understand how the taking of Constantinople, when it fell to Sultan Mehmet in 1453, and the close-run defeats of the Turks outside Vienna in 1529 and 1683, should have sent shivers of fear through Europe’s rulers. The history of the Balkans under Ottoman rule provided examples of cruelty which sank deep into Western feelings. But the threat has not been one-way. With Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, followed by the invasions and conquests of the 19th century, the pendulum swung, and almost all the Arab world became occupied by the Western powers. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Europe’s triumph over Islam seemed complete. Those days of conquest are over. But even now our common attitude to Islam suffers because the way we understand it has been hijacked by the extreme and the superficial. To many of us in the West, Islam is seen in terms of the tragic civil war in Lebanon, the killings and bombings perpetrated by extremist groups in the Middle East, and by what is commonly referred to as “Islamic fundamentalism.” Our judgment of Islam has been grossly distorted by taking the extremes to be the norm. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a serious mistake. It is like judging the quality of life in Britain by the existence of murder and rape, child abuse and drug addiction. The extremes exist, and they must be dealt with. But when used as a basis to judge a society, they lead to distortion and unfairness.

For example, people in this country frequently argue that the sharia law of the Islamic world is cruel, barbaric and unjust. Our newspapers, above all, love to peddle those unthinking prejudices. The truth is, of course, different and always more complex. My own understanding is that extremes are rarely practiced. The guiding principle and spirit of Islamic law, taken straight from the Qur’an, should be those of equity and compassion. We need to study its actual application before we make judgments. We must distinguish between systems of justice administered with integrity, and systems of justice as we may see them practiced which have been deformed for political reasons into something no longer Islamic. We must bear in mind the sharp debate taking place in the Islamic world itself about the extent of the universality or timelessness of sharia law, and the degree to which the application of that law is continually changing and evolving.

We should also distinguish Islam from the customs of some Islamic states. Another obvious Western prejudice is to judge the position of women in Islamic society by the extreme cases. Yet Islam is not a monolith and the picture is not simple. Remember, if you will, that Islamic countries like Turkey, Egypt and Syria gave women the vote as early as Europe did its womenand much earlier than in Switzerland! In those countries women have long enjoyed equal pay, and the opportunity to play a full working role in their societies. The rights of Muslim women to property and inheritance, to some protection if divorced, and to the conducting of business, were rights prescribed by the Qur’an 1400 years ago, even if they were not everywhere translated into practice. In Britain at least, some of these rights were novel even to my grandmother’s generation! Benazir Bhutto and Begum Khaled Zia became prime ministers in their own traditional societies when Britain had for the first time ever in its history elected a female prime minister. That, I think, does not necessarily smack of a medieval society. Women are not automatically second-class citizens because they live in Islamic countries. We cannot judge the position of women in Islam aright if we take the most conservative Islamic states as representative of the whole. For example, the veiling of women is not at all universal across the Islamic world. Indeed, I was intrigued to learn that the custom of wearing the veil owed much to Byzantine and Sassanian traditions, nothing to the Prophet of Islam. Some Muslim women never adopted the veil, others have discarded it, othersparticularly the younger generationhave more recently chosen to wear the veil or the headscarf as a personal statement of their Muslim identity. But we should not confuse the modesty of dress prescribed by the Qur’an for men as well as women with the outward forms of secular custom or social status which have their origins elsewhere.

We in the West need also to understand the Islamic world’s view of us. There is nothing to be gained, and much harm to be done, by refusing to comprehend the extent to which many people in the Islamic world genuinely fear our own Western materialism and mass culture as a deadly challenge to their Islamic culture and way of life. Some of us think the material trappings of Western society which we have exported to the Islamic worldtelevision, fast food, and the electronic gadgets of our everyday livesare a modernizing, self-evidently good, influence. But we fall into the trap of dreadful arrogance if we confuse “modernity” in other countries with their becoming more like us. The fact is that our form of materialism can be offensive to devout Muslimsand I do not just mean the extremists among them. We must understand that reaction, just as the West’s attitude to some of the more rigorous aspects of Islamic life needs to be understood in the Islamic world. This, I believe, would help us understand what we have commonly come to see as the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. We need to be careful of that emotive label, “fundamentalism,” and distinguish, as Muslims do, between revivalists, who choose to take the practice of their religion most devoutly, and fanatics or extremists who use this devotion for political ends. Among the many religious, social and political causes of what we might more accurately call the Islamic revival is a powerful feeling of disenchantment, of the realization that Western technology and material things are insufficient, and that a deeper meaning to life lies elsewhere in the essence of Islamic belief.

At the same time, we must not be tempted to believe that extremism is in some way the hallmark and essence of the Muslim. Extremism is no more the monopoly of Islam than it is the monopoly of other religions, including Christianity. The vast majority of Muslims, though personally pious, are moderate in their politics. Theirs is the “religion of the middle way.” The Prophet himself always disliked and feared extremism. . .

If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilization owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure which stems, I think, from the straitjacket of history which we have inherited. The medieval Islamic world, from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society and system of belief, we have tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history. For example, we have underestimated the importance of 800 years of Islamic society and culture in Spain between the 8th and 15th centuries. The contribution of Muslim Spain to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages, and to the first flowerings of the Renaissance, has long been recognized. But Islamic Spain was much more than a mere larder where Hellenistic knowledge was kept for later consumption by the emerging modern Western world. Not only did Muslim Spain gather and preserve the intellectual content of ancient Greek and Roman civilization, it also interpreted and expanded upon that civilization, and made a vital contribution of its own in so many fields of human endeavorin science, astronomy, mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic world), law, history, medicine, pharmacology, optics, agriculture, architecture, theology, music. Averroes and Avenzoor, like their counterparts, Avicenna and Rhazes in the East, contributed to the study and practice of medicine in ways from which Europe benefited for centuries afterwards. . .

Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is the poorer for having lost. At the heart of Islam is its preservation of an integral view of the Universe. Islamlike Buddhism and Hinduismrefuses to separate man and nature, religion and science, mind and matter, and has preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the world around us. At the core of Christianity there still lies an integral view of the sanctity of the world, and a clear sense of the trusteeship and responsibility given to us for our natural surroundings . . .

I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier, all-embracing approach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to get away from the increasing tendency in the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where we study our world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibrium and chaos. It is a sad fact, I believe, that in so many ways the external world we have created in the last few hundred years has come to reflect our own divided and confused inner state. Western civilization has become increasingly acquisitive and exploitative in defiance of our environmental responsibilities. This crucial sense of oneness and trusteeship of the vital sacramental and spiritual character of the world about us is surely something important we can relearn from Islam . . . If the ways of thought found in Islam and other religions can help us in that search, than there are things for us to learn from this system of belief which I suggest we ignore at our peril.

Ladies and gentlemen, we live today in one world, forged by instant communications, by television, by the exchange of information on a scale undreamed of by our grandparents. The world economy functions as an interdependent entity. Problems of society, the quality of life and the environment, are global in their causes and effects, and none of us any longer has the luxury of being able to solve them on our own. The Islamic and Western worlds share problems common to us all: how we adapt to change in our societies, how we help young people who feel alienated from their parents or their society’s values, how we deal with AIDS, drugs, and the disintegration of family. Of course, these problems vary in nature and intensity between societies. The problems of our own inner cities are not identical to those of Cairo or Damascus. But the similarity of human experience is considerable. . .

The Islamic and Western worlds can no longer afford to stand apart from a common effort to solve their common problems. One excellent example of our two cultures working together in a common cause is the way in which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is working with Oxford University to set up a research center into schizophrenia for an organization called SANE, of which I am Patron. Nor can we afford to revive the territorial and political confrontations of the past. We have to share experiences, to explain ourselves to each other, to understand and tolerateand I know how difficult these things areand build on those positive principles which our two cultures have in common. That trade has to be two-way. Each of us needs to understand the importance of conciliation, of reflectiontadabbur is the word, I believeto open our minds and unlock our hearts to each other. I am utterly convinced that the Islamic and the Western worlds have much to learn from each other. Just as the oil engineer in the Gulf may be European, so the heart transplant surgeon in Britain may be Egyptian. . .

Of course, tolerance and understanding must be two-way. For those of us who are not Muslim, that may mean respect for the daily practice of the Islamic faith, and a decent care to avoid actions which are likely to cause deep offense. For Muslims in our society, there is the need to respect the history, culture and way of life of our country, and to balance their vital liberty to be themselves with an appreciation of the importance of integration in our society…

I cannot put to you strongly enough the importance of the issues which I have tried to touch on so imperfectly this morning. These two worlds, the Islamic and the Western, are at something of a crossroads in their relations. We must not let them stand apart. I do not accept the argument that they are on course to clash in a new era of antagonism. I am utterly convinced that our two worlds have much to offer each other. We have much to do together. I am delighted that the dialogue has begun, both in Britain and elsewhere. But we shall need to work harder to understand each other, to drain out any poison between us, and to lay the ghost of suspicion and fear. The further down that road we can travel, the better the world that we shall create for our children and for future generations.

Above are the Excerpts from a speech by the Prince of Wales at the Oxford Center for Islamic Studies, Oct. 27, 1993.

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