Worth Repeating: Western Racism – The Real Threat to Islam’s Renewal


In his recent State of the Union Address, U.S. president George W. Bush strongly defended his country’s massive bombing of Afghanistan. In the course of his speech, he referred more than once to the concept of "civilized people" standing together in order to combat the barbarism — of whom? — " The uncivilized Muslim peoples." He didn’t quite say that, but it is undoubtedly what he meant.

Since the Middle Ages, when Crusaders left the shores of Europe on horseback, on foot, and in sailing boats — not F16 fighters and B52 bombers — Western writers, pseudo-intellectuals, speechmakers and self- identified luminaries on Islam and the Middle East, have indulged in an endless stream of rhetoric directed against the supposed "barbarism" of Islam and the Muslim World.

In his book called "The Liberal Islam," Charles Kurzman points out that Western racism poses a serious challenge to the renaissance of Islam, because for centuries, the West has constructed an image of Islam as "the Other," identifying Islam with barbarism and violence. Islam has thus been equated with fanaticism, its political authority with despotism, and its traditions with backwardness and primitiveness.

Typical of its kind was Ernest Renan’s inaugural lecture at the College de France in 1862. "Islam," he opined, "is the complete negation of Europe. [It is] the disdain of science, the suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit, restricting the human mind, closing it to all delicate ideas, to all refined sentiment, to all rational research, in order to keep it facing an eternal tautology: God is God."

No wonder Islam has now become the bogeyman of the United States of America!

Even after the Western powers had reduced one Muslim country after another to sub-colonial status, they still continued their obsession with Islam as the archetypal symbol of all that is counter to Christian values and ideals. Indeed, Muslims have served wonderfully well as images of "the Other," onto whom we have blithely projected all our own less- desirable traits. We call Muslims "irrational" and feel ourselves to be the embodiment of rationality; we call Muslims "terrorists" ruled by blood-feuding despots and hold ourselves up as paragons of democratic and liberal values — even as we steal their land and resources and interfere in their internal affairs.

And in all this, we have of course forgotten a civilization with roots as old (if not older) than Western culture and easily as complex. That’s only natural, for of course "They" were (and are) "barbaric," while "We" are "civilized."

Since the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, not a day goes by that George W. Bush and his cohorts in the media and movie industry do not remind Muslims all over the world that Americans are morally superior, because they are fighting "evil and the forces of darkness." Perhaps this latest adventure in the worship of brute force against weaker nations and peoples will show how very far from the truth that is. Bush may be unaware of it, but there are those in the Christian and Islamic world who know what counts as truly civilized behavior, and what kinds of action confer moral superiority.

In America, the obsession with Islam as a symbol of all that runs counter to Western ideals and Western ambitions did not begin with September 11. It began almost a decade ago, when Samuel Huntington wrote a book in which he argued that the "clash of civilizations" — namely Islam and the West — was inevitable. This ideology gave rise to several well-known American media personalities and "experts" on Islam and terrorism who wrote incessantly on the evils of Islam. They shamelessly co-opted Hollywood and the sensation-hungry media to introduce a new kind of racism (one every bit as dangerous as anti- Semitism) that sees all Muslims as "terrorists" bent on the subversion of our brave new Western world order, stirring up trouble in the midst of good Christian folk.

From the Suez crisis to the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land in 1967, the Iranian Revolution, the growth of armed resistance against Israel by the Lebanese, the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation, to the struggle of the Kashmiri people, Western media have perpetuated myths and fed prejudices that would — in any other context and directed against any other people — have been ruled out of court from the word go. For most Westerners, from leading politicians to men and women in the street, there is "something going on out there" in the Islamic world. That "something" is reinforced by the stereotypes found in most major newspapers, media outlets, and Hollywood’s version of Muslim fanaticism, fundamentalism, martyrdom- obsession and terrorism.

The end of racist colonial rule did not bring with it any new dawn of enlightenment. If anything, the old racism has been replaced by a new, more insidious kind — a distant, paternalistic, and pitying disapproval of the "natives" that is every bit as demeaning as oppressive colonial rule ever was. Like its predecessor, this new racism also blocks growth, self-sufficiency, self-reliance, human dignity, growth of democracy, human rights, civil society and the rule of law. Do Muslims object to this Western-rooted status quo? Indeed they do! And it is reflected in their struggle to attain true independence from this creeping American colonization of their land, their resources, their people — and their future.

The personal struggle (Jihad) of the individual Muslim, and in turn that of Islamic culture, is both internal and external as it emerges from centuries of colonial domination and social and intellectual stagnation. Internally, it must deal with longstanding historical discrepancies that exist between its divinely revealed scripture, the Holy Qur’an, and what is now being practiced (not always faithfully) in the name of Islam. Externally, it has to deal constructively with the powerful forces of materialism, globalization, cultural hegemony and media biases.

But more than anything, the pervasive threat of economical and cultural hegemony, based on racial and religious superiority, is what continues to sap Islam’s intellectual and spiritual energy. As a worldwide community linked in faith, Islamic culture is unable to fully engage in reconstructing of its social, economical and political thought. Instead, Muslims everywhere are continually occupied in managing crisis after crisis, created by the selfish interests of the West and sustained by the military superiority and economic power.

Of course there is much that is wrong across the traditional geographical Muslim world, just as there is in our North American and European world. The Muslim "fanatics" are no more endearing than our Christian moral majority in America. Low-tech terrorism and violence are no more endearing to us than sophisticated "surgical strikes" that cause bombs to fall on civilians and starving, helpless children (nowadays they call this "collateral damage"). The fact remains that terrorists are terrorists, and equally reprehensible whether they plant bombs in the name of Allah, Yahweh, or Jesus Christ.

If we really believe that we have values and technological advancement to offer people struggling for survival in countries ravaged by hunger, poverty, illiteracy, disease, ecological ruin and political corruption, how in the name of sanity can we expect to achieve anything worthwhile by dropping bombs on their cities, or slowly starving them to death with brutal sanctions? Haven’t we, and they, had enough of the obscene image of Rambo and "might is right" as the guardian of civilization?

The fact is that throughout the Muslim world, religious revivalism or renewal is inextricably bound up with a whole host of other forces and demands; poverty, illiteracy, women’s status, cultural assertiveness, civil society, class warfare, and above all the simple search for a post- colonial identity. Yet the West’s projection of Islam (since roughly the Islamic Revolution of Iran, back in 1978) as backward, passive, and in state of permanent decline has generated new images — images of uncontrollable aggression, mindless fanaticism, terrorism, and irrationalism. Yet neither Westerners nor Muslims are homogenous beings. We have our home-bred fundamentalists and they have their religious fanatics.

Increasingly, Westerners are working and living in Muslim countries; likewise, large numbers of Muslims have made their homes in Europe, the Americas, and Canada. I have no doubt that in the end new cultures will emerge everywhere as a result. It is our moral duty to create conditions under which these changes may take place with a minimum of violence and friction. The so-called "clash of civilizations" need not be the West’s only option.

I believe it is high time that all people of conscience worked to stop this new barbarism in its tracks and show an increasingly scornful and wounded world that we, too, are civilized people with values worth emulating.