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Islam-West Division Is Worsening

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

23 January, 2008

Majority of the people in Muslim and western countries believe that Islam-West division is worsening while each side thinks the other disrespects their culture, says a report on Muslim-Western relations released on January 21, 2008 in Davos, Switzerland.

The report, titled "Islam and the West: Annual Report on the State of Dialogue," conducted by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with Georgetown University, looks at how Muslim and Western societies perceive and relate to each other at the political, social, economic and cultural levels.

The report features a Gallup poll on Muslim-West Dialogue which finds that majorities in all the populations surveyed in 21 countries believe that systemic violent conflict between the west and the Muslim world can ultimately be avoided. However, the degree of optimism about future relations between the west and Islam fluctuates widely polled by Gallup for the report.

The people of Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands are among the most optimistic in the world about the state of relations between western and Muslim societies, while those in Pakistan, Brazil and Russia are among the most pessimistic.

The report found that Europeans, worried by immigration and a perceived Islamic threat to their culture, are alarmed at the prospect of greater interaction with the Muslim world. By contrast, a majority of people in the United States and the Muslim world felt more interaction would help. "European populations surveyed are much more likely to believe that greater interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds is a threat than a benefit," the report said.

Most Muslims (ranging from 62-84%) feel that the West does not respect them. Western citizens tend to agree, with fewer than half agreeing that the West respects the Muslim world.

One area of disagreement, however, is the reverse - Muslim attitudes towards the West. Muslims tend to agree that they respect the West, but those in Western countries, including 82% of Americans, disagree.

The writers of the report suggest that the discrepancy between the way Muslims think the Muslim world regards the West, and the perspective of Westerners, may have to do with a Western tendency to conflate negative opinion of the US, common in the Muslim world, with a rejection of the West and its values as a whole.

Three in four US residents say the Muslim world is not committed to improving relations with the West. At least half of the respondents in Italy (58%), Denmark (52%) and Spain (50%) agree that the Muslim world is not committed to improving relations.

But majorities of residents in nations around the world say that better interaction between the Muslim and Western worlds is important to them. Surprisingly, Iranians were among world leaders in this category, with 70% saying interactions were the West were important.

An important finding of the report is the emergence of citizenship and integration as the second most powerful shaper of the state of dialogue after international politics.

Growing Muslim minorities committed to active and full citizenship, particularly in Europe, are increasingly finding a voice in the public sphere. Governments committed to ideals of equality and recognition, but eager to maintain majority support and national cohesion, are seeking to engage Muslim groups in structured dialogue; with mixed results. Greater interaction with the Muslim world is actually seen as a threat by 60% of the citizens in many European countries but not in America.

The percentage of Muslim population in the 15-member European Union is expected to rise from 4.3% in 2006 to approximately 10%-15% by 2025, with a higher concentration in urban areas of up to 30% in countries such as France, Germany and Holland.

"The World Economic Forum believes that like all other global challenges, it will take the collaborative effort of all stakeholders from government, business, religion, media, academia and civil society to pre-empt any crisis, create alliances and find solutions," said Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum.

"Over the course of 2008, the Community of Islam and the West Dialogue will invite leaders from various walks of life to engage in a concerted dialogue and debate of the most important issues, in particular the area of citizenship and integration."

In the preface of the report, John J. DeGioia, President, Georgetown University, points out:

"A better future for Muslim-West relations at a global level and within national societies depends on more than dialogue. It demands progress on outstanding conflicts, including an Israeli-Palestinian peace that combines security with self-determination. It also demands greater stability, prosperity and democracy throughout the Middle East, Africa, and South, Central and Southeast Asia. A better future necessitates equal citizenship for Muslims and non-Muslims in Europe, North America and around the world, marked by broad-based economic growth, upward mobility and access to education and healthcare."

Dialogue is no substitute for political leadership and practical problem solving though it can increase knowledge and trust and frame joint efforts to address the pressing global challenges of the new millennium, he added.

Karen Armstrong, a leading expert on the Abrahamic faiths, argues that there is no point in dialogue if we are not prepared to change our minds, alter our preconceptions and transcend an orthodoxy that we have long ceased to examine critically.

"Finally, dialogue must not degenerate into a cosy colloquy between like-minded people. As in Northern Ireland, a way must ultimately be found to include those who hold views that we find unacceptable. We can never condone cruelty, bigotry or criminality, but leaving extremists out of the conversation, while we speak only to the converted, is sure not the answer either," she said.

Prof. John L. Esposito, Founding Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, pointed out that in a world of globalization when pluralism and tolerance have never been more important, hegemonic and exclusivist ideologies and theologies are ascendant.

However, "preachers of hate" – Muslim and non-Muslim, from the political and religious far right – are as motivated by identity politics, anti-immigrant policies and socioeconomic conditions as by theology he says adding that threats to national identity and security in the West and political grievances in the Muslim world are primary catalysts.

Prof. Esposito believes that to respond to their charges and build bridges of understanding and respect, we need more effective terminology and more powerful counter narratives. Phrases such as "Muslim world and the West", "West-Islamic", like their counterpart – "clash of civilizations" – fail to adequately reflect a complex, multifaceted reality that is political and economic as much as it is religious or cultural. Once respectable terms such as "tolerance" need to be replaced or transformed from the notion of "sufferance" or "endurance" of "the other" and reinforced by terms that promote mutual understanding and equal respect."

There is a culture war out there and the forces of bigotry and confrontation have powerful resources and access, he argues and concludes by saying: "The driving force behind all initiatives has to be the belief that actions really do speak louder than words."

Abdus Sattar Ghazali is the Executive Editor of the online magazine American Muslim Perspective: E-mail:

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