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Understanding Islam

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Omayma Abdel-Latif

“Why this need to create distance when we have been living with these people and they are our neighbours and fellow citizens?” Spanish sociologist Gema Martin Munoz posed the question to a packed audience during last month’s Barcelona Forum, an event held with the aim of providing “a space for dialogue and reflection on the main cultural and social challenges and problems facing humanity in the 21st century.”

Munoz is among the handful of European scholars of Islam whose work aims at correcting ignorance about the West’s “other”. A professor of sociology at Madrid Autonoma University, her voice has been among the most powerful in shaping the debate on Islam in Spain and Europe.

Munoz earned her PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Madrid University, and pursued post-graduate studies in Cairo for three years. She is on the board of several publications, including the Foreign Policy Review (the Spanish edition) and is the coordinator of the cultural wing of the Euro- Mediterranean Civil Forum.

Munoz is a vehement critic of misrepresentations of Islam in the Western, and especially Spanish, media. She has published a critique of what she describes as the anti- Islamic laicism prevailing in public and official discourses in Europe, and has written extensively on Islamist movements and Muslims in the West. Among her best-known titles are “Arab States: Crisis of Legitimacy and Islamist Reaction”, “Islam, Modernism and the West: Cultural and Political Relations at the End of the Millennium”, and “Iraq: A Failure of the West”.

Below, in an interview with Omayma Abdel-Latif, Munoz offers an insight into the Western ideology of ‘civilisational conflict’, how the western image of Islam and Muslims tends to delegitimise people living in the Muslim world, and how the solution to the ‘war on terror’ will depend upon a thorough re-evaluation both of Muslims by western societies, and of western society by Muslims.


What went wrong between the Muslim world and the West? How would you assess the current predicament?

I think that there is, in the West, an ideological construct of great historical weight through which an explanation of everything that is currently happening in Muslim countries is sought, using as its prism cultural and religious difference rather than an analysis of political, economic and social factors.

There is a constant reliance on culturalist reasoning—referring back to the population being Arab or Muslim—to explain why things are going wrong in particular countries. Hence the obsession—in western discourse—with ideas that if democracy cannot take root then it is because of Islam or Arab tribalism; if men and women are not provided with equal opportunities it is because Islam has decreed it; if there is violence and conflict it is a result of the fanatic tendencies that exist among Muslims, etc. As a result, not only do the real causes of these problems remain unsolved, but there is also a daily transmission into public opinion of the idea that problems in the Muslim world originate from a cultural and religious inability to progress and democratise.

Thus is the notion of cultural and religious incompatiblity built, and with it the feeling of distance and rejection. And, as if the effect were mirrored, we are told that Muslims reject our culture and hate us because of our values. Yet opinion polls carried out in the Middle East repeatedly show that any negative sentiments harboured towards the West have a basically political foundation—they originate from the West’s historical interference in the region, its support of authoritarian regimes, its double-standards vis-à-vis Israel. Alongside these feelings is an enormous desire for liberty, for a democratisation process and for states governed by law, none of which are perceived as incompatible with Islam.

A dialectic between culture and politics lies at the core of the gulf between one side and the other.


Does this mean that the West needs to have a hard look in the mirror?

I think the most crucial step is to overcome our obsession with analysing our relations with the Muslim world in terms of culture and pay much greater attention to politics.

There are two fundamental reasons for this. First, if one is to believe that the problems are rooted in religion and culture then the inevitable outcome is conflict and permanent distance. But if greater attention is paid to investigating the political and socio-economic causes that give rise to particular problems then it becomes possible to overcome them and resolve them.

Secondly, the obsession with culture leads us to adopt an ethnocentric approach and away from respecting cultural diversity in which principles of freedom, equality and rights might flourish. To suppose that it is only by enforcing a kind of assimilation to a Western model that problems will be solved is an illusion which renders us incapable of truly understanding the realities of other nations and other societies.


So what is “this need to create distance”? How would you answer the question you posed?

The fundamental problem is a profound ignorance of the diverse reality of life in different Muslim countries and societies. As Edward Said said, the real problem is a “clash of ignorance”. It is the news media that provides us with information on this part of the world. Inevitably it focusses on what is most spectacular—which is often what is most exceptional—or on the most extreme and different. It is a construction that consolidates distance.

Images of crowds of people are often aired and it is very difficult to identify with them particularly, as is often the case, if they are shown in an emotive state. Very seldom will an individual who could render the emotive or violent moment intelligible or coherent be given airtime, and so the question as to whether these masses are in fact civilised remains open.

Furthermore, shocking situations tend to be explained by referring to the perpetrators’ Islamic origin and identity. In this way the images confirm a dominant stereotype in Western discourse, they reinforce an assumption that it is not individual actors that determine their own history but, rather, the fact that they belong to the Muslim world, which marks and sets them apart.

Two different worlds are created, one that evolves (the West) and one (the Muslim world) condemned to a self- perpetrating cycle of misery and violence, from which there is no hope of escape. Citizens who belong to the Muslim world seem to have no access to history, to be able to contribute to it as individuals. They live out a predestined, collective fate. They are all one, from which premise it becomes possible to brand each with an at least passive responsibility for that most sensational news item of the moment, the terrorist attack, the extremist attack, the act of violence, the act of fanaticism.

The media’s construction reflects a process of dehumanisation that renders the victims of each side different. Proximity, individuation, is reserved for the victims of the 11 September attacks, for Israeli civilians and for American soldiers in Iraq; distance is the dominant media tool when portraying victims who are of Palestinian or Iraqi origin.


What role does the history of relations between Islam and the West have in shaping the situation today?

Geographical and historical proximity always give rise to complex and competitive relations between geopolitical structures. Such is the case with relations between Europe and the Muslim world since the Middle Ages, an era which inscribed a historical memory characterised by conflict. Later, in the 19th to the 20th centuries, an intense historical process took place that only served to reinforce this divide. Europe came to represent not just the world of ideas born of the Enlightenment, but also began the mercantilist drive that led the continent to seek to colonise the globe. Colonialism found it necessary to develop an ethical justification for acts of political domination and economic exploitation perpetrated beyond the borders of Western Europe, and so a civilisation/barbarism dialectic emerged. The principle of European superiority over the “Other” came about, and the West seized the right to self-representation as the universal embodiment of its modernity and civilisation.

Colonialism became a moral obligation and a historic mission—to civilise backward nations, from which point on cultural justifications have been used to justify what are political acts. And in order that culture serve a political agenda other cultures were portrayed as being inherently inferior, and denied any capacity to evolve and modernise, which were exclusively European traits.

The theory of the clash of civilisations has rendered this construct even more powerful. It is a manipulation of culture to suit a political goal—the domination of the Middle East—that was given full rein with the American occupation of Iraq.

While this whole historic process has been fed by feelings of distance, rejection and incompatibility, the deepening Islamophobia since the 11 September attacks is worrying. Race and religion are being used as criteria to determine potential suspects. The Arab and Muslim origin of the terrorists who carried out the attacks in 2001 have made all those who come from the part of the world suspect—hence the term “Islamic terror”. Fear and suspicion towards Arabs and Muslims living in the West has been fanned as terrorism was increasingly associated with immigration. There is a huge risk involved in continuing to give ground to kinds of racism which, if we do not take the steps necessary to counter the outcome, will continue to grow.


Tariq Ramadan detects “an unhealthy schizophrenia, an uneasiness with the other” in Europe. Do you sense the same thing?

Tariq Ramadan is not wrong in describing the European situation as characterised by schizophrenia. Two contradictory feelings are being realised on the ground—on the one hand an entire discourse has been developed which speaks of multiculturalism and cultural diversity as fundamentally positive and European values while on the other there is great difficulty in accepting such differences, especially when it comes to Muslims.

In fact, they are required to hold completely clean visas as citizens. When something goes wrong the failure is perceived as a collective responsibility. It is also very difficult for their rights as Muslims to be truly respected, in terms of the construction of mosques, of women’s right to wear the hijab and in terms of the construction of Muslim cemeteries. Visible Muslim practices are by no means deemed acceptable in the European landscape.


Are there channels other than the media by which people might become acquainted with Islam? And what are the issues, particularly in Spain, within which Islam is framed?

The geopolitical rivalry between Christianity and Islam—as embodied in the conflicts between Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms, between the European and Ottoman empires, between colonialism and nationalism—undoubtedly generated conflicts of interests and an ideological demonisation of the other. But the disruptions that these conflicts caused did not prevent the creation of what was in fact a mutually dependent reality: the Byzantine empire had very close relations with the Omayyad and Abbasid empires, closer than those it maintained with European Christian empires. Al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms engaged in continuous economic and cultural exchange.

The Islamisation of the West is an uncontestable historical event—it took place in Sicily, the Iberian peninsula and the Balkans. And throughout the 20th century there was a constant cultural flow and exchange between the West and the Muslim world, one propelled through migration and modernisation. I think this aspect of the relationship between the two should be highlighted—insofar as it has been permanent, it has witnessed peaceful exchange and it has been characterised by mutual cultural dependence—in order to modify the tendency to focus on conflict and war.

To do this successfully we must start with educational systems and modify their content, both in Western and in Arab and Muslim countries because neither of the two sides explains the contextual experience truthfully. Western societies’ ignorance of the rich and diverse world of Islam needs to be broken, while the European experience of secularism and democracy as positive values needs to be taught properly.

The beginning lies in the education of the new generation. It is here that, I believe, we must really make an effort.


The Spanish experience is unique in that Islam was at one point part of the local culture and social fabric? Do you see any attempts to capitalise on this experience?

Dominant historiographic trends centre their analyses either on the distant past—insisting that our origin is European and Christian and the Arab-Muslim era was simply a historical accident—or seek to identify fully with the Andalusian legacy, perceiving it as something exclusively Spanish, isolated from the rest of the Muslim East, detaching Andalusian civilisation, the Cordoba Mosque, the Alhambra, from any wider Islamic legacy.

Yet despite the complexities the Al-Andalus experience has served as a legacy which has brought Spain and the Muslim world closer to each other because it constitutes an indelible tie between us.


How, as a European intellectual, and as someone from a country that recently suffered a major terrorist attack, do you react to the whole war on terror?

The situation has been received with great alarm, and has engendered a feeling of being under threat. And it is for this reason that I believe it is essential to fight the Islamophobia that has grown out of that sense of threat and to become actively involved in finding solutions to the problems I have already mentioned.

If Islamophobia continues to spread, and if the urgent political and military problems of the Middle East are not resolved soon, the terrorists will find a great deal of ground on which to develop.


Could Western democracies accept the rise to power of Islamist forces in the Muslim and Arab world through the ballot box?

Two key points emerge from the current political situation. First there is a need to create credible political processes leading to the establishment of democracies, operating under the rule of law and capable of meeting the expectations of the populations of the Middle East. It must be kept in mind that existing frustrations risk radicalisation and identification, particularly among young people, with extremist options. Secondly, Islamist parties must participate in these democratic processes.

The pitfall lies in the fact that in the West the notion has spread that Islamist parties must all be defeated—it is a notion that has led to the support of coups, such as that staged in Algeria in 1992.

The problem is rooted in the fact that in the West the dominant image of Islam is based on selective and sensationalist media portrayals that give voice either to those who defend fundamentalism, or to those who are actively violent. Muslim political voices with far more widespread appeal are hidden, or even silenced.

But it is impossible to lump extremists and reformists together in the same category—reformist parties have renounced violence and condemn terrorist attacks—and their marginalisation, or repression, acts only to strengthen the extremists. The reformists’ respect for the rules of democracy is perfectly apparent in those countries where they have been given leeway, as, currently, is the case in Turkey.

The role of reformist Islamism is more crucial than ever. Its substantial social and political influence could contribute to the delegitimisation of terrorist groups. In fact reformist Islamism is the worst enemy of extremism and violence. In contrast, politics based on conflict, on the termination of diplomacy or on the repression of reformist Islamists can only accelerate the recruitment by extremists of a frustrated, disenchanted and radicalised youth that no longer perceives democracy as a goal, and that increasingly feels that there is no viable political alternative to the systems they live under.


Published Sunday, October 31st, 2004 - 06:05pm GMT
Article courtesy of Al-Ahram Weekly
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