Renovating Religion – Islam and the Quest for West’s Acceptance

The “war on terror” and its association with Islam have shaken the world out of a long-lasting “cold” and suppressed (often pretentious) tolerance toward the militant side of religion – in the recent case, Islam. This has stirred the thoughtful and reconciliatory minds within the Muslim world to paint a different picture of Islam. But can an image of religion be changed without comprising one’s identity?

Finding the link on Facebook, some time ago, I came to read Claude Salhani’s article “Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations?” published in The Globalist (September 09, 2010 edition). The respected writer – a well-known author and editor from the Middle East Times – opined that the apparent clash observed between the west and Islamic militant groups is not a clash of civilizations and that the west is not at war with Islam, but both the problem and solution lie within Muslims.

Though agreeing with Mr. Salhani’s view that politics and not religion as such has been responsible for the civil wars he observed in his younger years, I find it hard to conceive how we can ease religion, in this case Islam, out of the argument over the west-Islam conflict. There are a number of conceptual and linguistic loopholes in tabling a case for relieving religion of the responsibility of causing and/or moving a conflict to aggression.

First, no doubt that politics – the strategic quest for power – is the main demon that oversees violence. But then religion (like any others) is not an independent social institution. Religion is thoroughly political, especially in its use by political groups, if not in its basic tenets (and one can show easily that is quite political therein also). It’s like a gun – you may use it for good or for bad. But you can’t deny the wounds it imparts and an enemy is definitely likely to attack your gun first, to make sure you don’t bring him down. Just like the gun is part (and a deadly part) of a fight, religion is part of the political conflict currently raging between the west and some Islamic groups.

The idea of clash of civilizations may not hold in the way one would usually think of civilization’s classic concept – a distinctive set of attributes that can define the development of a human society in a particular period of time. In a world where air travel and telecommunication have bridged the vast distances that would, in past times, have allowed distinct societal features to develop differently in various regions of the planet, we now have a shared civilization – dominated by western features of course, both technologically and culturally.

No longer have we something called a civilization where no or just a few traces of the world’s dominant culture may not be found. Nevertheless, the conflicting beliefs, practices, and values do exist. Not only that, but they define the boundaries of difference in different ethnic/religious groups. Islam is one of those divisions that shapes the identity of large groups of people. Several of its values, along with the resulting Muslim identity, are in conflict with the dominant western ideals.

Those Islamic values that become the slogan of hostile groups against western ideals are today the weapons with which Islamic militants are fighting their war with western powers. Neglecting them and thinking of solutions within Muslims is like expecting peace without agreeing on laying down guns.

While one may stop using guns against one’s enemy, not keeping them implies a deep distrust and the possibility of resorting to aggression any time again. In fact, that is what has been happening in history. Periods of peace are suddenly switched into war slogans because the clash of values is there. If there had been no clash of Islamic and western values, and the problem remained within Muslims, we would not expect war or hostility between the west and Islam; the violence would also entirely be between Muslim nations.

The use of the expression “west versus Islam” is also grossly erroneous. When we talk about the west, we are referring to certain nations based on their geographic, ethnic, and technological position with respect to other nations. Islam, on the other hand, is the name of a set of beliefs and principles – in other words, abstractions to be followed by members of a particular faith.

Political powers of earthly nature are not, and cannot, be directly at war with abstractions, in the literal meanings of the term ‘war’. Political powers have certain ideologies based on beliefs and values and both sides are driven by the clash in those values to materialize this clash in the form of physical war, so that one side of abstractions can have a chance to get over the other, different set of abstractions.

Thus, the west is not at war with Islam but western values and thought are clashing with certain Islamic beliefs and values. Playing with the words ‘west’ and ‘Islam’ is thus confusing the question of war of values.

The most manifest indicator of the clash between western values and thinking and those of orthodox Islamic beliefs and values is the burden of change that the Islamic world feels and it repeatedly finds voice in conciliatory tones on the Islamic side.

In Mr. Salhani’s view, for example, we read again that a new image of Islamic teachings (what is generally called ‘real Islam’) be painted to settle the issues between the Islamic world and the west. This translates into accepting the burden of changing the image of Islam to appease the west’s antagonism – a direct acceptance that the west is at war with Islam.

But the fact that the scholars deny anything is wrong with Islam, but with some Muslims, spells the fear that the entire Muslim world feels due to the issue of collective identity. Being Muslims, it is part of their core belief to preserve Islam, to resist any change in its basic tenets since their particular beliefs give them their unique identity. Changing them is just like losing one’s identity – to suddenly be no one.

The thinking Muslim today is thus caught between Scylla and Charybdis: to be accepted by the powerful west, he needs to alter his identity; but altering his identity means throttling his core existence and losing control; retaining the identity, however, means impending enslavement, and thereby losing control again.

This melee is what we may regard as exclusively going inside the average educated Muslim’s being in current times. The solution to quell this anxiety as well as to avoid the threat of the west’s total domination (that may even destroy non-violent Muslims, as happened to civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan) advocated by moderate Muslims, like our respected Mr. Salhani, is to paint a new picture of Islam.

This proposed solution contradicts the claim that the problem is with Islam, since if that were the case, we’d expect a proposition to leave Islam as it is and change the ‘bad Muslims’. But we frequently see the emphasis on showing the world Islam’s true, peaceful picture. What is meant, however, is to make the problematic parts of Muslim population behave better so as to allow a general acceptance of Muslims as well as Islam in and by the west.

Not quite proposing any solution for this threatening clash of values between the west and Islam (or Muslims), I can’t seem to resist quoting Thomas Paine’s golden words “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” I do believe that a lot can be achieved if we dare change our values and break from paralyzing reification by looking at our current needs and experimenting with the word ‘acceptance’.