Volume 19 Number 4
Time to Take a New Look at Islam
01 August 2006

Hennie de Pous reads a controversial report on Islam, and concludes that its critics were missing the point.

EARLIER THIS YEAR the Scientific Council for Government Policy in the Netherlands (WRR) published a controversial report: Dynamics in Islamic Activism. It focused on Islam’s points of contact with democracy and human rights, and recommended that the Dutch should be open to the diversity of opinion in Islam. It also said that it might be a good idea for our government to talk to the democratically elected Hamas Government of Palestine.

Some politicians and opinion-leaders reacted as if they’d been stung by a wasp. These people directed the report straight to the rubbish bin, condemning it as ‘unworldly’ and ‘bungled’.

Reading the 334-page report convinces me that the superficial polemic that dominated the news for a few days did not do justice to it. Dynamics in Islamic Activism is a courageous attempt to find a way out of the dilemma that we all face concerning Islam. But the soft voice of nuance had difficulty making itself heard above the verbal violence.

There is possibly less of a divide between the Western and Islamic worlds than there is between those in both worlds who seek confrontation and those who keep on believing in dialogue. The authors of the report clearly belong to the second category. A phrase used throughout is ‘points of contact’.

The Western world, concludes the WRR, does not have a monopoly on the interpretation of human rights, nor on the behaviour that goes with it. We need self-criticism. Not so long ago women in the Netherlands did not have the same rights as men (and there are still some areas of inequality). Can the foreign policy of Western countries always stand the test of human rights? We should look at our own, still recent, bloody history.

When we descend from the heights of our moral indignation, we can see points of contact. The Dutch report shows that there is in Islam a whole spectrum of convictions and of faith, just as there is in Christianity. And this has been true for centuries.

There were and are thinkers who take the Qur’an literally, and there were and are reformers who appeal more to its spirit. The WRR portrays some pioneers from the past who have resisted the ‘degeneration’ of Islam into a religion which is purely preoccupied with what one should and should not do. A whole set of current reformers in Europe and in the Islamic countries seek a connection between Islam and modernity. One is Egyptian Nasr Abu Zayd, professor at both Leiden University and the University of Humanistics in Utrecht. His study on A reformation of Islamic thought, on which the WRR study is partly based, came out at the same time.

If one reads Qur’anic texts in their historic context, one is freed to look at their meaning for our present time. What matters is their power for circumstances other than those in which they were written. In this way space is created for human innovations like democracy and human rights. At least in theory, Islam is not irreconcilable with these concepts. But they need to be universalised and internalised. They are still seen as something that comes from the West.

A groundswell in favour of greater human rights coming from within the Islamic countries has more chance of success than pressure from outside. In several Muslim countries there is, for example, an important civil society movement in favour of greater rights for women. In Morocco, a new family law in 2004 gave greater rights to women. Education for women is taking giant strides, as in Iran.

In Europe there are tensions and a danger of radicalisation among well-integrated and educated Muslim youth. The WRR suggests that we can help to release the tension and build a bridge by opening our eyes to the diversity within Islam.

When Nasr Abu Zayd came to the Netherlands some ten years ago, he hoped that in the free and tolerant climate of Europe a modern and liberal Islam would develop. He has less hope now. Fear of Islam has decreased tolerance and increased radicalisation. Emotions rule. And everyone, often not hindered by any thorough knowledge of the issue, puts in their oar.

The polarisation increases through what the Swiss Muslim academic Tariq Ramadan calls ‘leaflet-Islam’. ‘Cyber-imams’ and violent films on the internet offer dogmatic truths to young Muslims, as if they were the only possible interpretation of Islam. Authors who stress a positive relation between Islam, democracy and human rights are much less known.

Confrontation can help to expose abuses. But when confrontation is followed by polarisation and we get stuck there, we don’t get any further! The challenge for politicians, journalists, opinion leaders, all of us, is to look further, listen better and think deeper before we offer our opinions. Let us make the soft voice of nuance audible.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0