Volume 3 Number 10
Dangerous Stereotypes
01 November 1990

Western media images of Muslims as threatening only help to further reinforce Islamic rejection of the West.

There are signs that Islam is beginning to be seen as the main counter-force to Western civilization, the major enemy after the collapse of Communism.

This is full of perils in the present world crisis. Western media images of Muslims as threatening only help to further reinforce Islamic rejection of the West.

Not being able to understand Islam fully, the West considers it defiant in its refusal to conform to Western values and practices. Some commentators assume that Muslim societies are becoming ever more like Western ones, moving along a materialist trajectory to a consumerist Utopia.

The Rushdie affair illustrated how easy it was for the Western liberal mind to slip into stereotypes. Because of a single act of bookburning committed by specific people in Bradford an entire world civilization was condemned.

Islam was ridiculed and pilloried in the media. It became a code word for `fanatic' and `disruptive'. Muslims were portrayed as threatening the very fabric of Western civilization. Racist thugs who once shouted 'Paki' at anyone with a brown skin now shouted 'Salman'. This was a cruel paradox for Rushdie. The self-proclaimed champion of the immigrants had become a symbol of racial oppression and humiliation for them.

On the threshold of the 21st century, what can Islamic civilization contribute to the world? It can provide a check to the materialism that characterizes so much of contemporary life, offering instead compassion, piety and a sense of humility. These underline the moral content of human existence, they suggest security and stability in family life, in marriage and in care for the aged. Recent signs in Western societies indicate that perhaps the time is ripe to readmit care and compassion into human relations.

Of course these qualities are not exclusive to Muslims. But dialogue and interaction with Islam are possible only if its core features are understood with sympathy, and its intrinsic dignity, its otherness, is recognized.

Muslims are entering a more selfconsciously Islamic phase. This is bad news for those who dislike Islam. The good news is that Islam is not really about bombs and book-burning. This is a media image, one which has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in which the Islamic injunctions for balance, compassion and tolerance are blotted out. The holy Qur'an has said, `Your religion for you and mine for me.' For Muslims, God's most cited and important attributes are the Benificent and the Merciful.

This is forgotten by those who dislike Islam. More important, it is forgotten by Muslims themselves. Chaining and blindfolding hostages - however compelling the reasons - do not reflect compassion and mercy. Nor does the killing of Armenians in the USSR or Christians in Sudan, nor the brutality of despotic leaders. But brutal despots are not exclusive to Muslim countries. Pinochet, Ceausescu, Marcos: their regimes were characterized by murder, torture and unparalleled corruption.

Horseback charge
The burning of books may yet do us all a service because it exposed the great gaps in understanding between Islam and Western civilization, the violent passion on one side, the wall of incomprehension on the other. On the surface both civilizations appear vigorous and confident. Islam consists of about a billion people in 44 nations. France has about 1,000 mosques, Britain half that number, and there are about six million Muslims in West Europe alone.

The present encounter is coloured by two earlier encounters, the first lasting centuries. It began with the rise of Islam, the arrival of its armies in Sicily and France, continued with the Crusades and only ended in the 17th century when the Ottomans were stopped at Vienna. All this created in Europe an image of a threatening and aggressive Islamic world.

The second encounter was briefer - lasting perhaps a century-and ferocious. It was symbolized by the spectacle of Muslim tribesmen recklessly charging disciplined European regiments formed into squares. At the end of this second encounter there was an obvious difference between a triumphant Western civilization surging forward and a Muslim civilization racked with loss of intellectual confidence. Burning books is just one symptom, the symbolic equivalent of the 19th-century charge on horseback.

The only hope for Muslim civilization is for its leaders to awake to the crisis facing their societies and create an awareness of their own Islamic destiny - the lack of which would push Muslim groups further away from the rest of the world, making global harmony difficult.

A great deal will depend on those who can build bridges between the two civilizations. Unfortunately many intellectuals seem to have abandoned the role of transcending the differences, and into the vacuum have stepped the prejudices and stereotypes of the media.

Westerners can find a simple clue to Muslim society by looking at our differences in dress. Jeans, which in the West represent a levelling of class, have failed to win mass popularity in Muslim countries. Islam is specific about modesty in men and women. A dress which looks best when skin-tight, and is meant to indicate the contours of the torso, violates this injunction. Besides, the sitting prayer position, with legs tucked under the body, requires loose garments. Tight jeans would be sheer lumbar agony.

Simple theories of racial superiority based on colour or nationality are no longer tenable. People are moving slowly but inexorably towards a recognition of a common humanity. In today's world we can glory in our cultural differences: the variety enriches, not impoverishes. Your jeans for you, my robes for me.

Professor Akbar S Ahmed is Iqbal Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University. The BBC is producing a television series based on his book, `Discovering Islam'.

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