From the Editor: Akhtar Mahmud Faruqui

Kofi Annan’s Plain Talking

Kofi Annan has at long last spoken, boldly and grittily, as becomes the Secretary General of the United Nations. Addressing a seminar at the UN Headquarters in New York, he did not mince words to censure the current tide of Islamophobia plaguing the West.

“When a new word enters the language, it is often the result of a scientific advance or a diverting fad. But when the world is compelled to coin a new term to take account of increasingly widespread bigotry, that is a sad and troubling development. Such is the case with Islamophobia,” Annan observed.

The Secretary General’s address entitled “Confronting Islamophobia: Education for Tolerance and Understanding,” was part of a UN-sponsored series on “Unlearning Intolerance.” The first seminar in the series, “Confronting Anti-Semitism: Education for Tolerance and Understanding,” was held on June 21.

Spurning restraint and inclined to calling a spade a spade, Mr Annan spoke with rare perspicacity: “Islam’s tenets are frequently distorted and taken out of context, with particular acts or practices being taken to represent or to symbolize a rich and complex faith.

“Some claim that Islam is incompatible with democracy, or irrevocably hostile to modernity and the rights of women. And in too many circles, disparaging remarks about Muslims are allowed to pass without censure, with the result that prejudice acquires a veneer of acceptability.” True.

As stated in these columns earlier, a flurry of insinuations against Islam have become almost a norm of daily life in the US. Day in and day out, misguided commentators and right-wing observers provide fresh proof of unfeigned disdain for Islam with remarks that are caustic and biting and have a telling effect - both on the naive non-Muslim viewers as well as followers of the faith. Not surprisingly, a recent Cornell University survey reveals nearly half of all Americans interviewed believe the US government should restrict the civil liberties of Muslim Americans!

The name of Islam has been sullied, wantonly and willfully, as newscasters lay undue stress on a select group of words - Islam, Qur’an, Muslims, terrorists, Islamists, and more regrettably, Muhammad - in their display of a singular contempt for Islam.

“No one should underestimate the resentment and sense of injustice that members of one of the world’s great religions, cultures and civilizations felt as they looked at unresolved conflicts in the Middle East, the situation in Chechnya and the atrocities against Muslims in the former Yugoslavia,” said Annan. And so saying, the UN Secretary General seemed to identify the root cause of the present seething unrest in the Muslim world.

“But we should remember that these are political reactions - disagreements with specific policies. All too often, they are mistaken for an Islamic reaction against Western values, sparking an anti-Islamic backlash,” Annan seemed to furnish a convincing explanation. And here a restatement of what we have written in these columns:

How did an average Muslim perceive the United States of America in the pre-September 11 period? A country to envy and despise? A bulwark of Christianity? A sworn enemy of Islam? Undisputed leader of the West on a collision course with the Ummah?

The answer to all such questions is in the negative. Despite many misgivings about US foreign policy and Washington’s ambivalent posture on crucial issues such as Palestine and Kashmir, Muslims have been generally appreciative of America - a country on the march.

I have vivid recollections of my childhood impressions of the United States. The stagecoach winding its way on a dusty trail, eager prospectors panning for gold, the rush for California, and entrancing characters - Buffalo Bill, Daniel Defoe, Kit Carson, Monte Hale, Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Lash Larue, Rocky Lane, bounty hunters et al. - stalking the ‘Wild West’.

With time, I came to identify the US as the epitome of anything and everything quintessential with its glittering Ivy colleges that were soon to be the focus of all our pursuits. Not many of us could make it to Cornell or Harvard. But the unrivalled excellence of American institutions continued to exercise a magnetic pull on professionals, including the men in the khaki, who were keen to avail of an opportunity to train at Fort Benning or West Point. A closure exposure to American academics and Nobel Laureates had a singularly beneficent influence on my formative years. Professors Donald Glaser, Nicholas Negroponte, Hofstadter, Michael Moravscik et al. were fine human beings. Their wives seemed to complement their values.

Come September 11 and the scene dramatically alters. The media churns out story after story to suggest that Islam and the West are on a collision course! There is a concerted effort to lend credence to Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations.’ A negative perception of Islam is aired day in and day out through newspapers, TV, radio, and films. We are more than familiar with the ridicule that Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis, Denzel Washington and a host of others hurled on the Muslim world without the slightest call of compunction.

Which brings us to the oft-debated debate: Are Islam and the West on a collision course? Professor Ralph Braibanti, an eminent scholar who has been on the faculty of Duke University since 1953, makes the incisive point in his illuminating essay Islam and the West: Common Cause or Clash? published by the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University. An excerpt: “The ecumenical decree of Vatican Council II, Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) 1965 was a stunning repudiation of an attitude towards Islam regnant for more than half a millennium. It erased in a few poetically elegant sentences the imagery in Dante’s characterization of Mohammed as seminator di scandalo e di scima. Its newly sensitive appraisal of Islam eclipsed the somewhat less felicitous but more potentially powerful final sentence of paragraph 3: ‘On behalf of all mankind, let them [Muslims and Christians] make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom [et pro omnibus hominibus justiciam socialem, bona moralia necnon pacem et libertatem communiter tueuntur et promoveant].’

“This is clearly an exhortation to act. The errors of the past were acknowledged, animosities were to be forgotten, and points of agreement between the two religions were portrayed without animus or condescension,” writes the erudite professor.

Nostra Aetate unequivocally spelled out the religious affinity between Muslims and Christians: “Upon the Muslims, too, the Church looks with esteem [respicit]. They adore [adorant] one God, living and enduring, merciful and all-powerful, Maker of Heaven and earth and Speaker to men. They strive to submit wholeheartedly even to His inscrutable decrees, just as did Abraham, with whom the Islamic faith is pleased to associate itself. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere [venerantur] him as prophet. They also honor [honorant] Mary, his virgin mother; at times they call on her, too, with devotion. In addition they await the day of judgment when God will give each man his due after raising him up… Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this most sacred Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom.”

Viewed in this context, the visit of Pope John Paul to the Ommayad Mosque in Damascus on May 6, 2001, was an event of singular importance. He was the first Pope to set foot on a mosque and his message on the momentous day was truly befitting for the occasion: religious conviction was never a justification for violence. The Pontiff who gave a new dimension to Judeo-Christian ties with his visit to Rome’s synagogue in 1985, said it was now time to open a new chapter in relations with the Muslims. “For all the times that Muslims and Christians have offended one another, we need to seek forgiveness from the Almighty and to offer each other forgiveness…Better understanding will surely lead to a new way of presenting our two religions, not in opposition as has happened too often in the past, but in partnership for the good of the human family,” he said.

The Pope’s initiative could not have been better timed. Indeed, Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are three Abrahamic religions whose followers have a lot in common. Blissfully, there are several shining examples of Muslim and Christian communities demonstrating a spirit of co-existence and mutual accommodation. The Christian population in Jordan, for example, barely makes up three percent of the country’s total, yet it has been treated with love and respect by the Muslim majority. The late King Hussain and Crown Prince Hassan bin Talal made sustained strivings to ensure a spirit of harmony to bring the believers of the two faiths closer. The Royal Institute of Inter-Faith Studies established in 1994 has hosted several conferences and published insightful books, including Prince Hassan’s Christianity in the Arab World.

The year 1995 saw the establishment of the largest mosque in Europe in close proximity of the Vatican as a testimony of an attitudinal change between followers of the world’s two major faiths. Another significant event took place on September 12, 1997, when the Supreme Pontiff and Prince Sultan, the Second Deputy Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, met in Rome.

Quite a few other developments testify to the wholesome change. The establishment of the Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations of Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, England; the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding of Georgetown and publication of its journal Islam and Muslim-Christian Relations; the publication of Islamochristiana by the Vatican’s Pontificio Istituto di Saudi Arabia; the strivings of UMA, AMA, CAIR, ISNA, and ISOC, recent PBS documentaries ‘Islam: Empire of Faith’ and ‘Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet’ provide fresh proof of this trend.

The Oxford lecture by the Prince of Wales in 1993 was further indicative of the change. Prince Charles affirmed, “Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world which Christianity itself is poorer for having lost.” Two years later, the Prince reaffirmed this view in a televised comment when he said that he would prefer to have the Crown’s title “Defender of the Faith” changed to “Defender of Faith.” He specifically mentioned Islam as one of the faiths of Britain.

In his Iftar party address at the White House in the post 9/11 period, President Bush rightly remarked: “Islam is a religion that brings hope and comfort to more than a billion people around the world. It has made brothers and sisters of every race. It has given birth to a rich culture of learning and literature and science. Tonight we honor the traditions of a great faith by hosting this Iftaar at the White House…We see in Islam a religion that traces its origins back to God’s call on Abraham. We share your belief in God’s justice, and your insistence on man’s moral responsibility. We thank the many Muslim nations who stand with us against terror. Nations that are often victims of terror, themselves…”

Muslims, Christians, Jews and followers of other faiths, have to act in unison to arrest the current decline of civilization so as to make the world a more livable place. Islam and the West are on a coalition course and any suggestions of collision are simply misleading. Let’s be seized of our religious affinities and spurn unwarranted animosities.



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Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.