Last Friday, the university hosted a forum entitled “The US and The Muslim World: Between Cooperation and Confrontation”. The guest speaker was the internationally respected American scholar on Islam, Professor John L. Esposito. Professor Esposito is a no stranger to IIUM having visited the university on many occasions in the 1990’s. However, just like many other international scholars both in the West and the Muslim World, prior to this year's visit he has not set foot on Malaysia since the tumultuous political events of the late 1990’s.
The focus of Professor Esposito’s presentation is the findings from the global attitude survey reported in his latest book ‘Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think?’, and the forthcoming 'The Future of Islam'. The survey covered a total of more than 40 countries with more than 50,000 respondents who were all interviewed one-on-one in their own respective native language. Respondents include both Muslims and non-Muslims who were asked a series of questions about their attitude on Islam and Muslim communities, and the values of the people in the West.
Without going to specifics, my personal view is the result of the survey has confirmed the opinion shared by many of us who have lived in both worlds, that between the people in the West and the Muslim World, there is a great degree of mutual misunderstanding. On one hand we have the people in the West who believe that Islam is a global threat to their freedom and values; while on the other the Muslims who believe that there is a global war and conspiracy against Islam. Both views are in fact illusive and hallucinative.
After the events of 9-11, the intensity of inter-civilisational dialogues between Islam and the West has indeed increased. Many Muslims have never quite understood the strong reactions of the Americans to the events (just like how most Americans have never understood why Muslims are so angry about America's continuous support to Israel). For the Americans, 9-11 was the very first time their country was attacked in its own soil. And this, according to Professor Esposito “created a hysteria on terrorism”, and since President Bush had singled out Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as the Americans greatest enemy, Muslims and the religion of Islam became the focus of attention.
Professor Esposito has always maintained a positive view on Islam and an optimistic attitude towards Muslims. Hence, when discussion and debates on Islam and the Muslims began to flourish in the immediate aftermath of 9-11, he took centre-stage and appeared in various media programmes and events to defend those views. In one memorable programme aired on the BBC World Channel, Professor Esposito, in the course of defending Islam went to the extent of almost ridiculing some aspect of Christian values. A fellow Christian panellist had made a cheeky attempt to paint Islam as a religion of violence by saying that Islam does not have anything similar to the Christian teaching of “turn the other cheek”. To that, Professor Esposito nonchalantly suggested that the Muslim panellist hit the Christian man on one side of his face and see how he would react!
While I do agree that negative spins from the Western media have contributed to the prevailing negative attitudes toward Islam and the Muslims, I would like to emphasise that such negativity is also the result of genuine naturalistic observations. Except for those who have travelled extensively to various Muslim countries, or those who befriended closely individual Muslims, the only direct information the people in the West have about Muslims are based on their observations of Muslim immigrant societies in their midst. And if this is the yardstick that they base their judgment and attitudes on Muslims with, the negativity would not be entirely shocking, in fact could be considered almost expected. I do not know for sure the situation in America, but in Western Europe, the lifestyles and progress of Muslim immigrant societies certainly have much to be desired.
In Finland (in fact in all the Scandinavian nations), the people are proud of their welfare system where among others there is free education, free housing and generous allowances for unemployed persons. Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of the system to improve their educational and social standings, many Muslim immigrants choose to remain unemployed and live with the free allowances given. In Germany and the Netherlands, where Turkish and Morroccan communities are established for three generations, their youth are more often associated with drugs and gangsterism rather than academic and entrepreneurial achievements. These are not exclusively the views of Western media or propaganda, but crucially the findings of various academic studies conducted by both Muslim and non-Muslim researchers.
The way forward is for Muslims to assume centre-stage and speak up for Islam and our respective communities. And we need to learn to do so first-of-all, by using the ideological language of the West (the language of human rights and democracy), and to live up according to those principles and ideals. Calling ourselves Islamic is one thing, but living an Islamic way of life is quite another.
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