Western-Islamic Relations and the Intercultural Field
(The Quran 49:13).
It is hard for anyone to deny that Islam has captured more headlines, column inches and air time over that past 4 years than ever before. A combination of political events, acts of inhumanity and social problems involving Muslims have seen a global shift towards anti-Islamic or Islamaphobic sentiments. One only has to think of events such as the World Trade Centre attack, bombings in Spain, London, Iraq, Tunisia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Egypt, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and riots on the streets of France and Australia to appreciate how these sentiments have evolved.
As a result, the view of Muslims as a whole has darkened. Many countries are now questioning the identity and loyalty of their Muslim citizens whilst stereotypes and general opinions of 'Islamic' nations and their populations are fuelled by media stereotypes. Muslims living in Europe and North America are feeling alienated and misunderstood whilst those in the Muslim world are suffering due to the actions of a misguided minority within their ranks.
It would be fair to generalise that the 'West' and the 'East' seem to have become more polarized of late. The future does not look very bright. Yet, the Islamaphobic backlash, although unfortunate, is providing one community with a challenge that if met will both demonstrate its lofty intentions and raise their profile as essential voices within future world discourse. This community is that of the interculturalists.
Recent events have recalled in many people's minds the theory penned by Samuel Huntingdon in the early 1990's predicting that in the future there would be a "clash of civilisations." This theory suggested that post-Cold War global divides would occur between civilisations and that there would inevitably be a clash as one tries to get the upper hand over the other. In it he states that, "a central focus of conflict for the immediate future will be between the West and several Islamic- Confucian states."
For many the West vs. Islam element of his hypothesis seems to be coming true. However, the theory has been cited here for one reason only - to demonstrate how Western-Muslim relations could develop if the correct action is not taken soon. What we are witnessing is not a clash of civilisations. The political aspects of recent events have been presented in such a way to people that it forces them into an "either you are with us against us" mentality. The polarisation of peoples has increased the mistrust and suspicion of 'the other', the unknown. It is the simple fact that if the unknown element of the equation were to be removed, there is a fair chance the reverse effect could ensue. Simply stated, if the West is educated about what Islam really is and vice-versa, it would not be so easy to polarize populations.
At present what we are dealing with can be described as a "Clash of Cultures" and as all good intercultural academics and trainers know, cultures can be reconciled.
Those in the intercultural field stand in a privileged position of having the insight, understanding and knowledge to look at human interaction and decipher what is going wrong in terms of communication, behaviours and assumptions. The cultural clash we see today is simply an extension of this and can be overcome using the same principles. The most prominent principle, and therefore the one that shall be solely focused on, is that of 'awareness of others'.
As a Muslim and an Englishman I constantly see bigotry from both sides of the imaginary line that are founded on ignorance. One side receives their information from British tabloids, the other from an arms length experience of the society they live in. One is fixated on the covering of women's hair as a sign of male oppression while the other tuts at a set of loose morals. One believes the other's mission in life is to wage war in order to reach paradise while the other is perplexed by the fact that paradise is not even on the agenda. Of course in truth none of these assumptions reflect reality.
If we are to move towards a greater understanding of one another, awareness is crucial. People need to be educated as to what is truth and what is stereotypical nonsense. Once people move beyond this basic level of knowledge there is more room to discover similarities, shared points of view and common goals of which there are plenty. Although it is true that each side may look to the other with distaste, they do also occasionally look with respect and wonder. Muslims' strong sense of community, spirituality and hospitality are oft cited qualities of virtue. Similarly Muslims worldwide regularly praise the West's technological achievements, respect for equality before the law and queuing (yes queuing!). In addition, both sides also share similar principles, ideas, wants and aspirations.
And herein lies the optimism that the future is promising for Western-Islamic relations - we have more in common than we do differences. The reason for this goes back to the verse of the Quran quoted at the beginning of this article. It clearly states that man was created from the same pair (Adam and Eve), meaning mankind is ultimately one in terms of their make-up, traits, needs and desires. Yet in the same sentence it also explains that there are differences.
Few in the intercultural field would have realised that the quintessence of their training, education and research was captured in a Quranic verse some 1400 years ago. The verse tells us that we were created with differences (nations and tribes) in order for man to gain a better understanding of himself, i.e. to realise the essence of humanity. How do we understand heat without cold or happiness without sadness? What is day without night or peace without war? We come to know the world around us through comparisons. Our fellow human beings act as mirrors. Through looking at that cross cultural reflection we appreciate who we are, what we value and how we act and most importantly the common threads that stitch the quilt of human experience together.
The intercultural field stands in an ideal position to spearhead initiatives and effective interventions. Within the current Western-Islamic state of affairs there is enormous potential to challenge the strangling discourse that is suffocating real cross cultural dialogue. The intercultural voice, which on the whole is one of understanding, tolerance and flexibility, must rise above the babble that we constantly hear. At the end of the day those with positions within the field, the reason they do what they do, is to help people understand one another whether at work or in the community. As professionals there is a responsibility to apply research and work into making a real difference to the evolution of global relations.
As stated at the beginning of this article, Western-Islamic relations pose the intercultural field with a challenge that must be overcome collectively. The initial rung up the ladder in order to achieving this is to educate people beyond stereotypes and misunderstandings. If this is successful the process of finding common ground and appreciating why we differ on certain issues will manifest naturally.
The question now is how the field responds. How is research applied? What plans can it implement? Who can it collaborate with? Who is available from both the Islamic and Western mind-sets with a real appreciation and understanding of the other? How does it demonstrate its worth on the global stage? Experience of the field mixed with an eternal optimism leads me to believe that interculturalists will exceed expectations and demonstrate the invaluable nature of their endeavours.
Orignally published in SIETAR Europa magazine, Intercultural Islam, February 2006.