Lifesaving dialogue past due between Islamic world and West

Special to The Japan Times

BEPPU, Oita Pref. — The relationship between the West and the Islamic world is worrisome. Recent events in Western and Muslim countries show the tension between these two civilizations.

Last year the Swiss People’s Party, backed by a popular referendum, proposed a construction ban on mosque minarets. In neighboring France, the rising fear of Islamization has been reflected in the political debate on prohibitions against wearing the burqa. In the Netherlands, far-right politician Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party gained a significant number of votes in recent local elections.

Meanwhile, in Indonesia, thousands of sympathizers attended the burial of Dulmatin, the suspected terrorist, and the planned visit of U.S. President Barack Obama was criticized by Hizbut Tahrir, who argued that Obama is a colonizer and war criminal.

Why are these things happening?

It is true that Obama decided to increase the number of American troops in Afghanistan and that terrorist groups keep mushrooming, but does it mean there is no room left for dialogue?

The problem is mind-sets. First of all, both sides mistakenly adopt binary logic in their policymaking. This logic leads to a black-and-white, right-or-wrong perspective: One is either with us or with them. Consequently each side triggers fear toward the other. The ultimate manifestation of this belief is hatred and the desire to conquer the other.

Differences are seen as threats that deserve to be excluded and, if necessary, extinguished. Most people in the West and Islamic world aspire to and share similar basic needs. This reality, however, is diluted by the rise of rightwing populism in the West and extreme conservatism in the Muslim world.

Although these conflicting sides seem very different, they share the same need to exploit fear toward the other. They also make tactical use of populist jargon to target and grab the attention of the lower and middle classes — those who have a say in daily politics.

Unfortunately their rhetoric and activities bring both sides excessive media attention. They work hard to keep the spotlight and dominate public discourse about what society should be like.

The situation today is especially ironic when we consider that Islamic and Western societies contributed so much to the development of human civilization in the past. When the age of darkness and close-mindedness prevailed in the West, Muslims were working to enlighten the world with their culture of tolerance, openness and freedom of thought.

Thanks to the efforts of Islamic scholars and intellectuals, the great works of classical Greek philosophers and the introduction of Aristotelian logic triggered enlightenment, liberating the minds of Western citizens who had been oppressed by the state or religion.

Ibn Rushd (commonly known in the West as Averroes), a devout Muslim philosopher and jurist, is considered the father of secular modern thought. He is famous for the idea that the peaceful coexistence of religion and philosophy, faith and reason is the way to God: To move forward, we need to promote a culture of tolerance, openness and freedom.

As the West started to grasp and accept humanist principles of enlightenment, the Islamic world took a backward step by closing doors to reason and inquiry. The situation became more chaotic as shortsighted Western foreign policies focused more on political and economic expansion than on promotion of human values and cooperation.

More problems arose with the appearance of populist politicians and violent groups with neither the historical consciousness nor willingness for dialogue.

What should we do then?

Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the most influential American presidents, was correct when he said the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. Fear paralyzes and prevents us from thinking rationally. To prevent the plague of narrow-mindedness and feelings of inferiority, we must not let ourselves be trapped by illogical paranoia.

Practically speaking, mental, intellectual and spiritual reform should translate into sound foreign and security policies. The failures of Western foreign policy should remind us that waging war is no longer an option. We must bring antiwar politics to the fore of discourse, and change it into cooperation-based tactics of moderation, to promote democratization in the Muslim world.

Counterterrorism measures are the key to making this policy work. Instead of shooting terrorists dead, we must bring suspects into court and subject them to official judgments so that society can see their mistakes. Education plays an important role. Schools and universities should be the place to foster tolerance and cooperation so that our children can interact with each other and respect different cultures and opinions.

We must stop acting as a silent majority. Moderate and progressive voices of Western and Islamic communities must unite and show to the world the real face of civilized and mature societies. We should convince the world that many avenues still exist for dialogue. After all, we know whom to blame for the current mess: Western and Islamic hardline conservatism.

Iqra Anugrah, a third-year student at College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University, Japan, is active in various Islamic and student groups.