Building Bridges Between the Muslim and Western Worlds

In the views of many, the contemporary world in which we live appears to be marked most prominently by the emergence of what is regularly referred to as "a clash of civilizations". Proponents of the discourse of a clash have sought confirmation of their views by pointing to the increasing hostility and animosity between cultural regions -- most obviously between the Islamic and Western worlds -- that has defined the last quarter of the twentieth and the first decade of the twenty-first centuries.

The long list of incidents that have revealed the intensifying tension between the Muslim and Western worlds over the past few years is countless. The terrorist attacks of 9/11, the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, and the interminable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians are merely the highest profile examples of a global state of affairs whose ramifications extend to even the very local and regional levels. One may point to the rising Islamophobic sentiment in other parts of the world which finds expression in such senseless acts as the burning of copies of the Qur'an to express hatred towards Islam. Nor does this sort of prejudice fail to make its way into governmental policy, as is evidenced by the relative success of far-right political parties in Europe who are intent on marginalizing their Muslim communities. On the other side, we also see a growing suspicion and reticence on the part of Arabs and Muslims to engage with Westerners on matters that may help develop their own societies.

It is my view, however, that no matter how pessimistic the landscape seems to be, we must not allow ourselves to concede to the inevitability of a trajectory which ends in the proverbial clash of civilizations. Further, it is an obligation to respond proactively to the tensions of our world by working actively and methodically to ameliorate them, so as to replace instability with stability, hostility with friendship, and animosity with alliances. In this regard, allow me to recognize the efforts of many international dialogue forums and institutions including the United Nations in bringing all sorts of people to the table to engage in genuine intercultural dialogue over the past few decades. Their commitment to cross-cultural understanding is truly commendable.

From the Islamic perspective, what is required is a proper understanding of the nature and purpose of dialogue with the other, a conscious effort to rebuild trust among different parties, and the emphasis and discovery of points of commonality. These goals are part and parcel of a larger philosophy of dialogue based on the authentic Islamic tradition, an understanding, and application, which is essential to a harmonious future for the world inhabited by all civilizations and cultures.

Islam established a moral and humanistic civilization that encompassed a plurality of religions, philosophies, and civilizations which contributed immensely to Muslim society. We see ourselves as a people who have absorbed a multiplicity of civilizations; we have been exposed to and assimilated the great civilizations of the Persians, Indians, Chinese, and Greeks into our cultural and intellectual life, and we benefited from all of them as well as contributed to them. Islamic civilization places people and worshippers above places of worship. This humanitarian and cosmopolitan world view does not allow us to consider ourselves as superior to other people. We are proud of our civilization, but we do not reject other civilizations; rather, all who work towards the constructive development in the world should be considered as our partners.

Dialogue is a responsibility that accrues to Muslims by virtue of the nature of their religion. What we have learned about Islam has been taken from the clear, pristine, and scholarly understanding of the faith and not from the self-claimed, who have attempted to set themselves up as religious authorities even though they lack the scholarly qualifications for making valid interpretations of religious law and morality. Muslims believe that Islam is the last Message until the Day of Judgment and, as such, is addressed to all humankind. These two properties are the basis for the universality of Islam and require that Muslims engage in dialogue in the best of ways. As the Qur'an instructs, "Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and fair exhortation, and reason with them in the best way" (Al-Nahl: 125). Islam is, indeed, an open world view which never seeks to erect barriers between Muslims and others.