Monday, 20 June 2011

Islam has a progressive tradition too

Most western views of Muslims are founded on ignorance


When a Welsh resistance leader was captured and brought before
the emperor in Rome, he said: "Because you desire to conquer
the world, it does not necessarily follow that the world desires
to be conquered by you." Today one could offer an echo of this
sentiment to western liberals: "Because you wish your values
to prevail throughout the world, it does not always follow that
the world wishes to adopt them." The imperial voice is based
on ignorance of the rich traditions of other civilisations, and
on an undue optimism about what the west is doing to the world politically,
economically and environmentally.

The entrenched beliefs many westerners profess about Islam often
reveal more about the west than they do about Islam or Muslims.
The Ottomans were history's longest-lasting major dynasty; their
durability must have had some relation to their ability to rule
a multi-faith empire at a time when Europe was busily hanging, drawing
and quartering different varieties of Christian believer.

Today Islam is said to be less, not more, tolerant than the west,
and we need to ask which, precisely, are the "western"
values with which Islam is so incompatible? Some believe Islam's
attitude towards women is the source of the Muslim "problem".
Westerners need to look to their own attitudes here and recognise
that only very recently have patriarchal structures begun to erode
in the west.

The Islamic tradition does show some areas of apparent incompatibility
with the goals of women in the west, and Muslims have a long way
to go in their attitudes towards women. But blaming the religion
is again to express an ignorance both of the religion and of the
historical struggle for equality of women in Muslim societies.

A careful reading of modern female theologians of Islam would cause
western women to be impressed by legal injunctions more than 1,000
years old that, for instance, grant women legal rights to domestic
help at the expense of their husbands. Three of the four Sunni schools
consider domestic chores outside the scope of a woman's legal responsibilities
toward her husband. Contrast that with US polls showing that working
women still do 80% of domestic chores.

Westerners, in their advocacy of global conformism, often speak
of "progress" and the rejection of the not-too-distant
feudal past, and are less likely to reveal their unease about corporate
hegemony and the real human implications of globalisation.

Neither are the missionaries of western values willing to consider
why Europe, the heart of the west, should have generated two world
wars which killed more civilians than all the wars of the previous
20 centuries. As Muslims point out, we are asked to call them "world
wars" despite their reality as western wars, which targeted
civilians with weapons of mass destruction at a time when Islam
was largely at peace.

We Muslims are unpersuaded by many triumphalist claims made for
the west, but are happy with its core values. As a westerner, the
child of civil rights and anti-war activists, I embraced Islam not
in abandonment of my core values, drawn almost entirely from the
progressive tradition, but as an affirmation of them. I have since
studied Islamic law for 10 years with traditionally trained scholars,
and while some particulars in medieval legal texts have troubled
me, never have the universals come into conflict with anything my
progressive Californian mother taught me. Instead, I have marvelled
at how most of what western society claims as its own highest ideals
are deeply rooted in Islamic tradition.

The chauvinism apparent among some westerners is typically triggered
by Islamic extremism. Few take the trouble to notice that mainstream
Islam dislikes the extremists as much as the west does. What I fear
is that an excuse has been provided to supply some westerners with
a replacement for their older habit of anti-semitism. The shift
is not such a difficult one. Arabs, after all, are semites, and
the Arabian prophet's teaching is closer in its theology and law
to Judaism than it is to Christianity. We Muslims in the west, like
Jews before us, grapple with the same issues that Jews of the past
did: integration or isolation, tradition or reform, intermarriage
or intra-marriage.

Muslims who yearn for an ideal Islamic state are in some ways reflecting
the old aspirations of the Diaspora Jews for a homeland where they
would be free to be different. Muslims, like Jews, often dress differently;
we cannot eat some of the food of the host countries. Like the Jews
of the past, we are now seen as parasites on the social body, burdened
with a uniform and unreformable law, contributing little, scheming
in ghettoes, and obscurely indifferent to personal hygiene.

Cartoons of Arabs seem little different to the caricatures of Jews
in German newspapers of the Nazi period. In the 1930s, such images
ensured that few found the courage to speak out about the possible
consequences of such a demonisation, just as few today are really
thinking about the anti-Muslim rhetoric of the extreme-right parties
across Europe. Muslims in general, and Arabs especially, have become
the new "other".

When I met President Bush last year, I gave him two books. One
was The Essential Koran, translated by Thomas Cleary. The second
was another translation by Cleary, Thunder in the Sky: Secrets of
the Acquisition and Use of Power. Written by an ancient Chinese
sage, it reflects the universal values of another great people.

I did this because, as an American, rooted in the best of western
tradition, and a Muslim convert who finds much of profundity in
Chinese philosophy, I believe the "Huntington thesis"
that these three great civilisations must inevitably clash is a
lie. Each civilisation speaks with many voices; the best of them
find much in common. Not only can our civilisations co-exist in
our respective parts of the world, they can co-exist in the individual
heart, as they do in mine. We can enrich each other if we choose
to embrace our essential humanity; we can destroy the world if we
choose to stress our differences.

· Shaykh Hamza Yusuf Hanson is the director of the US-based
Zaytouna Institute


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