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Looking Back at Islam & the West

Looking Back at Islam & the West

In our post-9/11 world, the relationship between the “West” and “Islam” is often misunderstood. Perceived contrasts and persistent stereotypes often have nothing to do with reality, and tensions continue to increase in our polarized world. As these biases against, and fear of, others becomes deeper ingrained, it is more important than ever to take a look at our shared past to consider how we might seek peace today.

In his widely read book Islam and the West, Bernard Lewis argues that there is a culture clash between Muslim majority nations in the Middle East and what he believes to be more secularized nations in the West.

While not ignoring the conflicts between Muslim majority and Western nations, the idea that Islam andthe West are diametrically opposed misunderstands history and makes the possibility of peace that much more difficult to attain in the present. It’s actually more accurate to say the two kinds of nations are intricately intertwined.

In fact, looking to the collaborations and the tensions of the past helps us understand that when it comes to Islam and the West, the two not only share connected histories, but also share in the responsibility to live peaceably together today.

We might start by trying not to think of Islam versus the West, but instead re-envision the relation as that of Islam in the West, and re-think the West as playing a part in what we think of as the “Muslim world.”

Edward E. Curtis IV insisted in his book The Bloomsbury Reader on Islam in the West that Islam should be thought of “as part of, rather than as foreign to” that which is referred to as “the West.”

As evidence, he pointed to how Muslims helped make the “West” what it is today through the influence of science and technology, philosophy and medicine. For example, how the famed Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas was not only heavily impacted by the thinking of the philosopher Aristotle, but also his commentator and Muslim “Renaissance man” Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroes, 1126-1198). Furthermore, Muslims mattered in the making of the modern West—whether it be the Muslims who shaped the histories of Spain and Sicily through their rule, or those who came to affect early American history in mind and body as Europeans made contact and conquered its lands. Today, Muslims play an outsized role in discussions of gender and citizenship, belonging and resistance in the West. No matter where you look, Islam is a part of the West.

This point may seem subtle, but it is vitally important in a climate—both popular and academic—that imagines Muslims as outsiders to “Western culture,” and as unassimilated foreigners in matters of national polity.

At the same time, it would be naive to not notice the history of conflict that has threatened these bonds. Whether it be the Crusades or the advent of European colonialism in the 19th-century, the 9/11 bombings or the brutality of al-Dawla al-Islamiyya (ISIS) there has been, and will continue to be, those who take up arms against one another in the name of a trumped-up “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West.

Although Islam and the West are actually long-acquainted, and functionally fused in many ways, there are many who believe that the two are diametrically opposed. Too often, these parties parlay the airwaves and set the tone of the conversation and sway the public to believing the myth that the West does not include Islam and Muslims are not essential to its make-up.

Sadly mimicking one another, those who believe they represent “the West” refer to Islam and Muslims as “them.” Likewise, some Muslims believe that “the West” is inherently corrupt and forever a land of conflict for faithful Muslims. Those Muslims who live in peace have accepted defeat at the hands of this perceived immoral Western culture.

If we are to move past these dangerous dichotomies, the first step we have to take is recognizing that there is no such thing as a singular “Western” or “Islamic” civilization.

While there are touchstones of memory, history, philosophy, and theology that inform the content and shape our ideas about these supposed societies, they are each stunningly diverse and include a wide variety of movements, narratives, and peoples in their big tents.

Second, we must see past the flaps in the winds of history to notice that they also include one another. Islam and Muslims have not only been a part of the Western story for a long time, but they have been an essential part of shaping its character—both fraternally and in friction. Likewise, the West—from Europe to the Americas and many places in between—has always been part of a larger Muslim story networked together with localities such as Nigeria and North Africa, Mecca and Malaysia, and many other geographies across “the Muslim world.”

As we question what it is to live together harmoniously in a religiously diverse world, we must include each other in our queries. We cannot sit back and imagine that “they”—whoever “they” may be—are not part of this common quest. Instead, we must embrace the fact that our histories are shared together. This is not a solely Western problem or a singularly Muslim puzzle. It is a human predicament that must be solved together.

One place to start this common quest is to look to our collective past and recognize that we would not be who we are—Muslim or non-Muslim, Christian or non-Christian, secular or otherwise—without the philosophies, experiences, and histories of the supposed “other.”

Perhaps looking to our shared past might lead us to consider how we might seek peace in the fertile soil of relationships here in the present and build a future together that sees the other not as “Western” or “Muslim,” but as fellow collaborators for justice and friends in peace.

This post reflects the views and experiences of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Religion nerd, rugby fan, runner, foodie, traveler, beer-ista. Ken gets to do a lot of these things as a religion scholar, pastor, and popular writer and speaker working out of universities, cafés, communities, and local pubs across the U.S.

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