That there is a serious disconnect between Islam and the West is not in doubt; what is hotly contested is whose fault it is. Each side blames the other but, given that the Western media dominate almost all discourse, Islam and Muslims are blamed for everything that goes wrong in the world. There is little or no admission that much of the mayhem in the world is caused primarily by Western policies that affect others in profoundly negative ways.
Before proceeding further let us clarify what we mean by the West. It is neither a geographic entity nor has it to do merely with people. Many people living in North America and Europe, for instance, are as much victims of Western policies as people living in Africa and Asia. Similarly, most rulers in the Muslim world would come into the category of belonging to the West. Thus, it is more accurate to say that the West is an ideological construct that transcends physical boundaries. In this sense, the West is global, but only insofar as others submit to its policies and advance its interests. It neither wishes to share the material benefits it enjoys nor wants others to acquire the rights as it claims for itself.
Let us look at North America and Europe—two areas considered to be the core of the West. Both are profligate, have a long history of dominating other societies and peoples and have exploited their resources without regard to the devastation it causes. Even today, other peoples’ resources are plundered so that North America and Europe can maintain their rapacious lifestyles. Constituting a mere 25 percent of the world’s population, North Americans and Europeans consume more than 60 percent of its energy and food resources. At the same time, they also generate a disproportionate amount of pollution and cause massive environmental damage. The US alone accounts for nearly 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. All the while, it stubbornly refuses to accept any responsibility for, or to improve, its behaviour.
Beyond the extravagant consumption lies the even more serious question of the violence that is directed against others, especially Muslims. Most wars in the last two decades have been waged against Muslims; naturally more than 90 percent of all victims of war have been Muslims, yet there is hardly any mention that this might be a reason that Muslims feel so angry. “Theirs is an evil ideology”, thunders Tony Blair of Britain; US president George Bush has made even more ludicrous assertions, such as”they hate our freedoms”. That’s it; end of discussion. When State policies are based on such simplistic assertions, it is virtually impossible to have an informed dialogue. The West’s attitude is clear enough: might is right and since they claim to have military might, they can dictate to others how they must behave. When there is resistance to such aggression, it is branded as “terrorism”. Like zionist Israel, other Western states too claim the right to invade other countries and occupy their lands, as well as imposing pro-Western rulers and supporting repressive dictators while proclaiming democracy. Then the Western world is surprised that others do not find this acceptable.
The West’s behaviour is rooted in its history; the entire colonial period can be considered in the light of the same mindset. The Crusades were launched by the Church on the false pretext that Christians were being “persecuted” by “heathens” (meaning Muslims) in Palestine. The same assumptions guide today’s policies: others are uncivilized, and the West has the right to invade them. Talk of “evil ideology” springs from the same source, even if those uttering such words call themselves enlightened and secular. Likewise, the West can have nuclear weapons and even use them, but Muslims must not be permitted nuclear technology, even for peaceful purposes; the US has the right to invade Afghanistan because of 9/11, but others have no right to retaliate against US or Western aggression. The list goes on and on.
Every anti-colonial struggle was demonized in its time; Nelson Mandela was branded a terrorist and spent 27 years in prison. When the African National Congress called for sanctions against the apartheid regime, it was Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s so-called Iron Lady, who claimed that they do not work. So why did she urge Bush Senior to attack Iraq in 1991, and then to impose sanctions that were backed by Britain and France, leading to the deaths of some 1.5 million Iraqis? Iran has been subjected to a similar sanctions regime. The answer is that apartheid South Africa was ruled by their “white” cousins, carrying on the “white man’s burden”; Britain and the US did brisk business with white South Africa, including sending hundreds of thousands of citizens to prop up the regime. Today, a similar process is underway vis-à-vis the zionist occupiers of Palestine. Sanctions, military assaults and aggression are reserved mainly for Muslims.
Unless there is a significant shift in Western policies, especially toward Muslims, there is likely to be more anger and violence, no matter how many pacifist fatwas are elicited from pliant imams. The struggle for survival is part of human nature, indeed of all living creatures. Muslims can hardly be expected to behave differently.
[Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT) in Toronto, Canada.]