Islam and its Relation to the West – Part 1 – Three Areas of Tension

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at a formal dinner of a secular association on the subject of Islam and its relation to the West. I have expanded my presentation and am posting it in three parts.

In the 1980s Herman Wouk’s novel War and Remembrance was dramatized for the small screen.  Through thirty hours of television the viewer follows the epic themes of the Second World War and the personal stories of several fictitious characters. Aaron Jastrow is a Polish-born Jewish American academic living in peaceful retirement among his books in north Italy. He cannot believe that what is happening around him is a personal threat. As Europe is overrun by the Nazis he passes up various opportunities to travel to the United States. Eventually he is remanded into custody, accommodated by the Germans in a Paris hotel, then interned at Theresienstadt, and finally returned to his Auschwitz birthplace and the gas chamber now located there. The viewer watches a terrible slide toward the inevitable.

Although presently just a microcosm of 1940s Europe, the rise of IS in Syria and Iraq suggests a resurgence of the worst of the 20th century nationalism manifest in Hitler’s Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. A view of the plight of Yezidi, Christian and Shi’a minorities along the fringes of the Kurdish region could easily equate their suffering to that same inevitable slide toward the Jewish holocaust.

In the 20th century it was National Socialism and Communism that mutated into terrible persecutions of those who did not belong because they were not like those who had the power. Today it is an aberrant form of Islamic society which declares its intolerance of those not like itself and says: “If we all believe exactly the same thing then we can build a successful nation for ourselves”. It seems appropriate therefore to present a short examination of the relation between Islam and the Western world by looking at areas of tension, concern and hope.

First of all, however, I’d like to endeavor to separate the radical Islam expressed by the Islamic State from the life and practice of many Muslims who want to serve their god in peace wherever they live within a pluralistic society. Muslim friends of mine fear that the term Islamist as applied to strands of militant Islam does a disservice to the religion of Islam and the wider Muslim community – it is a term that is insulting to the vast majority of Muslims who know that although the practitioners of a faith may be terrorists and extremists it is cruelly unfair to make any religion out to be the problem when it is human behavior that is.

Having made that comment I should like to share three areas of tension between the West and the Arab world which exacerbate Western misunderstandings of the Muslim community. An increasingly wealthy Western society has promoted the interests of the individual above the condition of the community. The term individualism entered the English language in the first half of the 19th century as a means to express distaste for the idea that individuals are more important than the society of which they are a part. However influences such as the 19th century pioneering of the American West, built around rugged individuals, and the 20th century media promotion of stars in the entertainment and sporting industries have served to ingrain the idea that the individual stands alone in his society. Even in the development of modern evangelicalism the personal salvation experience through the individual sinner’s prayer has been emphasized over the collective experience illustrated occasionally in the Bible[1].

By contrast much of the East, whether Asian or Middle Eastern is more deeply rooted in an idea of the community or the tribe having precedence over the individual. Absent the influences of globalization and totalitarian philosophies many Asian and Arab family structures are much more intact than those in the West. Family and tribal loyalties remain dominant.

In the West culture is based upon ideas of right and wrong. A man is guilty or innocent and he is responsible to society accordingly. A man’s wrongdoing is his personal responsibility. Believing in the inherent goodness of the individual the justice system always wants to find mitigating circumstances. Hence in a recent judgment against the former Mayor of Charlotte, NC, the judge could say: You’re a good man, a very good man, but you have made serious mistakes, as he handed down a forty-four month sentence to Patrick Cannon for accepting bribes while in public office.[2]

On the other hand an eastern society is much more likely to be based on the concepts of honor and shame. A man’s wrongdoing has direct impact upon how he and those of his tribe are viewed. In the Arab world: Honor is what makes life worthwhile; shame a living death, not to be endured, requiring that it be avenged.[3] This helps to explain, even though it does not justify, the concept of honor killings. In the story told of The Princess several Saudi teenage girls escape the restriction of their veiled lifestyle to go out with some older men. The father of one of them discovers what has happened and in an endeavor to remove the shame of such a misdemeanor from the family he invites friends to a party at his home where he has his daughter publically drowned in the swimming pool.[4] In a wider Eastern context it helps to explain why a South Korean man responsible for safety measures at a concert where sixteen people died as the result of the collapse of a ventilation grate, committed suicide, rather than face the shame of his responsibility. He left a note to his wife saying he was sorry for the dead victims. [5]

These different approaches to the fundamental make up of society produce tensions between the West and the East of which the Islamic world is a significant part. Firstly, they result in different understanding in the field of Human Rights. It has been pointed out that militant groups in the Middle East have long known that their brand of Islam is incompatible with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [6] Under Islam, God has the rights and man has the duties. Muslim groups met in 1981 in Paris to draw up an Islamic Declaration of Human Rights that makes clear that the freedoms and rights referred to were only to the extent permissible under the Shari’a law. Individual rights, as understood in the Western context, are forfeit to the communal rights of an Arab tribalism. Someone from the Arab world might therefore argue, for example, that what the West regards as an individual freedom of expression should be subservient to the community right to economic development.

The second area of tension concerns what is meant by democracy. When President Bush and Prime Minister Blair talked in 2004 of bringing democracy to the Middle East I am sure that there were many both West and East who wondered how that could be possible. The Western Anglo-Saxon democracy which they represented was developed over a thousand years of the shaping and reshaping of political landscapes. Documents such as Magna Carta, the 1689 Bill of Rights, the US Constitution of 1788 and the Great Reform Act of 1832, were stepping stones to the creation of a system on both sides of the Atlantic that has given democratic processes to the English-speaking peoples. However, they are understood within their contexts. Taking them and injecting them, as if with an hypodermic, into the Middle East would do a disservice to the societal constructs that have shaped those societies.

In a 1992 interview the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia commented: The Democratic system that is predominant in the world is not a suitable system for the peoples of our region .. The system of free elections is not suitable to our country.[7] The Shari’a Law derived from Islam is incompatible with Western Democracy because it is based upon the idea of a theocracy laying down God’s unchangeable law.

The experience of the Arab Spring since 2004 has underlined the fact that bringing any kind of truly representative system of popular government to the nations of the Arab world is fraught with difficulties. The Egyptian popular overthrow of the Mubarak regime led to the election of an Islamic party who immediately made themselves unpopular with sectors of society by doing things that were outside their mandate. The experiment in democracy ended with a return to rule by a leading member of the military.

Perhaps the former French president, Jacques Chirac best summed up a response to the idea of bringing democracy to the Middle East in the words: There is no ready-made formula for democracy transposable from one country to another. Democracy is not a method, it is a culture. For democracy to take root solidly and durably in the Arab world, it must be an Arab democracy before all else.[8]

The third area of tension I should like to highlight is that of religious freedom. In the West we value our individual freedoms and although the way in which they are recognized varies from nation to nation issues such as freedom of speech, assembly and religion go largely unquestioned. Last year I attended a seminar at Georgetown’s Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.[9] Two speakers gave very different perspectives on religious freedom. Firstly, Thomas Farr, Director of the Religious Freedom project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs stated that religious freedom is: the right to believe or not and the right to act on the basis of belief, to enter and exit religious communities and to act on the basis of religious belief in civil and political society within broad limits that are equally applied to all. Then Farid Esack, head of the Department of Religion at Johannesburg University and Professor of Islam stated, in a convoluted style: In the parts of the Muslim world which I am most familiar with, … We don’t affirm the value and centrality of religious freedom. …Notions of freedom do not come automatically to our religious language. And so at the end of the day, … for the vast majority of people in the Muslim world, and Muslim authority figures, whether they are government or scholarly figures who interact with the non-Muslim world. … it is still very much the age old principle that Islam is meant to dominate and Islam is not to be dominated. He allowed the audience to assume that the only interpretation of the principle of freedom of religion within Islamic nations would be for the free practice of one’s Islam.

There are many other areas of tension between the West and the region that can loosely be termed the Muslim world, however these are the three that most often come up in my experience of dialog with Muslims in that region.

This is part 1 of three parts – to read part 2 go to:

& to read part 3 go to:

[1] See for example: John 4:53 – The healing of the official’s son; Acts 16:33 – The conversion of the jailer; Acts 10:2,44 & 11:14 – Cornelius and his family;

[2] Former Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon sentenced to 44 months for taking bribes - – accessed October 22, 2014

[3] David Pryce-Jones – The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs – Harper Collins, 2002 – p.35

[4] Jean Sasson – Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil – William Morrow, 1992

[5] South Korea concert planner found dead in Seongnam – – accessed October 22, 2014

[6] Ibn Warraq – Why I am not a Muslim – Prometheus Books, 1995 – p. 176

[7] Robert L. Maddex – Constitutions of the World – Routledge, 2014 – p.243

[8] Bush opens new rift over Middle East plan – The Guardian June 9, 2004 – – accessed October 15, 2014

[9] The Boundaries of Religious Pluralism & Freedom: The Devil is in the Detail – Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University – April 13, 2013 –  video at – accessed October 15, 2014

This entry was posted in Culture and Politics, Islam, Nations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Islam and its Relation to the West – Part 1 – Three Areas of Tension

  1. Pingback: Islam and its Relation to the West – Part 2 – Three Areas of Concern | THE FULLER REPORT

  2. Pingback: Islam and its Relation to the West – Part 3 – Three Signs of Hope | THE FULLER REPORT

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