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Islam and the West

The relations between Christendom and the Islamic world, which are home to nearly half of the human population, have been characterized, at different points of time, by a curious mixture of peaceful and harmonious coexistence, mistrust and vilification, competition and contestation, and violent confrontation.

Norman Daniel, in his book Islam and the West: The Making of an Image (1960), has shown that from the time of St. John of Damascus in the eighth century and Peter the Venerable in the twelfth century, the Western perception of Islam has been shaped, for the most part, by ignorance, prejudice and misrepresentation. St. John (d. 750) regarded Islam as a Christian heresy. This perception was reinforced by the Crusades. Pope Innocent III described Prophet Muhammad as the Antichrist. The Royal Chaplain and Father Confessor of Spain, Jaime Bleda, introduced the Prophet as the deceiver of the world, false prophet, Satan's messenger, the Beast of the Apocalypse and the worst precursor of the Antichrist. The Prophet was debunked by Christian polemicists as an ambitious schemer, a bandit, an impostor and even an epileptic. His claim to prophecy was dismissed as fraudulent and his religion a sum of heresy. Mosques were described as synagogues of Satan. Martin Luther wrote several treatises attacking the Quran and Prophet Muhammad. He dubbed Islam as a false religion. (Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, pp. 246, 276; see also R. W. Southern: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages (1962), and Minou Reeves: Muhammad in Europe: A Thousand Years of Western Myth Making (2000)

The Crusades (1095-1292) cast a long and ominous shadow for several centuries over Christian-Muslim relations. In a recent article, Daniel Johnson writes that in the eyes even of most Christians, the Crusades were a crime against humanity, one for which apologies are due, especially to Muslims. (Daniel Johnson, "How to Think About the Crusades" Commentary, 120 (1), July-August 2005) The Crusades were a barbaric, unprovoked war of aggression, conquest and extermination. As several Western historians have pointed out, many of the crusaders were motivated by greed and avarice and by the pursuit of land and plunder. Anti-Islamic rhetoric incited the passions of the crusaders. Pope Urban II contemptuously described Muslims as "a race utterly alien to God." When Jerusalem fell in 1099, the crusaders vandalized and devastated the city and massacred tens of thousands of Muslims and Jews. For Jews, who had been living in the city in peace and harmony with Muslims, it was a catastrophe unprecedented since the destruction of the Temple. Soon the definition of crusade was widened to include the extermination of Jews, heretics and pagans in Europe and elsewhere. During the fourth Crusade, which was diverted from the reconquest of Jerusalem and instead turned to the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, Eastern Orthodox Christians also suffered at the hands of the crusaders.

A few years ago, the Nobel Prize-winning German novelist Guenter Grass suggested that Pope John Paul II, "who knows how lasting and devastating the disaster wrought by the mentality and actions of Christian crusaders have been", should issue a formal apology to the Muslim world.

Muslims ruled over Spain for nearly eight centuries. During this period, Spain developed a composite civilization based on a confluence of Muslim, Christian and Jewish cultural traditions. Andalusia or Muslim Spain provided an enviable example of a multiethnic society where people belonging to diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds lived in peace and harmony. Science and medicine, technology and engineering, philosophy and literature, architecture and crafts attained an unprecedented efflorescence during this period. This magnificent chapter of Spanish history and culture came to an unfortunate and barbaric end in the fifteenth century. In 1492, the Spanish Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand ordered the forcible expulsion of all Muslims, together with the Jews and the gypsies.

One of the factors in recent history which aggravated the strained relations between the West and the Islamic world was the European colonization of Muslim lands which began with the conquest of India and the scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Large parts of Africa, the Arab world, Southeast Asia and Central Asia were colonized by the major European powers. The division and fragmentation of Muslim lands, propelled by the geopolitical and commercial interests of the European colonial powers, resulted in an extensive plunder and exploitation of natural and human resources and severely undermined the unity and solidarity of the Muslim ummah. (see "Introduction" 100 Great Muslim Leaders of the 20th Century, published by the Institute of Objective Studies, New Delhi, 2006)

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bosnian Serbs carried out a brutal pogrom of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the early 1990s when thousands of Muslims and Croats were expelled or murdered in cold blood in order to create ethnically homogeneous areas under Serb control. Virtually the entire population of Bosnia-Herzegovina comprising 4.4 million people was uprooted. Around three million people became internal refugees. More than a million people were forced to migrate to other European states. Tens of thousands of Muslim women were raped by Serb soldiers. Thousands of people were brutally massacred, whose remains were later discovered in mass graves. The Western world responded to this disaster of enormous proportions with indifference. No real initiative was taken by the Western powers or the Roman Catholic Church. The Christian churches in Bosnia were severely compromised. Radavan Karadjic, the Serb general who masterminded the whole operation, was never reprimanded by the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Vatican extended its support only to Catholic Croatia. To rub salt in the wound, many people in Europe even talked of a Muslim conspiracy to create a Muslim state in the heart of Europe (although Bosnia had all the features of a secular, multiethnic state). It was after four years of ethnic cleansing and genocide that the United States decided to intervene in the war.

A distinguished Dutch scholar Jacques Waardenburg commented on the demonization of Islam and Muslims in the Balkans in particular and in Western Europe in general in the following words:

In Western Europe, as in the Balkans, the larger churches, including Roman Catholics and Anglicans, Lutherans and Calvinists, and also secular ideologists, have fundamentalist currents and quarters for whom Islam is, if not the Antichrist, at least a nightmare; more than once it is seen as an enemy. In the light of what happened in Bosnia and the responses to them in European societies, I have become more realistic than I was some 15 years earlier. One can no longer afford to be optimistic about the future of Muslim communities in Europe as ethnic, cultural and religious minorities (Jacques Waardenburg, "Religion and Politics in the Balkans" Islamic Studies, 36 (2-3), 1997).

Aggressive proselytization by Christian missionaries, particularly by Evangelical sects, and their inimical portrayal of Islam has adversely affected the relations between Muslims and Christians. During the colonial era, Christian missionaries by and large enjoyed the tacit support and patronage of colonial governments. Missionary activity among Muslims was part of a larger global scheme for proselytism that also included Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, animists and the followers of other religions. Missionaries often employed the vocabulary of imperialism and spoke in terms of the spiritual and moral conquest of Africa and Asia. Some missionaries, who were associated with universities and other academic institutions and had a biased opinion about Islam, were projected as experts on Islam and Muslims. One such missionary scholar was Samuel M. Zwemer (1867-1952), an American minister of the Dutch Reformed Church who established missions in Iraq and Bahrain and edited the journal The Muslim World. Zwemer consistently portrayed Islam as a fanatical and retrogressive faith that was incompatible with rationality and modernity. In his book with a wishful title The Disintegration of Islam (1916) he predicted the eventual demise of the Islamic faith. (Zwemer may be turning in his grave to realize that his prophecy has boomeranged in less than a century, that Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the world.)

In recent years there has emerged a strong, aggressive Evangelical fundamentalism, especially in the United States. Pentecostalism, an Evangelical sect, is the fastest growing sect within Christianity with some 500 million followers. There are more than 140,000 American missionaries engaged in aggressive proselytization around the world. It is significant to note that even the Roman Catholic Church looks at the current resurgence of Evangelism with apprehension. Pope John Paul II often called the Evangelical sects in Christianity "rapacious wolves devouring Catholics and causing divisions and discord in our communities." It is an open secret that the US president George W. Bush has strong Evangelical leanings. He claimed that his decision to invade Iraq was "a mission from God." Bush and his loyal foot-soldier Tony Blair are said to have prayed together in the lead-up to the Iraq invasion and are believed to share a "spiritual affinity." Bush's post-9/11 invocation of a 'crusade' against Muslim terrorists and their sponsors and the US military programme to develop a 'crusader artillery system' assume significance against this backdrop.

The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences has recently pointed out that

A phenomenon which continues to awaken the most resentment among the peoples of Asia is that of proselytism and conversion. In the minds of Asians, the Church's primary objective seems to be to convert as many people as she can so as to increase her little flock. Church expansion is also seen as a Western extension. The increase in the number of Church movements engaged in aggressive and militant evangelization (understood in the very narrow sense of the word) is certainly a case for concern for our brothers and sisters of other faiths. Perhaps, it might be good to be reminded of the golden rule which nearly all religions speak of: Do not do to others what you would not want done to yourself.

There is a widespread resentment in the Muslim world about the blind support extended by the US and its allies to Israel despite its intransigence and defiance of international law and of UN resolutions. In an international seminar held at Harvard University in 1997, it was reported that the elites of countries comprising nearly two-thirds of the world's people-Chinese, Russians, Arabs, Muslims, Africans and Indians-see the US as the single greatest threat to their societies and as a menace to their integrity, autonomy, prosperity and freedom of expression. They view the US as intrusive, interventionist, exploitative, unilateralist, hegemonic, hypocritical, and engaging in financial imperialism and intellectual colonialism (quoted in Samuel Huntington, "The Lonely Superpower" Foreign Affairs, (March-April 1999), pp. 35-49).

The events that unfolded in the wake of the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq forebode the emergence of a new imperialism, represented by the hubris, hegemony and the unilateralist interventionist of the US and its allies. American policy makers frequently refer to the US as the indispensable nation, the sole superpower, and the lone conscience of the world. The neoconservatives in the American establishment unabashedly call upon the US to take the lead in establishing a "benevolent global hegemony." Robert Kagan, a neoconservative columnist, asserts that American power should be deployed to control or prevent the "rise of militant anti-American Muslim fundamentalism in North Africa and the Middle East, a rearmed Germany in a chaotic Europe, a revitalized Russia, a rearmed Japan in a scramble for power with China in a volatile East Asia." The Bush administration believes that it has the resources to bully or bribe everybody into complying with its dictates.

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