Among the many deplorable things that happened after the World Trade Center tragedy in New York on 11 September was the reawakening of a sub-conscious, 'instinctual' Western prejudice against Islam. The media have a strong tendency to generalise about Islam and about Muslims, without looking at the numerous little things that make up everyday life. Like a dormant virus that never dies, such prejudice arises again every time another tragedy happens that involves the Islamic world.
Peter Rodman, of the National Security Council, wrote back in 1992: 'Yet now the West finds itself challenged from the outside by a militant, atavistic force driven by hatred of all Western political thought, harking back to age-old grievances against Christendom.' Almost the same sentence recurred in the New York Times on 16 September 2001: ' The airborne assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon is the culmination of a decade-long holy war against the United States that is escalating methodically in ambition, planning and execution.' The words 'Christendom' and 'holy war' suggest eternal sacred warfare between the West and the world outside - especially the Islamic world. (Of course we should recognise that the term 'crusade' is often used in the West without religious connotations as well, as in the crusade against abortion.)
The same happens on the Islamic side. As soon as President Bush announced plans to launch attacks on Afghanistan, (some) Muslims proclaimed a 'jihad' against the US. Worse, certain groups wanted to conduct razzias against Americans in Indonesia. Some Islamic groups gave the impression of a total confrontation between the Islamic and the Western or Christian worlds. Suddenly everyone was quoting Samuel Huntington's 'Clash of Civilisations'.
But that impression is so clearly false. There are probably more people building bridges of dialogue between civilisations than there are those fighting between civilisations. Countless students from the Muslim world go every year to study in the West - Europe, America, Australia. Conversely, countless Western scholars make 'intellectual' journeys to Islamic countries, to understand the many faces of Islam. Karen Armstrong's book The History of God is an excellent example. As is TheOxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, by John L Esposito and others at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University, Washington DC.
All of this does not mean American foreign policy is without its problems. One of the biggest paradoxes is the constant American campaign for democracy and human rights while at the same time supporting the Saudi Arabian Kingdom without reserve, a regime that violates the rights of its own citizens. The one-sided American policy on Palestine is the source of much frustration and hatred in the Arab world. But it would be foolish to equate the American government with all American citizens. Not all Americans agree with their government's foreign policy. Those who want to conduct razzias against Americans forget that.
After the tragedy at the WTC and Pentagon buildings, dialogue between civilisations has become more difficult. The situation strongly favours those who believe the world is divided into only two hostile blocs, a Western and an Islamic bloc, a 'good' bloc and an 'evil' one.
Yet who really knows what is Western and what is Islamic? If the West is Europe and America, then those are two very different cultures. If the West is America, we might recall that America is a federation precisely because Americans have such a strong 'anti-state' tradition. Most Americans have very little interest in the overseas 'imperialism' of their government.
Similarly, it is far from clear what 'Islam' really means. In the end, Islam is a social concept - it is expressed in the lives of human beings with a complex history. Islamic reactions to the WTC and Pentagon tragedy have been highly varied.
One frequent misunderstanding is to talk about the Afghan people, the Taliban government, the state of Afghanistan, and Islam, all in one breath. Just because most Afghans are Muslim does not mean that the American attack on Afghanistan is an attack on Islam.
Of course we should oppose the American attacks. The Afghan people have suffered long enough from war ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979. But it is an unfortunate mistake to assume the Taliban regime is representative of the Islamic world just because they wear beards and robes. Anyone who doubts their evil practices towards women should look at this web site: www.rawa.org. Such behaviour is in strong contrast with the prophetic values of Islam itself.
Dialogue is the only way. The path of confrontation only favours those who view the world in simplistic terms of good versus evil. That is the path of conservatives and extremists in whatever religion, whether Islamic or otherwise. It is also the path of religious elites everywhere who want to manipulate the ignorance of their congregation for their own narrow interests.
Ulil Abshar-Abdalla (email@example.com) chairs the research institute Lakpesdam, within Nahdlatul Ulama. This article is condensed with permission from a piece on the Islam Liberal web site: www.islamlib.com.