The long and turbulent relationship between Islam and the West has intensified over the last 30 years or so.
The worldwide Islamic revival of the 1970s and the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States have prompted many to predict that the two cultures are on a major collision course.
Many in the West have come to associate Islam with violence and extremism, while Muslims, in turn, accuse the West of trampling on their rights and imposing its values on the Muslim world.
Has there been a failure on both sides to understand each other? In particular, does the responsibility lie with the West to increase its understanding of Islam? How can it be achieved?
This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:
There is misunderstanding on both sides. The main problem, though, is that the West has a culture of liberal democracy in which anything can be questioned, and different cultures and religions are accepted as equal. Islam is a dogmatic faith which does not allow any questioning of its beliefs, on pain of death, and is intolerant towards other faiths and cultures. If the West needs to understand Islam better, Muslims need to question some of their basic assumptions, too, and stop perceiving themselves as the victims of some dreadful world plot. Neither side will probably ever agree with the other, but there has to acceptance and tolerance in both directions. Until more Muslims condemn the appalling hatred and violence being preached by some in the name of their faith, they cannot expect acceptance or friendship from the west.
In our attempt to understand Islam, let us not lose sight that Muslims also need to find in their hearts, a positive place for non-Muslims.
Besides that, they need to ask if their world view of being "marginalised" and victimised" is accurate and fair. Last but not least, they must decide for themselves how to present and practise Islam - is it going to be a peaceable faith or an intolerant one?
These are issues Muslims need to resolve within and among themselves first.
All of us are now so anxious about being frank because we do not want to antagonize Muslims.
But how long can this political-correctness and civility last?
So, to all Muslim brethren, I say, please, the world awaits your understanding and acceptance.
Salaam (peace) to all...
Judaism, Christianity and Islam, are all born of the deserts of the Mid East. They all have one element in common and that is the source of conflict. They divide the world into two groups, believers and non-believers, and then assume the subjugation of non-believers by believers without question. This is a sickness that can only lead to bloodshed and violence until one group has assumed absolute authority over all others.
The intent of Christianity is to spread its "message" to the entire world, and it has been quite successful in that goal. Now Islam seeks the same. There is little difference between these two.
Only when men walk together without judgement, and honor the greater spirit with the love of all beings, will there be peace on Earth.
As far as I can see, the problem is not between Christianity and Islam -but between "secular consumerism" and any form of belief system that opposes the commercial exploitation of individuals by large multi-national companies.
During the "Cold War" the West had Communism to fight against. Recently, the West has managed to silence the fundamentalist Christians - it seems partly by shouting them down and partly by integrating them into the Bush regime. Presumably, if Muslim opposition to global imperialism was silenced too, then the focus would simply shift to the next group who posed a potential threat to the commercial subjugation of humanity. Where on earth does one still find "Christian" (new testament) values of humility and cooperation dominating Western societies? If the "West" is no longer "Christian" then how can there be a "clash of civilizations"?
In the Western world we don't spend our days thinking about what we can do to other religions and races. It appears as though Islam and Muslim worlds are so possessed by hate and violence. Why for instance does Al Jazeera give Bin Laden a voice? By giving Bin Laden a platform, they allow a call to go out for terrorists, murderers and suicide bombers to flock into a vulnerable and war torn Iraq, inflicting more pain on these poor people.
Indeed only dialogue can show us the treasures we have in common, all peoples, all nations, all religions. In the first place even the secular 'West' should learn to accept and respect the divine and spiritual everywhere, beyond religion. Acceptance and respect transcends difference, and indeed glorifies difference as the wealth of creation. Listening is the first step to dialogue. This is very practical for each one of us: we all meet 'different' people every day and we can always smile and listen while seeing the common humanity.
Verena Watson, Twickenham, United Kingdom
Does the West understand Islam enough, you ask? Do Muslims understand their religion in the first place? Ask a gay man what it is like to live in an Islamic society where he could be arrested and stoned to death because of his sexual orientation. Ask the smartly dressed Muslim women living in the West if they would like to live in the so fantastic Islamic societies where they cannot study, leave the house or walk on the streets without a veil. Societies where they, too, could be stoned to death and killed if found guilty of adultery, while men can marry four wives to satisfy their lust.
I was born in a Muslim family in the West, and always did my best to study my heritage and tell the world about its past glories in science, philosophy, about its tolerance. I don't see any of that right now, and although still a believer in God, my religion has failed to provide me with any worthy answers. All I see is fanatical and irrational people everywhere. I'm glad to have been born in the West and to live here. In the so wonderful Islamic societies, apostasy is punishable with death.
I fully respect the viewpoint expressed by Amin in Madrid , but while some 'smartly dressed' girls in the West or gays may not like to live in a Muslim society, there are over a billion others who have chosen to live under the banner of Islam. I also agree that Muslims should learn and understand their religion as expounded in the holy Quran which states 'there is no compulsion in faith' and that contradicts clearly that apostates are be punished with death as you charge.
It is clear after Iraq that some superpowers are not interested in understanding Islam and the cultures surrounding it. Through the use of force and one-way diplomacy, the powers that be are simply creating the necessary stepping stones to further their interests. If certain Islamic states were not sitting on top of oil, I'd be willing to support the guess that they would be super-good friends with the superpowers at present.
Erica M, Switzerland
Islam is a way of life that forbids questioning and excludes reason and for those reasons alone the West (whatever you mean by that) can never accept it.
How can criticism of the idea of Islam be defined as racist? I didn't realize that Muslims were a race. After 9/11 I have read a lot about Islam and found that I live in Daru-L-Harb (House of War), that an apostate is to be put to death, and that two women's testimony is equal to one man's due to the deficiency of a women's mind. Perhaps some Muslims want to keep the West ignorant of Islam; the West might learn and not like what it finds.
Jason, Atlanta, U.S.A
There are two sides: One that is physically visible, and the other that is invisible. First the visible point. Understanding Islam would mean to empathise with the homeless in Palestine. It's an unfair result to expect anything from a negotiation between the haves and have-nots. Now the invisible point. The West cannot understand Islam because it sees it as a competitor. The same is true of how Islam views Christianity. The Book, be it the Bible or the Quran, should help the individual to be elevated to a greater realization and discover a peace within. The peace discovered within should help free one from the need for a euphoric worship with collective guilt or anger.
Speaking as a relatively well-informed postgraduate of theology and religious studies, I believe that we in the West, not least Western Muslims, grossly misunderstand Islam. Western Muslims correctly state that the Quran contains teachings which would be at home in any liberal democracy, but they are sadly mistaken when they state that these teachings are central to Islam. In most Islamic theology it is not the content of a Sura (Quranic section) which determines the centrality of a teaching, but its chronological place. In short, if two teachings conflict then the teaching written later supersedes the earlier one. Sadly the peaceful teachings are generally found in earlier Suras and are superseded by more aggressive teachings. These more violent teachings were never abrogated and hence remain binding upon all, including Western, Muslims.
Mike, Newcastle, UK
I do not believe the whole problem is exclusively in the West. Muslims need to re-evaluate their own level of understanding and make some changes. The notion that all of us "westerners" are evil oppressors is a fallacy spread by a select few hate-mongers who hide behind Islam and pretend to be men of God. Unfortunately the good Muslims, who are the majority, it seems do not have the nerve or desire to put these people in their place. Anyone who incites hatred and violence as a means of glorifying their faith is evil incarnate. If the Muslims of the world are so opposed to violence, why do they not speak out against those who commit murder in the name of Islam ? To be complacent while evil is committed in your midst is equally evil.
I am a 19 year old Afghan. I think it is about time for the world to wake up to the fact that all these disasters and tragedies have nothing to do with any religion. Terrorists who bring and are the reason for such disasters are using religion merely as a tool to fight the world to gain their personal aims. As far as Islam is concerned, it is a religion of peace and tranquillity which wants to demonstrate brotherhood to the world.
Zikria Zakee, Kabul, Afghanistan
I am sure the West understands Islam. That is why it has imbibed the Islamic spirit. Islam teaches and upholds honesty, brotherhood, open-heartedness, freedom of speech and, above all, social welfare. You can see all these attributes in the West. It means the West understands Islam. We have wrongly pushed the religions into the wrestling rings. No religion in this universe supports or preaches for terrorism. People, throughout the world, wherever there is crisis, they are not fighting for Islam or Christianity or Hinduism or for Buddhism. Rather they are fighting for their respective rights.
Would there be any problem today between Islam and the West if the West had not committed this crime against the Palestinian people by planting a Jewish state on their soil? Just think, all these problems we are having now is the direct result of this! And I don't think there is any way out of the mess except by undoing this crime.
Reme Bursa, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Islam is so often misunderstood because the West can't determine the difference between religion and the native culture of immigrants.
Jasper, The Netherlands
As usual, ignorance breeds misunderstandings and I believe both the Middle East and more so the ever arrogant West should take more time to understand and experience each others cultures. As a young white male I have never felt safer and more welcome than when I travelled throughout Egypt shortly after the Iraq war was scaled down. I was so fascinated; I am learning Arabic in order to get more out of my next trip.
John P, London, UK
It's worth bearing in mind that Islam is not only "clashing" with the West but also with Hindus, communist China, Christians and animists in parts of Africa, Catholics in the Philippines, and post-communist Russia. The aggression of radical Islam is by no means limited to us in the West, and until we start to realise this we will continue to misunderstand its motives and actions.
"You don't understand us" is the cry of those who cannot accept that someone who does not subscribe to their beliefs does so because they find the beliefs wanting or flawed.
Jeremy, London, UK
What is this "West"? It doesn't exist. By labelling 1 billion odd people as "the West" is just as bad as those who associate suicide bombers with those who peacefully practice Islam. Certain governments in the West, most notably that of the US, are extremely bad at handling their relationship with governments of Muslim states. It is this 'one size fits all' approach that causes conflict. We're talking about billions of human individuals, not labels.
Matthew Gray, Dartford, UK
I honestly do not see how Christianity or Islam can teach me anything that I do not already know or fail to understand. Why should any religion dictate to me how I should live my life?
David Westwell, Warkworth, United Kingdom
As a regular visitor to the Middle East, I'm always shocked by the appalling attitude of Europeans to people who are overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. Certainly the rise of McCarthyism in the US has seen Islam replace Communism as the most convenient enemy. If the West could only relate to Judaism and Islam as cousins and equals, the violence could be quickly stopped.
David Brown, Helsinki, Finland
The question is predicated on the idea of a non-Muslim West. Such a place does not exist, except in a myth which debates framed in this way perpetuate. Plenty of Western citizens are Muslim, and the percentage is rising. Once Western non-Muslims stop treating Western Muslims as foreigners, and learn to accept them as equals, the fallacy behind the question will be exposed.
Julian Symes, Brighton, UK
The concept that anyone who has not studied the length, depth, and breadth of a religion can "understand" the religion is invalid.
The "problem" as I see it is that there are those in every "religion" who claim to speak for all members of that faith. Some of the most extreme who advocate violence as a means towards their chosen end do not speak for the whole of the religion that they claim to represent.
Therefore, the KKK, while claiming a "Christian" position, does not represent mainstream Christianity any more than the Wahhabi sect represents the entire spectrum of Islamic faith. What I know of Islam is that the word "Islam" means submission. Unfortunately too many horrors have been committed in the name of religion.
George N. Wells, Dover, NJ USA
Misunderstanding fuelled by bigotry is what this is all about. Anyone with any understanding in history would tell you that generally Christian, Jews flourished under Islamic rules. The same can be said for Mogul empire where many Hindus held ministerial positions. In Europe where Jews were being annihilated, it was the Ottomans who gave them sanctuary. Like in most civilisations, there were cases when co-existence failed. The demonisation process of Muslims only helps to harden people's opinions on both sides. The Muslim world has to acknowledge they have strayed far away from the principle & essence of Islam. Let us be educated in different ways of life and only then will the paranoia be replaced by respect and empathy.
Most westerners think of Islam as women in veils, amputations and terrorists. The media spins this with statements like "Islamist terrorists" or "Islamist guerrillas". When they say Islam or Muslim there is a 90% chance of seeing someone bearing arms, shouting like a madman, throwing stones at a tank or Al Qaeda fighters jumping over obstacles. I've never heard in all my years any one refer to the religion of anyone in the crisis in Ireland.
Abu, Abuja, Nigeria
I live in Ghana in West Africa. The contribution of Christian missionaries to the development of western civilization in sub-Saharan Africa cannot be matched in any way by the role of Islam. Christianity brought along with it major science and technology and even challenged Christian doctrines as part of education. The history of Islamic education in West Africa has simply revolved around Quranic teachings. This has not been as helpful to the development of modern Ghana as has been Christianity.
Why not reform everything? I find it suffocating sometimes when Christian pastors come knocking at my door trying to save me. All Judeo- Abrahamic religions need reformation. The West certainly has matured a great deal. As to Islam, it's for the Muslims to reform themselves.
Hindu in USA, Albuquerque, USA
I cannot say Islam is a peaceful religion, although I'm a Muslim and live in an Islam-dominated country. For me, it's not about Islam itself, but the people behind it. They create a false image of Islam. They see Islam as a conservative religion, anti modernization and strict.
The West has always misunderstood Islam, mainly because the majority of Muslims are not white-skinned. Even during the height of the Islamic empire and days of learning, the Western world branded Muslims as savages. The West has to adopt their own golden rule of 'Do as to others as you would want them do unto you' in its treatment of the Islamic world. If that is ever adopted, Islamic extremism will dry up entirely.
New York, USA
Regrettably, the West is not likely to understand Islam anytime soon. Part of the problem lies with the slant of the western media.
We are daily inundated with the latest act of "Islamic terrorists, militants and rebels". Are their no Christian or Buddhist equivalents? Why has the rebel Lords Resistance Army of Uganda never been labelled a Christian terrorist group in spite of their known savagery? Yet this is a group that purports to be a puritanical Christian revivalist group.
We all have a duty to preach tolerance and global peace but this cannot be aided by media stereotypes.
Kunle, Lagos, Nigeria
The West in my opinion does not understand Islam because of what they see in TV, which I might add can be a lot of propaganda. The West must understand that Islam is a religion, like Christianity or Judaism, or Hinduism. There are fanatics who want to control people. But people have the right to grow without pressure, without conformity. Islam is like all other religions about love and happiness. But for the people who live in the Middle East Islam has become a dictatorship and not the freedom to live.
Jzy Patel, England
No, the West is a post-Christian society with no real faith in God, but with good relationships with different churches. Islam is in the middle of true belief in Allah through the local churches' system. So the West looks at Islam like a 600-year-younger brother and Islam looks at the West as a society of non-believers, and therefore as a threat to the powerful church system. There must be less powerful churches in Islam and more faith in God (not through churches, but through ethic and moral behaviour) in the West. Then we will find mutual understanding as a mankind living with the same God with just different names.
Libor Malı, Prague, Czech Republic
Yes and no. There isn't a uniform and final version of Islam anywhere, in the Muslim or non-Muslim world. I do dislike the cliché that claims: "The West is ignorant of Islam." Or "the West doesn't understand Islam". The West tries to understand us and in some part it is doing excellently well and maybe in other parts it needs to improve. It works systematically, wise, hard, and honestly. The West doesn't fear to admit that she doesn't know. The West knows abut Islam, the Islamic world, and our cultures and literature much more than we, the East, know about hers.
Bellingam, WA, USA
We Muslims must stand together and protect our religion from the non- Muslims. Why do Muslim countries allow some non-Muslim soldiers to enter countries but we Muslims need visas to go to Mecca and other Muslim countries? Understand that they are not fighting terrorists. They want to overcome Islam. Please let us stand together and unite. I am a convert to Islam and I want to be a strong and good Muslim. I pray for all my Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.
Does the West understand Islam? Do we need to? We should be proud of British society and its now multi-cultural state. If people of any religion/background come to a Western country, they should be the ones who have to adapt. I have no interest in Islam but I do have an interest on how Islam affects the West.
Dan, Leeds, UK
No. The West does not understand Islam. I am living in this part of the world almost three decades and I see that almost all of the West does not know much about Islam. The West does not hate Islam or Muslims but see it differently. The people need to study and understand Islam. Unless people go and visit Muslim countries and see their way of life, it is very difficult for us to expect them to know Islam. It is the media that some times gives a bad image to the religion. Muslims should do more to remove the bad image that is being given to Islam. Violence and extremism are not the by-products of the religion. We don't associate them with religious groups. Islam is a great religion. First Muslims should know their religion and practice it. It is their duty mostly to convey the message to the West in various ways. Of course Islam and the West are two different ways of life. But they can coexist peacefully.
Nassau, The Bahamas
I am a history teacher. I am also an American born Muslim. What I realised on September 11th two years ago was how people did not understand my religion. I had students yelling "death to Muslims" in my class. I confronted their anger with "do you want me to die?" Students who had known me for years were stunned speechless. Everyone in class said "NO!" I explained that I was a Muslim, and they were shocked. I don't think the West needs to understand Islam until it's ready to understand that Islam is a philosophy and religion. It can be interpreted in many different ways. Just as Christianity reformed into different churches, Islam is practiced with different degrees of interpretation.
Heena, Aurora, USA
Until freedom of religion, beliefs and democracy prevails in Muslim countries, the West will never begin to understand. In many Muslim countries (e.g. Saudi Arabia) one cannot even visit there if one is Hindu or Jewish. Christians have only recently been "allowed" to pray in their hotel rooms.
Speaking as a relatively well-informed postgraduate of Theology and Religious Studies, I believe that we in the West, not least Western Muslims, grossly misunderstand Islam.
Western Muslims correctly state that the Koran contains teachings which would be at home in any liberal democracy, but they are sadly mistaken when they state that these teachings are central to Islam. In most Islamic theology it is not the content of a Sura (Koranic section) which determines the centrality of a teaching, but its chronological place. In short, if two teachings conflict then the teaching written later supersedes the earlier one.
Mike, Newcastle, UK
Islam is deliberately stereo-typed and rubbished by misrepresentation and innuendo in the media; film, newspapers, books, articles, newspapers etc. because Islam stands in the way of Western goals namely subjugating and de-Islamisation of the Muslims in order to grab their oil and grab more land from the Palestinians. The BBC is particularly guilty of such dissembling and misrepresentation. Islam is now the only 'ideology' to stand in the way of rampant globalisation by multi-nationals and greedy consumerism. The Western beast recognises this threat; that is why Western hatred of Islam is so visceral and endemic.
To James, UK: One of the major reasons I am suspicious of Islam can be found on the numerous Islamic websites which brag about how Muslims are planning to overturn the Western style of government and liberal democracy and replace it with an Islamic state ruled by sharia. My alleged love for "consumerism" and "greedy multi-national corporations" has nothing to do with it. Take a look at what Hizbut Tahrir and other Islamic groups are really saying.
Islam is a religion of peace and love. However, over the years the western world has treated Muslims with hate and has attempted several times to colonize Islamic land and exploit its people. This is what generated fanaticism and rebellion. The US administration blindly supports Israel against the Palestinians. What do you expect a good Muslim to think? Gov. Howard Dean made a statement a few days ago and urged President Bush to deal with the Middle East situation with even handedness, and a lot of people were alarmed and many asked for an apology. How can there be peace when the mediator strongly takes sides? The root of terrorism is lack of even-handedness. It is not a matter of religion only; the US administration is guilty of racism. Until the philosophy that makes one race superior and the other inferior is abandoned, there will be war.
Joseph E. Odiase, Playa del Rey, CA,USA
Islam is certainly an all-encompassing legal, political, social and ideological system but it does not stop interaction with followers of other religions and communities. Muslims and people of other faiths have lived side by side even in the early days of Islam. In the first ever state of Islam, Jews, Christians and people of other faiths were all equal members of the community under a legal document drafted and enforced by the prophet of Islam. A look at it will clearly demonstrate the spirit of coexistence Islam embodies in it. If non-Muslims face discriminations in some Muslim countries, then it is the fault of the governments, not of Islam. Similarly if Muslims are killed and terrorised in countries with non-Muslim majorities, the blame should be placed at the doors of political power houses, not religion.
Hamid Raza Wattoo,
It is difficult when people, especially those who are uneducated in the theology and way of life of Islam, cast a suspicious eye towards those who practice Islam all over the world. As an American born Muslim, it is difficult to cope with the stigma of others labelling you or your beliefs as something that they are not. I mean, would it be right for me to label all Caucasians as racist because of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan? The idea is ludicrous. People are most afraid of what they don't know. In the case of Islam, one isn't going to find all there is to know on the internet. Instead I'd suggest asking a Muslim what he or she believes in. Then ask five other Muslims. You will see that Islam is diverse, with different Muslims having different beliefs. But it's up to the people to incorporate within themselves the willingness to learn. Presumptions are perhaps the most dangerous of all things.
U of Illinois, USA
I am sick and tired of hearing Islam is a peaceful religion. If so, let's see this practised please. Unless Muslims come out of the 'blame everyone else for everything' mode, there will be no understanding. Also, I am not sure why it is always the West that needs to take the trouble to understand Islam and not vice versa. And let me tell you this - India is not the West and we have serious problems of a similar nature. Islam came to India through the sword, but even then most of India lives in peace with its followers. It is the Muslims desire to be different and separate that has caused many Indians to have second thoughts and that swept the BJP party to power. Unless Muslims take the trouble to see what's wrong with their societies, they will continue to live with an inferiority complex.
I think one problem is more to do with the blanket assertion by many commentators that all problems in the Middle East stem from Islam. The Israeli- Palestinian conflict has important religious components, but is primarily about the dispossession of the Palestinian people with the direct connivance of Western powers and has no commonality with either the Iraqi conflict or the Al Quaeda anti-western campaign of violence.
The Iraqi conflict had virtually no religious basis to start with and, despite Bush's assertions to the contrary, no demonstrable link so far to 9/11 either.
Similarly the Chechnya insurgency is more about freedom from Russia, than radical Islam. They have more in common with the Tamil Tigers, or the IRA than Al Quaeda.
This is where I think the 'war on terror' has some major flaws; by treating all these very different problems as the same problem (or at least aspects of the same problem) I think there is little hope of resolution. An Algerian is not the same as a Saudi Arabian, nor is a Sumatran anything like a Syrian.
The may all follow Islam, but we shouldn't judge them or their motivations all in the same way.
Jay, NSW, Australia