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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 September, 2003, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Islam and the West: Bridging the divide

By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Muslim woman wearing a veil
Suspicion and mistrust pervade relations between Islam and the West
There's no getting away from it. Islam and the West view one another with mistrust and suspicion.

A historian might say they always have.

But, if so, their long and turbulent relationship has entered a new phase over the last 30 years or so.

A series of events - from the worldwide Islamic revival of the 1970s to the 11 September 2001 attacks against America - has fuelled the fear that Islam and the West are on a collision course.

Worlds apart?

Each side has a shopping-list of grievances.

Many in the West associate Islam with violence and extremism. Militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah are constantly in the news.

The most famous of them, al-Qaeda and its leader Osama Bin Laden, are the main suspects in the 11 September attacks and a string of others - in Bali and Mombasa and, more recently, in Casablanca, Riyadh and Jakarta.

In addition, Islam is seen as hostile to democracy, women, gays and other religions.

Muslims accuse the West of rampant "Islamophobia" - fear and hostility towards Islam
For their part, Muslims accuse the West of rampant "Islamophobia" - fear of and hostility towards Islam and Muslims. Examples abound - in US foreign policy, in newspaper cartoons, and sometimes in the everyday encounters between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Muslims look at conflicts around the world - in Gaza and the West Bank, in Kashmir, Chechnya and elsewhere - and see their fellow Muslims on the losing side.

They feel they are losing out in the new world order. They fear the West wants to dominate as well as demonise them.

One planet

The problems are real, but relations between Islam and the West are about more than battles and bigotry.

For hundreds of years Muslim and non-Muslim travellers, scholars, clerics and merchants have exchanged goods, ideas and information, and still do.

Muslim at prayer in the Central Mosque in Birmingham, England
Millions of Muslims now live in Western countries
It is a story of mutual need. It's also a story of change.

At the time of the Crusades, there were two physical blocs, Christendom and Islam. No longer. In our new, globalised world, the "West" is everywhere - its ideas and ideologies, its science and technology, its movies and music, its fast food.

Islam, too, is now global. Millions of Muslims now live in the West. Mosques, Muslim schools and Islamic banks have become commonplace. The old geography is out of date.

Have your say

This BBC special series opens up a new space to explore Islam in the 21st century.

Articles, interviews and interactive features look at such issues as democracy and women's rights in the Muslim world, hear from converts to Islam, discuss inter-faith dialogue, and let Muslims from different countries and backgrounds share their experiences and opinions.

It's a space for Muslims and non-Muslims to talk, debate and interact - to explore differences, and maybe help bridge them.

Do you agree with the author's comments? How can Islam and the West reconcile their differences? Send us your comments and questions using the form on the top right.

The following comments reflect the balance of views we have received:

Creating enemies to further one's own aims is not a new phenomenon but applying objectivity and asking deeper questions in the press could help bridge this divide that currently exists between "The West" and "Islam."
Zahid Wissanji, Uganda

The problem is not Islam vs. the West, but justice vs. greed. The problem is not between the peoples but between the Muslim people on the one hand and their own rulers who themselves oppress Islam and the Israeli war government and the arrogant right-wing US administration on the other. The problem will remain as long as the Palestinian problem exists.
Mohamed Abdelrahim, Egypt

It is easier and less expensive to equip a group of young people with a gun instead of a solid foundation of free thought
Wes Burnham, Texas, USA
The problems between the West and Islam are not religion--not in the basic defining tenets of either Islam or Christianity, but rather in the exploitation of the poor and ignorant members of the two societies. On both sides, fundamentalists use fear and retribution as tactics to encourage subservience among the "faithful." Education is key to removing the rot from the brains of all of the fundamentalists' blind followers. However, in the eyes of our national leaders, it is easier and less expensive to equip a group of young people with a gun instead of a solid foundation of free thought. Here in America, a powerful lobby group has a slogan that says "guns don't kill people, people do," and in this case, rReligion doesn't kill people, people do.
Wes Burnham, Texas, USA

Why should the divide be bridged? Sometimes cultures are so different that they can only be separated.
Rich, USA

The reason Muslims fear to openly speak out against their extremists, my Muslim friends tell me, is that they are themselves too terrorised to speak out, being scared of reprisal. So they leave it to others.
John Chan, UK

The West has religions and "democracies." The Muslims have Islam that is their way of life. At its best it is a cradle to grave belief that they live daily and has high and generous principles. Don't let us tar a billion people because a small minority causes us trouble. Think of the trouble we have caused them in years past. The West tried and still does try to ram Christianity down others' throats across the world. Who robbed the Middle East of their oil? Who overran their countries and treated them as second class citizens? I hate the terrorists and will fight them to prevent them killing us but that is a matter of expedience - not an answer to the problem. That I don't have.
Stan, UK

Our "values" of democracy and equality have a very short history
Cezar, Canada
The so called West is slightly hypocritical when it accuses Islam of being backwards. Have we already forgotten that in the United States of America it was OK to call a black person an abusive name only some thirty years ago? Our "values" of democracy and equality have a very short history. Let us not pretend that we are centuries ahead of Islam when it comes to equal treatment of women. At the very best we might be twenty years ahead. And even that is purely because we were lucky enough to have a few high profile individuals who sacrificed their lives to fight for this equality.
Cezar, Canada

Cezar in Canada: While it's nice that you want to show understanding towards Islam, I think you go a little overboard. The concept of honor killings in the West died hundreds of years ago. The concept of a woman being the guilty party when she is raped died over a hundred years ago in the West, at least legally. The concept of women being required to hide their face never existed in the West. The concept of women not being allowed in public without a male relative died over a hundred years ago in the West. The reality is the average Western woman would feel they were sent to the middle ages if forced to live in an Islamic society.
Jim , NJ, USA

The West should take a long term and conciliatory approach to the Islamic world. The Communism of the 60s and 70s presented both a military threat and had a widespread (but minority)appeal within some Western countries. Islamic states present neither. Communism died because its restrictive ideology delivered neither the freedoms nor the prosperity of the West. Islamic states impose different restrictions, but the result will be the same - the freedoms and prosperity of the West will prove alluring. This doesn't mean the Islamic religion is doomed like communism, but the intolerant theocratic state is.
Simon Emary, UK

The West is multi-faith, multi-racial culture and in the main tolerant of an individual's rights while Islam is a blind faith whose believers are obliged to accept religious dogma as the "only way". Whether Muslims like it or not, the face of Islam to the world at present is one of violence despite their protestations to the contrary when they are interviewed. Their obsession with Israel will be their stumbling block to acceptance as, rightly or wrongly, the West does not see suicide bombings as a political solution and will never accept any explanation as a justification for such acts. I would welcome Islam tomorrow if it would show tolerance but, like some of the responses you'll get to this piece, it won't.
Tony C, England

don't see that Islam and the West are on a collision course
Frances, UK
No, I don't see that Islam and the West are on a collision course; rather the West, a synonym for capitalism, is hell bent on repressing people from undeveloped regions, while grabbing their resources and making themselves even richer - see Columbia, see Africa, see Iraq etc for references. Islam on the other hand, which doesn't promote greed and self interest as do Western ideologies, finds itself appealing to some of the world's poorest people, who between them, are putting up a fearsome resistance to the will of the multi-nationals, which reduce everyone and everything - save the fat cats - to a disposable part in the machinery of capitalism.
Frances, UK

People in the West need to differentiate between political Islam, cultural Islam and true Islam. A veiled woman not being able to drive a car is not true Islam. It is cultural Islam which is normal in Saudi Arabia. They are a small minority but Western press/media are obsessed with them. Islam encourages equality, education and progress. I have never seen the Western press talk about Indonesian President and Bangladeshi Prime Minister who both happen to lead two of largest Muslim countries and guess what- both are Women?
Reza, USA

I believe there needs to be a more vocal criticism by Muslim world leaders of extremist Muslim beliefs that encourage a violent solution by misinterpreting the Quran. No one should be able to label themselves Muslim if they do have extremist beliefs as no-one should be able to label themselves as Christian and practice violence. But here the Christian 'churches' has, as ever, not set such as good example with allowing violence to be practiced in it's name without harsh action and excommunication. Until such actions are taken, there will always be a tendency to believe that the Quran encourages violence, which I don't believe it does any more than the old testament does. As ever it's all down to correct interpretation.
David Thomas, England

The cultural and historical gulf is too wide at present between the traditional Christian West and Islam to be bridged
John Ben Harpur, Ireland
It is useful to separate the expression of Islam from the political and economic realities of experienced by the populations of many Muslim countries. In the main these states have long traditions of political oppression, industrial stagnation, oligarchic feudalism and primitive education access. The condition of many modern Muslim states results indirectly from the Ottoman empire's decay. However, acknowledging the bare historical facts does not in itself explain the rampant misogyny of most Muslim states. The cultural and historical gulf is too wide at present between the traditional Christian West and Islam to be bridged.
John Ben Harpur, Ireland

It seems to me and probably others that the Islamic community do not do enough to eradicate Muslim terror groups. If the West see Muslims investigating and arresting their extremists perhaps Islam would be seen in a better light.
Clive, Malta

Although there are many areas where the Muslim faith can sit side by side with the other faiths within the West, the biggest problem, which I believe could never be overcome, is that of freedom of choice. The West holds this up as part of its democratic ideals. Muslims believe in freedom of expression but if you choose to reject the Muslim faith the penalty is death. It is this basic truth which can never be resolved. But despite this crucial point, it does not mean that in other areas Muslims cannot join in other debates. As the article says, trade and family values can all be looked at in a positive light and have worked well for centuries. In fact the West has a lot to learn from the Muslim faith about family values.
J Slatter UK

The irony is that many of the tenets of Islam - the virtues of simplicity and family strength, for example - are what many in the West feel is missing in our society
Rupert Stubbs, UK
It's perhaps more revealing to look at the difference between the Western and Islamic worlds as being cultural, not religious. The fear and hatred of America seems to be an amplified version of France's fear of becoming Disney-fied. It is not that the West shows much interest in 'invading' Islamic markets. Rather that just the existence (reinforced by mass-communications) of a hedonistic society such as ours acts as an undermining force within the Islamic world. Especially among the young. The West is unlikely to radically change its culture. What, in that case, is the point of 'understanding' Islam? We are not troubled by Islam's existence - it is Islam that is troubled by ours. Russia was able to pretend that the West was inferior, until the reality became impossible to ignore. The irony is that many of the tenets of Islam - the virtues of simplicity and family strength, for example - are what many in the West feel is missing in our society. Without a convincing demonstration of Islamic progress, however, it will be hard not to argue that Islam is at the moment looking backwards, while we look forwards.
Rupert Stubbs, UK

This is the first time I have ever seen that media from the west would like to interact with Muslims and wants to share their views about how feel and think towards the west, and what are the differences between them. If we look to the Prophet Mohammed, he treated everyone with good faith and respect and fought the people who refused to let him speak and spread the word of Allah. After all what they did to him he forgave them with his big heart and good nature. The problem with the people in the west is they only listen to their media and their government and their propaganda against Islam. They should read and listen to our Scholars and what they have to say, and read the Qur'an. People in the west should know that we are not killers and not blood suckers, we only fight to defend our selves.
Bilal, London, UK (originally from Yemen)

Why do these militant factions use violence against ordinary people as a way of life?
Ray Evans, UK
I have travelled extensively all over the world and have friends and acquaintances of many faiths, except one... Islam. Not through lack of trying. Without exception, most of the Muslims are anti-west. Despite the fact I was carrying out humanitarian missions I could not get one of them to outwardly condemn the militant Islamist factions. Yet, from what I have read of the Koran, violence is not advocated nor is oppression of innocents - so why do these militant factions use violence against ordinary people as a way of life and expression of their so-called faith? Why do they not see that the west is only anti the militant Muslims and not against the vast majority of caring, ordinary Muslims? It is sad that so many of these conflicts have all been caused by religious differences. From what I have seen only the Bahia faith is all embracing,
Ray Evans, UK

Thank you for your series on Islam, although I don't think that the author did a good job with trying to explain the problem. In a way he is an example of what the problem is. In order to have a serious discussion about this the author should have talked about what Islam really is instead of defining Islam along the lines of organizations and their political beliefs. There are many ideals that are considered Western that are also in Islam. Islam encourages free speech as well as fighting against oppression. Islam denounces racism as well as oppressive treatment to women. No where in Islam does it say that honour killings, pouring acid in one's face, or beating women is OK. This falls under culture.

I know this because I am an African-American female convert who wears a headscarf and is active within my community as well as the broader American society. I fell in love with this way of life because in adhering to the teachings of Islam I gained a peace that has come from nowhere else. I also fell in love with it's truthfulness. If the West wants to reconcile it's differences with Islam I encourage people to study Islam for themselves and then separate "cultural Islam" from Islam. Point out the similarities some Islamic ideals have with some Western ideals to people instead of pitting the against one another.
Jittaun Batiste, USA

The problem lies, in both Christianity and Islam, in fundamentalist adherence to religious laws that were only relevant at the time they were written, not for all eternity. All religions, to survive, must evolve to fit the times and people they represent; it is not the other way round. Both religions have a lot to offer; equally , both have a lot that needs to be changed. If both religions take the good parts, the laws about kindness and charity, the mysticism etc, and dumps the parts about stoning their neighbours to death for some minor transgression, and the idea of jihad etc, then yes, we can live together. But if both religions remain stuck in the mental world of 2000 years ago, then both religions will eventually wither and die.
Rob, UK

Differences can only be reconciled through mutual acceptance
Javier Jimenez, Spain
Differences can only be reconciled through mutual acceptance. The current state of the world we see is the West attempting to enforce "democracy" on Islamic nations, and these nations resisting. True democracy would be if the West were to show respect to allow individual nations to make their own cultural choices.
Javier Jimenez, Spain

The West opposes Islam for the very fair reasons stated in the article, "hostile to democracy, women, gays and other religions" as well as extremism and violence. Instead of answering these real concerns, Islam simply accuses the West of being anti-Islamic. If Islam wants to be taken seriously and trusted by the West, it should look very seriously at why the West has such concerns. Puerile calls of the incorrect "Islamophobia" will do nothing to ease the relationship.
Greg Parker, Reading, UK

I think the author's analysis is very astute with the question of reconciliation and mutual respect. This is how in places such as Egypt, Muslims, Christians and Jews live side by side and in peace.

First of all the West should study what Koran and Hadees (sayings of prophet) are about. They should then interact with Islamic scholars to know its correct interpretation and ask questions to clear doubts, if any. Based on this authentic information they should look into the misconceptions about Islam and remove this from the minds of the Westerners by means of various media. Muslims on the other hand have been taught by the Koran and Hadees to be tolerant towards non-believers and treat them with the same rights as Muslims and retaliate only in self defence or if non-Muslims are against the interest of Islam.
Syed Hanif Ahmed, Kuwait

We have more in common than we think
Richard, UK
In my on-the-ground experience of the Middle East, the person in the street has the same basic needs as the West, and like us they have right-wing Islamic fundamentalists, in the same way we have right wing Christian fundamentalists preying on the gullible and oppressed. We have more in common than we think. They can be more rigid, and other times liberal, in the application of their laws than the West with its hesitant political liberalism towards the perpetrator of crime. If anything we differ on what constitutes human rights: the West believes we are born with them - the rest of the world believes you earn them through positive behaviour and contribution to family and society.
Richard, UK

I met so many Muslims on the pre-Iraq peace marches - finding them as a group warmer and more welcoming than most of the native Brits I know. This, perhaps, is more "cultural" than "religious". One thing struck me very deeply, however - the sense of joy and "easiness" in the women present. They didn't seem to be under the thumb of men in any sense - and certainly didn't look like they needed "liberating".
Dennis Oliver, Teesside, UK

I agree with the analysis; the deep root behind the creation of radical Muslims in the Middle East is in the displacement of a nation to accommodate western Jews in Palestine and the commitment of the West to defend it in everyway possible. Outraged Muslims consider it their duty to fight the injustice. Europe has realized that, but the American arrogance is refusing to help bring about a solution.
Yousuf Kooheji, Saudi Arabia

Any society which strictly adheres to a law written for the 7th century will encounter problems in the modern world
Martin Caldwell, UK
I know that this isn't the most politically correct thing to say but if one looks at the world's trouble spots the Balkans, Chechnya, and Kashmir or even in West Africa, the one thing in common is militant Islam. All around the limits of the Islamic world there is war or tension. Any society which strictly adheres to a law written for the 7th century will encounter problems in the modern world. It is this clash between the medieval and modern that is the problem. The second as I see it, is a religious zeal to spread the word of the Prophet across the world.
Martin Caldwell, UK

Unfortunately, whichever way you are looking at this, someone, somewhere, needs to take a "leap of faith" and take some positive, pro active decisions and take a chance it will pay off. Someone will need to compromise and forge out some common ground. I believe that Western leaders are by nature more pro active than their Islamic counterparts, and they would need to gain the trust and confidence of the Islamic leaders. America and Britain couldn't do this, they are the "untrusted" ones, but someone neutral, Switzerland for example, could be ideal to find some ground which gives both sides some confidence, then who knows! But one things for sure, someone must "dip their toes in the water" otherwise we will all end up destroying each other!
Kevin Sims, England

US Muslims find a voice
11 Sep 02  |  Americas
Islamic society wary of backlash
05 Sep 02  |  Americas
Islamophobia 'explosion' in UK
24 May 02  |  UK News


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