PARIS — The “clash of civilizations” is no longer a phantasmagoric tale spun by a lone author. In the post-9/11 world, it is an unfolding reality where colliding forces are active at both political and social levels. This is certainly true of the Muslim world and the West. The underlying political tensions have found religious expression as an icon of the cycles of aggression and resistance. In the process, the religion itself has become an unsuspected victim, as opposed to the prevailing misperception about its alleged role as agent provocateur.
Intolerance in the name of religion is a denial of both freedom and tolerance. Freedom and tolerance cannot be mutually exclusive. Neither can they be the sole prerogative of a single dominating entity. Similarly, discrimination in words and deeds on account of freedom and tolerance are anathema to the spirit of co-existence.
From Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses” and the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoons to the shoddy movie Innocence of Muslims, the public square in the Muslim world has presented little beyond the spectacles of self-annihilation. Many precious human lives have been lost and properties destroyed. The mocking Islamophobic crowds now routinely label it as “Muslim violence.” Some 3 million Google search results indicate a steady rise in Islamophobia.
The ever-increasing Islamophobia in the West demands an informed response from the Muslim world and not the self-immolation behavior some Muslims have displayed so far. Similarly, the interdiction of websites becomes an oxymoron in the wake of alternative technologies for access. It only stands to reinforce views held by the West about Islam and Muslims. The self-destructive emotive response also acts to strengthen extremist attitudes among the masses and moves them away from the pristine teachings of Islam.
In the post-9/11 world, Islam itself has become an unsuspected victim, as opposed to the prevailing misperception about its alleged role as agent provocateur.
The freedom of expression, it would appear, is not simply an “us and them” issue. Its complexities touch the boundaries of state ideology, constitutional matrix, religious liberty and individual choices, among others.
It is in an increasingly globalized world where, courtesy of the Internet, instantaneity of information has become its hallmark, that the Islamophobia stands magnified. Of course, compared to the medieval period, there are a myriad of reasons for its massive proliferation. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to restrain emotive responses. This alone underlines the utmost significance of initiating and sustaining interfaith dialogue and harmony.
Interfaith ethics face the daunting challenge of contextual ethics vs. global ethics as they get translated into moral relativism. Obviously, the contextual ethics emanate from a specific context — such as the Greek era virtue ethics — but they fail to cater for the evolving global socio-economic systems. The same could be true for the relativity of moral values across societies. The transition beyond the nation-state to a global existence necessitates a holistic approach to the human condition such as the Islamic proclamation on gender equality or planetary stewardship — khilafah. The search for a common core for human moral action, therefore, must remain the focus of our relentless quest for harmony. Yet, it would be a folly to assume that cultural diversity would be amenable to a monolithic human existence.
Within the Islamic framework, recognition and acceptance of diversity is a divine injunction:
O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! the noblest of you, in the sight of Allah, is the best in conduct. Lo! Allah is Knowing, Aware. Quran Surah 49, Al-Hujurat:13
The Quran pronounces gender equality; it informs us of the creation of nations and tribes; and exhorts us to know one another. Above all, rejecting gender bias and racial superiority, the Quran makes moral conduct as the principal yardstick for humankind. The essence of diversity, as conveyed by the Quranic message, is the human struggle for goodness, beyond racial and gender boundaries.
For Islamic civilization, therefore, moral conduct is the rationale for its existence. It is this fundamental value that distinguishes it from any other civilization in history. The argument that other civilizations, too, have a moral core is countered by the fact that Islam is a way of life — ad-Deen — and not simply a religion.
The Quranic paradigm of diversity negates the existence of a monolithic structure of civilization. By divine decree, humankind is fated for diversity. This implies that any human attempt to monopolize or, for that matter, imperialize human society and culture in any of their diverse manifestations is a contradiction of the Quranic verdict.
Within the Quranic paradigm, recognition of diversity is an implicit recognition of freedom. The same could be true for the value of justice. Similarly, other values such as tolerance and harmony are the natural fallouts of diversity where morality reigns supreme. In that sense, Islam can claim universality.
Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon, suddenly uncovered by social media on the Internet. Islamophobia is as old as Islam itself. Yet, Islam can be rightly credited as a trendsetter in interfaith harmony.
Recognition of diversity leads to tolerance and harmony — two prerequisites for dialogue. If history is any guide, the medieval period in the life of Islam and the West was not all that hostile. There was Convivencia. It was a period of free flowering of intellect where the three Abrahamic faiths co-existed in a mutually beneficial manner. Courage to accept and offer constructive criticism was the hallmark of that society. It was a powerful transition in the history of human ideas that spanned nearly five centuries in medieval Spain, only to be ruined by the forces of Reconquista. The historical spectrum of the two civilizations indeed is in dire contradiction to what Huntington has painted as cultural fault lines. Inquisition, genocide, the Holocaust, imperial missionary and similar acts have no parallel in Islamic history.
Islamophobia is not a new phenomenon, suddenly uncovered by social media on the Internet. Islamophobia is as old as Islam itself. Yet, Islam can be rightly credited as a trendsetter in interfaith harmony. Inspired by the covenants of the blessed prophet with the Christians of Mount Sinai, Najran, Persia and others, the spirit is still alive in the name of A Common Word and the Dialogue among Civilizations. They all signify harmony as the essence of Islamic core values.
Today, there prevails a sense of planetary responsibility embedded in the rise of ecological consciousness. Collective intelligence appears to be at work. At the same time, technological convergence is shaping the lives of billions of people on this Earth. Perhaps, ecological and technological convergence can both serve as auxiliary forces to provide interfaith dialogue a greater momentum and impact.
May the universal foundational ethics, sans moral relativism, evolve under the umbrella of some of the core values of Islamic worldview — tolerance, acceptance, humility and harmony. We all need to articulate that universal fact for the sake of humanity.