Posted by: bklunk | March 23, 2007

The White Path

On a recent trip to Turkey, I met the impressive author of this blog, journalist Mustafa Akyol

Reflections on Islam & the West—at Wilton Park

[Originally published in Turkish Daily News] Last week I was at a truly exceptional meeting. First of all, the spot was quite interesting: A medieval manor surrounded by grass, sheep, and, well, more grass and sheep. … That might sound a bit dull, but the gothic mansion was interesting enough in itself. It was supplemented by a small but charming chapel, whose floor was also the place of the tombs of its 16th century owners and even the bones of an 12th century knight, whose carved image looked very much like a gallant crusader. Yet just 30 meters from this late soldier of Christ were sitting the followers of Mohammed, including the grand muftis of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, in their eye-catching turbans and tunics. And these clerics were surrounded by dozens of diverse figures: British diplomats, university professors, heads of NGOs, and even pop singers. If one just looked at the picture, you could wonder what in the world these people had in common. Well, they were trying to find out exactly that: The conference, which brought them together from four corners of the world, had a tell-tale title: “Creating Common Platforms Between Western And Muslim Societies To Tackle Extremist Discourse.”This was an international meeting organized by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office and the “Radical Middle Way Initiative.” And the fascinating medieval manor I am telling you about was the customary guesthouse of Her Majesty’s government for such events. It was the Winston House at Wilton Park, a beautiful area in southern England.The main theme of the conference was something on which virtually all participants agreed upon: While some radical Islamists — and their mirror images in the West — argue that the Western and Islamic civilizations don’t have much in common and there can only be a “clash” between them, in fact these two rich traditions do share many common values. The sanctity of human life, freedom of conscience or freedom of thought are both cherished by the Judeo-Christian West, and the Islamic world. Islamists — who are the followers of a political ideology — might be hating Westerners seeing them as imperialists, capitalists, “Zionists,” etc, but Muslims — who are the followers of a religion — have to see that Westerners believe in the same God and share many moral values. Values, ‘Global War’s and Fatwas’Solicitor General for England and Wales Mike O’Brien emphasized this theological commonality between Islam and Judeo-Christianity in his opening remarks. (It was interesting to listen to theological arguments from a high-ranking British statesman. Well, welcome to the post-secular world.)According to Wilton Park rules, most speeches were off-the-record. Hence let me just note that on the British side, I witnessed a comforting tone, which sometimes I can’t find in some ideological pockets located on the other side of the pond. It seems that the British, with their centuries-old proximity to the Middle East and their well-established belief in liberalism and multi-culturalism, are well-tailored to find a peaceful and reasonable way to avert a clash of civilizations. “We don’t want to echo the rhetoric of Bin Laden,” a British diplomat noted, “by speaking about a ‘global war on terrorism’.” “Well said,” I murmured — and even added some milk to my tea (which I would hardly do) to express my solidarity with the British way.Grand Mufti of Egypt Ali Gomaa made a notable remark by criticizing the Western media for turning traditional Islamic concepts into bogey-words. Consider “fatwa.” For most Muslims this is a respected term, because it implies a reasoned position by a trustable Islamic scholar on a specific issue. “But if you read the Western media,” the mufti noted, “you will see that any crazy statement made by an extremist figure is called a fatwa, that’s is so wrong” Where Does Extremism Come From?Besides the amazing hospitality I have seen in Wilton Park, I found one thing quite noteworthy: Islam has become such a hot topic in the world over the last two decades and especially after 2001. This meeting was just one of the hundreds of different conferences, panels or discussions held in Western countries on Islam in recent years. And the reason for that interest is obvious: Some people kill themselves and others by using “Islamic” slogans and expressing “Islamic” aims. In other words, what brings the world’s attention to Islam, is mostly, and unfortunately, the radical Islamist ideology and its violent methods.What one has to see is that this is quite a recent phenomenon. Islam has existed since the 7th century, but Islamist extremism has only been an issue since the 1980’s. (I am sure they were not discussing “tackling the extremist discourse” in Wilton Park at the time of Stalin, Kruscev, Brejnev or even Gorbacev). That abrupt emergence implies that Islamist extremism stems not directly from the Islamic faith, but from the cuurrent problems of the Muslim World. Those problems create a continuous flow of angry young men that just happen to be Muslims, and these people re-read their rational religious sources in the light of the hatred they have in their minds.This also means that the Islamic faith can be saved from extremism and continue to inspire and enrich the lives of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims in a peaceful and civic way. We just need to deconstruct Islamism, unveil its non-Islamic character and also find solutions to the problems of the Middle East (and of the Muslim diasporas in Europe) in order to heal the hatred.Some Westerners — and Westernized Easterners — speak pessimistically about all this and express their doubts about the potential of Islam to create its own modernity. Well, it would be wrong to look at the current Islamic world and assume that its troubles are the results of its faith. If we were living at the time of the crusaders — such as the knight whose bones I came across in the chapel of Wilton Park — we would see them waging war on the Saracens and watch the Inquisition burn witches. “Ah, how horrible is this Christendom,” we could say, and we would be right. But we would be terribly wrong if we blamed Christianity for all that. It was just a bad period of the history of a good faith.The same is true for Islam. We are living in the worst period of its history. But change is possible and indeed inevitable. We just need to understand each other — and thus to have more Wilton Parks.

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