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World: Top Leaders And Thinkers At Davos Debate Western-Islamic Divide

  • Charles Recknagel

The West and the Islamic world are each taking a new interest in what the other thinks, as issues ranging from globalization to terrorism emphasize the close links between their futures. At the ongoing World Economic Forum, an annual gathering of top world leaders and thinkers, the topic received close scrutiny in a roundtable bringing together such diverse figures as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and former Saudi Intelligence Service head Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud.

Prague, 23 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Top world leaders and thinkers meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland took time out this week to discuss tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds and ways to bridge them.

The dialogue brought together such diverse figures as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and former Saudi Intelligence Service head Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud to consider issues ranging from globalization to terrorism to religion. They met yesterday as part of a panel discussion that also included media and academic figures from the United States and Britain.

Musharraf said that one of the biggest gaps between East and West is caused by misunderstandings of each others' value systems. He said that many in the West mistakenly perceive Islam as a religion of extremism, while many in the East excessively fear the impact of American and European culture.

"What is the West's perception of Muslims and Islam? First of all, a perception that Islam is a religion of extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism, intolerance. Secondly, that Islam is in conflict with democracy, modernism, secularism. And thirdly, that Muslims refuse to assimilate into the global family. These are the misperceptions, but I call them misperceptions because each one of them is wrong," Musharraf said.

The Pakistani leader said that Islam is a religion of peace and moderation and those in the West should not be misled by the actions of extremists. He also said that the basis of extremism is political disputes, not religious teachings.

Turning to the East, Musharraf said the major obstacle among Muslims to cross-cultural understanding is what he called "bigoted views" among the uneducated.

"The problem is with the unenlightened, those who hold bigoted views among the Muslims, the problem is with them. Because they tend to shun everything Western, whether it is acquisition of modern knowledge or even learning of English language or even, for that matter, showing interest in music," Musharraf said.

He said such views are fueled by a deep feeling of injustice and powerlessness that partly comes from the great economic gap between many Western and Eastern countries. He said that "the fallout of this has been resignation and desperation" and that in communities afflicted by poverty and low literacy, "this is an ideal recipe for extremism."

Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, the former Saudi Intelligence Service head and now chairman of the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Saudi Arabia, also said that political, not religious, forces create radicalism.

He told the conference that rapid changes in recent years, including a growth in extremist groups, have led to what he called "terrorism for the first time in many years" in Saudi Arabia. He said the rise in extremism comes as the country has seen sharp population growth that is stretching the ability of the kingdom to maintain the state-subsidized standard of living afforded by its oil wealth.

"We face a growing population, we face a problem of extremism that has led to terrorism for the first time in many years to strike in Saudi Arabia, it has led to economic expectations having to be curtailed, it has led to shortcomings in educational standards," Turki said.

Recent extremist attacks in Saudi Arabia, blamed by the government on sympathizers of Al-Qaeda, have targeted both the Saudi elite and Westerners working in the country. Militant Saudi groups charge the Saudi monarchy with being a Western-client regime and have called for replacing it with a utopian society based on Islamic egalitarianism.
"What is the West's perception of Muslims and Islam? First of all, a perception that Islam is a religion of extremism, terrorism, fundamentalism, intolerance. Secondly, that Islam is in conflict with democracy, modernism, secularism. And thirdly, that Muslims refuse to assimilate into the global family. These are the misperceptions."


As Musharraf and Prince Turki called for viewing differences between East and West in political rather than religious terms, one speaker -- Anthony Grayling -- said that the distance between Western and Islamic traditions is less than what many people think.

Grayling, professor of philosophy at the University of London, noted that while both the West and the Islamic world are involved in struggles for political and social change in which they may complete, there is much that is shared in their intellectual experience.

He said he rejects any idea that East and West are involved in a "clash of civilizations" -- as tensions between them are sometimes characterized. He said that, instead, both traditions have benefited from the existence of the other.

"Nor do I think there is a real opposition of civilizations here because so much is held in common between these two great traditions. The ideas of Aristotle and Plato, we wouldn't have them now had it not been for the scholars of Islam who preserved these texts for us and re-educated the West when so much had been lost," Grayling said.

He also said that recognizing these commonalties can help in constructively solving the differences that do exist.

"Our roots are intermingled and the two civilizations are not different, although they have important differences. They share so much in common that what one needs to do is emphasize these commonalties as a background against which we can tackle the genuine differences and disagreements which do exist," Grayling said.

Other participants in the conference -- titled "Promoting Inter-Civilizational Dialogue and Action" -- were Lord Carey of Clifton, who is the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Patricia Mitchell, the president and chief executive officer of the Public Broadcasting Service of the U.S.

The conference came as the World Economic Forum launched a new 'Council of 100' leaders representing the Western and Islamic worlds. The council is made up of senior political, religious, business, media and opinion leaders and aims to strengthen understanding between the two sides.
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