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Islam: Fostering Pluralism Could Help Ease Tensions With West

  • Charles Recknagel --> A Muslim girl holds a copy of a book on the Prophet Muhammad in New York City (AFP) PRAGUE, October 31, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Media headlines often speak of tensions between the Western and Islamic worlds in terms of religion.

The frictions can range from protesters in Brussels trying to highlight what they see as the dangerous encroachment of Islamic values into Europe to protesters in the Middle East demonstrating against what they see as insults in Western newspapers to the Prophet Muhammad.

But some observers say that one important fact is too often lost sight of. And that is that the tensions between East and West are far more often over political than religious values.

"It is probably not the values but the politics that are more divisive, and in the Islamic world there are many conspiracy ideas about the West's war on Islam, so called, and on the other hand many Westerners suspect that the Muslims are rallying against Western civilization in general," says Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Istanbul-based "Turkish Daily News." "I think that these fears, that are exaggerated on both sides, create the basic divisive point."

Michael Rubin of the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute says that the distinctions between religion and politics are gradually becoming better understood in the post-9/11 world. And that is despite extremists' claims to speak and act solely in the name of religion. "In the United States, oftentimes, scholars and theologians differentiate between Islam and Islamists," Rubin says. "Islam is a religion. Islamism is a political ideology."

Many experts argue that understanding Al-Qaeda as a radical Islamist group with a clear political agenda -- the establishment of a caliphate, or Sunni theocratic form of government -- does much to help counter talk of a "clash of civilizations" that pits one world against another.

And this, in turn, can help open the way to identifying political solutions for crises which -- were they truly religious confrontations -- might otherwise have no end.

'What Unites And What Divides Us'

Rubin and Akyol were two of the panelists at a conference at RFE/RL's headquarters in Prague on October 30 that addressed just these issues. "What Unites And What Divides Us? Tough Questions for Islam and the West" brought together journalists, policy experts, and representatives of civic organizations from the Islamic world, Europe, and the United States. The gathering was one in a series of occasional conferences that RFE/RL sponsors on Islam and related issues (see below for full coverage).

Discussion and disagreements abounded, but many participants found common ground around one idea. That is, fostering pluralism and participatory forms of government in the Muslim world could offer hope for moderating some of the radical political parties that claim to speak for Islam. And, ultimately, that might help bridge today's sharp divides between East and West.

Akyol believes that political solutions can be found by incorporating religious-rooted parties into pluralistic forms of government. There, he says, the give-and-take of power sharing with other political groups can have a moderating effect on ideologies that initially may be intolerant of other parties.

He cites Turkey as an example. "Turkey has benefited a lot from the free market and also from democratization," Akyol says. "When you understand that democracy can give you the freedom you are looking for, the religious freedom you are looking for, you opt for democracy. You are not trying to stand against that."

Rubin also sees fostering democracy as a way to help defuse East-West tensions. He says the East must build its own open societies, but the West can help by supporting voices for change.

"One of the other dynamics that we need to break is this dichotomy between autocrats and theocrats, where either you have dictators who control the state press or official media or you have theocrats who control the mosques, perhaps with some funding from Saudi Arabia or outside sources," Rubin says. "What you need is to support the middle ground, the liberals, the reformists, and so forth, who tend to be victimized by both autocrats and theocrats because both the dictators and purveyors of an extreme religious viewpoint see a moderate alternative to be more of an enemy than the other."

(See "Islam And The West: What Unites And What Divides Us?" to listen to the panel discussions at the October 30 conference.)
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