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Islam: Opportunities, Challenges In Dealing With The West

Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat and Joyce Davis at the April 25 roundtable (RFE/RL) The biggest challenge Islam and the West face today is how each side perceives the other. That was the overall opinion at an RFE/RL roundtable in Prague on April 25. The panelists -- who included an imam from the United States and other experts on Islam -- discussed misconceptions and prejudices between the two societies.

PRAGUE, April 26, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Imam Mohamad Bashar Arafat, director of the Islamic Affairs Council in Maryland and an adviser to the U.S. State Department on interreligious dialogue, said there is a surah -- or chapter -- from the Koran that he considers to be "the verse of the 21st century" because it preaches a dialogue between cultures and civilizations.

"God is saying 'I created you different, but you have to do the job of realizing the wisdom behind diversity,'" he told the panelists. "And why [did God] create white, black, Chinese, red, yellow; why? To know one another. To know one another is important. And to know the culture."

Even among Muslim immigrants there are misunderstandings about what customs and traditions they should follow in their new country in daily life.

Stereotyping Muslims

In recent years, negative opinions about Islam have been on the rise in the West. Terrorist attacks all over the world -- both in the West and in Muslim countries -- have caused many people to associate all Muslims with terrorists.

Participants in the RFE/RL panel discussion on Islam and the West said that prejudices about Islam and Muslims in general are rooted in a lack of communication between the two sides.

They also said extremism and fanaticism currently pose the greatest challenge to both Islamic and Western civilizations and added that Islam has been misused by extremists.

The question is, who represents the true teachings of Allah? Is it religious leaders, politicians, or militants who use Islam to try to reach their political goals?

Finding A Message

Joyce Davis, an expert on the Middle East and associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL, said that there is, indeed, an attempt in the Muslim world to explain true Islam to the West.

"I think it's also important to say here that there are some calls in the Muslim world for a conference to determine religious teachings for a consensus on just what a religion teaches in the 21st century, to differentiate it from the militants who, many would argue, are misusing Islam," she said. "So you are finding many more Muslims -- imams, scholars -- stepping up to explain the difference between Islam, as they see it, as moderates would interpret it, and the interpretations of militants."

Arafat, who served as an imam in Damascus from 1981 to 1989 and then moved to the United States, said although there are people with "polluted minds" -- or those prejudiced about Islam in the United States -- democracy there gives Muslims the freedom to practice their religion.

Panelists also touched upon the issue of the integration of Muslim immigrants into American and European societies. The July 2005 bombings in London that were masterminded and carried out by British-born Muslims uncovered many problems with the Muslims' integration and assimilation.

Pavel Barsa, of the Prague-based Institute of International Relations, said the system of integrating immigrants is more effective in the United States than in Europe.

"I think it's clear that [the United States as] an immigration country by definition, so to speak, is more welcoming to immigrants," Barsa said. "We in Europe are not defined as immigration nations. Only [in] the last five years [have] there been some efforts to redefine European nations as immigration nations; for instance in Britain and also in France, at least rhetorically."

Different Views Among Muslims

Imam Arafat pointed out that even among Muslim immigrants there are misunderstandings about what customs and traditions they should follow in their new country in daily life. He said Muslims should be open to adjust to the cultures they live in.

"Islam encouraged people to adopt anything good as long as [it] does not contradict [the] teachings of Islam," he said.

Panelists also discussed women's rights in Islam with Barsa saying the Islamic concept of gender rights was incompatible with the western view on women's equality.

Arafat argued, however, that the unequal status of women doesn't come from a true Islamic teaching.

"Please, don't look at us, [only some Muslims]," he said. "Look at the teachings of the Koran, the teachings of the Prophet [Muhammad], which encouraged women to be pioneers and [to be progressive]."

Arafat said Muslim countries should encourage women to take a more active stance in various societal roles. "I would love to see a Muslim woman with a scarf speaking on behalf of an Islamic organization."

He also said the study of different religions should become a more regular part of university curricula in order to help eliminate mounting misconceptions between the West and Islam.

Clash Of Cultures

Clash Of Cultures

Indian-born writer Salman Rushdie (epa file photo)

The furor raised by the publication in Europe of cartoons believed by many Muslims to be insulting to Islam is far from being the first time that Western notions of freedom of expression have clashed with Islamic sensibilities. Below are a few of the major incidents in this long-running tension.

2005: London's Tate Britain museum removes from exhibition the "God Is Great #2" sculpture by John Latham for fear of offending Muslims, citing the "sensitive climate" after 7 July suicide bombings in London. The sculpture piece consists of three sacred religious texts -- the Koran, the Bible, and the Talmud -- embedded in a sheet of glass.

2004: Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh is murdered after release of his film "Submission" about violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born member of Dutch parliament who wrote script, plans another film about Islam's attitude to gays. She has also received death threats.

2002: Nigerian journalist Isioma Daniel incenses Muslims by writing in "This Day" newspaper that Prophet Muhammad would have approved of the "Miss World" contest and might have wed a beauty queen. Muslim-Christian riots in northern city of Kaduna kill 200. Daniel flees Nigeria after a fatwa urges Muslims to kill her.

1995: An Egyptian court brands academic Nasr Hamed Abu Zaid an apostate because of his writings on Islam and annuls his marriage on grounds that a Muslim may not be married to an apostate. Abu Zaid and his wife move to the Netherlands.

1994: Taslima Nasreen flees Bangladesh for Sweden after court charges her with "maliciously hurting Muslim religious sentiments." Some Muslims demand she be killed for her book "Lajja" (Shame), banned for blasphemy and suggesting free sex.

1989: Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini calls on all Muslims to kill British author Salman Rushdie for blasphemy against Islam in his book "The Satanic Verses."

(compiled by RFE/RL)

See also:

Dutch Immigration -- The Death Of Multiculturalism

Report Says No Anti-Muslim Backlash In Europe

Vienna Conference Ends With Appeals For Understanding, Tolerance

A thematic webpage devoted to issues of religious tolerance in RFE/RL's broadcast region and around the globe.