Why the West is wary of Muslims

As well as condemning racism, we must also condemn radical Islam for providing succour to terrorists

Radical Islam represents the biggest challenge to Western civilisation since the demise of fascism and communism. Rooted in a pre-Enlightenment worldview in which religious text has the force of law and the Islamic community is innately superior to all others, the belief that there is redemption for martyrs in the afterlife fuels extraordinary acts of terrorism.

Combine this with the deeply held belief that Islamic religion, culture and society has been profoundly humiliated, and you have the cocktail that one day may lead some young men and women to immolate themselves on a BA flight or on the Tube. How to understand this threat and how to respond has become the most important issue of our age.

More than two years after 11 September, the tally of core Western values and beliefs that we have allowed to become corrupted as we respond is lengthening by the week. Equality before the law; the presumption of innocence; the right to a fair trail – all have been seen as expedients to be put aside in the ‘fight against terror’ rather than absolute values to which we hold fast – and it has been the British Muslim community that has been on the receiving end of this new expediency more than any other. The state assembles more and more discretionary power without accountability. A scarcely disguised Islamophobia is on the increase. Long-built traditions of tolerance are under threat. We are undermining our own civilisation.

The leaders of the radical terrorist groups, and the mosques that support them, are open in what they are doing: they are launching a war of civilisations they believe they will win. It may be that Islam is currently poor and weak, but it is not degenerate like the secular West. Terrorist suicide is proof not of depravity, but of moral and cultural ascendancy. As Osama bin Laden says repeatedly, this readiness for martyrdom will eventually bring victory, whatever that may mean.

In the West, there is an uncertainty about how to respond at the level of values – lurching between a kindly multi-culturalism that anxiously wants to be sympathetic to Islam, depicting Islamic terrorism as an aberration, and the alternative view that we are on the point of a clash of civilisations. Blair and Bush perfectly reflect the uncertainty, semi-indicting Islam but hesitating to characterise their war against terrorism as part of a clash of civilisations; that is too apocalyptic. European intellectuals, who would be horrified to be included in the same camp as George Bush, agree; at the conference in Paris I am attending and which prompted this column, directors of leading European research institutes in this area insisted that there was no clash of civilisations, that Islam was pluralistic and benign, that the West was in part to blame for Islamic feelings of humiliation, and that we should maintain a belief in multiculturalism and dialogue to the last.

I share the view that Islam can be pluralistic, has the capacity to generate the secular societies we have in the West – already only a minority of European Muslims regularly attend mosques – and that the Western world has a major responsibility for what has happened. If we abandon dialogue and interaction we are lost. But I refuse to make my starting point that there is at present no potential clash of civilisations and that Islam can be wholly excused responsibility for the ideology of the terrorists. Muslim fundamentalists do believe Islam is a superior moral universe to the West – and it is that that permits terrorists to disregard of the sanctity of innocent human life and the indiscriminate way lives can be sacrificed. They are, after all, infidel.

While there are broader strains within Islam that do offer a pluralist moral code, which in turn offers hope for the future, it is also at the moment predominantly sexist and pre-Enlightenment – and that is the core of the problem both within the Islamic world and in its relationship with the West.

We cannot and should not respond with an unrigorous, soft multiculturalism that pleads such values are equivalent to our own and legitimate within their own cultural context. Nor should we fall into the trap of stereotyping Islam as universally menacing. Rather, I am at one with Professor Brian Barry, the finest egalitarian since Tawney, who, in Culture and Equality, argues that what lies behind the Western position on human rights and democracy is the Enlightenment proposition that men and women are intrinsically equal and have equal rights to dignity and self-realisation.

Thus, the West has to object to Islamic sexism – whether arranged marriage, headscarves, limiting career options or the more extreme manifestations, female circumcision and stoning women for adultery. We cannot give ground in the name of multiculturalism. As Barry argues, this is to deny values that are right, and in which democracy and respect for human rights are ultimately grounded. We should certainly respect diversity, but we cannot abandon or qualify our own beliefs in the process.

In this respect the French position since 11 September is much stronger and more coherent than our own because it is based on a systematic Enlightenment worldview. It is because the French believe in the international rule of law that they refused to support the intervention in Iraq; they were right.

But France is also right to insist that it will not support Islamic sexism; thus, the recent ban on wearing headscarves. Because it has taken a coherent position, it is respected and at least understood in the Islamic world, even if strongly criticised. Sheikh Tantawi of Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque responded to the French move by saying that just as Westerners should respect Islamic mores when in Islam, so the Islamic community had to respect Western mores when in the West. He advised French Islamic women to comply with the French law he thought reasonable. Amen to that; diversity and interaction based on mutual respect.

In my view, the path blazed by Tantawi, Barry and the French is how we must engage with Islam – but it demands we act across the waterfront. We have to maintain equality before the law, which is why it is so important that British Islamic detainees in Guantanamo Bay are tried properly under British law. If we are to be uncompromising in our opposition to cultural manifestations of religion that menace our Enlightenment commitment to equality, such as the subordination of women, we must also defend freedom of worship. We must insist that Muslims living in Britain and Europe are equal citizens, aggressively resisting their economic and social marginalisation and all forms of discrimination.

We must also repudiate the casual quasi-racism of Robert Kilroy-Silk’s that re-emerged last week in his mistakenly published column: it has no more place in our set of values than any sort of religious fundamentalism. And abroad, we stand for the same beliefs – from following UN process and upholding international law. If there is a clash of civilisations, it will only end through mutual tolerance and respect – and we earn that through standing by what we are and in what we believe, even while we respect what we are not.


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The Observer, UK
Jan. 11, 2004 Opinion
Will Hutton
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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 12, 2004.
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