2002 Report (Continued) Background Paper
Relations between the Western and Islamic worlds have long been the subject of fascination, and the cause for mutual recrimination. Many observers have seen in the history of the interaction a pattern of ingrained hostility, whereas fewer have perceived a cross-fertilization of ideas and cultural practices. The general interpretation has taken a darker turn since the tragic events of September 2001, and public debates over Islam’s compatibility with modernity and democracy are now common, though rarely well informed.
The purpose of this paper is to provide a background in the major currents of analysis on the Muslim-Western encounter, as well as to review significant developments in Islamic history. It considers and often questions the conventional wisdom regarding civilizational interaction, the nature of Islam as a religion and way of life, the role that history plays in the formulation of perceptions and policies, the successes and failures of Islam as a political project, and the challenges that good governance poses today. Throughout the paper, terms including “Islam,” “the Muslim world,” and “the West” will be used for the sake of simplicity, with the understanding that within each supposed group there exist a variety of identities and affiliations, including communities of Muslims in the West. Differences as well as commonalties between these many perspectives will thus be highlighted.
The sections that follow cover material that is of more than academic interest. There are several ways that the discussion has practical relevance. First, media and policy understandings of Islam are built at times on distorted, even static, pictures of religious and cultural traditions that are in fact evolving and complex. By the same token, Muslim depictions of the West are often lacking in nuance. Such simplifications make appreciation of the Other all the more difficult. Second, cultural values and historical memory are important in the framing of policy, particularly in an era when prominent ideologues on both sides invoke notions of crusade and jihad. Third, questions of religious authority speak directly to the prospects of pluralism in Muslim societies and tolerance in cross-cultural relations. In general, the possibilities for accommodation, or indeed conflict, between Islam and the West rest in substantial part on an appreciation of the critical questions and diverse perspectives this paper addresses.Back to the top.