Western Perception of Islam
Abdul Moiz Dar
Islam is a religion of peace and prosperity. It propagates and embraces plurality and champions rights for all, whether they are the mainstream or the marginalized. Nonetheless, this authentic picture of Islam is overshadowed by demonic versions which pervade the West where Islamic principles are perceived as diabolical. Against the backdrop of terrorist attacks, honour killings and persecutions of minorities in Muslim countries, misconceptions about Islam further cemented in the West. Although there are a few exceptions, the West’s general perception of Islam is negative because of a host of reasons, especially the misrepresentation of Islam and the misdeeds of Muslims. However, those who favourably view Islam, though few, are usually learned persons and scholars who have closely studied Islamic history and teachings. They compare and contrast Islam with other religions and eventually hold that Islam is all opposite of what is being commonly perceived and propagated about it.
Some Western scholars like William Chitik and Karen Armstrong do not espouse the common perception of Islam. In his book, “Sufi Path to Love,” Chittick portrayed the true picture of Islam and exhibited that Islam views love for God as equivalent to love for His creation: it embraces all humans, animals and plants. Similar views have been expressed by Karen Armstrong in her seminal work “Muhammad (PBUH): A Prophet for Our Time”. In this book, she showed — through a biographical account of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) — that Islam is a religion of tolerance. Moreover, she concluded that by far tolerance is needed the most in the present time; so, the teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) have great relevance today. Some other scholars like Frithjof Schuon have also declared that Islam is not evil (as it is portrayed in the West). Hence, it can be deduced that the Westerners who studied Islam deeply have favourable opinions about it.
The general perception that Westerners hold is that Islam is primitive, retrogressive, rigid and dogmatic. They consider that Christianity has undergone reformation and modernized over time whereas Islamic ideals prohibit any modernity and rationality. In the modern era, atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have also presented similar views about Islam. Richard Dawkins, a famous British professor of Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford, went on to say that “Islam perpetuates ignorance and discourages any scientific progress.” But the reality is all contrary to what is presented; Islam advises humans to learn from the past but urges them to not live in it; above and beyond, it encourages scientific inquiry and continuously shakes humans’ rational faculties through Quranic injunctions like ‘Do not you ponder over this’, ‘There are signs for those who think’. Hence, it is not a repressive and dogmatic religion.
Some view Islam as an exclusionary, monolithic and intolerant religion. They argue that Islam focuses merely on its adherents and discards others as infidels who are to be “decapitated wherever found.” In most of her books, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Belgium-based writer, who converted to atheism and presented a devilish picture of Islam to the world, assails Islam and quotes various instances where she thinks “true evil in Islam” is depicted; however, this perception is flawed. Even critics of Islam like Bernard Lewis have accepted that Islam is “the most tolerant religion one can ever come across.” Islam does not allow maltreatment of any person in an Islamic state even if he is a non-Muslim. Islam takes into its fold persons of all colours and races, and does not discriminate against any person or people.
Another perception ingrained in the West is that Islam is a protagonist of aggressive ideology. The actions of militant groups like ISIS, TTP and Boko Haram are presented as actions of Islam. The videos of their atrocities add to this misperception. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria pointed out that the actions of Muslims are the undoing of their misperception in the West. There are numerous instances where Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and his companions advised Muslims not to indulge in any form of a brutal massacre. By no means is Islam a religion of aggression; what lies at the root of this hostility to Islam is purely a lack of knowledge about it.
The conception of Islam being a misogynist religion also runs high in the West. Accidents like the shooting of Malala Yousafzai and the abduction of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram are shown as evidence to depict Islamic prejudice against women. Veils are portrayed as prisons for women, and it is widely believed that Islam encourages violence against women and discourages their public participation. What Islamic history reveals is that the wife of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was a successful and well-off trader and the Prophet (PBUH) has said, “Be good to your women, they have rights over you as you have rights over them.” This saying of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) best unveils the importance of women in Islam.
Another misperception confronting Islam is that it is incompatible with democracy. And it promotes authoritarianism and totalitarianism with complete disregard for an individual’s opinion. Salman Rushdie, the novelist who is abhorred and most hated in the Muslim world, propounded this position in many of his articles. One who knows the concept of “Shura” in Islam will understand the true nature of Islam. Historically too, it proves that the conception of “Ba’at” (allegiance) is a form of polling vote. The study of the Quran and Sunnah corroborates that democratic principles are visible in Islam. It does not imitate the Western concept of democracy but provides a space for Muslims to choose whatever form of democracy best behooves them.
Nowadays, the most prevalent perception of Islam is about its ‘expansionist tendencies’. Most Western political scientists view Islam as a threat to Western civilization. Samuel P. Huntington’s thesis of “Clash of Civilisations,” for example, takes into account this assumption. According to this assumption, Islam is not different from other expansionist ideologies of Nazism and Fascism either. In reality, all these allegations are not only absurd but also untrue and unfounded. Most of the wars fought throughout Islamic history were defensive in nature. And, if Muslims conquered new lands, the motive behind such invasions was not financial but moral.
However, realistically analyzing the situation, we can say that the Western misperceptions about Islam and Muslims have been because of a fallacious understanding. Islam is against capitalism due to its exploitative aspects; otherwise, Islam favours private property and free markets. It does not allow fleecing people just for profit-minting as it comes at the cost of the poor. Islam puts forward a balanced economic system with no room for exploitation. Similarly, it is also thought that Islam discourages and prohibits some aspects of manifestations of freedom of expression. As mentioned above, Islam is the protector of human liberties; it favours limiting them only if they infringe on the liberties of others.
Another addition to the above-mentioned reasons is the misinterpretation of Islamic teachings and injunctions by some Islamic scholars as what have they done yet is all fanning this fire of misrepresentation and misinterpretation of Islamic injunctions. Today, the whole Muslim Ummah appears riven by their self-made ideological problems. It is palpable everywhere that a Muslim country is not friendly to its brother Muslim country; the reason behind this division is a misconception caused by the misinterpretation. And this misinterpretation is a stumbling block in the way of establishment of friendly relationships between and among Muslim countries.
Also, there is a lack of knowledge among Muslims regarding their religion. Significant, too, Islamic principles have been established since its inception, it is a lack of knowledge that has entangled Muslims into the hands of a few astray Islamic scholars. What comes on the heels of this misinterpretation is extremism that is rampant in all Islamic countries, especially those in the Third World. In the case of Pakistan, every single day dawns with a new incident of extremism. In the recent past, a Sri Lankan national was lynched by a group of rabid extremists in Sialkot. To curb this menace, there is a pressing need that Islamic scholars crystallise their knowledge and opinions into the crucible of true Islamic teachings.
Another thing is the absence of a living model for Muslims. Amid this rampant misrepresentation and lack of knowledge, there is no saviour for Muslims to steer them out of this predicament: the one class capitalizing on this is our clerics who have rendered modern Muslims dogmatic. Additionally, a number of Muslim societies are following cultures that are under the high influence of Western culture. Similarly, the Muslim economies are highly inspired by capitalism which involves interest and accumulation of wealth in a few hands. It is due to not being absolutely aligned with Islamic economic teachings that allow growth but also encourage the distribution of wealth. The point that must be understood here is that there is an unseen boundary that differentiates Muslim practices from those of the Islamic teachings, and all that today’s Muslim does is not taught by Islam and all that Islam teaches is not purely done by the Muslims.
In the 1950s and 60s, Islam was the fastest-growing religion in the world. Keeping in view its rapid acceptance, the West caused a roadblock by making efforts to defame Islam as well as deepening sectarian divides in Islamic countries. It is well-known that for centuries, the Anglo- European colonial powers have carried out an ongoing crusade in an attempt to dominate the resource-rich lands of the Muslim world. One form of this offensive, now spearheaded by the United States and Zionists, is the denigration of Islam, the Holy Quran, our Holy Prophet (PBUH) and Muslims in general through the international dissemination of lies, slurs, dis- and misinformation and other propaganda. This campaign, which naturally has led to widespread anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world, is fiercely denied though by Washington.
Adding to a long list of attacks on the dignity, life and rights of humanity by the Euro-American-Zionist bloc is the recent offensive US-made anti-Islamic propaganda film “The Innocence of Muslims”. Offending not only the Holy Prophet (PBUH), Islam and Muslims but also casting doubts on the divine revelation, i.e. the Holy Quran, this crusade film is the latest attempt by the West to discredit Islam. Following are some insulting anti-Islamic acts in Euro-American countries, all of which the West staunchly defends under the ruse of “freedom of expression”.
2012 – The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo publishes cartoons that insult Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
2012 — The September 24th issue of Newsweek features a photo of a crazed, rage-filled turban-bedecked protestor who “represents the mainstream of Islam.”
2011 and 2012 — “Reverend” Terry Jones burned copies of the Holy Quran in Gainesville, Florida, USA; so was again planned in France but was foiled by a young Muslim.
Under the garb of “freedom of speech and press,” the West would allow any kind of content regardless of how disrespectful it is for Muslims or how much hatred and unrest that content may cause in the Muslim world. But the content will not be removed because doing so will curb their right to freedom of speech the West is so proud of. But, the same West will get so seriously involved and provoked if topless pictures of their princess are published somewhere because such acts are considered shocking. The same West will, in fact, take such a publisher to court as well as to task; all the way, all this will never come under “freedom of speech and press”.
Some of the causes behind this misconception about Islam are discussed below.
First, the historical experiences of the West and the Muslims added much to tear them up. Throughout the medieval era, the interaction of both was mixed with blood and death. Neither Westerners viewed them positively nor did the Muslims do so. Confrontation of the crusaders and the Muslims during the crusades, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans, the Spaniards and the Moors defined their mutual perception: even today such an image has bearings in Western minds.
Second, what adds more to the agony is a sheer lack of knowledge about Islam. Nor have the Westerners studied Islam in the true sense of the word. What emanates from such superficial knowledge is all misconceptions. Edward Said has discussed a similar idea by saying: “Most of the Western knowledge about Islam is not better than the knowledge of musicians about a human brain.”
Third, Muslims are also to be blamed for their mistakes and misdeeds. As no fire can sustain without fuel, no tainted image of Islam can survive without the wrongful actions of Muslims. They need introspection and they should ostracise black sheep from their ranks. What the solution demands is the need to take some measures on a war footing. The Muslims living in the West should consider themselves ambassadors of Islam and this should be manifested by their character. Additionally, measures should be combined and harmonized which include initiating a grand dialogue among civilizations and religions to understand one another.
In a nutshell, it can be concluded that the Western perception of Islam is mostly negative which is due to a lack of knowledge while evil deeds of Muslims, too, are responsible for this; otherwise, Islam advocates peace and prosperity for all. What comes forth in the light of the above discussion is that the evil deeds of a few Muslims and Islamic teachings are lumped together by the West. So, these misperceptions have begotten. However, this bad image can be morphed into a good one; for that, concerted efforts are needed. Though difficult, doing so is not impossible. At last, we can say that besides loopholes in our efforts of presenting a true picture of Islam, there is also a malefic intention toward Islam. There is no denying the fact that the West is inclined to restrict the growth of Islam and all the arguments they present are anchored in their ill intentions to besmirch Islam.
The writer is a student of law.