Author and human rights activist Mahmoud Nammoura, who has written two books on Islam-West relations, believes the cartoons reveal a “cultural disharmony” and not a religious clash.
“This is not a showdown between Islam and Christianity,” he said.
“In fact, Europe and much of the West are now living in an era which might be called a post-religious. It is therefore not Christianity, but western cultural arrogance, that stands behind this growing anti-Islamic discourse in certain western circles,” says Nammoura, a resident of the West Bank town of Hebron.
Bassam Jarar, considered one of the most prominent Islamic thinkers in Palestine, believes there is a knee-jerk reaction to Islamic communities asserting themselves in Europe.
“They [Europeans] can’t easily come to terms with the fact that a militarily and politically defeated umma (community) is asserting a pro-active presence in the heart of the West and is aspiring to present itself as an alternative to western civilisation.”
Conflict of civilisations
When asked if the crisis was a vindication of Samuel Huntington’s theory of conflict of civilisations, Jarar said: “It is not inevitable if they are (westerners) faithful to democracy. Let them allow the free market of ideas to take its course.”
Jarar believes that while the cartoon crisis has a negative aura, and might rekindle old prejudices, it will eventually have a positive income.
“I believe this is going to be a good lesson for both Muslims and Westerners. It might lead to a greater understanding in the long range.”
But Father Peter DuBrul of Bethlehem University, a Catholic University funded by the Vatican, believes the causes of anti-Muslim attitudes are rooted in the complex history between Islam and Christianity.
“As you know, a Christian who has not seriously studied Islam cannot take the Holy Quran at face value; there are too many contradictions to Christian beliefs.”
Reduced to stereotype
DuBrul believes it is wrong to overlook or marginalise the religious dimension in the West-Islam relationship, saying the term “post-religious” may be a misnomer.
“I think the west is more religious than some Muslims would think and the Muslim east is more secular than some Muslims would admit …”
Nonetheless, DuBrul, who has been living in the West Bank for many years, believes that despite recent drawbacks western-Muslim understanding can be achieved.
“The Islamic mission to the world comes into conflict with other missions, and such ‘missions’ have much to learn from one another,” he said.
“We are in the process of learning now, very painfully. The enemy is always reduced to a stereotype [that] is easier to kill.”
Early seeds of divide
The using of stereotypes to demonise Islam can be traced to early Western Christian perceptions of Muslims in the Middle Ages.
In Chanson de Roland, a medieval French epic of the Crusades, the poet envisioned Islam as an unholy trinity of the Prophet Muhammad and two demons Appolin and Tervagant.
The crusades by the Franks against the Muslim East did succeed in demythologising some of Western perceptions of Islam.
For many centuries, both Eastern and Western Christendom called Muslims Saracens. In the Iberian Peninsula, they called Muslims Moors, and people of the Iberian culture continued to call all Muslims “Moors” even if they met them in South East Asia. (e.g. the Moro Liberation Front in the Southern Philippines).
In Most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, and a convert to Islam was said to have “turned Turk” even if the conversion took place in a place as far away as India.
Europe and the Quran
In 1649, the first English translation of the Quran was published in London by Alexander Ross who based his research on a 1647 French translation by Andre du Tyer, the French consol in Egypt.
Ross, who did not speak Arabic, added an appendix to his “translation” of the Quran:
“Good reader, the great Arabian Imposter now at least after a thousand years, is … arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or Gallimaufry of Errors (a brat as deformed as the parents, and as full of heresies as his scald-head was of scurffe) hath learned to speak English … so should the reading of this Alcoran excite us both to bless God’s judgments, who suffers so many countries to be blinded and inslaved with this misshapen issue of Mahomets braine.”
“They [Europeans] can’t easily come to terms with the fact that a militarily and politically defeated umma (community) is asserting a pro-active presence in the heart of the West and is aspiring to present itself as an alternative to western civilisation”
Although Ross’s conceptualisation of Islam reflected the overall European rejection and fear of it, a few of his contemporaries treated Islam much more objectively.
Henry Stubbes, born in England in 1632, wrote several manuscripts on the Islamic faith entitled “Account of the Rise and Progress of Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet and a Vindication of Him and His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians.”
Medieval Christian legends
Stubbes ridiculed the medieval Christian legends about Muhammad as “rubbish”. Some of these legends said Muhammad was an epileptic, and that Muhammad’s inspiration came to him via a pet pigeon which used to eat peas from his ear.
In “The Character of Mahomet and Fabulous Inventions of the Christians Concerning him and his religion,” Stubbes presented a remarkable image of the Prophet, considering the general anti-Islamic prejudices and misperceptions of that time.
“I doubt not but by this time your curiosity will prompt you to enquire after the portraiture of this extraordinary person. His great soul was lodged in a body of Middle size; he had a large head, a brown complexion but fresh colour, a beard long and thick but not grey, a grave aspect wherein the awfulness of majesty seemed to be tempered with admirable sweetness which at once imprinted in the beholder’s respect, reverence and love. His eyes were quick and sparkling, his limbs exactly turned, his mien was great and noble, his motion free and easy, and every action had a grace so peculiar that it was impossible to see him with indifference.”
Stubbes’ ideas on Islam, however, were not popular within contemporary European circles and were not published until 1911.
The belief that Islam was at odds with the mostly Christian west persisted into the 21st century and reappear in US evangelical discourse about Islam.
In 2004, Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network said in a speech in Hertzlya, north of Tel Aviv, that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was actually a conflict between the Judeo-Christian God and Islam’s God-moon.
Others have referred to Allah as a pre-Islamic Arabian pagan deity.
This type of discourse, says Nammoura, reflects fears by these evangelicals that Islam constitutes the main threat and obstacle to their dispensationalist ideology.
“They see Islam, not Buddhism, not Hinduism, not Judaism, as the main geopolitical threat, this is why they come up with this rubbish.”
According to Philip Hitti, author of History of the Arabs, the Christian medieval image of Islam was the aggregate product of a confluence of streams of multiple sources in Syro-Byzantine, Hispano-French, Sicillio-Italian and crusading literature.
This literature conceptualised Muslims as pagans worshiping a false prophet who worked out his doctrine from Biblical sources under the tutelage of an Arian Monk.
Such beliefs were caricatured not only in religious and literary works, but also in art. Dante in his “Divine Comedy” was thus prompted consequently to consign the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali, to the ninth hell reserved for those who sow scandal and schism.
Christianity and Islam differ on
But with industrialisation western perceptions of Islam began to change slowly as more Europeans came in contact with Muslims. However, these perceptions remained basically negative due to the fundamental doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity.
However, with the rise of Orientalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries, Europeans (and some Americans) began to view the world of Islam less imaginatively.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, European powers occupied or came to control the bulk of Muslim lands in the Middle East. At this time, European attitudes changed from fear and hatred to patronisation and contempt.
Although European occupation of the Arab lands was seen mainly within the framework of European colonial expansionism, its religious dimensions remained.
British General Edmund Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem on 10 December 1917 was considered a “Christian” victory against the Turks.
An article published in 1917 in the Catholic magazine “America” captioned “Crusaders in Khaki,” and celebrated that the Holy Land was finally in Christian hands.
But Father DuBrul believes such attitudes deepen the cultural divide and must be challenged.
He urges stereotypes be replaced by discourse, exchange of ideas, self-knowledge, learning about others and prayers.
“If there is to be a greater understanding in the long range, it has to start with critical respect for the religious component in both cultures.”