IN NO PERIOD OF RECORDED HISTORY have human beings known about different cultures as much as we do today. Thanks to the pervasive nature of globalization, what happens in Washington, London or France has an immediate impact on what positions are taken in Istanbul, Cairo or Kuala Lumpur. Our global public space is so powerful yet so elusive that it leads many to believe that more information brings more understanding. Getting to know others from close up, however, is not always a smooth and easy experience. It may result in some pleasant surprises and enriching experiences. Yet it may also result in disappointment, frustration and mistrust. In the current state of relations between Muslim and Western societies, we are doomed when we refuse to recognize each other in one way or another. Yet, we also face tremendous difficulties when we show the courage and honesty of knowing each other closely for there is too long a history of doubt, mistrust and refusal.

Today, living together is no longer confined to living in the same city or country. Geographical and political boundaries turn into trivial details when it comes to the shared space of thought, imagination and feeling. Living together becomes a burden and threat when this space, so dear to the heart and mind of every human being, is ridiculed, underestimated, attacked or destroyed. It is at such moments of violence that we lose our resolve to defend the middle path and begin to see extremism of various kinds, economic, military, political, religious, or cultural, as a refuge and basis for our oppositional identities. This is where Muslim sentiments collide with those of the West: ordinary people with sound minds become suspects or enemies. Our “information age” gives us not understanding but misguided intellects and hardened souls.

As we experience it today, the form and scale of living together is a new phenomenon in human history. In no other period have human beings been so open and vulnerable to what others think and do. Blessed ignorance or calculated indifference is only a luxury that comes at a high cost. A New Yorker can no longer ignore the Middle East peace process, nor can an Egyptian turn a blind eye to the uninspiring and tasteless work of a few Danish cartoonists. Whether we see it as a challenge or threat, we live together and try to make sense of our lives through the lenses of such real and demanding experiences.

This is especially true if we consider the large number of Muslims living in Europe and the United States. Today, about one-fourth of world’s Muslim population lives as minorities from India and Western China to Africa and Europe. This is a drastically new phenomenon in the Muslim history and will take generations to adjust to. Muslims have always lived as a majority politically, economically and culturally, even when they were outnumbered by the locals they ruled. The modern period has brought an end to this and a new situation has emerged where living together with communities of different religious and cultural traditions has become a prominent fact of our lives.

Living together is one thing; being aware of it something quite different. At the risk of being simplistic, we can divide our experience of sharing the world into three periods. The first is what pre-modern cultures and societies have experienced. The traditional societies were able to exist as more or less independent and integral units. Internal coherence, both metaphysical and social, had given them the ability to grow organically without much need for interaction with the outside world, different cultures and societies. There have always been interactions with others, of course. But this was not a condition for the long and healthy existence of a civilization. A Chinese painter could have easily produced some of the most beautiful works of art without knowing anything about Islamic miniatures or Christian icons. Today, no matter how close one tries to remain to his or her tradition, it is no longer possible to remain oneself without recognizing the reality of others, both close and distant.
Curiously enough, in the Middle Ages there were two major civilizations that were exceptions to this rule. It would not be a stretch to say that no two world civUizations have been as intimately intertwined with one another as the Western and Islamic civilizations. We cannot understand, for instance, the development of Islamic science, philosophy and arts without recognizing the significance of what Muslim scholars did with the Greek and Byzantine lore available to them. Nor can we talk about medieval Europe without acknowledging the heavy influence of Islam on everything from the scholastic tradition and rise of colleges to Beati miniatures and even Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is because of this long history rather than its absence that die two civilization have seen the other as a worthy rival.


The second model is what emerged in the 19th and 20th centuries as a new mode of cultural development. The rise ofthe West as the dominant force of the modern world created a Euro-centric paradigm whereby the idea of Europe became a reality for the rest of the world. Needless to say, Eurocentrism has never been simply a matter of economic and military might. It has manifested itself in such diverse areas as culture, arts, historical consciousness, philosophy, urban design, architecture, humanities, science, imperialism, novels, taste and social stratification. Its hallmark has been the pushing of others to the margins of human history. Whether these others are Muslims, Russians, Chinese, African- Americans or Native Americans, it makes little difference.

Today, we’re still struggling with this image of a unipolar world. Euro-centrism is a problem that hurts not only nonWestern societies but also Westerners themselves for a unipolar world only leads to the economic, political, intellectual or artistic marginalization of the vast majority of world populations. No matter how it happens, it strips people of a sense of meaning and purpose. Much of the current sentiment of dispossession and frustration we see in the nonWestern world today is a result of this.

These two models of cultural and civilizational order can no longer provide a sense of security and participation for all citizens of the world. A multi-polar and multi-centered world has to arise to undo the misdeeds of both cultural isolationism and Euro-centrism. A world that is no more than an excuse for the “White Man’s Burden” cannot foster a culture of peace and civilized diversity. The future of the relationship between Islamic, Western and other societies will largely depend on the extent to which we accept this fact and act on it. It will also shape the ways in which the large number of Muslims living in Europe and the United States as equal citizens and legal immigrants will be allowed to be part of Western societies.

A multi-polar and pluralist world, which would be our third model of sharing the world, is not a world without standards or values. It is a world in which all cultures and societies are seen as equals but are urged to vie for the common good. This is not a wishy-washy multiculturalism which runs the risk of eroding any common grounds between cultures and creating parallel communities. Rather, it is an act of enriching oneself by recognizing others. A shared framework of ideas and values can emerge only within the context of what Gadamer has called the “fusion of horizons”. Today, Muslims living in the West and Westerners interacting with Muslims have a chance to enrich themselves by recovering the middle path of preserving their identity while recognizing those of others. It is through such acts that we can foster an ethics and culture of coexistence that will not tolerate racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims as well as the demonization of Jews, Christians and others.

Part of the problem we face lies in creating a conflict between an absolute self and an absolute other. Much of the Ianguage of clash today is based on such an opposition in which Islam is set against such values as justice, equality, human rights and human dignity. Many non- Westerners and Muslims among them make the same mistake in reverse in the name of indigenous oppositions, belated nationalisms or simply communal uniqueness. Speaking of the self and the other as a binary opposition, however, does not necessarily lead to an essential conflict. The distance between the self and the other can be construed as a healthy tension in expanding one’s self-understanding and reaching out to the world around us.

There is a further danger in dissolving all boundaries between the self and the other: it creates a sense of insecurity and homelessness, which we see everywhere today from the streets of Cairo to Spain. In many ways, globalization has further deepened this sense of insecurity. This is felt deeply especially in Muslim countries where the eroding effects of have created a profound sense of mistrust and resentment towards the modern world in general and the West in particular.

Muslims living in Europe face similar tensions. What is being asked of them in the name of integration is usually assimilation and a call for losing their identities. They are asked to become French, German or Danish, as if there are such neat identities that can be applied to all Europeans. Combined with the deep-rooted culture of mistrust and suspicion, this demand results in the further alienation of European Muslims and forces them to become a sub-culture within Europe. Whether Muslims are considered religious communities or ethnic minorities, they are seen as an “other” and as a security issue.


Islam and Muslims, however, are no longer a distant phenomenon, existing in some far away part of the world. They are part and parcel of the cultural and demographic fabric of the West. This has been the case for a long time, especially if we remember the presence of Muslims in the Balkans for the last four centuries. It was an erroneous and costly assumption to think that Europe could have immigrants without a face, identity, culture and values. Take the example of Turkish workers in Germany. When they were invited by the government to help rebuild post-war Germany, they were seen as guest workers, a mere work force for German factories. There was hardly any debate on integrating these manual workers at the time. Forty years later, we have suddenly awakened to the reality of Turks living in Kreuzeberg, Munich, Frankfurt and other Germany cities as if they just got off the plane yesterday. They have been around for decades and no one had noticed them. Yesterday, we did not care if any of these guest workers spoke German or learned about German culture. Now, we want them to speak perfect German many of whom do anyway), know the culture and history better than the natives, and test their level of civility by asking them the most sensitive moral questions which would disqualify even many ordinary Germans as citizens.

The rising tide of political and intellectual conservatism across Europe feeds this deep and often dormant opposition to the presence of Muslims in Europe. What cannot be said about any other religion or race is easily being said about Islam and Muslims. The ethnic and religious diversity of Europe is reduced to one single block with no place for Muslim communities. Thus Oriana Fallaci tries to pass off her unsophisticated racism as an act of calculated “rage and pride” as if Europe did not have enough of it already during the Holocaust and the Bosnian genocide. Even the Pope Benedict XVI opposes Turkey’s accession to the European Union on the grounds that there is no place for a Muslim nation in Europe.

An exclusivist identity politics underlies all this. In fact, much of the current debate about immigration and integration in Europe is underlined by an attempt to create a European identity in opposition to others such as Muslim, Asian, African, or simply immigrant. But to be a global power, Europe has to recognize its own diversity and strengthen its pluralism for a chance to be a place of freedom, justice, peace, creativity and innovation. There is greater awareness of this across Europe today. But it is far from being the mainstream position with respect to minority communities and especially Muslims.


The first step is to recognize the problem for what it is, i.e., Europe has to adjust itself to the new realities of our day and age. If change is inevitable, it has to happen not just in the Middle East but also in Europe and the United States. The old model of integration through assimilation is a thing ofthe past. An Iraqi or Indian Muslim cannot be expected to go through the same stages of integration today that a Polish immigrant went through in the U.S. a century ago. The modern means of communication and the emergence of group identities beyond national borders force us to develop new patterns of social cohesion and harmony. Integration through participation and accommodation, constitutional citizenship and democratic representation need to be allowed to foster a new culture of equality and diversity.

Secondly, religion continues to be a major social force in the world. Much of thé rhetoric of clash uses religious language. At this point, religious sources of tolerance must be mobilized to address issues of racism, discrimination and intolerance. Religious leaders must play an active role in calling for a peaceful coexistence with other faith communities. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus and others must come together on issues of shared concern and develop common strategies. Yet, this must be done in a responsible and inclusive way. A Muslim can’t tell a Jew or Christian how to interpret his sacred texts but can argue with him over the conditions of coexistence. The Pope’s talk at Regensburg University last September is a good example of how not to engage in dialogue with Muslims. At the end ofthe day, this is an ethical position and must be articulated and implemented by all communities, both religious and non-religious.

Thirdly, a number of practical measures need to be taken. These include an active fight against Islamophobia by establishing monitoring centers, opening new channels of communication between Western Muslims and their governments, revising school curricula and text books to include Muslims in a more balanced world history, conducting extensive and reliable surveys of Muslims in Europe and the U.S. and their social problems, and supporting interfaith relations and educating the general public about Islam and Muslims. Achieving these goals and creating an ethic of coexistence is the shared responsibüity of both Westerners and Muslims. It will be long and hard; yet if there is a will, there is a way.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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