It is timely now than ever to act upon the issues of Muslim religio-political relations due to the increasing spread of Islamophobia. Ever since the September 11, 2001 attack, the image of Islam has become subjected to what the media portrays it to be. The wrong perception of Islam incorporated in violent extremism of certain ideologies are regarded as the representation of the religion, which consequently resulted to exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility to the Muslims. In this era of globalisation, Islamophobia is felt in every part of the world, even in countries which has less contact with Muslims or Muslim populace.
Professor John L. Esposito in his recent talk “The Clash of Ignorance and Its Implications for Muslim Religio-Political Relations” at USIM addressed this issue in the context of clash of ignorance. The notion of clash of ignorance was coined by Edward Said as a counter critique to the earlier notion of clash of civilisation by Samuel Huntington, originated with Bernard Lewis and adopted by academics, policymakers and religious leaders in addressing the post September 11, 2001 attack. The notion of clash of civilisation was criticised to be simplistic and concentrated too much on the ‘West’ and ‘Islam’, by maintaining that the real source of conflict lies within Islam. Meanwhile, the notion of clash of ignorance provides a better understanding of the current state of affairs, which are very much a result of mutual lack of awareness regarding religious belief, history and culture. It must be recognised that conflicts today are largely because of ignorance rather than the actual differences themselves.
According to Professor John L. Esposito, among the major concerns of ignorance towards Islam is the belief that Islam is a militant or potentially a militant religion; and that Islam is incompatible with democracy that would undermine the very cultural values in the society. These led to the perception that Islam is peculiarly different and thus could not absorb peacefully and progressively in a mixed society and modernity.
The hijacked distorted version of Islam by extremists should not be taken as an acceptable representation of Islam and Muslims of more than 1.8 billion people in the world today. Honour killing, terrorism and other violent acts are not in line with the teachings of Islam which prohibits clearly excessiveness in religion (Surah Al-Maidah:77). Among the basic principles of Islam is that it honours human kind (Surah al-Isra: 70) and provides mercy for all creatures (Al-Anbiya: 107).
Islamophobia is a result of failure to understand intercultural dynamics and the lack of willingness to unlearn and relearn about Islam. The expectation of wanting everyone ‘to be like us’ would not work in a multicultural global society. Respect of other peoples’ belief and culture is essential for a sustainable co-existence. A big part of ignorance in the context of Islamophobia, is not wanting to realise that the majority of the Muslims are peace loving, respectful and ordinary humans living their day to day life.
To remedy ignorance is by knowledge. The way to the future is to identify the narratives that are wrong within and outside the Muslim community. The narrative of Islam’s glorious past, according to an observation by Dr. Amr Abdalla in Addis Ababa University Institute for Peace and Security Studies Policy Brief 2016, could be a driver towards militancy and violence by youths under the conviction that they are fulfilling their religious duty to restore to Islam its “lost glory”. This is also in line with Professor John L. Esposito’s caution on Muslims’ tendency of ‘treating certain ideals as if it is a reality’. An example of this is the understanding of ummah that transcends politics and nationalities, an ideal which may not be appropriate in the current setting of nation states. Equally important is the divisions within the Muslim communities that must be treated by mutual understanding, openness and respect.
As Muslims, there is a need to create a new narrative by posing the Shariah as a moral compass. The role of religious leaders is paramount in uniting, providing constructive input and educating Muslims from the ignorance of diversities and commonalities of other cultures and religions. The next generation of Imams must be trained to face the new challenges and be ready as the forefront in peaceful dialogues and intercultural communal efforts. For further readings by Professor John L. Esposito, one may find them in his numerous books such as “The Future of Islam”, “What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam” and “Who Speaks for Islam”.
This writing is based on Public Lecture Series organised by the Faculty of Leadership and Management on last Wednesday April 25, 2018.