The Perceptions of Islam and Muslims in the West
09/14/2015
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The interaction between Western Europe and Islam dates from 710 A.D., only 80 years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, when Arab and Berber armies crossed the straits of Gibraltar and invaded Spain,. However, territories were reconquered by the Spanish up to 1492. By that time there was further Muslim expansion elsewhere under the Ottoman Turks, who eventually extinguished what was left of the Byzantine Empire, occupied its capital, Constantinople, and expanded into Eastern and Central Europe. As late as the seventeenth century they were able to occupy the Island of Crete and threaten Vienna. Similarly, Islam entered many European countries long ago and remained there right into the twentieth century. The fact that Islam is found in many South East European countries is because indigenous populations converted to Islam under the rule of the Ottoman Turks. The relationship between Muslims and European Christians, however, was not one based simply on war. There was also trade across the Mediterranean and an exchange of ideas.
Throughout the Middle Ages the way in which Islam was to be viewed later in the West was in its formative stage. At first, the more commonly held view was that Islam was a heresy of Christianity. During or after the Crusades, the image of Islam and Muslims in the European mind began to be built upon misinformation about Islam leading to Islam being described even as a form of polytheistic idol worship. The West also perceived the East as a dangerous region where Islam flourished and monstrous races multiplied. Turks were portrayed as the incarnation of horror, cruelty, revenge, or passion not so much because of their race but because they represented Islam. Islam was also supposed to be ordering the Saracens “to rob, to make prisoner and to kill the adversaries of God and their Prophet, and to persecute and destroy them in every way.” Apparently, in the Christian world the stereotypes which developed during the Crusades have led to hostility towards Islam which has survived to the present day. Perhaps the stereotypes and hostility have survived in order to justify Europe’s later changes in attitudes toward the world outside that came with its discoveries of new lands.
While Europe’s hostile view of Muslims can be traced back to the Crusades, Muslims’ negative perceptions of Europe derive from the later period of Europe’s discovery of the outside world. Muslims in medieval times mainly regarded Europe as simply a land of non-believers. The Turks, then, like the Arabs, did not perceive Europeans as being violent in the way Europeans viewed them, despite the fact that they knew about the Inquisition Courts in Europe where heretics were severely punished or even burnt to death.
It was at the end of the seventeenth and in the eighteenth centuries when Europe became more expansionistic that Muslims changed their views of it, now seeing it as imperialistic. Thereafter, even Christian missionaries were identified with imperialism. Thus, the Christian West once viewed from a religious point of view was now viewed in a non-religious way due to imperialism and colonialism.
By the eighteenth century Muslims were travelling to Europe, embassies were established, and some Muslims lived in the West in order to study there, especially in military science and politics, when the Ottomans and the Arab countries under Ottoman control (Egypt where the modernizing ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha was in power may set an example to this) came to realize that the survival of their empire depends on understanding what was happening in Europe. This interaction enabled Muslims to gain a closer and more realistic view of the West and Western Christianity. By the nineteenth century, though, there was no need for Muslims to travel to Europe to learn more about Europe and Europeans because they now faced Europeans as invaders in Muslim lands.
More Recent Perceptions
After the Second World War a new era began in terms of Muslims’ views of Europe. This time Europe was viewed much more positively. With Muslim emigration to Europe it came to be regarded as a land of abundance. Information about the advent of new technologies was conveyed to the home countries, and those back home formed an image of a Europe where people lived in great luxury. This image has, to some extent, remained up to the present, although it is not as strong as it used to be. Due to the mass media the Muslim world seems to have grown out of this perception. Also, the growing technological capacity of Muslim countries themselves has helped change this image.
Today, the Muslim world, especially the Turks, view the West more positively than the Western world views them. Muslims under the influence of westernization have widely left behind their past more negative images of the West. A look through the recommendations to Muslims in many of the old books of Qur’an exegesis reveals how much things have changed. In such books, for example, the interpretation of the nineteenth verse of Surah 31 of the Qur’an, about being modest in bearing or one’s walk and about speaking in a subdued voice, urged Muslims not to walk with the fast pace of Jews nor with the slow pace of Christians but to walk at a moderate pace. Now some Western norms and even ways of conduct have been adopted by many Muslim societies.
In spite of these changes, one cannot deny the history of past conflicts and hostility. Resolving hostility that has lasted for more than a thousand years will not be easy. The granting of permission to construct a mosque in Rome, the largest in Europe, by Italian officials was a positive step forward. However, at the opening of the mosque in 1995, the way the past can blur the present was indicated. The opening ceremony was boycotted by some of Italy’s highest officials. Moreover, the Speaker of the Italian lower house, Irene Pivetti, instead of taking part in the opening ceremony which she was invited to attend, went to a nearby church in order to make amends for the opening of the mosque. There she joined others in a service honoring the sixteenth century battle of Lepanto which broke for a while the naval might of the Ottomans. Thus, an attempt to promote dialogue between the two religions provoked some reactions in the opposite direction.
Another example of the past being brought into the present involves the remarks made by the Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic (who is held responsible for the genocide of Bosnian Muslims) during an interview broadcast by BBC in 1993. He said that it was the Serbs who had protected Europe from the Turks for over 500 years. This statement came as an answer to the BBC presenter’s question of why the Serbs insisted on committing atrocities against the Bosnian Muslims. What Karadzic was trying to imply was that Muslims are, in fact, an enemy for Europe rather than for the serbs.
A much more serious example of the past influencing the present is the way in which an “us” versus “them” attitude has developed in Europe and the Western world towards the Muslim world. Due to the colonialism and imperialism carried out by the Europeans it seems that the Western world has come to see itself as superior to all other nations with a right to dominate the world. This attitude is even reflected in Western nineteenth and twentieth century novels. One can also easily find the same “us” and “them” mentality among twentieth century novelists like Graham Green, particularly in his novel The Quiet American. Unfortunately, this superiority complex and the pattern of interaction it creates still continues, and since, it seems, Muslims are included among the “others,” they deserve to be ruled or punished when they “misbehave” or “rebel.” Erich Fromm calls this phenomenon as “ultra-nationalism or racism” or “national or racial narcissism.” Individuals who have taken on these attitudes tend to see their own nation as perfect, peace-loving, and cultured, for example, while “other” countries are the opposite. Narcissistic nationalism encourages people to notice only the virtues of their own nation while noticing only the vices of the “other.” We often witness the mobilization of narcissistic nationalism in the lead up to war. In a sense, it makes a nation psychologically ready for war. When this narcissism takes over, reason disappears. In other words, not only are the old views about the Islamic world created at the time of the Crusades still causing problems, but so are views about it caused by the continuing superiority complex still not thrown off by the Western world.
If we assume that a minority of Europeans have overcome the old attitudes, we are still faced with the majority that have not. So how are the old stereotypes to be gotten rid of? What are Europeans taught about Islam? What most of them seem to know is nothing more than secondary school information such as the story of Richard the Lion Hearted and Salahaddin. Most ordinary Europeans have not even heard about the presence of Islam in Spain until the end of the fifteenth century and the great effect it had on Europe.
The Portrayal of the Islamic World in the Western Media
Another source of information about the Islamic world comes from the media. Unfortunately, what it presents to the West is Muslims as terrorists waiting to shoot tourists in Egypt or bomb innocent civilian Jews in Israel, and Muslims as barbarians who yearn for the execution of Salman Rushdie in Britain. This creates the idea in the West that all Muslims are potential terrorists and leads to an atmosphere in which Muslims are viewed with suspicion. No doubt the remarks of a Swedish citizen, Erik Hörstadius, after the Gulf War are due to the distrust that has been created by the media. He said, “I would feel nothing if a hundred thousand Arabs die, but I feel sympathy for the soldiers of the Allies and their families because I am terrified of Arabs.” As this one example illustrates, Islam is widely represented as a threat to the West, and therefore to Christianity, whereas, as Esposito puts it, Islam is not a threat but a challenge. In my opinion, it is time that the medieval perception of Islam as a mortal threat be thrown off.
This view really insults and humiliates Muslims. It may also cause problems for some of Europeans’ other “others” as well. An English proverb says, “Give a dog an ill name and hang him!” Unfortunately, this is what most Muslims believe the West does in order to pursue its interests. For instance, Americans need someone like Saddam Hussain. He is someone they can give names and punish. What happens is that “others,” innocent people, suffer. What the United States or the West is after in the Middle East is controlling it. Saddam is just an excuse. This has always been the policy of the West. It resembles the way Americans systematically falsely described the American Indians as savages in order to clear the new world of them.
As for the European press, Islam and Muslims are presented not only as dangerous but also as primitive and even deranged. One can easily find vivid examples in articles in the British tabloids. Even the more serious British papers, in writing about the wedding in May 1995 of Pakistan’s well-known former cricketer Imran Khan and Jemima, the daughter of billionaire financier James Goldsmith, took the position that Jemima faced a life of hell in Pakistan. An article, confirming the negative effect that the media can have on Westerners’ perceptions of Europe appeared in the U. S. publication, Newsweek. It had an article in 1996 that mentioned a French opinion poll of 1994 in which Muslims living in France were asked to choose from several words and phrases the three that most closely corresponded to their idea of Islam. They picked “democracy”, “justice” and “liberty.” Non-Muslims, picking from the same list, chose “fanaticism” by a wide margin. Then came “submission” and “rejection of Western values

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