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memri
June 4, 2002 No.
386

Leading Islamic Clerics Come Out For Reform in Arab-Islamic Society

Sheikh 'Abd Al-Hamid Al-Ansari[1], dean of the Faculty of Shar'iah (Islamic Law) at Qatar University, known for his liberal positions, published an article in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat. In the article, titled "Landmarks in Rational and Constructive Dialogue With the 'Other,'" he writes:

"Since September 11, there has been a buildup of mutual misunderstanding, evil thought, suspicions, and distortions between West and East… This buildup has led to an unhealthy atmosphere that fostered two phenomena: the rise of the extreme right in the West – known as the Le Pen phenomenon – which sees the other as an enemy foreigner who abhors [Western] culture and values, and on the other hand the rise of extremist movements in Arab and Islamic societies who see the West as an enemy plotting against Islam and Muslims."

Diversity Must be Respected
"There are mutual needs and joint interests between the East and West. But before everything else, there is a common human heritage that must be protected, and must be strengthened, recognizing human diversity and differences, respecting the unique aspects and religious and cultural identities of various peoples and nationalities…"

"The Koranic verse says, 'Oh people, we have created you male and female, and we have made you peoples and tribes, in order to make it easier for you to know each other. Indeed, the one Allah honors most are those amongst you who are the most righteous.'[2] This verse forbids imposing a single culture, regime, idea, or faith on the entire human race. Jihad, in its real meaning, is a means of preserving the right of pluralism and variety and guaranteeing freedom of choice for all, because diversity is considered a natural and universal truth…"

"In my opinion, this requires dialogue on two fronts: internal and external. The internal dialogue must include all the people and organizations in society, without banning any party, without accusing it of treachery or heresy or without slandering it… We will not attain a healthy, mature, and constructive relationship with the foreign 'other' without establishing a healthy relationship with the 'other' within us – the one with a different political, ideological, religious, [or] ethnic opinion, or the one belonging to a different school of thought, [and] without correcting our attitude towards women, based on values of tolerance and respect for pluralism and acceptance of the 'other'…"

"With regard to the external dialogue… The necessary point of departure, in my opinion, is that each party reveal itself genuinely, from the outset, along with the prejudices and stereotypes regarding the 'other.' After that, there must be self-criticism of these ideas and views. Before we complain to the 'other' about the negative way in which he perceives us, we must monitor ourselves and correct our misconceptions towards the 'other.'"

"The West must reexamine the foundations of its view towards us and the ideas it has formulated about us since the period of Orientalism [i.e. Orientalist research] which were based on the [perceptions] of the Middle Ages – according to which Islam is a religion of violence spread by the sword, and the Muslims are wreaking vengeance on modern civilization and do not respect human rights, do not guarantee minority rights, do not believe in the values of democracy and tolerance, and do not behave properly towards women. Similarly, the West needs to refrain from generalizing about Islam and Muslims because of the behavior of a small minority among them."

"At the same time, we, the Muslims, must rid ourselves of world and Western conspiracy theories against us; we must free ourselves of the complex of the Crusader wars and the weighty colonialist heritage. We must stop presenting the 'other' as a Satan devising colonialist, imperialist, or global conspiracies or cultural invasion against us. We must stop thinking that the world has nothing to do but plot against us and hate us for being Muslims…"

"There is no escape from revealing the flaws in our social system – in politics, in culture, in the media, in education, and in the religious curriculum for the past fifty years."

The Pan-Arab Discourse
"According to this discourse, in most cases, it is the West that sabotaged the Arab revival and prevented their progress; prevented their unity by occupying the Arab countries and sketching out borders for them; struck at their attempt to institute democracy; exhausted their natural resources, and delayed development…"

"However, a fair and objective examination shows that even if the colonialist West bears some of the responsibility, most of the responsibility lies at the door of the Arabs themselves…"

"Similarly, the separate countries… preceded colonialism. When the borders were drawn, tribal balances were taken into account more than Western interests. Democracy was never more than a false slogan in the world of the Arabs, and never had any practical expression – not by the regime, and not by the opposition… Moreover, we were the ones who squandered our own resources, with stupid policy and wars against each other and against others."

The Religious Discourse
"A significant part of the [Islamic] religious discourse is rife with concepts such as 'ideological invasion,' 'world conspiracy,' 'Crusader hostilities,' and 'perpetual enmity towards Islam and Muslims.' Like the pan-Arab discourse, the religious discourse incites and mobilizes. It is always directed against the foreign 'other,' or the local 'other'… Many religious rulings are issued that accuse intellectuals, writers, and artists of heresy or sin; no one escapes them."

"In all fairness, it should be said that the Western churches have gotten over the complex of the Crusader wars. In contrast, our pulpits still live their bitterness from those wars, and still call for the annihilation of the West – of the 'Jews and Christians.'"

"The religious discourse must be amended and renewed… so that it will be able to fulfill its true role of disseminating knowledge and enlightenment, and dealing with the nation's fundamental problems in a way that will draw the individuals in society closer together, and not sow hatred towards others… The mosques are Allah's, and they must not be allowed to become an arena of political and factional dispute."

The Media Discourse
"Our media suit no one but us. It mobilizes and incites the people, and distracts them from their real problems. What interests them more than anything else is fishing for negative comments [about the Arabs] by the Western 'other'… Since our media deliberately disseminated Huntington's theory of the 'Clash of Civilizations,' this theory has become most popular, and all our intellectuals have begun to pen responses to it… Our media have forgotten the human alternative – the 'Dialogue of Civilizations' – which Western intellectuals have also called for. And when Berlusconi made the mistake of speaking of the superiority of Western culture, this slip was blown up here, while his clarification and apology, and his visit to the Islamic center, were pushed aside…"

The Educational Discourse
"Our educational discourse is based on defensiveness towards the 'other' and on historical self-aggrandizing. The child's mind is filled with his nation's glory and triumphs, while the part of others [in history] is downplayed. A significant part of our educational discourse is cut off from the modern sciences, and is based on a uni-dimensional view, creating a closed mentality and an easy slide towards fanaticism. It plants misconceptions regarding women and religious or ethnic minorities; it is dominated by memorization and repetitive methods…"

"Let us all work to mobilize spiritual energy and direct it for the good of the entire human race."[3]

Changing Islamic Curriculum
"The Dialogue of Civilizations" came up in another panel discussion on the matter at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. Dr. 'Abdallah Shihatah, lecturer in Shari'ah (Islamic law) at Al-Azhar University, criticized the university's religious curriculum, saying:

"I [too] attended Al-Azhar, but the challenges facing our Islamic society today require us to develop these curricula with the help of Al-Azhar's alumni – who combine the study of religious sciences with a grasp of the new reality and the challenges that require us [to use] other methods within a dialogue between – not a clash of – civilizations…"

"The Islamic sages of the modern age made a grave mistake in accusing Western civilization of corruption over many years, and not seeing the positive things in it that allowed Western societies to advance in the various sciences and gave them the power of progress… Our sages, and our media, must shift from the concept of a clash with Western civilization to a dialogue with it."

“When Muslim civilization conquered the Persians and the Byzantines, it took the things that benefited them and left the harmful things. Muslim civilization never ceased adopting [things] from other civilizations, adding to them and inventing many other sciences…"

"Muslim society must understand that today's cruel attack on it, which distorts the image of Islam and the Muslims, obliges us to restore for ourselves the banner of science, culture, and progress because we urgently need a strong and modern society. We must acknowledge that we are in a state of stagnation, and must begin to change our curricula and the religious programs, with modern thought that will combine religious principles with the new reality. [We must] prepare an appropriate atmosphere for scientific research in all areas, and develop social life, in order to inspire self-confidence."


[1] For more on Al-Ansari, see also:

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[2] Koran 49:13.

[3] Al-Hayat (London), May 31, 2002.