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Political Islam and the West

 April 1998, Pages 34, 92, 123

Special Report


“Political Islam and the West” Conference in Cyprus Attracts 600 Participants


By Dr. Farid Mirbagheri


A conference on “Political Islam and the West” attracted some 600 participants in Cyprus Oct. 30 and 31. More than 30 speakers delivered their papers in eight tightly-arranged sessions at the Nicosia Hilton organized by the newly established Center for World Dialogue.


In her opening speech, former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto spoke of the need for mutual respect between the developing Islamic countries and the West. Civilizational dialogue was the message of the following speaker, Prof. John Esposito from the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University in Washington, DC.


Speaking on “Islam and Modernity,” Judith Miller, who has spent 20 years reporting on the region for The New York Times, blamed the governments of Islamic nations for the problems facing their peoples. She contrasted those problems with successes of the Israeli economy. U.S. aid to Israel, she said, was too marginal to have any significant impact on the overall shape of the country’s economy. Therefore, the roots of Israel’s success must be sought in the internal management of the economy and not external influences.


Her speech drew many searching questions from the audience. While accepting, to a degree, the successful management of the Israeli economy, some asked about the role of the Jewish lobby in the U.S. in helping Israel to obtain almost anything it needed from Capitol Hill and even from the White House. Others referred to the role of Binyamin Netanyahu’s policies in creating the current impasse in the Middle East peace process. A few had difficulty with the fact that Israel, in their view, seems to be the only state in the world which is based on a strict “fundamentalist” tenet: that the only qualification required for residency (leading to citizenship) is being of Jewish descent. This, questioners felt, should also be mentioned when referring to the concept and practice of “fundamentalism” in all religions.


Not surprisingly, the session contrasting the roles of women in Islam and the West stirred so much interest that it was extended and a separate room allocated for it to continue beyond its prescribed time. Mrs Taleghani, a prominent social and political figure in Iran, and Professor Riffat Hassan from the University of Louisville in Kentucky spoke passionately on the misperceived role of women in Islam in many parts of the world including Islamic countries themselves. Both cited Biblical and Qur’anic verses that, in their views, accepted engagement of women in all areas of human activity.


Speakers on “Islam, Oil and Politics” included Prof. Oystein Noreng and Bijan Mossavar-Rahmani. The former suggested a correlation between the decline of oil revenues in Middle Eastern countries and the rise of “fundamentalism.” The absence of democratic institutions to accommodate opposition views leads to religion being used as a political force, he said.


The latter spoke of the need for mutual understanding between Tehran and Washington. The U.S., he said, had to realize that Iran will again become increasingly important in the global oil market after the turn of the century. At the same time, he continued, Iran had to realize that to regain its proper place in the world oil market, it requires American assistance.


International Aspects

Professor Anatoli Gromyko, son of long-time Soviet Foreign Minister Andre Gromyko, and Graham Fuller of the RAND Corporation were among speakers on the international aspects of political Islam. Both emphasized the need for better and deeper understanding of the demands of Islamic states. Moreover, the view that the Islamic world was monolithic in its politics or in its interpretation of Islam, they said, was erroneous and naive. As expected, this session aroused much interest and involved some analysis of current international issues.


Fuller stated that the United States had no problem with Islam or even Islamic fundamentalism as such. He pointed out that one of the closest American allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, is a fundamentalist state. Commenting on the power of the Israel lobby, he said that strong as it may be, it is not invincible.


The petroleum industry as well as the Pentagon, he added, have problems with Israel’s policies in the region. He also asserted that the end of the Cold War has diminished Israel’s significance.


Fuller pointed out that Jesus Christ and Prophet Muhammad have no fight with each other. The struggle here is about geo-politics, oil and other related issues. There is no civilizational cause for the conflicts of interests that are observed between certain groups. Civilizations may be used as a vehicle but are not the root cause. There is also a certain degree of misperception in the U.S. of political Islam.


This view was supported by Shireen Hunter of the Center for European Policy Studies in Brussels. She said that Islam is already part of Europe, as the cases of Bosnia, Albania and Bulgaria clearly illustrate. Militant Islam may, however, seem to pose an internal threat in some countries of the European Union. The latter, she added, has so far been unwilling to decide on a common defense and foreign policy on various issues including militant Islam.


Making a case for a strategic alliance of Russia with the Muslim world, Professor Gromyko said that during World War II the former Soviet Union had saved Europe from at least a spiritual death. He said the Islamic faith is about peace, brotherhood and social justice. Interestingly, he asserted that Russia is part of the Islamic world.


Discussing misperceptions of political Islam by the West, Professor Reza Sheikh ole slami of Oxford University said Muslim countries have no quarrel with Western concepts of governance as such, but feel frustrated and angry because they are deprived of the prosperity generated by their oil in the West. Petroleum is a scarce commodity and, he believed, in the zero-sum battle for the wealth from it, the more powerful were bound to win.


Democracy, freedom and other values practiced by the West are also held in high regard by Muslims, he said. However, the problem starts when the Western world either ignores or deliberately props up undemocratic regimes. It seems unconvincing to many Muslims that the U.S. talks of encouraging democratic values while at the same time it implements policies which aim for exactly the opposite, he added.


Highlights of the conference were sessions with Professors Samuel Huntington and Abdoul-Karim Soroush. Huntington’s views on an inevitable clash between the Islamic and Christian civilizations, outlined in his book Clash of Civilizations, have been the subject of controversy ever since its publication last year. Addressing a packed hall with an attentive audience, the American scholar defended the arguments propounded in his book, but put somewhat less stress on the inevitability of a civilizational confrontation.


Soroush, a leading Islamic thinker and philosopher, spoke to a captivated audience in the filled-to-capacity ballroom. In a general but useful survey of the development of religious thought in the world, he employed a theme of unity of historical experience in a comparative analysis of Christianity and Islam. He pointed to similarities in post-Renaissance Christian thought and in what Islamic thought may be experiencing at the moment. In a reference to Huntington’s thesis he stated that civilization is not a quantifiable or tangible entity, but a theme, and an inaccurate one at that, produced by historians to assist their explanations of history. It would seem inaccurate to base historical theories on civilizational themes, Soroush added.


Dr. Vassos Lyssarides, leader of the Cypriot Socialist Party EDEK, told conference participants that in his view all religions strive to serve the less privileged. Confrontations presented as religious feuds are often based on conflicts of interest, he said. Islam adds to the multi-dimensional civilization of man, he concluded, and people of all religions should be able to live together peacefully for the common good.


Addresses by Dr. Ehsan Naraghi, special adviser to the director-general of UNES CO, Eric Rouleau of Le Monde Diplomatique and Ayatollah Mojtahed-Shabestary of Tehran University also were highlights of the conference. A message from Federico Mayer, director general of UNESCO, was read in Dr. Naraghi’s opening address.


The conference, under the auspices of the University of Cyprus, was held in cooperation with the Middle Eastern Studies Program of Rutgers University. The director of the program, Professor Hooshang Amirahmadi, was also a participant and spoke on the geopolitics of energy.


President Hossein Alikhani of the Centre for World Dialogue, main organizer of the conference, said that more dialogue of this sort would help erode misunderstandings and misperceptions between the two camps. The wide coverage that the conference received in the West and in the Islamic world demonstrated the theme’s contemporary relevance. The necessity of steering away from confrontations based on misperceptions and toward understanding based on mutual respect and dialogue was the clear and overwhelming message emerging from the conference.

Dr. Farid Mirbagheri is assistant professor of international relations at Intercollege in Nicosia, Cyprus.




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