Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 13 February 2006

Facing the West-Muslim divide

As protests widened across the Muslim world over the cartoons of Prophet Muhamed, the Prime Minister’s warning about a huge chasm between the West and Islam caught the world’s attention.  The question is whether and how this divide is going to be addressed.


The row over the printing of cartoons of the Prophet Muhamed in European newspapers worsened last week as demonstrations and protests took place in many countries, including Malaysia, Lebanon, India, Pakistan and in many European cities.

The row has also deepened the debate on the so-called clash of cultures.  It looks as if this controversy is not going to abate any time soon.

The Prime Minister’s statement, that a huge chasm has emerged between the West and Islam, seems to have caught the attention and imagination of the West.

It was highlighted as headline news on the BBC’s world television network.  A BBC journalist commented that Datuk Seri Abadullah Badawi’s speech, made at an international seminar in Kuala Lumpur last Friday, had been taken seriously by Westerners because of his reputation as a moderate Muslim leader.  

The fact that Malaysia currently chairs the Organisation of Islamic Unity makes the statement more significant.

If it had been made by a “radical”, the statement would have been taken more as rhetoric, said the journalist.

The PM’s analysis that “the crusades, western colonialism, imposition of Israel upon the Arab world, post-colonial hegemony and Western desire to control oil and gas especially supplies from Muslim countries contributed to the huge chasm that had emerged between the West and Islam” did encapsulate the legitimate grievances of the Muslim world.

His next line, that the targeting of so-called Islamic terrorists in the war against terror had aggravated the situation and the senseless violence of the terrorists made things worse, updated the analysis to the present.

His solution – that there must be “bridge builders” between the West and the Muslim world – is a simple and good one.  The question is how this can be done.

In many Western countries, the politicians in power themselves seem to hold on to their prejudices.  More pertinent, they and their predecessors are the ones most responsible for the policies Abdullah Badawi pinpointed as contributing to the chasm.

These policies includes siding with Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians, the grasping desire to control oil resources especially in the Middle East, the occupation of Iraq, and the treatment of Muslims in the war against terror,  and now the seeming persecution of Iran.

The Western leaders and media recently condemned the Iranian President for saying that Israel should be wiped off the map.  That is their right and strongly have they exercised that right.   

However, it appears that the Western establishment is unable to condemn the military and indeed terrorist action that actually wiped Palestine off the map when the state of Israel was created on Palestinian land. 

That may be because the Western political leaders were accomplices, even midwives, in those tragic events over half a century ago.

It is double standards by forgetting, that in the one case a threat to wipe off the map ignites such a furore, when in another case (related to the first) the actual wiping off the map seems to have been forgotten or condoned.

The stereotyping of the “Arab terrorist” in countless Hollywood movies, then in much of the Western mainstream media in recent years, contributed to the demonizing of Muslims and their religion.

This is why there is quite a lot of support among ordinary Europeans for the actions of the newspapers that published and re-published the cartoons. 

It could be that many of them just do not understand why Muslims find the cartoons so insulting and blasphemous.  And that they hold on strongly to the values of freedom of expression and the media.

But underlying this attitude could be something far more disturbing.  A Danish researcher who recently wrote a book on the attitude of Europeans towards Muslims living in  European countries found that many of the Europeans she interviewed were ignorant among the Muslims and many even held a feeling of hatred towards them.


She told a TV interviewer last week that she was not surprised by the publication of the cartoons, nor how a large part of the Danish or French population supported this, even though this deeply offended the Muslims.

She herself had been subjected to a lot of hate mail from quite ordinary European individuals after she appeared on media interviews trying to explain the perspectives of Muslims who feel marginalized and demonized in Western countries, and why they were so indignant about the cartoons.        

Obviously there is a big gap that will continue to spell more trouble for the world, unless something is done about it.

Building bridges is crucial.  But to have a positive effect, there must be serious attempts to address the underlying grievances of the Muslim world, starting with the ones that have been identified by the Prime Minister.

The rights of Palestinians have to be addressed.  If they were wiped from the map, they have to be “de-wiped” or put back on the map.  What the new map is going to be is of course a politically charged issue to be resolved.

The occupation of Iraq has to end as soon as possible.  It should have ended yesterday, as in fact the war should not have taken place at all.  

The Western formulation of their policies towards resource-rich countries, geared foremost to how to control their oil and other resources, should also change.  The West should accept the sovereignty of countries to their resources, and their right to control and obtain fair benefits from these resources.

The stereotyping of Muslims and demonizing of their religion should end.  Prejudices should not be perpetuated or championed in the name of freedom of expression.

In the same speech last week, Abdullah Badawi also spent a lot of time on the reforms that need to be undertaken in the Muslim world, and how it should also reach out to the West.  The building of bridges should be from both sides of the divide.

The scales are however not evenly balanced.  Historically the Western world has a lot to answer for, from colonialism to post-colonial hegemony.  Economically and technologically, the West is also far stronger, and it also controls the levers of world media.

It could try harder to understand why the Muslim world is so frustrated, and starting with the cartoon incident.   “We are shocked at the response to the cartoons,” said several Europeans interviewed on TV.  “What is the fuss all about?”

A serious attempt to find out what the fuss is about might help start build the bridges across the huge chasm.  Without such attempts, the chasm will only grow wider.