Islam and the West

SINCE Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, this newspaper and other publications have printed many articles by Muslim scholars and journalists. The writers, while they generally don't condone the invasion, have tried to put the event into a Muslim context for Western readers. These articles have emphasized the Muslim world's bitter legacy of Western colonialism; what many Muslims regard as continuing Western economic and cultural imperialism; lack of evenhandedness in American policies toward Israel and Arab states; and resentments within the Arab world over issues of wealth and Islamic orthodoxy.

Such articles have been useful in opening eyes in the West to political, economic, and cultural grievances in a region too often neglected by Western media. They have contributed to what one hopes will be a positive outcome of the Gulf crisis: a better understanding and wider sympathy between Islam and the West.

Yet the gap to be bridged remains wide. If the articles mentioned above help peel away some layers of misunderstanding, many Westerners remain mystified and uncomfortable over certain attitudes and ways that they associate with Islamic societies:

Autocracy. While democracy is sweeping much of the globe, representative government has, with a few exceptions, found little welcome in Arab countries and Iran. Despots, some benign, others tyrannical, still predominate in the region. This contradicts Western values of political legitimacy and individual sovereignty.

Attitudes toward women. Most Western societies still have a long way to go in treating women equitably, but the attempt is being made. Under strictures justified as protecting females, women in many Muslim countries are treated as second-class citizens.

Intolerance. It is hard for Americans to understand why soldiers who have gone to the defense of Saudi Arabia should have been restricted in their Christmas and Hanukah observances. More generally, it is hard for Westerners to understand the severity of traditional Muslim religious, social, and judicial codes.

It is dismaying, for instance, that novelist Salman Rushdie, condemned by some Muslim authorities for alleged impieties in ``The Satanic Verses,'' continues to live in hiding under a death edict, despite his recent reaching out to achieve a reconciliation with Islam. Muslims must try to appreciate the horror with which this episode is viewed in the West.

Of course, there are differences among Muslims on these issues; Muslim solidarity, however, often causes moderates to mute their criticisms of the radicals' agenda.

Islamic culture and Western culture must coexist in a world growing ever smaller. To avoid repeated clashes, the two cultures must find better avenues for discussion and accommodation. Some differences go beyond mere ``misunderstanding.'' But eliminating misunderstanding is a good place to start.

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