Reconciling Islam And the West
With a growing presence of Muslims in Europe and North America, many ask whether Islam and Western society are compatible. Some are working to bridge the 500-year gap in understanding.
DEEP in the rolling green hills of France's Burgundy region, an experiment in Western-Islamic reconciliation is slowly and modestly taking shape.Skip to next paragraph
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As workmen adapt a former corporate summer camp to year-round use, clumps of students - all male, most speaking Arabic, but some speaking French or even Polish - sit in classes on Koranic interpretation. Another class is on Western civilization.
Just opened in January, the euphemistically named European Humanities Institute may have only 13 students as yet, but its ambitions are large: to build a four-year program that will produce 50 "Islamic thinkers" and imams (Muslim leaders) a year, to serve Europe's burgeoning Islamic population.
"Our purpose is to teach Islam, the Arabic language, and the humanities in order to bring a rooted and growing community out of the isolation it lives in," says Zuhair Mahmood, the institute's director.
"The purpose is to help this community live in and be accepted by European and Western society."
Dr. Mahmood, an Iraqi engineer who has lived in France since 1978, acknowledges that the task of bringing Islam and the West closer together will not be easy. Already the institute, developed by the Union of French Islamic Organizations, has been greeted warily, suspected of fomenting Islamic fundamentalism and serving as a bridgehead for Saudi Arabia. (Part of its funding comes from Gulf states.)
"But it's time we did something about this conflict," he says. "It's been going on too long."
Long is right. Now, 500 years after Islam lost its last organized toehold in Europe with the expulsion of the Muslims from Granada, the large and growing Islamic communities of several European countries and the mushrooming populations of the Mediterranean's Islamic southern rim are again placing Islam at the center of an emotion-charged debate over its compatability with the West and Western values.
The underlying cinders of the conflict flare every time an event - like the Salman Rushdie affair, France's uproar over schoolgirls wearing veils to the classroom, or the rise of Islamic fundamentalists in nearby Algeria - captures the collective imagination. Yet with more than 6 million Muslims living in Western Europe - more than half of them in France - partisans on all sides of the debate realize the issue will not go away and will have to be faced.
Many experts emphasize that this adaptation will have to be a two-way street, entailing not just Islam's evolution, but a greater tolerance on the part of the West, including a grasp of the historical reasons for the conflict.
"The question has to be understood from its origins, as an ancient conflict between two imperial powers, the Christian West and the rising Islamic East, for supremacy in the Mediterranean region," says Muhammad Arkoun, professor of Islamic studies at the University of Paris III and a visiting professor at Amsterdam University.
"It's a competition that has continued without interruption to today, with each side presenting an ideological view of the other based on that competition," says Dr. Arkoun.
What the West has to understand, Arkoun adds, is that Iran's revolution; the burning of Mr. Rushdie's novel, "The Satanic Verses;" and anti-Western and anti-democracy cries from fundamentalist leaders in Algeria are reactions against the West's economic and cultural dominance.