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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

DEEP in the rolling green hills of France's Burgundy region, an experiment in Western-Islamic reconciliation is slowly and modestly taking shape.

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.

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"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.

"In treating what remains an extremely hard struggle, the Western media present the Islamic side simply as the recurrence of a fanaticism they see inherent to the Islamic religion," adds Arkoun. "That, in turn, reinforces both Western prejudices and Muslim reaction."

Against that backdrop, the adaptability of Islamic communities living within Western society remains a question for many. Last year, a stir was created in France by a highly publicized book claiming that Islam is "archaic" and incapable of the modernizing evolution that allowed the emergence of modern democratic states under Christianity and Judaism. The book's author, Jean-Claude Barreau, accused Western Oriental specialists of glossing over the reasons for Islam's inability to adapt to modern society -

and he promptly lost his job as head of France's Office of International Migrations.

Today, Mr. Barreau says, adapting Islam to the West is possible but difficult, because Islam has not developed the "theology of the minority" or the "theology of the individual" that are essential to democratic development.

And he says that Islam's adaptation will only be possible if the West is firm in upholding its own principles when they are attacked by Islamic extremists. "England only shamed itself in its treatment of the Rushdie affair," he says. "It neither defended its own principles nor acted in a way that would encourage Islam to adapt."

Some Muslims in France say that while they do not agree with everything Barreau says, they appreciate the debate stirred up by his book.

"Barreau raised excellent questions and shook up Islamic theology, and that's good," says Ahmed Kedidi, a former Tunisian legislator now living in France and the author of a book on Islam and the West.

"Islamic thinking must evolve and undergo a renewal, but at the same time, it's Western society's responsibility to assist that process by promoting greater integration at all levels: economic, social, cultural," Mr. Kedidi says. "Marginalized societies close in on themselves, they don't evolve."

The bases for dialogue exist, most Muslim experts say, because the great majority of European Muslims already have adapted to a way of life that distinguishes between civic life and the "private" practice of their religion.

"It is only a very small minority that promotes a radical Islam, but it is that fringe that is seized on by our media," says Felice Dassetto, a specialist in European Islam at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium.

Islam is adaptable to the West, says Mr. Dassetto - "over the long term and undoubtedly not without conflicts along the way" - on two conditions. First, the Islamic community must develop its own leaders and intellectuals, especially to guide Muslim youth, who are often torn between Western principles they admire and an assailed heritage they feel they must defend. Second, the West must accept the adaptation as "reciprocal."

This second condition leaves some Muslims pessimistic. "We see that the West doesn't listen to us," says Kedidi. "Now that communism has been defeated, it's as though Islam is the new threat that must be contained."

And back in Burgundy, Joseph Baudouin, a student at the Islamic institute, expresses a similar view. "Integration can't occur if there isn't mutual understanding. One of our roles will be to help Muslims here reconcile any conflicts with this society, but it won't be possible if there is no one interested in the dialogue."

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