Western Perceptions of Islam

on Friday, August 9, 2013

In the aftermath of September 11 attacks, the long and checkered relationship between Islam and the West entered a new phase. A ubiquitous sense of suspicion and denouncement swept through the public sphere of many European countries and the United States. The attacks were interpreted as the fulfillment of a prophecy that had been in the consciousness of the West for a long time, i.e., the coming of Islam as a menacing power with a clear intent to destroy Western civilization. Representations of Islam as a violent, militant and oppressive religious ideology became a powerful discourse and tool of analysis extending from TV screens and state offices to schools and the internet. The narrative of fundamentalist Islam was revitalized to bolster a counterattack against religious fanaticism and terrorism. It was even suggested that Mecca, the holiest city of Islam, be ‘nuked’ to give a lasting lesson to all Muslims. Although one can look at the widespread sense of anger, hostility and revenge as a normal human reaction to the abominable loss of innocent lives, its linkage to Islam and the subsequent demonization of Muslims is the result of deeper philosophical and historical issues.

Two major attitudes can be discerned in the Western perceptions of Islam. The first and by far the most common view is that of clash and confrontation. Its roots go back to the Christian rejection of Islam as a religion in the 8th century when Islam first arose on the historical scene and was quickly perceived to be a theological and political threat to Christendom. The medieval European view of Islam as a heresy and its Prophet as an ‘impostor’ provided the religious foundations of the confrontational position which has survived up to our own day and gained a new dimension after 9/11. In the modern period, the confrontational view has been articulated in both religious and non-religious terms, the most famous one being the clash of civilizations hypothesis, which envisions the strategic and political conflicts between the Western and Muslim countries in terms of deep religious and cultural differences between the two.

The second view is that of co-existence and accommodation which has become a major alternative only in recent decades although it has some important historical precedents in the examples of Emanuel Swedenborg, Goethe, Henry Stubbe, Carlyle and others. Proponents of the accommodationist view consider Islam a sister religion and in fact part of the Abrahamic tradition, and prove, in the case of Swedenborg and Goethe, the possibility of envisioning co-existence with Islam and Muslims while remaining true to the word and spirit of Christianity.

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