In order for Islam to bring peace to humanity, it is vital for Muslims to create a new definition of ‘universal’ and avoid corrupting the religion’s universal message
The Charlie Hebdo attack has already emerged as a crucial event that informs the relationship between Islam and the West. Following the 9/11 attacks, a clash of civilizations represented the main paradigm. Considering that the most recent attack has been linked to al-Qaida in Yemen (AQAP), an organization that seeks to target the "distant enemy" first, and stirred controversy and polarization in Europe and Turkey, the situation is far from simple.
Today, neither the West nor Islamic civilization can shelter themselves from the domestic problems of the other. All colors of Islam are present inside the West. Meanwhile, the Islamic world's confrontation with the West, which has been ongoing for two centuries, has led to various complications. Inside each society there is an ongoing struggle between "Westernists" defending the "universal" values of the West and "anti-Westernist" who view the West as barbaric and materialist.
The story of Muslim communities in the West, stuck between xenophobia and assimilation, is even more problematic. The rise of far-right extremism and Islamophobia in Europe could lead to the bankruptcy of the continent's civilizational values. Having lost its hegemony on universal values, the West currently finds the same values under threat at home. The efforts of French President François Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to disassociate Islam from terrorism are closely related to this rising threat inside Europe.
The relationship between Islam and the West, however, cannot be reduced to mere xenophobia.
To be sure, the dilemma between freedom of expression and respect for the sacred fundamentally boils down to what "universal" is and how it relates to diversity. The West infuses freedom of expression with its own description of the term and imposes the concept along with its double standards. While anti-Semitism amounts to a crime against humanity, the Western public deals with Islamophobia in the context of freedom of expression. The Western media would like the world to approach the question of sacred like itself, which translates into a state of prejudice and rigidity that amounts to a complete rejection of diversity.
The Islamist community's heavily essentialist perception of the West represents another problem since complaining about the West's inhumane and hypocritical nature leaves the Islamic world stuck with a defensive and reactionary position. The Islamic world, however, desperately need shared values and a new definition of "universal." The West's not-so-innocent insistence on not grasping this deepens the crisis in their relations with the Islamic world.
Modernity's glorification of violence has come to manifest itself in the form of jihad for some Muslims. Those supporting this view, however, fail to understand that they define themselves with reference to their reaction against the West. They are unable to see that they corrupt Islam's universal message by reproducing it in a Western form.
At this point, reducing the struggle with the West to terrorism creates a vicious cycle of opposition and reaction for the Muslim community's mission of establishing a caliphate in the world. Self-confidence, agency and more qualified critiques of the West, which warn the Western public about Islam, will contribute to overcoming this challenge. Here is what requires particular attention: The agency of Muslims who want to write their own stories and live their own way is being cornered into terrorism and sheer opposition.
In order for the Muslim story to bring peace and blessing to humanity, we need a completely different setting – an attitude that shows one's self-confidence and agency in an honorable manner yet does not identify its uniqueness as the only way. Such is the support we can provide to Islam's cause to become a universal message. A recent statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan where he referenced the Turkish poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy dealt with the same issue: "Muslims want to contribute to understanding the century." In order to make such contributions, Muslims must look beyond the vicious cycle of "anti-Westernism" and engage in quality criticism.
About the author
Burhanettin Duran is General Coordinator of SETA Foundation and a professor at Social Sciences University of Ankara. He is also a member of Turkish Presidency Security and Foreign Policies Council.