Islam's benefits ignored by West

January 22, 1998|By Ali A. Mazrui

WESTERNERS tend to think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their own enlightened, secular democracies.

But measurement of the cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking -- and that distance is narrower than they assume.

A way of life

Islam is not just a religion, and certainly not just a fundamentalist political movement. It is a civilization, and a way of life that varies from one Muslim country to another but is animated by a common spirit far more humane than most Westerners realize.

Nor do those in the West always recognize how their own societies have failed to live up to their liberal mythology.

Moreover, aspects of Islamic culture that Westerners regard as medieval may have prevailed in their own culture until fairly recently. In many cases, Islamic societies may be only a few decades behind socially and technologically advanced Western ones.

In the end, the question is what path leads to the highest quality of life for the average citizen while avoiding the worst abuses.

Consider that Westerners regard Muslim societies as unenlightened when it comes to the status of women -- and it is true that the gender question is still troublesome in Muslim countries. Islamic rules on sexual modesty have often resulted in excessive segregation of the sexes in public places, sometimes placing women in the margins in public affairs.

And yet, British women were granted the right to own property independent of their husbands only in 1870, while Muslim women have always had that right. While in many Western cultures daughters could not inherit anything if there were sons in the family, Islamic law has always allocated shares from every inheritance to both daughters and sons.

The historical distance between the West and Islam in the treatment of women may be a matter of decades rather than centuries.

Recall that in almost all Western countries except New Zealand, women did not gain the right to vote until the 20th century. Britain extended the vote to women in two stages, in 1918 and 1928. The United States enfranchised them by constitutional amendment in 1920.

France followed as recently as 1944. Switzerland did not permit women to vote in national elections until 1971 -- decades after Muslim women in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan had been casting ballots.

Furthermore, the United States, the largest and most influential Western nation, has never had a female president.

In contrast, two of the most populous Muslim countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh, have had women prime ministers. Benazir Bhutto headed two governments in Pakistan. Begum Khaleda Zia and Hasina Wazed served consecutively in Bangladesh. Turkey has had Prime Minister Tansu Ciller.

Muslim countries are ahead in female empowerment, though still behind in female liberation.

Westerners consider many problems or flaws of the Muslim world to be products of Islam, and they pride their societies and their governments on their purported secularism.

The United States has had separation of church and state under the Constitution for more than 200 years, but U.S. politics aren't completely secular.

Only once has the electorate chosen a non-Protestant president -- and the Roman Catholic John F. Kennedy won by such a narrow margin, amid such allegations of electoral fraud, that we will never know for sure whether a majority of voters selected him.

Demon of anti-Semitism

Jews have distinguished themselves in many fields, but they have avoided competing for the White House, and there is still a fear of unleashing the demon of anti-Semitism among Christian fundamentalists.

There are now more Muslims -- an estimated 6 million -- than Jews in the United States. Yet anti-Muslim feeling and the success of appeals to Christian sentiment among voters make it extremely unlikely that Americans will elect a Muslim head of state anytime soon.

In Western Europe, too, there are now millions of Muslims, but history is still awaiting the appointment of the first to a Cabinet position in Britain, France or Germany.

Islam, on the other hand, has tried to protect minority religions through ecumenicalism throughout its history. Jews and Christians had special status as People of the Book -- a fraternity of monotheists. Other religious minorities later also were accorded the status of protected minorities.

Jewish scholars rose to high positions in Muslim Spain. During the Ottoman Empire, Christians sometimes attained high political office: Suleiman I (1520-1566) had Christian ministers in his government, as did Selim III (1789-1807).

In the 1990s, Iraq has had a Chaldean Christian deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz.

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