//How Not To Engage With The 'Muslim World' : Insights From Delhi

How Not To Engage With The 'Muslim World' : Insights From Delhi

By Yoginder Sikand

21 October, 2006, Countercurrents.org

In recent years, particularly following the events of 11 September 2001, several Western organisations based in Delhi have launched programmes ostensibly seeking to 'engage' with Muslims. Some of these are funded by their respective governments. While the need for cross-cultural dialogue, particularly between the 'West' and the 'Muslim world', is obviously urgent, the orientation of many of these programmes is clearly skewed. Rather than aiming to promote serious dialogue between Muslims and the 'West', some of these programmes seem motivated almost entirely by narrowly-defined security concerns, and aimed at defending Western governments' imperialist policies and interests. This, of course, can hardly be called serious dialogue at all, even though this may be touted about as such.

One such Western organisation in Delhi runs a programme under which batches of maulvis from madrasas are sent to a Western country for short trips, all expenses paid for. Muslim academics and journalists are also being offered generous fellowships to spend time in this country. The aim of all this expense and effort, critics argue, appears to be to dampen Muslim opposition to the imperialist policies of this country and to enlist the support of key Muslim public opinion makers to convince Muslims that this particular country is not motivated against them or their faith. At the same time, this country, headed by a war-mongering Christian fanatic, continues with its murderous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Another Western organisation based in Delhi has recently launched an ambitious research project, ostensibly aiming at studying various aspects of Indian Muslim society and religion. I happened to attend a meeting of this organisation some months ago. The director of the project, whose knowledge of the Indian Muslims appeared to me to be very limited, made it evident, despite his denials, that the project was essentially driven by security concerns, to counter Muslim critiques of or opposition to Western hegemony. Although he sought to convince the audience that the project had no political undertones, his protestations were hardly taken seriously by skeptical Indians present, although, predictably, most of his countrymen in the audience seemed to agree with what he said.

In the discussions that followed, the director made it amply clear as to how he viewed the world: Radical Islamists, he argued, were fired by an irrepressible zeal for martyrdom. He seemed to suggest that they had no real political goal that they glorified violence just for the sake of it. In other words, what he appeared to argue was that radical Islamism had no social, political, economic or cultural roots or causes. It was as if it existed in thin air, a mere ideological phenomenon, unrelated to socio-political reality. It was as if Western brutalities, imperialism, Zionism, Christian fundamentalism and the capitalist system, had nothing to do with mass Muslim unrest, which was translated into support for Islamist groups in large parts of the 'Muslim world'.

'I think you are absolutely wrong', I said to the director when he at last stopped, being unable to conceal my irritation with his ignorance and bossiness. 'Radical Islamism must be seen, at least in part, as a response to Western imperialism', I argued, adding that both were hardly the solution.

At once the director shot back, vehemently disagreeing. 'The West is just a construct. Western hegemony is just a construct', he pompously declared. For him, it seemed, the 'West' or 'Western imperialism' were simply terms conjured up by some armchair theorist. It was as if they did not exist at all, or, at least, did not merit mention as a possible cause for Muslim unrest. It was, at least as I understood what he was trying to say, as if radical Islamists were the sole cause for the conflictual relationship between the 'West' and large parts of the 'Muslim world'. Accordingly, as I think he probably saw it, the solution to the problem was to coax Muslims to become 'moderate' and adjust themselves to Western imperialism. And there was no need, it appeared, for the West to acknowledge its own culpability, let alone change its murderous policies.

Last month I was invited to visit another Western organisation based in Delhi, where Western self-styled 'experts' from different South Asian countries were meeting to deliberate on how to 'engage with Muslims' by devising suitable projects and policies. Here, too, the focus was entirely the same—on how to counter Muslim, including radical Islamist, critiques of the West. One of the lead speakers announced that the West must promote liberal or moderate understandings of Islam. This, he said, was an effective means for staving off the radical Islamist challenge. Another speaker declared that if 'moderate' Muslim leaders could be enlisted to declare terrorism as un-Islamic, millions of Muslims would submit to their dictates. The tenor of the speeches that followed was roughly identical. The 'experts' assembled here seemed determined that the 'engagement' they sought with Muslims was to be had entirely on terms set by Western governments. It was evident that they seemed to believe that the sole or major cause of tensions between the 'Muslim world' and the 'West' was radical Islamism. And here, too, it was seen as simply an ideology that needed to be countered, without taking into account the role of the West in creating conditions for this ideology to prosper as a vehicle of protest.

I had to intervene. After all, I had been invited to present my own views on the subject. And although I knew that my views would not make the slightest dent on theirs I deemed it my duty to say what I believed. I admitted that radical Islamism was part of the problem, rather than a solution, but I also insisted that it could hardly be taken as the sole cause of worsening relations between the 'West' and the 'Muslim world'. That had much to do with Western imperialism, which, I noted, the 'worthies' accumulated at the meeting had not cared to mention. If they were truly serious about dialogue and preventing the 'clash of civilisations' thesis from coming true, indeed, if they were honest to themselves, I said, they ought to reflect on their own policies—in Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and elsewhere—which were determined to worsen relations between Muslims and the West. And then, I pointed out, when it suited the West, America in particular, to court radical Islamists, to take on the Soviets in Afghanistan or leftist and nationalist forces in large parts of the 'Muslim world', it had willingly done so. The West's concern about radical Islamists, therefore, I stressed, was hardly consistent and principled. And, I added, Western economic and cultural imperialism were only further adding to the appeal of Islamism as an ideology of protest.

'If you are really serious about dialogue with the Muslim world, stop your war in Iraq and cease backing Israeli brutalities', I said.

My comments were greeted by a certain embarrassment. Some of the 'experts' present made polite grunts. Others sought to defend patently indefensible Western policies. Some, I should hope, probably knew that what I was saying was true but were unwilling to publicly admit it. Perhaps they had sold their souls to Mammon.

'If they consider that dialogue and serious engagement, I wonder what they'd consider conscious deceit', I thought to myself as I got up to leave, unable to bear the trauma of listening to the rather inane banter I had been treated to during the meeting.

Like the radicals they seek to counter, some Western governments and the official initiatives they have sponsored to 'en
gage with the Muslim world' (such as those mentioned here) are actually hostile to genuine dialogue even while they claim to be engaged in it. A truism it is, but well worth repeating here: Dialogue is impossible if one sees oneself as blameless and in no need of reform at all, and, instead, locates the cause of conflict solely in the other. It appears that some Western governments as well as the radical Islamists whom they decry are entirely identical on this score, seeing themselves as completely beyond reproach, blaming the other for the increasingly tense relations between the 'West' and the 'Muslim world'. And that precisely is why some much-touted and heavily-funded efforts to 'engage' with the 'Muslim world' sponsored by Western governments will probably find few serious Muslim takers.