Western Muslims and the Challenge of Integration and Intercultural Understanding

This is an extract from my keynote address at the Iftaar Dinner Function’ hosted by Deakin University and the Australian Intercultural Society at Deakin Prime, 12 August 2011

Current debates in many western countries seem to suggest that the current tension surrounding Muslims is essentially linked to the perceived incompatibility of Islam and Islamic values with values associated with liberal secular democratic states.

I would like to offer an alternative argument, one that sees Islam and Islamic values as not only compatible with but indeed can be essential vehicles capable of facilitating integration and better intercultural relations.

There are veritable revolutions going on in Muslim societies and communities all over the world. And I am not taking here specifically about the current Arab spring unfolding across North Africa and the Middle East region. Indeed the Arab Revolutions since their inception in Tunisia in late December 2010were not dressed in any religious or political ideology.

The silent revolution I am talking about tonight refers to the ongoing vigorous debates currently taking place, away from the media’s obsession with terrorism and extremist ideologies. Debates where young Muslims and intellectuals alike are actively looking for and constructing new ways to live in harmony with their faith while engaging in and contributing to the societies where they live, be they in Muslim majority countries, or émigré societies such as Australia, Europe or America.

This process has led to what has become known in the literature as ‘Western Islam’. A statement that implies that Islam is not alien to the West, indeed far from it, it has been an ever present part of Western civilisation from the time of the Andalusian Muslim state in Spain all the way to today’s Bosnians, Turks, and the many millions of Western Muslims of second and third generation Muslim background.

These ‘Western Muslims’, for lack of a better word, are in fact engaged in constructing a new ‘Muslim Personality’, faithful to the principles of Islam but dressed in the local cultures of where it resides and definitely rooted into Western societies.

These grass-root movements, through globalisation, are starting to exert considerable influence over worldwide Islam, with questions raised in one country being easily transferrable to another.

Globalisation, which is a concept that my Centre (CCG) focuses on a lot in its research activities, contains the paradox that while it causes old points of traditional reference to disappear, it can also reawaken other passionate forms of identity that would otherwise have verged on self-exclusion.

These processes are about self-protection, self-preservation, and sometimes self-definition against the bipolar vision widely spread across Western societies where the ‘Islam has nothing in common with the West’ mantra holds sway.

But my view is that not only is this a bipolar and simplistic vision of decoy, but it also instils an illusion, namely that Western Muslims can maintain the views of self-protection and isolation which can only strengthen the logic of dominant/minority culture and all the tension such discourse creates.

I would argue against this polarised dichotomy and call for an intercultural rapprochement that begins with the essence of Islam itself and its universal message and core values.

Indeed, it was this universal dimension of Islam, which led to its extraordinary spread and growth during the first decades of its existence.

The concept of integration and intercultural understanding are not alien to Islam nor to Islam’s political history. In fact, Constitution of Medinah during the Prophet’s time; the Millet system during the Ottoman empire and other similar ‘constitutional’ arrangements which were all meant to help integrate religious minorities within predominantly Islamic polities and in the process ensure their basic cultural and religious rights are protected.

Here, the emphasis is not only on the concept of ‘fellow citizens’ that are eligible to worthy of our support and care, but more on ‘fellow human beings’ who irrespective of their cultural and religious backgrounds invoke in us a fundamental commitment to uphold basic universal human values.

But this process is not a one-way adaption journey. Muslims too are and should be expected to find the right balance between core Islamic values on the one hand and the norms, laws and customs of the lands where they live on the other.

This is not to suggest that Western Muslims engage in relativising the universal principles of Islam in order to give the impression that they are well integrated in the West. Rather, it is about finding out how best, in a context of increased diversity, Islamic universals and values can accept and respect pluralism and the idea of the Other. This kind of thinking will avoid the mentality of the oppressed ‘minority’ in favour of the socially and economically independent Muslims who are actively engaged in their local milieus.

Fethi Mansouri