Islam and the West: Part II

By Ramsay, Allan | Contemporary Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Islam and the West: Part II


Ramsay, Allan, Contemporary Review


THE most important fact about Islam, often overlooked by Western commentators, is that it is, by and large, a religion of the poor. The per capita income of most of its vast congregation must be among the lowest in the world. They have gained little in real terms en masse through possession of the riches most of them are sitting on. The fact that our need for and ability to turn those riches to profitable use and for our greater comfort has brought the majority little material gain is perhaps a grievance but is less important than the fact that our success and their loss has served to strengthen the hold of his religion on his imagination. Very little ordinarily percolates to the level of the vast mass of Muslims that is not concerned with their immediate necessities, unless it is the question of Palestine. They may not have enough by our standards, but they have some things including what matters most by theirs. They like to welcome their friends and family returning with cars full of good things from their Western life. They may even decide to follow them. Many of course arrive here as refugees, which adds a further complex element to an already complicated situation.

Yet in Western countries, wherever they come from and for whatever reason, they will still be poor by our standards and in a new and confusing and sometimes intimidating world religion and family become the bedrock of their security, like the village or street at home. Western Europe is in effect full of Muslim villages and their links with their native land are always kept in good order. Psychologically of course the majority of the first generation of immigrants never leave their villages. That is for the second and succeeding generations and it is among them that we find the best hope of assimilation and the greatest likelihood of rejection.

Whether they come to the West as immigrants or refugees from oppression they still pay the heaviest price for terrorism, though it is not as heavy as the price paid by those who remain behind. The Taliban came from the refugee camps but the sufferings they inflicted fell most heavily on the poor. In Algeria it is the poor of the villages who have paid, and are still paying, the heaviest price for endless years of terrorism. The Kurds have suffered for decades from what they describe as state terrorism and now, in the current war, are confronting both the Iraqis and the Turks. The poor of both sides are victimised in the communal strife in India. That is true of the poor the world over. But unless they perceive signs of a wish for change among ordinary people, the Muslim spiritual leadership has no incentive in attempting to give a lead. We may see this as a failure of leadership but the weight of inertia is enormous and it would be illusory to think in terms of another Mohammed.

Nothing in the above can excuse or condone terrorism. Indeed it is the Muslim community which explicitly rejects terrorism by not converting to it en masse. The numbers of active terrorists in relation to the Muslim population as a whole is infinitesimally small. Very few Muslims danced in the streets on witnessing the television footage of the Twin Towers collapsing as Palestinians are reported to have done and for them there were perhaps extenuating circumstances as those who remember Sabra and Chatila may recall. The West is still paying for the memory of tanks moving into those refugee camps carrying pictures of Christ and the Virgin Mary on their turrets imprinted on the minds of a generation of Palestinians.

Ordinary Muslims remain unaffected by dialogue. The apparatus of Western Civilisation has its uses insofar as, for example, the purchase of a reconditioned Mercedes will enable a Cairo taxi driver to earn his living and the telephone allows him to speak to his brother in Riyadh. He can watch Indian and Egyptian soap operas on television. His main objection to that civilisation insofar as he thinks of it at all as being specifically Western is that it has corrupted his leaders and disenfranchised him.

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