By Waris Mazhari
08 September, 2014
In recent years, Islamophobia has become a major issue in the West. Many Western political leaders, scholars, journalists and ‘ordinary’ people have come to think of Islam as a grave threat to their culture and values. At the same time, the ‘Muslim world’ has witnessed the emergence of a certain sort of xenophobia that may be termed as ‘Westophobia’. Many Muslims who have fallen prey to Westophobia consider the West and everything that has to do with it to be a source or symbol of a menacing threat to Islam and Muslims. They look at all such things with hatred and dread, thinking this hate to be almost like a necessary article of faith for them.
This mentality has its roots in the period of Western imperialist control over the ‘Muslim world’. It saw its genesis in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, Muslims who had been infected by Westophobia believed that even the best and most useful scientific inventions of the West were against Islam and a threat to Muslim culture. These included the printing press, the telegraph, the radio, the wall-clock, railways, trams, and even loudspeakers! The Shaikh ul-Islam of Turkey, who was considered that country’s top-most religious authority by his followers, even issued a fatwa declaring that the printing press and Western-style military training to be forbidden according to the shariah!
This hatred for the West gradually declined in the years following the decolonization of Muslim lands, when Muslim countries became political independent. However, in recent years, in the wake of new Western imperialist offensives in the ‘Islamic world’, this mentality is emerging once again. Contemporary Westophobia is a worrying development for the West—because Western interests are crucially linked to the ‘Muslim world’—but the ‘Muslim world’, too, will also have to pay the heavy price of this phenomenon if necessary steps are not taken soon enough.
Islamophobia and Westophobia feed on each other, and both, it must be realized, are gravely harmful for both the non-Muslim West as well as for Muslims. As a result of growing Westophobia, there is a very real danger that the good things of the West being ignored or even condemned by Muslims who fall prey to this tendency, with possible ominous consequences for Muslims in general. In blindly denouncing the West, Muslim Westophobes ignore the goodness to be found in the West—for instance, values such as honesty, punctuality, the spirit of social service, respect for the law and human rights, discipline and so on. Muslim Westophobes either completely ignore these things or else cynically claim that they are simply a cover-up to promote Western economic interests. They just do not want to see anything good in anyone but themselves.
Like hardened Islamophobes, blind Muslim Westophobes imagine themselves to be paragons of virtue and consider those whom they berate as having a virtual monopoly on vice. While it is true that Muslims must not blindly imitate the West—as some people insist—and while it is also true that, like every other civilization, the West has its share of drawbacks, it is hardly acceptable to insist that the West is incorrigibly and wholly evil. The fact of the matter is that all civilizations—including both Muslim and Western civilizations—have their good and bad aspects and they should freely learn from and adapt and adopt good things from each other. However, both types of phobia—Islamophobia and Westophobia—insist that this is impossible or unwanted.
A good number of Muslim preachers routinely rant and rave against the West. It is almost impossible to hear them praising anything about the West. Many Ulema and other Muslim religious leaders who themselves live in the West never tire of railing against it. This is indeed very lamentable. The issue here is not how far this anti-Western sentiment is a result of or response to actual realities, but, rather, of how this sentiment further reinforces the fear of Islam among many non-Muslims.
Westophobia makes Muslims who have been infected with it blind even to the many good things that have been developed by the West that are today helping the cause of Islam. The printing press and the Internet, for instance, which are today being used on a vast scale to communicate the message of Islam, are inventions of Western scientists. It is because of the freedom of thought and expression in Western countries that Muslim missionary organizations there are able to work in those countries and freely invite people to Islam.
Many years ago, while talking with a teacher of mine, I expressed my anguish that the ‘Muslim world’ has become simply a consumer of goods made in the West, deriving benefits from the inventions of the West but not doing anything creative itself. He replied, very smugly, ‘Our status is that of masters, and the West are our servants’. Needless to say, with a mentality such as this, we fool ourselves into imagining that our decline and degeneration are actually a cause to celebrate, fondly imagining that our downfall is actually our victory!
Westophobia has become so extreme in some Muslim circles that adopting anything that departs from traditional ways of thinking is lambasted as ‘blind imitation of the West’. What is called ‘modernity’ is a result of the development of human civilization. The fact is that contemporary modern civilization is led by the West. That is why those who are infected by Westophobia see every modern thing as ‘Western’ and, therefore, something to be shunned. They simply have no idea that there are still some traditionalist circles in the West who may be even more traditionalist than they themselves are. They wrongly equate ‘modernity’ with Westernisation, although the two are not the same. That is why they roundly condemn every new thing or thought as ‘Western’.
It must be admitted, though, that, to some extent, this is a reaction to the tendency in some circles where blind imitation of the West is seen as necessary in order to be considered ‘modern’.
Muslim Westophobes are often ignorant of the fact that there are many Muslims in the West today and that these Muslims have the freedom to practice and propagate Islam and lead their lives in accordance with it. There are numerous mosques, madrasas and Islamic centres in Western countries. Despite widespread Islamophobia, many Westerners are ardent supporters of understanding and dialogue with Muslims. All this Muslim Westophobes are either ignorant of or wilfully turn a blind eye to.
Muslims and the non-Muslim West cannot wish each other away—which is what both Islamophobes and Muslim Westophobes might ardently hope for. The fact is that Muslims and non-Muslim Westerners have no choice but to seek to relate to each other through dialogue and understanding. Muslims, for their part, must make efforts to establish good relations with non-Muslims (including non-Muslim Westerners), even through unilateral means and even if the other side initially does not reciprocate. This is necessary if Muslims are to be able to communicate the message of Islam to others. By reaching out with genuine well-wishing for others, Muslims will also disprove the claims of Islamophobes, who insist that Muslims are necessarily inimical to other people and that they are addicted to terrorism. In addition, good relations with others are a means for Muslims to learn from them and benefit from their knowledge and experiences in various fields.
Islamophobia and Westophobia are two sides of the same coin. They cannot survive without each other. Mounting Westophobia can only further strengthen the forces of Islamophobia. This is something Muslims must realise. They must also recognise that hatred for the West is no solution for anything—unlike what Muslim Westophobes might insist. On the contrary, it can only further exacerbate the problems that Muslims face. Westophobia can only take Muslims even further away from the urgent need to engage in introspection and see where they have gone wrong, instead of blaming others for all their woes.
Waris Mazhari is a graduate of the Dar ul-Uloom Deoband, and a Ph.D in Islamic Studies from the Jamia Millia Islamia. He presently teaches Islamic Studies at the Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He has written extensively on madrasas and madrasa reforms.