Vienna, June 19 – Muslims in general and their co-religionists in the post-Soviet states in particular neither know nor understand much about the most important “other” in their lives – the non-Muslim West. And because that is so, they are largely “defenseless” against the latter’s enormous communications skills and apparatus.
Geydar Dzhemal, president of the Islamic Committee of Russia, made this argument in an April 2007 article in the newspaper of the Russian Federation’s Azerbaijani community (http://azcongress.ru/article.php?314). His article has now been reposted at http://www.islamnews.ru/index.php?name=Articles&file=article&sid=972.
Dzhemal, who has been criticized in Russia for his often radical views about the Middle East and Islam, notes that the West has been very attentive to the world of Islam in the last 50 years, but he points out that the Muslim world has not developed a similar attentiveness to the West.
The reasons for this imbalance, he continues, lie in the basic nature of the two communities and the very different trajectories of their intellectual traditions. Until the last century, most people in the West treated the Muslims as part of an undifferentiated and essentially inferior “other.”
But then, as Western governments and scholars came into closer contact with this variegated “other,” they began to study its component parts. Over time, many in the West were attracted to parts of the “other” world, and in some cases, even developed cults about it.
But the situation among the governments of Muslim countries and their scholars remained entirely different. When the latter came into contact with “other” communities of faith, Dzhemal argues, they recoiled in horror from “the very idea of comparative religious studies.”
The unspoken reason for this, he suggests, is that Muslims recognized that if they adopted “a methodologically objective” approach to the study of these other religious communities, they would be obligated to turn a similarly objective eye on their own faith and the world it had produced.
Most have been reluctant to do so, he continues, because “Muslims are accustomed to presenting themselves with an uncritical optimism and avoiding any self-analysis.” And consequently, virtually all attempts by Muslims – and Dzhemal acknowledges that there have been some – are either “banalities or hopeless cliches.”
This failure to pay attention and to study the most influential cultural center of the world at the present time, Dzhemal says, inevitably “leads to the most dangerous illusions” not only among Muslims living among Europeans but especially among Muslims living in former communist countries.
Because of the Soviet system’s anti-Western propaganda, many Muslims at the moment of the collapse of the USSR had come to believe that “the West [was] a kingdom of progress and justice” and did not analyze the actual situation or consider why they might have accepted this view.
But Dzhemal is clearly much less concerned about that past than about what he sees as the even more serious problems ahead that arise from the failure of Muslims to do what they have to do to know and understanding the West in order to defend themselves against its “information and political technology machine.”
Dzhemal’s argument is both intriguing and important because he provides an unusual justification for Muslims to study the West without giving up on their faith as some have done but rather doing so in order to defend and enrich their own lives and intellectual tradition.
Given Dzhemal’s standing among Muslims in the Russian Federation and especially among that countyr’s Azerbaijani community, it will be interesting to see whether others pick up on his argument and actually begin the difficult business of criticism and self-criticism which his stance will require.