[I]t must be made utterly clear that violence is not a function of the Islamic faith. That misperception, fostered and fuelled by the news media, is wrong and damaging. The myth that Islam is responsible for the wrongdoing of certain Muslims may stem from the fact that for all Muslims, the concepts of Din and Duniya — Faith and World — are inextricably linked, more so than in any other of the world’s monotheistic religions. In a perfect world, all political and social action on the part of Muslims would be pursued within the faith’s ethical framework. But this is not yet a perfect world. The West, nonetheless, must no longer confuse Islam’s link between the spiritual and the temporal with a conflation of church and state.

With the deaths of Kings Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France, Western culture began a process of secularisation that grew into present-day democratic institutions and lay cultures. Islam, on the other hand, never endorsed any political dogma, so the secularisation that occurred in the West did not take place in Muslim societies. What we are witnessing today, in certain Islamic countries, is exactly the opposite evolution: the theocratisation of the political process. The Islamic world is far from unanimous on the desirability of this shift.

For fifty years our planet was frozen by a paralysing political vortex called the Cold War. During those years many allowed their views to stagnate and harden into notions so dependable that they became unrevisable dogma: My capitalism versus your communism. Your Eastern bloc versus our Western bloc. Left versus right. But, like the Berlin Wall, our old bipolar system was dismantled almost overnight and with it the familiar black-and-white world to which we had grown accustomed.

In today’s new and challenging environment, peoples and nations formerly paralysed by the superpowers’ struggles are free to hope. Despite global acceleration, America still benefits from its founding precepts of intellectual liberty and hope for the future. These elements, too easily taken for granted by those who are used to them, are of primordial concern in many other societies. In Algeria, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Tajikistan, people are fighting and dying because their lives can finally be changed. Those nations which used to be part of the Third World have become a “south” and “east” that are increasingly present.

The words “Muslim” and “Islam” have come to represent anger and lawlessness in the collective consciousness of most Western cultures. And the Muslim world has, consequently, become something the West may not want to think about and will associate with only when it is unavoidable. Not only is the prevailing image wrong, but there are powerful reasons why the West and the Muslim world must seek a better mutual understanding.

Unfortunately, views and thought habits, although intangible, are less easily broken than bricks or politics. Today in the Occident, the Muslim world is deeply misunderstood. The West knows little about its diversity, about the religion or the principles which unite it, about its brilliant past or its recent trajectory through history. The Muslim world is noted in North America and Europe more for the violence of certain minorities than for the peacefulness of both its faith and the vast majority of its people. The words “Muslim” and “Islam” have come to represent anger and lawlessness in the collective consciousness of most Western cultures. And the Muslim world has, consequently, become something the West may not want to think about and will associate with only when it is unavoidable.

Not only is the prevailing image wrong, but there are powerful reasons why the West and the Muslim world must seek a better mutual understanding. The first reason is that with the Eastern bloc weakened militarily, financially, and politically, the Muslim world is one of only two geopolitical forces — the West being the other — that have the potential to share the world stage with East Asia. There are large Muslim minorities living in, and having a major impact on, many European countries. The Muslim world controls most of the remaining fossil-fuel reserves. There is a resurgence of Islam in countries of strategic importance to the West, such as Turkey. The Gulf War proved that events in the Muslim world have a direct impact on global economics and security. The West should ignore neither the evolution of the Muslim Central Asian republics nor their significance for the future of Russia.

The second reason is that in the wake of the Cold War violence and cruelty are a plague gaining ground around the globe. This plague can be military and overtly brutal, or it can be structural and inconspicuous but no less brutal. Its manifestations range from suicide bombings to ethnic cleansing to the forgetting and abandoning of large segments of society by industrialised nations.

Against this worrisome global background it must be made utterly clear that violence is not a function of the Islamic faith. That misperception, fostered and fuelled by the news media, is wrong and damaging. The myth that Islam is responsible for the wrongdoing of certain Muslims may stem from the fact that for all Muslims, the concepts of Din and Duniya — Faith and World — are inextricably linked, more so than in any other of the world’s monotheistic religions. In a perfect world, all political and social action on the part of Muslims would be pursued within the faith’s ethical framework. But this is not yet a perfect world. The West, nonetheless, must no longer confuse Islam’s link between the spiritual and the temporal with a conflation of church and state.

With the deaths of Kings Charles I of England and Louis XVI of France, Western culture began a process of secularisation that grew into present-day democratic institutions and lay cultures. Islam, on the other hand, never endorsed any political dogma, so the secularisation that occurred in the West did not take place in Muslim societies. What we are witnessing today, in certain Islamic countries, is exactly the opposite evolution: the theocratisation of the political process. The Islamic world is far from unanimous on the desirability of this shift.

Western news reports of Islamic fundamentalism lead to the perception that all Muslims and their societies are a homogeneous mass of people living in some undefined theocratic space, a single “other” evolving elsewhere…. Is there not something intellectually uncouth about those who choose to perceive one billion people of any faith as a standardised mass?

Western news reports of Islamic fundamentalism lead to the perception that all Muslims and their societies are a homogeneous mass of people living in some undefined theocratic space, a single “other” evolving elsewhere. And yet, with a Muslim majority in some forty-four countries and constituting nearly one-quarter of the globe’s population, Islam cannot be made up of identical people sharing identical goals, motivations, or interpretations. Islam is a world in itself, vast and varied in its aspirations and concerns. Is there not something intellectually uncouth about those who choose to perceive one billion people of any faith as a standardised mass?

From the seventh to the thirteenth century Muslim civilisations dominated world culture, accepting, adopting, using, and preserving the study of mathematics, philosophy, medicine, and astronomy. Yet this fact is seldom acknowledged today, be it in the West or in the Muslim world. This amnesia has left a 600-year gap in the history of human thought.

During the fifteenth century Muslim civilisation began a period of decline, losing ground to European economic, intellectual, and cultural hegemony. Islamic culture began to be marginalised and its horizons narrowed until it lost its self-respect and ceased its intellectual quest. Even as Muslim learning was studied in the greatest universities in Europe — La Sorbonne, Oxford, Bologna — it was being neglected in Muslim societies. Little of what was discovered and written by Muslim thinkers during the classical period is taught in any educational institution, and when it is, due credit is not given. This gap in global knowledge of the history of thought is evident in innumerable ways. It partially explains why the Western news media see Islamic thought as a political force in predominantly Muslim cultures and refer to individuals affiliated with terrorist organisations as Muslim first and only then by their national origin or ideological goals. This is a considerable problem for the Islamic world in its relations with the West, particularly because of the impact public opinion has on the decisions of democratic governments.

The near-total burden of underdevelopment from which only a few Muslim countries have yet extricated themselves further serves to unite us in Western eyes and set us apart. No world faith, perhaps, has such a high concentration of people living in poverty and fear. No reasonable mind could question our fear of occidentalisation — the loss of our Muslim identity. Once a self-confident cradle of culture and art, the Muslim world has not forgotten its past. The abyss between this memory and the towering problems of tomorrow would disorient even the most secure society.

You may ask, and justly so, What has happened to that world, and why has it reached such an advanced stage of fragility? Many contemporary problems of the Islamic world are the result of political conflicts attending the end of colonialism and the Cold War. Are the roots of the conflict in Kashmir not anchored in the partitioning of India in 1947? Are not the civil wars in Afghanistan and Tajikistan due more to the political convulsions of the dying Cold War than to religious conflicts among Muslims themselves? Is the conflict in Algeria caused by differences in interpretation of the faith among Algerians, or by an attempt at political change which, put to the test, has failed? These are some of the less fortunate legacies of Islamic states having been used as pawns or proxies in the Cold War.

It is time for all of us to ask, “How can contacts between the West and Islam result in a more peaceful world?” … In this exhilarating era of immediate global communication, it should deeply concern both the West and the Islamic world that such a deep gulf of misinformation and misunderstanding continues to exist. Its omnipresence damages our capacity to build a better world. And it has no basis in logic.

It is time for all of us to ask, “How can contacts between the West and Islam result in a more peaceful world?” I believe we should seek out and welcome these encounters, not fear them. We should energise them with knowledge, wisdom, and shared hope. But this will be enormously difficult to achieve until Islamic civilisations are part of the mainstream world culture and knowledge, fully understood by its dominant force: the West.

In this exhilarating era of immediate global communication, it should deeply concern both the West and the Islamic world that such a deep gulf of misinformation and misunderstanding continues to exist. Its omnipresence damages our capacity to build a better world. And it has no basis in logic. The great Muslim philosopher al-Kindi wrote 1,100 years ago, “No one is diminished by the truth, rather does the truth ennoble all.”

It is only here in the West that governments, intelligentsia, media, and entrepreneurs are all, in some way, linked to the universities. Western universities influence or actually create much of our world’s general and specialised knowledge. They challenge what may be wrong and validate what is correct. They research what they do not know. Is it not time for you to use these tools to build a bridge across the gulf of knowledge that separates the Islamic world from the West? Do you question that we will be by your side?

We have much to build with: A common Abrahamic monotheistic tradition. Common ethical principles founded on shared human values. Common problems of yesterday, resolved together. Common challenges of tomorrow that we can best face together.

These are the materials with which to build a bridge. I see its structure resting on the realities of our world and strengthened by sound intellect. But any structure requires bonding, and of all the bonds that can link societies America epitomises the strongest: hope. The right to hope is the most powerful human motivation I know. Its importance has been paramount in the history of this nation. We can reasonably expect that the next generation will be better equipped to address the challenges of life than is the present one. How beautiful that bridge of hope will be, between the West and the Islamic world.

His Highness the Aga Khan IV

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