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Islam and the West – A Complex Relationship Impacts on Development Cooperation

Dr. Gunter Mulack
It is a great pleasure for me to discuss with you this important subject and to share with you some ideas how we could develop cooperation between the Muslim world and Europe even beyond dialogue. A close and practical cooperation should be possible in the field of humanitarin assistance despite some problematic issues in the  relationship  in  general.

Especially Germany has enjoyed long standing friendly relations with the Arab World. Germany has no colonial past in this part of the world and Germans have historically been seen as friends of the Orient and the Muslim world at large. Friendship was easy when Islam was a religion far away and the number of Muslim citizens living in Germany was very restricted.

Even with the influx of Muslims into Germany as “Gastarbeiter“ this relationship did not radically change. This picture of good understanding, an exotic distance between religions and cultures was true until the attacks on September 11 which had a deep impact on the relationship between the Muslim and the Western World in foreign relations but also at home. A new enemy had emerged: international terrorism in the name of Islam. This has strongly influenced the relations between Muslims and non-Muslims; suddenly a new threat perception was there which has deeply shaken western society and their feeling of security.

Despite all concerted efforts for a systematic dialogue in the aftermath of September 11 on all sides, the relationship and the trust have reached the lowest point in recent history. I still remember all the different dialogue conferences, especially the first one between the OIC and the EU Foreign Ministers in Istanbul in the beginning of 2002, other conferences in many Arab and European countries, in which the experts of dialogue met and exchanged views on how to improve the relationship and the mutual understanding. Despite of all these efforts, the necessary trust which is the basis for constructive dialogue and cultural interaction has diminished. In the current climate of fear, anger and frustration, we are witnessing a situation in which the gulf between these civilizations is growing wider almost every day. The situation in Afghanistan and also Pakistan is deteriorating. Iraq despite all efforts has not been stabilized and is still insecure.The past warlike operations of the Israeli Army in Gaza still raises very much concern about further battles and bloodshed in the Middle East. Electronic media reports daily the growing violence in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and raise the fear of more clashes. The threat of terrorism in the name of Islam is growing and more countries are suffering from attacks, but the main sufferers are the Muslim populations in these war-torn countries.

Everybody agrees that military means are not the right solution to counter this surge in violence. We have to analyse the underlying causes and reasons and develop strategies to counter them. So we are again searching for other ways of peaceful interaction. The speeches of the new American president Obama in Cairo as well as in Ankara raised new hope of a better understanding between West under the leadership of the U.S. and the Muslim world. At least we see here a total change compared with the disastrous effects of the Bush administration . We can only hope that deeds will follow nice words and that the peace process in the Middle East can really be revived. But the positive impact on the climate of the relationship is in itself already a great achievement.

Let us be frank: relations and interaction between a secular post-modern and post-religious world and a traditional religious world are not easy. If we want to have results which go beyond the mutual confirmation of peace, love and understanding, we have to change our concept of dialogue and cultural interaction and cooperation. There is another aspect which we have to take into consideration: Islam is not a foreign religion in some remote areas outside Europe, but it has become a European religion which is being lived in many of our countries daily. In the European Union there are between 15 – 20 millions Muslims living. These are not coherent communities and have different status in the respective EU member countries. Most come from the former colonies. Some are well integrated, 50% of the Muslims in France, UK, Belgium are national citizens. They form an integral part of European societies and contribute to politics, culture, science and economy.

In Germany we do have more than 3,5 millions Muslims, living and interacting with society, but these only arrived to Germany in the 1960s as guest workers. Historically, the firot Muslim actually arrived in the 18th century. The Prussian king Frederic the Great has welcomed Muslims to Prussia and allowed them to build mosques. Some joined the Prussian army. Today, we have in our armed forces more than 1,000 Muslim soldiers serving. Problematic for Muslim communities is the low standard of education, lack of social integration, difficulties to find jobs and therefore widespread frustration among young Muslims. Dialogue with the Muslim communities has become more important and is beng discussed everywhere. Germany has institutionalised the dialogue with its Muslim communities since September 2006 with the establishment of the Islam conference. This allows an institutionalised dialogue between all Muslims sects and groups and the society and government in Germany.

Most Muslims in Germany are of Turkish origin and quite secular. We have now MPs, university professors, millionaires and media people who are Muslims. Only 25% are German citizens. Turks are very proud to be Turks! There is no discrimination because of faith but a growing mistrust towards young male Muslims is unfortunately spreading in Western societies. The few radicals who joint the Jihad against the West are, however, only a tiny minority but prominent in the media. Stereotyped negative pictures in the media about the Muslim world have only increased suspicion. There is a clear lack of knowledge about Islam in Western societies apart from universities and specialists. But also, there is a clear lack of knowledge about the West in many Muslim societies.

Serious events like those associated with the cartoons controversy must be reason to question our concept for a dialogue, and I believe that not only in Germany people would like to know whether all efforts invested into the dialogues so far have been in vain or illconceived when at the height of the controversy none of the agreements and declarations reached during many high-level conferences on Dialogue and Interfaith Harmony could be mobilized to contain this crisis which once again has shown us very clearly the immense difficulty of comprehensive understanding and the lack of knowledge on both sides about the societal system and the role of religion in the Muslim world as well as about the values of secular systems in Europe.

In my many visits to the Arab world and the Muslim world at large from Nigeria to Indonesia I witnessed, however, a desire for real dialogue and cooperation and the willingness to find durable solutions to improve the knowledge about the other culture as well as improving trust and acceptance that we are different in many points. We should, however, also recognize that we have many value concepts in common. The approach must be undertaken in a spirit of establishing these common grounds without becoming apologetic or over-harmonious.

What we need, is a culture of tolerance defined by a pluralistic view of the world. Fear must be replaced by trust and hope. We must stop accusing each other and start to listen to the other’s view point. We in the West must realise that our partners in the Muslim World feel victimised by perceived double standards in our policies and by the perceived lack of justice. We have to use soft power in order to increase understanding, trust and knowledge. If we want to overcome the persisting and increasing mutual threat perception and the credibility gap we have to work very hard not only to foster active relations with the Muslim world, but specifically to look for a wide ranging cooperation in cultural dialogue, societal dialogue, Higher Education and social fields engaging civil society.

And here I think, we have a real chance to improve the relations by joint cooperation in Humanitarian assistance, especially but not exclusively in Muslim countries. This sets positive examples and helps to correct stereotyped negative pictures which abound in so many countries. I remember the very close cooperation which developed after the earthquake hit Pakistan in October 2005. In the remote mountainous areas of Kashmir we had many excellent examples of cooperation between foreign NGOs and local NGOs with religious background and even many NGOs from other Muslim countries that arrived to help the affected population.

It is through setting practical examples of care and assistance without looking at nationalities or religions that we can overcome the many negative prejudices which have developed during the last years of conflict. As we have religiously based NGOs – church-related – which are active in all parts of the world, there are also several well-known and respectable NGOs in the Muslim world which are based on religious principles but which do their work not in order to spread their specific belief but to help victims of natural or man-made catastrophes and which work professionally and systematically in development projects in many fields. Cooperating with them could also ease suspicion against Western NGOs and help to gain trust with the local population.

We can set positive examples and proof that we can work together in respect and even friendship and help to fight ignorance, obscurantism and extremism by engaging together in development work. It is a long way to go but we have to start with concrete projects to overcome the gap of development which splits our world apart and contributes so much to the negative perceptions and conditions which have developed especially in countries suffering from War or insurgency.

The threat of globalisation, the impression, that Islam is under attack, the deterioration of the standing of the Muslim World, the failure of educational and social systems, lack of freedom and democracy. Many factors are contributing to this general malaise in the Muslim World. Many see already the clash of civilisations happening. I for myself rather see a clash of uncivilised and extremist fringes on both sides. Yes, we have to do more to prevent the spread of a clash feeling. Catchwords as “Conflict Prevention” are rightly connected to dialogue and cooperation.

We have to reach out further:

We have to join hands to actively overcome this negative situation. During the last years Germany has implemented successful projects and gained experiences in cooperation with countries of the Muslim world but we have to refocus and concentrate our efforts in order to make a direct contribution to development and better understanding in the societies of the Middle East and the larger Muslim world. 60 % of the population of the Muslim world are under the age of 25, so we have to take them on board in all our efforts.

We have to deal with their ideas and problems in a serious manner.

Due to the high level of negative experiences and the perception of a total lack of justice in international, but also sometimes in internal relations many angry young males have a tendency to reject the existing political parties and engage in radical Islamic groups. We have to better understand the role of Justice in Islam, al-adl and social justice, al-adala alijtima’iyya.

There is not enough justice in our world, neither in international nor in internal relations. Many Islamists play an active role in the social transformation process that we consider indispensable to reverse the trend of a Muslim world falling behind. But radical groups are uncompromising and dogmatic. It is not easy – to say the least – to have dialogue with them and find acceptable compromises. I would therefore rather concentrate on the long term cooperation in the field of spreading knowledge – to term it very generally.

The strive for knowledge is one of the noblest duties for Muslims, but despite this – according to different human development reports – the Muslim world is lagging behind in development in the modernized world more than ever.

Many people are demanding a more intensified interfaith dialogue. My experience is that believers do not have problems to understand each other, and it is not really a problem of different religions. We therefore must focus on inter-societal dialogue and cultural interaction.

We have to learn more about each other’s cultures and value systems, but more than anything else we need an intensified cooperation in the field of development. The actual crisis we are witnessing in parts of the Muslim world is also a crisis of modernization and search for an adequate answer to the challenges of globalization.

In the field of higher education the German Academic Exchange Service will increase its activities. More scholarships, more joint programs, training programs for teachers and training programs for university professors should increase the level of academic teaching.

These are practical fields of cooperation which we should extend to closer cooperation in development projects. This approach requires stamina and patience. We cannot expect quick fixtures or instant success, and we need a constant re-evaluation of joint projects.

We have to be inventive, look for new ways of cooperation and exchange and pursue our cooperation on equal footings and in the spirit of improving the work in the field and winning over the trust of the people.

Let us be frank – in the minds of the Muslim masses there are many pertinent questions. There is also growing mistrust. One of the accusations is that our reform discourse is only a cover up for a policy exclusively interested in securing our energy needs. Or the kind of public diplomacy in order to paint the West in beautiful and bright pictures. Without doubt – there is a lot of attractiveness for young Muslims in the West. The freedom and the chances in the Western world are great. But one has to work very hard to become an achiever. When I see some data that in universities in the Arab world between 50 % and 60 % of the students are dreaming of running away from their home country emigrating to Europe or other Western countries – it is a clear indication for the high level of frustration.

To fight this frustration we must empower the young generation, especially the future leaders. This is in the interest of both sides. We have to look jointly into the future to try and tackle existing problems. According to my understanding it will not help us to look back to the glorious time of the early four caliphs – but we can learn from history. Everybody who has studied the history of Islam will witness that in the early Middle Ages this part of the world was so much more developed than the Western world. There was much more freedom and criticism possible that nowadays is unthinkable of. So to revive the traditional standards of openness and tolerance and high level learning in the Muslim world would be a good incentive for the future. Malaysia’s Islam hadara is a good example to follow. One other thing is also very clear:

If you compare the development in the Arab world or the Muslim world at large and the non- Muslim world, especially in Asia, you will see that in other societies women are much more actively engaged in politics and in business as this is the case in many traditional Muslim countries. No country can strive for improvement and competition to become one of the top countries unless it is including women into the social and economic process. Gender justice is crucial, indispensable, and essential. The good sign is that in many universities of the Muslim world, the majority of students are already women. In the Pakistani armed forces women are serving, even as pilots.

The question, however, remains how to create more jobs for these educated women? The social and legal status of women has to be adapted to the modern world. And here Islamic NGOs can and should play also an active role.

So let’s work together against existing deep historical ignorance and also against profound hypocrisy which are obstacles to real open dialogue and interaction.

One example to follow, how to go forward in precise and concrete projects of cooperation is the process building up friendship and cooperation between Germany and France since 50 years – two arch enemies for many centuries. The program of Youth Exchange, university partnerships, school partnerships, town partnerships, even inter-marriage between French and Germans has succeeded in building a solid friendship between these two countries which are in many aspects still quite different. It is late, but still not too late to look into innovative very concrete ways of cooperation, starting to implement them. We have to respect each other, we have to acknowledge that our traditions are different and we have to conduct our relations on equal footing, than, I am sure, interaction and cooperation will bring us closer together and help to overcome the many obstacles to building a peaceful world.