By Ashur Shamis
In a personal contribution, Ashur Shamis calls for a dialogue between the West and the Muslim world. This is a chapter from the e-book ‘The Future of the Middle East’ co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the spring.
Arab Spring and its aftermath
In 2010 the so-called Arab Spring came sweeping over the Arab world. Coming suddenly and without proper leadership or a considered strategy, the Arab world was thrown into unchartered territory – a black hole the limits of which no one seems, as yet, to be able to fathom. However, the Arab Spring has achieved one thing.
Now, in 2017, looking at what is unfolding in Europe and the US, one cannot help but notice the repercussions of Arab Spring playing in this part of the world. The Arabs rose against their dictators demanding their freedom back, while in Europe and the USA people turned away from their elites and ‘professional’ politicians and political parties demanding their countries and their tribal identities back. The ‘wind of change’ is already blowing throughout the West and the Muslim world.
The rise of populism in Europe and the election of Donald Trump as president of the USA, in the wake of the UK decision to withdraw from the European Union (Brexit), was the inevitable response. We all seem to have rediscovered our identity, each in our own way, and gained a newfound desire to assert it.
What we are witnessing, both in West and in the Arab world, is a rejection of elitism and the monopoly of political ruling cliques, be they military or one-man style regimes. What we want is ‘politics for the ordinary man’.
What we need is to rationalise this belief. It is also innovative and self-confident.
In the Muslim world these feelings are very strong, and tempered with a certain degree of inferiority complex towards the West, a love-hate relationship. With such demeanour on both sides, it is perhaps naïve to expect very much in the way of tolerance and reconciliation. It runs contrary to the ideas, banded about in recent years, of the ‘end of history’ and the dreaded ‘clash of civilisation’.
That indeed would be the end of human civilisation, as we know it. Even the concept of Western liberal democracy, the bedrock of modern Western civilisation, as a universal system of governance, has become a matter for debate and controversy. A tense situation affected with hostility and conflict and mistrust is not conducive to reconciliation or understanding.
The Kipling paradigm
As the poet Rudyard Kipling once said: ‘east is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet’. This is rather superseded by the rest of the phrase: ‘But there is neither East nor West… When two strong men stand face to face’. This is the juncture of history, where Islam and the West are ‘face to face’. They in fact not only stand face to face, but they often blend and coalesce one with the other.
Therefore, they, more than anything, need to recognise, respect and tolerate each other. That could very well be the key to world peace, in future. The past century was mainly taken up with Christian-Muslim dialogue, as a means of bringing about understanding and conciliation. But, to no avail. What is required now is to launch and empower reconciliation and dialogues between Islam and the West.
These two giant human forces, the West and Islam, are in control of unsurpassed moral and material powers, in differing degrees, one supported by science and technology, the other underpinned by morals, durability and resilience.
Geo-politically, they occupy more than half of the physical world. Peaceful engagement and interaction between these two blocs of mankind offer the best prospects for peace and progress.
A sleeping giant
The Muslim populations in Europe (around 13m) and in the USA (around 3.5m) are the fastest growing in the world. Apart from a few twisted and criminally minded individuals they, on the whole, are well-positioned, educated, assimilated, and living in peace.
The Muslims have now become a part and parcel of the fabric and the lifestyle of Western society in the USA and Europe. It is this relationship we must work at and cherish. Those anti-social elements must be uprooted and treated as either criminals or psychologically imbalanced, mostly the first. The media has to deprive them of the glorification that was their greatest aim.
History has played the Muslims a wrong hand. It left them in a state of shock and stagnation. It looks as if they lost their pride and mislaid the purpose that drove and motivated them in the seventh century to go out and offer their human resources and spread their ideas.
Muslims have to look into their system of governance with serious attention so that they can give more participation to their citizens. Their political and economic situations must be viewed with much fairer and improved distribution of their wealth, their human rights and their governance.
Foreign intervention, penetration and manipulation continue to plague the Muslim/Arab world. This state of affairs is unjustified and unjustifiable. The west claims to ‘police’ the world and to be the custodian over this part of the world and, therefore, has the right to control its politics, economic resources and moral destiny. A large section of humanity is bereft of the ability to determine its own future. This loss of control by the Arabs and Muslims has left them a victim and a laughing stock in the world.
Islam is a global way of life that is adopted by all human groups. Globalism is here to stay, and Islam is ready for it. Therefore, there ought to be a worldwide campaign or initiative, a remedy, for this universal misapprehension, this historical travesty. The Muslims have fallen victim of this great fallacy that reflected negatively on their life and existence.
The vast swathes of people are being judged by the acts of a few extremists. Their life and history are being interpreted under a wrong to be righted. It is paradoxical how the Muslims never branded Christianity as terrorist when the Christian world was inflicting violence upon them, while the West (the Christian) today brands Islamic as terrorism.
The West has to stop intervening in Muslim and Arab countries by force and at will. It does not even have the right to intervene, willy-nilly, for purposes of goodwill.
The Muslims have to be allowed to sort out their own differences and problems. What happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya over the last four decades is a form of colonisation by a different name. Under the mantra ‘our vital interest’ the West has justified interference in, and manipulation of, the affairs of Muslim countries.
This love-hate relationship between the West and Islam has to lead to some sensible compromise. Many people see the West’s intervention as necessary, but what has to be done is to remove the arguments that lie at the root of it that have made intervention justified and acceptable.
All interventions in the recent past, under the humane-sounding “responsibility to protect” have proven disastrous, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. The interpretation of international law must not be left to the powerful nations. Just look at the sixty-year record of countries like Israel, a pivotal ally of the USA and Britain, and its abuse and total disregard for international law. An honest and rational debate has to take place, urgently, between the West and Islam.
Of the recent interventions we can look at Libya, my own country, as an example. NATO’s intervention in Libya in 2011, was to protect civilians and impose a no-fly-zone to prevent Gaddafi’s forces from gaining advantage over unarmed civilians.
It worked for the first nine months when Gaddafi was killed and his regime decimated. But the Libyans then were left to their own devices, hanging in the air after 41 years of dictatorship. A perilous political vacuum was created.
Those who interfered earlier did not either have the stomach to pursue their task or simply ignored the facts on the ground and withdrew from the scene. They completely failed to understand the post-Gaddafi Libyan mentality.
All the efforts by the European Union and the United Nations at dialogue to carve up a political solution, ended in failure. The so-called ‘international community’ underestimated the perilous situation and left a huge ungoverned space in Libya.
Their biggest snag was a lack of understanding of the society they were dealing with. The Libyans were made up of various groups, all of whom had no political experience for decades, the main one of which may be called the ‘Gaddafi generation’. These were brought up and educated, and conditioned, under Gaddafi’s xenophobia and self-centred, self-serving persona.
They were the product of Gaddafi’s ‘rule of the people’ during which they were constantly bombarded with fake ideas such as ‘people are the masters’, the ‘power is in the hands of the masses’ and that ‘power, wealth, and weapons’ belong the people. They were convinced that they are the ruler.
All the means of power and the resources of the country are in their hands and under their control. A new political dynamic was in the making. This group is the largest and the youngest of all groups and it began, based on this self-belief, to grab and accumulate power and wealth by all means. From this group emerged the militias and the armed factions.
Another group is the exiles and expatriates who flooded in from outside the country. These are mainly well-educated, who spent between ten to thirty years outside the country. They saw freedom in some of the democratic countries like the USA, Britain and other European countries.
Of course they did not participate in the democratic process but were keen observers of it. They went into Libya with high hope of sharing in the building of a democratic country similar to the ones they lived in abroad. Not bothering to understand the society they have left many years ago and now had returned into, they gave the impression that they were overbearing and cocky.
They were detested by the ‘Gaddafi generation’ group and seen as a threat to their own power and future standing in the new dynamic. They were dubbed ‘double chip’ because they had earned another nationality, or passport, having lived abroad for so many years. They were treated with suspicion and derision, and accused of opportunism and therefore branded not fit to take office in Libya.
A third category is that of people who spent long terms of incarceration in prison for political reasons. These were thousands of young educated people who spent long terms of various type of confinement inside and outside of prison. They saw the toppling of Gaddafi and the ending of his regime as a once in lifetime chance to exact their vengeance and revenge.
The NATO intervention is an example gone wrong due to lack of understanding or conflict of interests. Not understanding the temperament and the culture of the people you are dealing with could lead to disaster.
The need for a cultural, civil initiative
What is needed at this juncture is to think carefully along the following broad outlines:
To organise cultural programmes and joint activities at international level involving lecturers, university professors, academics, thinkers, cultural icons, artists, journalists, media figures, social experts, luminaries, and role models from different disciplines on both sides, must be brought together to hold talks and discuss all the major issues of the day.
The aim would be to narrow the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims by continuous contact and interaction at the highest intellectual and educational levels. Similarly, there are several areas on which the Muslims do not trust the West that must be introduced to the debate.
The West views Islam as backward, cruel, repressive and restrictive, while the Muslims view the West with doubt tinged with fear. They believe the West is constantly plotting and harbours conspiratorial policies against them. Seeds of doubt and mistrust were sown between the two camps and a great effort is needed to clear this mistrust and mutual lack of confidence. Both the areas of agreement as well as the differences must be discussed.
A non-governmental approach is required. One or more top international universities, or international Think Tanks, have to take up the initiative and propose the formation of an international forum or network to devise and conduct dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. This effort should be sponsored by civil society organisations or Think Tanks. The political approach has failed us, and we must go the cultural, or the civil society, approach.
The dialogue can take place in the form of seminars, lectures, workshops, discourses, symposia, and conferences. It can be developed into short courses and exchange programmes.
We need a common understanding on cultural differences, religion, and historic interpretation. We need to agree on the redefinition of certain terms such as Jihad, Ijtihad, Hijab, Shariah, Kufr, Khilafah, democracy, human rights, liberalism, modernity and freedom. We need to be speaking the same language instead of speaking at cross-purposes.
There is a need for a sober, deliberate approach that leads to a workable pragmatic vision. There has to be a process of transformation through this vision that the Muslims view themselves as they really are, and restore that positive outlook toward the role they can play in the world.
The aim is to devise a programme for engaging in global, open and frank discussion and dialogue about all the subjects that are causing much consternation, stagnation, suspicion and friction between Muslims and the West. In the process the religious, cultural, and social differences must be identified and recognised. Each side is to be given the benefit of the doubt, to readjust its view of the other. We have to modify the mindset, built over centuries of prejudgments and prejudices, about the West and Islam, for the sake of future generations of all mankind.
World leadership is in crisis, in the West as well as the East. With the rise of China as a power aspiring to be equal to the United States, not necessarily militarily, but in a number of other areas, both sides need to understand the common grounds on which they stand. They will need to highlight the positive aspects of their historic relationship and build on it. Let us not focus on the few extremists who are bent on spreading fear and mayhem amongst us. Let us give prominence to the millions of Muslims, all over the world, who do not participate in these vile acts.
It is Rudyard Kipling again, who was reported to have said: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes”. We certainly can see it rhyming today. We can learn from it, if we approach it with honesty and a view to building a future of harmony, recognition, tolerance and peaceful co-existence, rather than one of destruction and annihilation.
Ashur Shamis is a distinguished Libyan writer and long-time political activist. When Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he was studying Aeronautical Engineering in the United Kingdom. In 1977 he obtained an MA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Birmingham. Since 1971, he lived in exile in the UK. He turned to journalism and political activism. From 1980, he was a target for Gaddafi’s physical “liquidation squads”, and, with others, instrumental in founding one of the most effective opposition groups, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya. He went on to oppose the Libyan regime until its fall in 2011. From 2002, he was founder and editor of the influential website ‘Akhbar Libya’ until his return to Libya in 2011, after 40 years in exile. He has a long record of political and human rights activism on Libya. He is also an associated editor of http://international.minbarlibya.com/