Francis Robinson: The Islamic world must regain its self-respect

From a lecture by the Professor of the History of South Asia at Royal Holloway College to a Yale University conference
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The Independent Online

It is important to understand that Islamism is, in its way, a profoundly "modern" movement, concerned to chart out an Islamically-based path of progress for Muslim societies. While concerned to resist the West, its leaders have been influenced by Western knowledge.

Sayyid Qutb, who took over the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood from Hasan al-Banna, was much influenced by the French fascist thinker Alexis Carrell, and a visit to the USA. Ali Shariati, ideologue of the Iranian revolution, was much influenced by Sartre, Fanon and Louis Massignon. Erbakan, the leading Turkish Islamist politician, was an engineer.

A fascinating development of recent years has been the steady emergence of Iran as a semi-democratic country and potential major source of stability in west Asia. Indeed, I shall stick my neck out and suggest that it will be seen in the not too distant future as an increasingly important ally and beacon of common sense in the region. The Iranian revolution, after which Iran charted its own destiny, has given Iran a sense of self-confidence such as few Muslim states possess.

"What has your revolution achieved, what has it given the Iranian people who are suffering from the ravages of war?" a journalist asked an Iranian leader in 1989 as 10 years of the revolution were celebrated. He replied: "We have given the Iranian people a sense of self-respect and dignity. Now Iranians in Tehran, not in Washington or London, make decisions about the destiny of Iran."

I want to make one thing absolutely clear. I have discussed the hatred of the West that some Muslims have displayed, the power of the Muslim sense of community and the relationship between the Muslim revival and some aspects and agents of the current crisis. But this does not mean that I in any way subscribe to Huntington's thesis of the Clash of Civilisations. As you will recall, he argues that, in the post-Cold War era, the crucial distinctions between people are not primarily ideological or economic, but cultural. World politics is now being reconfigured along cultural lines.

As that process takes place, the Muslim world is emerging with deep fault lines between it and the West. It has "bloody borders" and represents the greatest danger. But the protest against the West to which I have referred is not against the West intrinsically, but against its power in Muslim societies. The emphasis on the idea of a community of believers is not for the vast majority of Muslims one that should be hermetically sealed against the West, it is a dimension of Muslim religious thought that permits a host of other relationships. While it is enormously important to remember that the Islamic revival has almost entirely been directed inwards at the reform of Muslim society; it is a movement of renewal and of self purification.

Through history the Christian and Islamic civilisations have constantly rubbed together, constantly played a part in shaping each other. The roots of Islamic civilisation lie in the monotheistic and Hellenistic traditions of the eastern Roman Empire. Indeed, its universalism is directly derived from the political and religious universalism of Constantine's Byzantine empire. Medieval Europe was hugely enriched by the Arab-Muslim knowledge that was passed to it through Italy and Spain.

Down to the 19th century, Europeans measured themselves in various ways against the world of Islam. During the 19th and 20th centuries, as we have seen, the Muslim world came to be shaped by Europe. And now, of course, Muslims play their part in shaping the West both as communities within, as well as from without. These two worlds, Christian and Muslim, have shared much and have much to share. It is crucial that, during this period when the West is in the ascendant, we show respect and enable Muslims to gain a self-esteem that has been lost.

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