It may be too early to guess the long-term effects of the interfaith conference held at the United Nations in New York earlier this month. However, one thing is already clear: there is a growing desire among all those concerned to go beyond the Alphonse and Gaston exchange that has marked the tension-ridden relations between Islam and the West.
In this case, the Alphonse and Gaston exchange has been going on something like this: Many in the West denounce Muslims as bigots or even terrorists while a corresponding number of Muslims complain of Western Islamophobia.
In New York, however, none of the Western nations defended a position that could be regarded as Islamophobic. On the other side, with the exception of the Khomeinist ambassador who read the usual Tehran Radio propaganda sheet, none of the Muslim leaders present used the old language of distrust and accusation.
The conference revealed a healthy readiness on the part of the Muslim world to welcome constructive criticism. In exchange, the Western nations manifested a greater degree of understanding for the desire of many Muslims, perhaps even a majority, to protect and defend differences they regard as vital for the survival of their faith.
The conferees in New York manifested an unprecedented readiness for a serious dialogue.
By coincidence, the conference was held at a time that charges of Western Islamophobia were being shaken by facts.
To start with, a majority of Americans voted for Barack Hussein Obama, a man with Arabic and Islamic first and middle names and a Muslim father and stepfather. Just days before polling day, former US Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Obama with a memorable phrase: Even if he is a Muslim that should not prevent him from becoming President of hr United States!
A majority of Americans agreed.
There is no doubt that Obama’s election was the big event. However, it had been preceded with a number of smaller events, all undermining the charge of Islamophobia.
France’s current Cabinet, former by President Nicolas Sarkozy after his election victory in 2007 includes three Muslim ministers, including one in charge of the Justice department.
In the past three years, Nobel prizes have gone to more than dozen Muslims in different areas, including the peace prize granted to Iranian Shirin Ebadi and the prize for literature to the Turkish Orhan Pamuk.
Last week, at the time that the interfaith conference was meeting in New York, two writers of Muslim origin won France’s two biggest literary prizes. Atiq Rahimi, a 46-year Afghan-born novelist bagged the prestigious Prix Goncourt.
Rahimi wrote his first three novels in Persian, his native language, but, having lived in France in exile for 24 years, felt confident enough to write a novel in French. It was this, titled “Pierre de Patience” (Patience Stone) that won him the Goncourt.
France’s second most important literary prize went to Tierno Monensembo, a 61-year old novelist from Guinea (Conakry) for his Le Roi de Kahel (King of the Sun).
It is not only in politics and in literature that the West is offering individuals of Muslim origin and/or background unprecedented opportunities to progress thanks to their merit and hard work. Last week, the Wall Street Journal named Shirin Neshat, Farhad Moshiri, Huda Lutfi, Rokni Haerizadeh and Lamya Gargash, all Muslims from Iran, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, among the younger generation of artist whose works fetch the highest prices in Western art markets.
The claim that the West is genetically Islamophobic is also refuted by other events. Almost at the same time as the New York conference was getting under way, the municipal council in Cologne, Germany’s principal cathedral city, issued a permit for the building of a massive new mosque for the Turkish Muslim minority. In the past 10 years, more mosques have been built in Europe, relative to the size of the Muslim population, than in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Invented over a decade ago, the term Islamophobia has been used by some as a means of pre-empting any critical examination of any aspect of Islam as an existential reality. Merely observing that a majority of international terrorists these days happen to be of Muslim background is regarded as Islamophobic, although the vast majority of victims are also Muslims. Reporting that an average of 3000 women die as a result of the so-called “honour killings” in Pakistan each year, is regarded as another example of Islamophobia as if that barbarous practice had anything to do with Islam in the first place. Equally regarded as Islamophobic is the observation that today it is only in Western democracies that all strands of Islam can live side by side in peace.
Those who regard Islamophobia as their last refuge often use a clever trick. Whatever is wrong in the Muslim world they blame on the West and its “colonial and imperialist” incursions into the world of Islam since Bonaparte arrived in Egypt. With such claims, there is no need for critical self-examination. If live monstrous lives, it is the fault of the others.
In New York, last week, however, a serious blow was dealt to that last refuge of the scoundrel. And, that is surely good news for all.