Islam and the West

A meaty overview and suggestions for study to help students broaden their knowledge of Islam's past and present, and the U.S.'s role.

To the Teacher:

The overview of the historical relationship between Islam and the West presented below aims to be just that—an overview. As such, it suffers from the necessity to survey centuries in a paragraph or two. It does not attempt detailed discussion of Islam as a religion or consideration of such important issues as the role of women in Islamic societies. It does aim to provide some basic information about the long and, at times, ugly history of the relationship between Islam and the West and a background for better understanding of today's events. But it is no more than an introduction.

Following the five sections of the overview is a list of possible teaching strategies for use in whatever combinations a teacher thinks appropriate. Included are discussion questions for each of the five sections of the overview.

Also possibly useful for the unit are the following sets of lessons available on this website: Investigating Terrorism; Oil: Saudi Arabia, the United States and Osama bin Laden; Israel, the Palestinians and the United States; The Current Israeli-Palestinian Conflict; Iraq: Should the U.S. Launch a Preemptive Attack?; and Teaching Critical Thinking.



The Rise of Islam and Revolutions in the West

Almost 1400 years ago, in 610, a 40-year-old businessman in town of Mecca, Arabia, meditating in a cave, began to experience a series of revelations that led to the creation of a new religion and changed the history of the world. The man, Muhammad ibn Abdallah, became convinced that his revelations and the words that poured from him came from Allah ("God"). At that time, people in Mecca did not believe in one God, but worshipped many gods. Muhammad began preaching his belief in one God. He won converts and founded a religion, Islam ("surrender"), whose followers call themselves "Muslims," men or women who surrender themselves completely to Allah. The Quran ("recitation") records the revelations of Muhammad; the Ahadith ("reports") contains the traditions of the teaching and actions of Muhammad. Together they contain the teachings of the religion.

One of the most important things to understand about Islam is that it is more than a system of belief and worship, which all religions have. Unlike Christianity, for example, Islam includes politics, economics, and law as well as citizens' rights and duties and social welfare. Islam is a religion that embraces every part of one's life. It has no single leader like a pope and no ranks of high officials like bishops and cardinals. The Christian New Testament says, "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." (Matthew 22:14) But in an Islamic state there is no such separation. A leader has both political and religious authority.

So energizing and powerful were Muhammad's teachings and leadership that by the time of his death in 632 he had unified all of Arabia under Islam. By a century after his death Islamic followers had conquered the Middle East to the borders of India and China, North Africa, and Spain. Though Muslims may have lived far apart, their common link was that they formed an ummah, a community of believers who had the right relationship with Allah and one another. A rich Islamic civilization developed that produced great writers, mathematicians, astronomers, philosophers, architects and medical scholars. It saved ancient Greek learning from disappearing and made the later Renaissance and the scientific revolution possible in Western Europe.

For example, Abu Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham, born in Iraq in 965, established the foundation for modern optics and the idea that science should be based on experiment. Ibn Sina, a physician and philosopher born in Uzbekistan in 981, compiled a medical encyclopedia that was being used in Western Europe 700 years later. For hundreds of years the Arab language was the language of learning. Into the 16th century the Muslim empire of the Ottoman Turks was stronger than any European state and ruled over territories in North Africa and the Middle East that extended into southeastern Europe.

In Western Europe Turkish power was feared and seen as evil. From the Christian European point of view, the Turks were barbarians, dangerous, and followers of a false religion. From the perspective of the Muslims, the Europeans were ignorant, unbelievers, and infidels. Travelers, diplomats and others who came to Ottoman lands, however, learned that Christians could live and work there as well as argue their differing Christian perspectives in reasonable security. This was not true in Europe. The Turks did not try to impose their religion forcibly as Christians sometimes did but had a doctrine of live and let live as long as people paid their taxes and recognized Muslim supremacy.

Gradually, however, the dominance of the Ottoman and other Muslim empires faded. "The modern era in the world begins about 1500 A.D.," writes a noted historian, who adds, "Indeed, world history since l500 may be thought of as a race between the West's growing power to molest the rest of the world and the increasingly desperate efforts of other peoples to stave Westerners off...."

What happened? The stirrings and then the growing momentum of a series of revolutions gradually changed life in Europe and reversed the power relationship with Islam dramatically. Inventors created the microscope, the thermometer, the telescope. Scientists developed new understandings of the universe—Copernicus placed the sun, instead of the earth, at the center of our universe; Galileo used the new telescope to study the planets; Kepler described the laws of planetary motion. Dissenters attacked some of the beliefs and practices of the one Christian church. This Protestant Reformation led to the creation of multiple Christian churches. Religion seemed less absolute. The door opened to secularism.

After 1500 came the political consolidation and creation of large territorial national states along the coast of the North Atlantic—Spain, Portugal, England, France, Holland. Newly invented navigational devices made it possible for manufacturers and merchants to carry on their business over a wider territory, nationally and internationally. A middle class began to emerge.

Spain overthrew the last Muslim state on the Iberian peninsula; the Portuguese took over portions of the west African coast and disrupted Muslim trade in the Indian Ocean; Russia conquered areas of Muslim control; the Ottomans were forced to surrender Hungary to Austria; and the Muslim Moghul empire in India collapsed into anarchy.

By the second half of the l8th century, Western Europe had decisively outpaced the major Muslim power, the Ottoman Empire. The industrial revolution took hold with its machines, steamships and railroads, its new techniques of production, and new methods of organization. Banks and stock exchanges grew. Quarantines prevented plague and greater food production prevented famine. The populations in the new industrial cities grew. With its 2,500,000 people by l850, London became the largest city in the world.

This modernization created momentous changes. More and more people became mechanics, factory workers, clerks, and managers and needed some schooling. Consumers of mass-produced goods were essential to keep the economy going. Standards of living rose. A growing middle class of more literate and more prosperous people insisted on a voice in government decisions. To use all its human resources, a nation had to bring into the mainstream of its society groups such as the Jews who had been kept out. Scientists and government leaders demanded freedom from religious control to continue the progress of society.

"Thus the ideas of democracy, pluralism, toleration, human rights, and secularism were not simply beautiful ideals dreamed up by political scientists, but were, at least in part, dictated by the needs of the modern state. It was found that in order to be efficient and productive, a modern nation had to be organized on a secular, democratic basis. But it was also found that if societies did organize all their institutions according to the new rational and scientific norms, they became indomitable and the conventional agrarian states were no match for them." (Karen Armstrong, Islam, p. 142-143)

In the agrarian Muslim world, such momentous developments did not occur. In the farflung Ottoman Empire, plague and famine continued to be serious problems. Except for bare beginnings in Algeria and Egypt, railroads did not exist. Handicraft production of textiles could not compete with European machine-made products.

There were thinkers who explained why European dominance was growing and who argued that Muslims could learn from Europe while continuing to be faithful to Islam. But these thinkers were barely heard by the vast majority of Muslims, who lived by ancient rhythms as farmers in the countryside and nomads in the desert.


European Colonization of the Islamic World

By the second half of the l9th century, the Ottoman treasury did not have the money to pay soldiers and officials. Needing to borrow and unable to pay their debts, Ottoman officials had no choice but to give European creditors much of the control over government financial affairs.

By then, European colonization throughout the Muslim world was well underway. European factories produced machine-made products at a more rapid rate and in greater quantities than ever before in the history of the world. Their capitalist owners soon needed markets beyond those in the home country, and they sought the new markets in the agrarian and undeveloped world. By the second half of the l8th century, for example, the collapse of the Muslim Moghul empire in India provided openings for British traders to establish themselves in Bengal.

A new process began in Bengal which later became familiar worldwide. British companies began selling their cheap machine-made goods in Bengal, driving out local handicraft productions. The British companies were also interested in acquiring raw materials in Bengal for their factories in Britain. Eventually, this meant that the Bengalese would no longer grow crops for themselves but produce raw materials for Britain. Superior to India economically and militarily, Britain gained control of the entire subcontinent of India by the middle of the l9th century.

A sense of social superiority went along with Britain's economic and military superiority. The British, like European colonialists everywhere, saw the local people as backward, inefficient, ignorant, stupid. The l9th century British writer, Thomas Babington McCaulay, said that one shelf of European books is "worth the whole literature of India and Arabia." Lord Cromer declared, "The European is a close reasoner...he is a natural logician...the mind of the oriental (Arab) on the other wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description."

"They assumed that European culture had always been progressive, and lacked the historical perspective to see that they were simply seeing a pre-modern agrarian society, and that a few centuries earlier Europe had been just as 'backward.'" (Karen Armstrong, Islam, p.146)

At the same time, colonial powers regarded themselves as carrying out a "civilizing" mission, and believed they were obliged to change their subjects for the better. This idea was expressed by the British writer Rudyard Kipling in his l899 poem "The White Man's Burden" in which he essentially calls for turning the "half devil and half child" into a Westerner.

For their colonies to become profitable the colonial powers needed to modernize them to a certain extent and bring them into the Western financial and commercial system. Small numbers of people from the upper class and from the military in the colony were trained and educated to appreciate and to serve in the new system at such Western-established institutions as the University of Punjab (India) and the University of Malaya (Malaysia) or at officer-training schools like Sandhurst (British) or Saint Cyr (French). The rest of the population was left to live in poverty as peasants or in swelling urban slums.

"Society was divided, therefore, and increasingly neither side could understand the other. Those who had been left outside the modernizing process had the disturbing experience of watching their country become utterly strange....There were rules by secular foreign law-codes they could not understand. Their cities were transformed....People felt lost in their own countries....

"Where Europeans and Americans had been allowed to modernize at their own pace, and to set their own agendas, the inhabitants of the colonized countries had to modernize far too rapidly and were forced to comply with somebody else's program. But even Western people had found the transformation of their society painful. They had experienced almost 400 years of political and often bloody revolutions, reigns of terror, genocide, violent wars of religion, the despoiling of the countryside...exploitation in the factories" and alienation. (Karen Armstrong, Islam, pp. 144-145)

The colonization process spread throughout the non-industrial world in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. By the end of the l9th century Britain controlled such Muslim areas as those in India and what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh, Egypt, and the Sudan. Algeria, Tunisia, and southern Morocco were under the control of France. The Netherlands controlled what later became Indonesia. Italy was the power in Libya, Spain in northern Morocco. Muslim territories in East Africa, the Philippines, what is now known as Malaysia, the Caucasus, and Central Asia fell into the grip of Germany, Spain, Portugal, and Russia.

After the defeat of the Ottoman Turks in World War I, Britain and France established the boundaries of new countries in the Middle East and were granted mandates by the new League of Nations to control them for an indefinite period. Palestine and Iraq went to Britain; Lebanon and Syria went to France. Muslims viewed this European control as a violation of promises of freedom made to Arabs for their support in the war. In the Arab world only Saudi Arabia and Yemen had partial independence. Turkey was the only non-Arab Muslim independent state to emerge from the Ottoman territories.

The surrender of their lands to colonialists and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire were humiliating defeats for people in the Islamic world, and caused them to examine what had gone wrong. Hassan al-Banna (l906-l949), an Egyptian who founded the Society of Muslim Brothers, believed that Islam needed political, social, and spiritual reform. For him and other reformers, Islam was a total way of life. Merely to copy Western secularism was not the way. But the Quran needed to be interpreted in the light of modern life. Before World War II the Society founded hospitals, built factories and schools, fought poverty and social injustice, and offered training in Quranic living.

Sayyid Qutb (l906-l966) became the leading theorist for the Society of Muslim Brothers (also known as the Muslim Brotherhood) and a founder of Islamic fundamentalism. He was uncompromising in his view that the Quran was the only source of guidance for human life. Other societies were ignorant of religious truth, whether they were capitalist or communist, and did not obey the shariah (sacred Quranic law). He was convinced that Western society was doomed "because the Western order has played its part, and no longer possesses that stock of 'values' which gave it its predominance....The scientific revolution has finished its role, as have 'nationalism' and the territorially limited communities which grew up in its age...The turn of Islam has come." (Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, pp. 445-446) He called for every means to create a sequel to Muhammad's first ummah.


New Nations...Islamic Awakening...Fundamentalism

World War II severely weakened all of the European colonial powers, including those on the winning side. Millions of deaths, widespread destruction, economic weakness, and the ideals of freedom for which the war had been fought led to the end of the colonial era after the war. One after another, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, colonies in which Muslims made up a majority of the population became independent states.

Most of this process was peaceful, as Britain, France, and the other colonial rulers negotiated their exits, and new governments took their place. By the l970s most of the colonies were independent. Now there are more than 50 states with Muslim majorities stretching from Morocco in the west to the Indonesian archipelago in the east, from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia.

For the Muslim nations the concept of the territorial state is relatively new, a product of boundaries created by their European colonial rulers. The pre-colonial experience for Muslims had been leadership by caliphs and sultans and the ideal of the ummah that transcended boundaries and united all who followed Islam and put it first. But except for the Organization of Islamic Conference, a very limited organization modeled on the United Nations, there is today no overall unity of Muslim nations. In fact, though it is convenient at times to speak of "Muslims" or "the Islamic world," it can also be seriously misleading. Each people and area that came under the influence of Islam developed its own rituals and traditions. Muslims in India have a very different historical and cultural background from Muslims in Saudi Arabia.

New also is the Western idea that the modern nation must separate itself decisively from religion and that the government must be secular—even as it protects the right of citizens to express their different religions (or lack of religion) freely. This separation of church and state, as it is usually termed in the United States, produces a tension with the ummah ideal. Historically in Islam there was no such separation.

After World War I, Turkey, an Islamic country, began to respond to the West and modernism. Turkey's leader, Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk (l88l-1938), was determined to make Turkey a modern, secular state. To Ataturk that meant, among other things, an attack on religious practices. He closed the madrasahs (Muslim religious schools), forced all adults to wear modern Western dress, and made over the Turkish government with Western laws and institutions. In recent times traditional Muslim believers have staged something of a comeback in Turkey, but the government responds vigorously to any attempt to challenge its secular stance.

After army officers took over the Egyptian government in l952, Gamal Abdel Nasser (l9l8-l970) emerged as a leader who emphasized a reformist version of Islam. Nasser approved of secularizing the state and socializing the economy. He also appealed strongly to Arab nationalism and unity. Nasser's "Arab socialism" attempted a mixture of Marxism and capitalism. In the early l960s Egyptian economic growth was rapid, but the growth stopped by l964. Though Nasser gained immense popularity in Egypt and the Arab world, he was criticized sharply by the Muslim Brotherhood for using Islamic language to cover a basically secular policy. Nasser jailed members of the Brotherhood for years following their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate him. Nasser regarded Sayyid Qutb as a serious threat, and had him executed in l966.

Hassan al Turabi, party chairman of Sudan's National Islamic Front, wrote in 1992: "The post-colonial nationalist regimes had no agenda but to throw out the imperialists. Once they achieved their goal, they had nothing to offer the people. Then they turned to socialism as an alternative to the imperial West. Now, like everyone else, the Islamic world is disillusioned with socialism. The Islamic awakening began to build...." ( Islam, Opposing Viewpoints , p. 47)

That awakening was dramatic in Iran. Its history since World War II shows the strength of its Shiite Muslim heritage and its mixed responses to pressures from the West and modernism, including anger and resentment against the United States.

The Pahlevi monarchs brought secularism to Iran after World War II. Reza Shah Pahlevi replaced Islamic law with a civil system and forbade the hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca. His soldiers ruthlessly enforced modern dress codes, even tearing off women's veils with their bayonets on the streets. His son and successor as Shah was just as ruthless, closing madrasahs and arresting protesters. His secret police tortured and shot prisoners.

Western interest in Iran focused on its oil. After the Shah's new premier, Mohammed Mossadeq, seized and nationalized the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the U.S. joined Britain in plotting his overthrow. Under their pressure the Shah fired Mossadeq, but when his supporters rioted in the streets of Tehran, the Shah was forced to flee the country. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower had the CIA hire street mobs and win the support of the Iranian army, which was dependent upon American equipment, to drive Mossadeq from office in l953. The Shah returned and his new premier agreed to an oil consortium very favorable to U.S. interests. Gulf and Standard Oil of New Jersey gained a 40 stake in the consortium.

The Shah moved to modernize the Iranian economy, military, and schools, but not its political system, which remained under his control. While some profited from these changes, many opposed his policies for making Iran so dependent upon the West. Shiite religious leaders despised the Shah's religious repression. By the second half of the l970s, though President Jimmy Carter called Iran "an island of stability" in the Middle East, Iranians seethed with dissatisfaction over what they saw as the loss of the country's independence and traditional religion and culture. Some Iranians initially supported the revolution because they wanted social justice and greater democracy.

Demonstrations and protests became revolution. The Shah was driven from the country for the second and last time. A charismatic Shiite cleric, the Ayatollah Khomeini, returned from exile in France in l979 to become the leader. A new constitution provided for parliamentary government, but Khomeini and his conservative cleric supporters became the real rulers, aiming to create an Islamic state and calling upon Muslims in the Middle East to overthrow governments that were not Islamic.

Relations with the U.S. reached their lowest point when anti-U.S. demonstrators seized the U.S. embassy in Teheran and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year. For Khomeini the U.S. was "the great Satan." After Khomeini's death in l989, clerics continued to have the final word on key Iranian policies. But they met increasing opposition from those unhappy with the leaders' ineffective economic policies. Iran News writes: "The nation's entire economic structure is fundamentally bankrupt and in desperate need of urgent and sweeping reforms." ( New York Times, 6/23/02) In a poll reported by the Noruz newspaper, almost 94 percent favored reform or fundamental change. The election of a relatively liberal president, Hojjat ol-Islam Seyyid Khatami, in 1997 seemed to demonstrate that a majority of Iranians want more democracy and more progressive economic and social policies even as they treasure their Islamic heritage.

In other Muslim countries, "The return to religious loyalties and the response of religious appeals have become stronger as the exponents of one secular ideology after another—liberalism, nationalism, capitalism, socialism, communism—have failed utterly to resolve the rapidly mounting problems of the Islamic world....and made increasing numbers of Muslims ready to believe those who tell them that only in a return to their own true faith and divinely ordained way of life can they find salvation in this world and the next." (Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, p. 153)

Often at issue is exactly how to interpret the word of Allah as it is revealed in the Quran. Surah, or verse, III-7 recognizes this problem: "Some...verses are precise in meaning—they are the foundation of the Book—and others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the ambiguous part, so as to create one knows its meaning except Allah."

Some Muslims—usually referred to as "fundamentalists"—have turned to political assassination and terror to advance their ends. A notable example in a Muslim country was the l981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, who was killed after reaching a peace agreement with Israel. Attacks through the 1990s struck U.S. targets, including U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, an army barracks in Saudi Arabia, and a U.S. warship, the Cole, in Yemen. In 2001 passenger planes used as missiles exploded at the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and in Pennsylvania, killing some 3,000 people.

But the vast majority of Muslims who are traditional in their religious beliefs do not support terrorism. And violent "fundamentalists" are not confined to Islamic countries. Christian fundamentalists in the U.S. have murdered doctors who perform abortions. A fundamentalist Jew entered a mosque in Israel and fired indiscriminately at the Muslim worshipers, killing many. Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a mosque in India, and in the rioting that followed, about 1,500 people were killed, most of them Muslims.
Some people object to the use of the word "fundamentalist" for all these groups, preferring a term like "extremist." The common denominator of fundamentalism is disappointment with many aspects of modern life—changes in women's roles, materialism, gay rights movements, divorce, sexual behavior, the weakened place of religion. There is also fear that the fundamentalist's religion will be wiped out.

"Broadly speaking, Muslim fundamentalists are those who feel that the troubles of the Muslim world are the result not of insufficient modernization but of excessive modernization," and "the primary struggle is not against the Western enemy as such, but against the Westernizing enemies at home who have imported and imposed infidel ways on Muslim peoples. The task of the Muslims is to depose and remove these infidel rulers...and destroy the laws, institutions, and social customs that they have introduced, so as to return to a purely Islamic way of life...." (Bernard Lewis, The New Yorker, 11/19/01)


Criticism of the United States and Criticism of Islam

The fact that millions of Muslims have emigrated to Western countries demonstrates that the West is attractive to many. At the same time, Muslims-like many people around the world-also have a mixture of negative attitudes toward the West in general and the United States in particular. The U.S. fuels anger, resentment, and hostility because of its great power, wealth, and the perception that it often acts in a domineering way toward other nations.

Some of the grievances against the West are historical. The nearly 200 years of Western colonialism that climaxed in the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I left virtually the entire Islamic world either under direct European colonial rule or subject to its control and arbitrary division into new countries. Along with this Western dominance came the introduction of both attractive and offensive Western ways.

Animosity toward the United States is relatively recent and can be associated with its rise after World War II to become a superpower. Its virtually uncritical support for Israel is undoubtedly the policy that is today most inflammatory not only for Muslims in the Middle East but for Muslims everywhere. For decades the U.S. has provided Israel with billions of dollars of economic and military support that Muslims see as funding Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and Israel's repressive policies against Palestinians.

They also see U.S. behavior in the United Nations as hypocritical. For example, the U.S. has insisted that Iraq obey UN resolutions, but when Israel ignores UN resolutions, the U.S. does nothing. Meanwhile, many Muslims view on TV the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, the construction of new Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and tanks and soldiers killing Palestinians in the streets of their towns. Whatever the reasons for such scenes, they produce bitterness.

U.S. support for repressive and even corrupt governments while it proclaims its commitment to democracy has infuriated many Muslims ever since the U.S. helped overthrow the Iranian government in 1953. Saudi Arabia does not permit freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, or freedom of the press. But for decades the U.S. has wanted Saudi oil and, since the Gulf War, wanted to base American troops on Saudi soil, so it ignores Saudi governmental practices it would not tolerate for itself. Another example is in Algeria. In 1992, a democratic election seemed likely to bring supporters of an Islamic state to power in Algeria. The U.S., which did not see such a state as in its interest, stood by as a military coup preempted the election.

"They go with democracy everywhere," says Sheikh Yusef Abdullah Al-Qaradawi, a director at the University of Qatar, " but when it comes to the Islamic world, it is different; they are against Muslims, they are with dictatorships and with regimes against the people. As in Algeria....They should deal with us as with the rest of the world, not with a double standard." (Joyce David, Between Jihad and Salaam, p. 232)

Muslims may also view U.S. behavior toward a number of other Muslim countries very differently from the way Americans view it. The U.S. is deeply opposed to the rule of Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq, and charges that he may possess weapons of mass destruction. As a result, the U.S. has imposed an economic boycott of Iraq. Saddam Hussein is unpopular among many people in the Muslim world as well. But many Muslims argue that the boycott is wrong because it does little harm to Saddam Hussein, while resulting in the deaths of Iraqi children and other innocent people.

Americans might expect Muslim gratitude for providing money and arms to Afghan fighters in their successful effort to drive Soviet forces out of Afghanistan in the late 1980s. But many Muslims remember that once the Soviets evacuated the country, the U.S. abandoned it to anarchy and civil war. The U.S.' s main interest was in a cold war defeat of the Soviets, not in the well-being of Afghans.

Muslims can also see that while the U.S. criticized Russia for its human rights violations during its war in Chechnya, a predominately Muslim area, it no longer does so because it wants the support of Russia in the war on terrorism.

But Russia does not get the severe criticism that the U.S. does. And the U.S. gets little public credit in Muslim countries for coming to the aid of Kosovo, a mostly Muslim territory, during the Serbian assault, or for its humanitarian work in Afghanistan, where special U.S. forces have built roads, schools, and hospitals.

Most Muslims live in countries where protest against the government is dealt with harshly. But demonstrations against the United States are often tolerated up to a point because they deflects criticism from the government.

But cross-currents run through Muslim countries. Kuwait, a Persian Gulf nation whose economy depends upon oil, owes its existence to U.S. forces that drove out Muslim Iraqi troops during the Gulf War. Today, thousands of American soldiers remain in Kuwait. Many Kuwaitis oppose U.S. support for Israel, and religious leaders regularly attack President Bush and American policy in the Middle East. But some Kuwaitis regard these criticisms as very wrong. One Kuwaiti member of parliament says, "Delivering a sermon with prayers to Allah to provide Muslims with a victory over the infidel is nonsensical. We are not in a battle, we are not at war, and we are being protected by non-Muslims [U.S. troops] from Muslims [Iraqi troops]." ( New York Times, 6/13/02)

Some Western analysts believe that the problems in the Muslim world are not the fault of the United States but have to do with the inability of Islamic civilization to respond to historical change. According to William Pfaff, "The uneasiness within Islamic society about the Islamic way of life in the twentieth century derives from two related problems. The first is Islam's failure to formulate a modern conception of politics and government capable of dealing on effective terms with the Western world, which is much more powerful in organization, science, and material means. The second is the practical consequences of that discrepancy of power: the resentment and sense of powerlessness engendered within Islam by its domination by the West." (William Pfaff, The New Yorker, 1/28/91)

Some Muslims go still further in criticizing their co-religionists: a Pakistani writer and businessman, Izzat Majeed, writing in The Nation, a Pakistani newspaper, said: "We Muslims cannot keep blaming the West for all our ills....The embarrassment of wretchedness among us is beyond repair. It is not just the poverty, the illiteracy, and the absence of any commonly accepted social contract that define our sense of wretchedness; it is, rather, the increasing awareness among us that we have failed as a civil society by not confronting the historical, social, and political demons within us....Without a reformation in the practice of Islam that makes it move forward and not backward, there is no hope for us Muslims anywhere. We have reduced Islam to the organized hypocrisy of state-sponsored mullahism. For more than a thousand years Islam has stood still because the mullahs...closed the door on 'ijtehad' (reinterpreting Islam in light of modernity) and no one came forward with an evolving application of the message of the Holy Quran. All that the mullahs tell you today is how to go back a millennium....Oxford and Cambridge were the 'madrasas' of Christendom in the 13th century. Look where they are today—among the leading institutions of education in the world. Where are our institutions of learning?" (quoted in the New York Times , 11/16/01)

There have been and are Islamic modernists. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), a poet and philosopher from India, criticized sharply the five centuries of "dogmatic slumber" and blind following of tradition that he believed plagued Islam. Though Iqbal admired the West for its technology, dynamism, and intellectual tradition, he condemned colonialism, capitalist exploitation, Marxism, and spiritless secularism. Iqbal called for a new model for Islamic society, one which reinterpreted Islam for changing social conditions. Instead of leaving that reinterpretation to Islam's religious leaders, he proposed that it should go to a national assembly or legislature. Democracy, he said, was appropriate for an Islamic state since central to the faith is its stress on the equality and community of believers."

Similarly, Azizah Y. al-Hibri, a Muslim thinker, writes: "The most significant debates...are not about secularization versus promotion of Islamic forms of government. Rather, they are about the democratization of existing governments in a manner consistent with Islamic law, a process viewed as neither Western nor secular." ( Islam, Opposing Viewpoints, p. 152)

Many Islamic thinkers and activists do not simply reject the West. They want the best it has to offer, but they do not want what they regard as the worst: secularism, unrestrained individualism, sexual permissiveness, the breakdown of the family. A Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman, writes that Muslims need "some first-class minds who can interpret the old in terms of the new as regards substance and turn the new into the service of the old as regards ideals." ( The Oxford History of Islam , p. 690)

Some Muslims who work for change believe that the schools are a place to begin. An example is Mohamed Charfi, who worked to reform the educational system of Tunisia. He explains his motivation as follows: "Many Muslim children still learn at school the ancient ideology of a triumphant Muslim empire, an ideology that held all non-Muslims to be in error and saw its mission as bringing Islam's light to the world. And yet young people see their governments working to live in peace with non-Muslim power. Such discordant teachings do not prepare children to live in a changing world." (Mohamed Charfi, former president of the Tunisian Human Rights League and minister of education in Tunisia from 1989-1994, quoted in the New York Times, 3/12/02.)

Saudi Arabian high school texts, which are widely used in the Middle East, tell readers to hold non-Muslims in contempt; texts in Jordan and Pakistan view Christians and Jews as blood enemies of Islam. "Students learn that, in order to be good believers, they should be living under a caliph, that divine law makes it necessary to stone the adulterer and forbid lending at interest...only to discover, out in the street, a society directed by a civil government with a modern penal code and economy founded on a banking system," Charfi says.

Since 1989 Tunisia's reform of its educational system includes the study of Darwin and the big-bang theory of the origin of the universe, which had not been previously taught in Tunisia's schools. Tunisian students also study human rights, the development of democracy, the value of the individual, and respect for other monotheistic religions.

Despite this reform, Tunisia's political system is repressive. Critics of the government are arrested; foreign publications are banned; the courts are controlled by the state; the government blocks access to websites of critics and opposition groups. Amnesty International, a worldwide human rights organization, says, "Nearly 1,000 political prisoners...remain in detention in Tunisia....They were convicted after unfair trials and are often held in conditions that are unacceptable according to international standards." (Amnesty newsletter, 6/02)

While he acknowledges the conflict between what is taught in Tunisia's schools and how Tunisia's government behaves, Charfi hopes that "young Tunisians, through a more secular education, can be brought up to value individual liberty and openness to others. Combined with the emancipation of women and universal education...this educational system is already helping to form a more modern society."


Additional Information about the Islamic World

a. Islam has 1.3 billion followers worldwide. Some live in nations with Muslim majorities. Others live in European, Asian, and North and South American nations that are not Muslim. An estimated 4-6 million live in the United States.

b. Most Muslims are not Arabs. Some 12 million Arabs are Christians; several thousand are Jewish. Only about 20 percent of Muslims live in the Arab-speaking world; about 40 percent live in South and Southeast Asia; about 30 percent live in Africa; the remaining 10 percent are scattered throughout the rest of the world.

c. "Arab" is a term referring to native speakers of Arabic born into an Arab culture (from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, Some Arabs are dark-skinned; some have blue eyes and red hair; most are somewhere in between. There are 22 Arab countries in the Middle East and North Africa. But Iran and Turkey, both countries with Muslim majorities, are not Arab countries.

d. Sunni is the branch of Islam followed by the Muslim majority. Shia is the branch of Islam followed by a Muslim minority who believe that the rightful succession to Muhammad should have been the prophet's son-in-law Shiah-i-Ali and his descendants.

e. Nations with Muslim majorities are diverse. Turkey is the only Muslim country with a substantial record of holding regular elections in which candidates campaign and compete freely resulting in a change of government.Relatively new democratic nations include Bangladesh in Asia and Senegal and Sierra Leone in Africa. Egypt holds elections but is under secular, authoritarian rule that permits only limited democracy. Others with primarily authoritarian rule and some democracy include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, all Asian parts of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s.In Iran the top leadership is based on religious qualifications, but there are elections and some democracy. Several Persian Gulf nations are monarchies. Saudi Arabia's monarchy is authoritarian; Kuwait's monarchy permits an elected parliament with some power and its Islamic leadership is not as strict as Saudi Arabia's.In the Middle East, Iraq and Syria are secular states under authoritarian rule. Several dozen other nations fall into one of the above categories. Some may be in transition from military to civilian rule like Pakistan, or might, like Indonesia, be considered an emerging democracy in a secular state.



A. Possible starting points

1. Inquiry-oriented Approach

Write "Islam" or "Muslims" on the chalkboard and ask students for whatever comes to mind when they see or hear the word. List responses without comment. They might include "terrorists," "a religion," "the attack on the World Trade Center," "suicide bombers," "Muhammad," "the Quran," "the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," "Arabs," etc.

Have students look carefully at what the word suggests to them. Ask some questions. What, for example, do they know about Islam beyond the fact that it is a religion, or about Muslims beyond the fact that they follow that religion? What do they think they know but aren't sure about? Where does their information come from? What questions do they have?

Write the questions on the chalkboard. Then have the class examine them closely for clarity, assumptions, and words and phrases needing definition. Which questions call for a factual answer? an opinion? a prediction? Where will the facts come from? Whose opinion or prediction? Why? See "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for detailed suggestions.

Begin independent and small-group inquiries into each question that seems worth close study. For background, all students can read and discuss "Islam and the West: An Overview."

2. Current News Approach

Have students survey a daily newspaper and/or watch TV news for reporting on events involving a Muslim country. They might also enter "Islam" on a computer search engine and surf to discover what comes up of interest.

Discuss in class what students have found. Likely reports would be about Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian and India-Pakistan conflicts, Al Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, and Iraq. What issues or problems do students raise? What questions do they have? Use one or more of them as an entry point for considering the relationship between Western and Islamic countries.

B. Discussion questions

1. The Rise of Islam and Revolutions in the West

  • Why do you suppose European Christians and Ottoman Muslims had similar negative views of each other?
  • What seem to have been the major reasons for the growing dominance of Western Europe over the Ottoman Empire?
  • Why was secularism so important?
  • Why didn't the Ottomans secularize their government?

2. The Colonization of the Islamic World

  • What evidence do you now have to support McNeill's statement in the first section of these readings?
  • Why did many of the European colonizers regard themselves as superior to those in the countries they colonized?
  • Why could neither society understand the other?
  • What "values" do you suppose Sayyid Qutb was referring to?

3. New Nations...Islamic Awakening...Fundamentalism

  • Why might it be inaccurate, even dangerous, to speak or write about a "Muslim point of view"?
  • Why do you suppose that efforts to secularize a government in a country with a majority of Muslims has sometimes meant "an attack on religion"?
  • Why do you suppose that for Ayatollah Khomeini the U.S. was "the great Satan"?
  • How would you explain "the Islamic awakening" and the rise of fundamentalism?

4. Criticism of the U.S. and Criticism of Islam

  • What U.S. actions have created resentment and hatred?
  • What evidence could you show to support the two points Pfaff makes about "the crisis in the Muslim world"?
  • How do you think a Muslim might disagree with Pfaff?

C. Writing assignments

1. Imagine you are an Ottoman official writing an editorial for a newspaper in Istanbul in the mid-19th century. Explain why Western Europe is now dominating the Ottoman Empire.

2. Imagine you are an Egyptian living under British control early in the 20th century. Write a letter to a friend in India, also under British control, about how you are treated and how you feel.

3. You are a Muslim living in the Middle East. Write an essay in which you discuss specifically what it is about modern Western life that you find objectionable.

4. Imagine you are writing an op-ed piece for a Muslim newspaper today. Explain why you support educational reform in your country.

D. Discussion groups

1. Divide the class into groups of four to seven students for a group "go-around." Let each student in turn respond to the question below without being interrupted. The group should appoint one person to summarize what is said for the rest of the class.
Question: Why have modern nations become secularized—that is, separated church and state?

2. Students pair up. Each has one to two minutes to express him or herself on the question without interruption. Then for another few minutes they are to talk informally about each other's views.
Question: How do you think you would have felt as a native person in a country colonized by a stronger nation? Why?

3. Divide students into two groups of equal size in conversation circles. Ask the first half of students to form a circle and face outward, the other half of students to form an outer circle by pairing up with a partner from the inside circle. Pairs of students should be facing each other, standing about two feet apart. Present any of the questions above in "Discussion questions" or one of those below. Give each pair one to two minutes to talk with each other. When both students have had a chance to speak, call time and ask the outside partners to move one, two. or three places to the right. This way, each insider partner will have a new outside partner. Then continue with the next question or topic.

Additional questions:

What "historical, social and political demons" might Izzat Majeed have been thinking about? (section 4 of Islam and the West)?
What other aspects of modern life than those mentioned in sections 3 and 4 might be objectionable not only to traditional Muslims but also to traditionalists in other faiths?

E. Question-asking

Relevant, coherent, probing questions are at the heart of the critical thinking process. One way to emphasize their importance and to help students learn to ask good ones is this: Instead of providing teacher questions for a reading assignment, require students to write two or three of the best questions they can think of after they have completed the reading. The student does not necessarily have to be able to answer the question in part or whole. A criterion for a good question should be: Will this question, if answered well, promote better understanding of the issue or problem under study?

A class might begin with small groups of students discussing, in the light of that criterion, the questions they have produced and selecting one or two for class examination in the manner suggested in "The Doubting Game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," which can be found elsewhere on this website. The best questions can be the subject of class discussion, writing assignments, or further inquiry.

F. Believing and Doubting

Play the believing and doubting games with Sheikh al-Qaradawi's statement or William Pfaff's in section 4. See "Teaching Critical Thinking" elsewhere on this website for detailed instructions on how to play these games.

G. For further inquiry

This unit suggests many opportunities for independent or small-group inquiries. Among the possible subjects are Muhammad, the Ottoman Turks, modern secularization, similarities and differences between Turkey and Nigeria, Ibn Roshd Averroes, Ibn Sina (Avicinna), the Quran, Saladin, Khomeini, Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Ataturk, the Moghul Empire, Kipling, Qutb, The Arabian Nights, life in a European colony, the Society of Muslim Brothers, the U.S. role in Afghanistan, schools in Saudi Arabia, the Sufis.

Whatever the subject, the suggestion here is that the teacher help students to formulate a coherent answerable question that will provide guidance for the inquiry. For example: Not Muhammad. Rather: How did Muhammad unify Arabia under Islam in the 7th century? Not the Ottoman Turks. Rather: Who were the Ottoman Turks and how did they become so powerful? Not modern secularization. Rather: How and why did Westerners conclude that a nation should be organized on a secular basis? Not differences between Turkey and Nigeria. Rather: What similarities and differences can you find in the practice of Islam in two countries with Muslim majorities—Turkey and Nigeria?


Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History
Richard Barnet, Intervention and Revolution
Joyce M. Davis, Between Jihad and Salaam: Profiles in Islam
N.J. Dawood, trans., The Koran
John L. Esposito, ed., The Oxford History of Islam
Albert Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples
Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West
W.H. McNeill, The Rise of the West
Edward Said, The Politics of Dispossession
Paul A. Winters, ed., Islam: Opposing Viewpoints

National Geographic, l/02
Newsweek, 12/17/01
The New Yorker, 1/28/91 and 11/19/01
The New York Times, various issues


On the Quran and religion:

On news and analysis: (Cairo newspaper) (Islamic News and Information Network) with many links
Anti-discrimination: (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee) (Council on American-Islamic Relations) Questions: 1-800-662-ISLAM

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: