By Khalid Amayreh
The recent crisis over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet
Muhammad as a terrorist has highlighted the misunderstanding and
cultural divide between Islam and the West.
Author and human rights activist Mahmoud Nammoura, who has written
two books on Islam-West relations, believes the cartoons reveal a
“cultural disharmony” and not a religious clash.
“This is not a showdown between Islam and Christianity,” he said.
“In fact, Europe and much of the West are now living in an era which
might be called a post-religious. It is therefore not Christianity,
but western cultural arrogance, that stands behind this growing
anti-Islamic discourse in certain western circles,” says Nammoura, a
resident of the West Bank town of Hebron.
Bassam Jarar, considered one of the most prominent Islamic thinkers
in Palestine, believes there is a knee-jerk reaction to Islamic
communities asserting themselves in Europe.
“They [Europeans] can’t easily come to terms with the fact that a
militarily and politically defeated umma (community) is asserting a
pro-active presence in the heart of the West and is aspiring to
present itself as an alternative to western civilisation.”
Conflict of civilisations
When asked if the crisis was a vindication of Samuel Huntington’s
theory of conflict of civilisations, Jarar said: “It is not
inevitable if they are (westerners) faithful to democracy. Let them
allow the free market of ideas to take its course.”
Jarar believes that while the cartoon crisis has a negative aura, and
might rekindle old prejudices, it will eventually have a positive
“I believe this is going to be a good lesson for both Muslims and
Westerners. It might lead to a greater understanding in the long
But Father Peter DuBrul of Bethlehem University, a Catholic
University funded by the Vatican, believes the causes of anti-Muslim
attitudes are rooted in the complex history between Islam and
“As you know, a Christian who has not seriously studied Islam cannot
take the Holy Quran at face value; there are too many contradictions
to Christian beliefs.”
Reduced to stereotype
DuBrul believes it is wrong to overlook or marginalise the religious
dimension in the West-Islam relationship, saying the term
“post-religious” may be a misnomer.
“I think the west is more religious than some Muslims would think and
the Muslim east is more secular than some Muslims would admit …”
Nonetheless, DuBrul, who has been living in the West Bank for many
years, believes that despite recent drawbacks western-Muslim
understanding can be achieved.
“The Islamic mission to the world comes into conflict with other
missions, and such ‘missions’ have much to learn from one another,”
“We are in the process of learning now, very painfully. The enemy is
always reduced to a stereotype [that] is easier to kill.”
Early seeds of divide
The using of stereotypes to demonise Islam can be traced to early
Western Christian perceptions of Muslims in the Middle Ages.
In Chanson de Roland, a medieval French epic of the Crusades, the
poet envisioned Islam as an unholy trinity of the Prophet Muhammad
and two demons Appolin and Tervagant.
The crusades by the Franks against the Muslim East did succeed in
demythologising some of Western perceptions of Islam.
For many centuries, both Eastern and Western Christendom called
Muslims Saracens. In the Iberian Peninsula, they called Muslims
Moors, and people of the Iberian culture continued to call all
Muslims “Moors” even if they met them in South East Asia. (e.g. the
Moro Liberation Front in the Southern Philippines).
In Most of Europe, Muslims were called Turks, and a convert to Islam
was said to have “turned Turk” even if the conversion took place in a
place as far away as India.
Europe and the Quran
In 1649, the first English translation of the Quran was published in
London by Alexander Ross who based his research on a 1647 French
translation by Andre du Tyer, the French consol in Egypt.
Ross, who did not speak Arabic, added an appendix to his
“translation” of the Quran:
“Good reader, the great Arabian Imposter now at least after a
thousand years, is … arrived in England, and his Alcoran, or
Gallimaufry of Errors (a brat as deformed as the parents, and as full
of heresies as his scald-head was of scurffe) hath learned to speak
English … so should the reading of this Alcoran excite us both to
bless God’s judgments, who suffers so many countries to be blinded
and inslaved with this misshapen issue of Mahomets braine.”
Although Ross’s conceptualisation of Islam reflected the overall
European rejection and fear of it, a few of his contemporaries
treated Islam much more objectively.
Henry Stubbes, born in England in 1632, wrote several manuscripts on
the Islamic faith entitled “Account of the Rise and Progress of
Mahometanism, with the Life of Mahomet and a Vindication of Him and
His Religion from the Calumnies of the Christians.”
Medieval Christian legends
Stubbes ridiculed the medieval Christian legends about Muhammad as
“rubbish”. Some of these legends said Muhammad was an epileptic, and
that Muhammad’s inspiration came to him via a pet pigeon which used
to eat peas from his ear.
In “The Character of Mahomet and Fabulous Inventions of the
Christians Concerning him and his religion,” Stubbes presented a
remarkable image of the Prophet, considering the general anti-Islamic
prejudices and misperceptions of that time.
“I doubt not but by this time your curiosity will prompt you to
enquire after the portraiture of this extraordinary person. His great
soul was lodged in a body of Middle size; he had a large head, a
brown complexion but fresh colour, a beard long and thick but not
grey, a grave aspect wherein the awfulness of majesty seemed to be
tempered with admirable sweetness which at once imprinted in the
beholder’s respect, reverence and love. His eyes were quick and
sparkling, his limbs exactly turned, his mien was great and noble,
his motion free and easy, and every action had a grace so peculiar
that it was impossible to see him with indifference.”
Stubbes’ ideas on Islam, however, were not popular within
contemporary European circles and were not published until 1911.
The belief that Islam was at odds with the mostly Christian west
persisted into the 21st century and reappear in US evangelical
discourse about Islam.
In 2004, Pat Robertson, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network
said in a speech in Hertzlya, north of Tel Aviv, that the conflict
between Israel and the Palestinians was actually a conflict between
the Judeo-Christian God and Islam’s God-moon.
Others have referred to Allah as a pre-Islamic Arabian pagan deity.
This type of discourse, says Nammoura, reflects fears by these
evangelicals that Islam constitutes the main threat and obstacle to
their dispensationalist ideology.
“They see Islam, not Buddhism, not Hinduism, not Judaism, as the main
geopolitical threat, this is why they come up with this rubbish.”
According to Philip Hitti, author of History of the Arabs, the
Christian medieval image of Islam was the aggregate product of a
confluence of streams of multiple sources in Syro-Byzantine,
Hispano-French, Sicillio-Italian and crusading literature.
This literature conceptualised Muslims as pagans worshiping a false
prophet who worked out his doctrine from Biblical sources under the
tutelage of an Arian Monk.
Such beliefs were caricatured not only in religious and literary
works, but also in art. Dante in his “Divine Comedy” was thus
prompted consequently to consign the Prophet and his son-in-law Ali,
to the ninth hell reserved for those who sow scandal and schism.
But with industrialisation western perceptions of Islam began to
change slowly as more Europeans came in contact with Muslims.
However, these perceptions remained basically negative due to the
fundamental doctrinal differences between Islam and Christianity.
However, with the rise of Orientalism in the late 18th and 19th
centuries, Europeans (and some Americans) began to view the world of
Islam less imaginatively.
Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, European
powers occupied or came to control the bulk of Muslim lands in the
Middle East. At this time, European attitudes changed from fear and
hatred to patronisation and contempt.
Although European occupation of the Arab lands was seen mainly within
the framework of European colonial expansionism, its religious
British General Edmund Allenby’s capture of Jerusalem on 10 December
1917 was considered a “Christian” victory against the Turks.
An article published in 1917 in the Catholic magazine “America”
captioned “Crusaders in Khaki,” and celebrated that the Holy Land was
finally in Christian hands.
But Father DuBrul believes such attitudes deepen the cultural divide
and must be challenged.
He urges stereotypes be replaced by discourse, exchange of ideas,
self-knowledge, learning about others and prayers.
“If there is to be a greater understanding in the long range, it has
to start with critical respect for the religious component in both