Update on the Family Quarrel

23 June 2006

Update on the Family Quarrel

By Gwynne Dyer

The past year has been one of the worst in recent history for relations between Muslims and “the West” (as the part of the world formerly called “Christendom” is now known). According to the Pew Global Attitude Project for 2006, an opinion survey conducted in thirteen mainly Christian or Muslim countries by the Pew Research Center in Washington, the majorities who saw relations between the West and Islam as “generally bad” ranged from 53 percent in Russia and Indonesia (the lowest) to highs of 70 percent in Germany and 84 percent in Turkey.

There were purely local causes for some of the extreme reactions, like resentment among Turks at being seen as problem candidates for European Union membership simply because they are Muslims. The violent uproar in January over Danish newspaper cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad doubtless influenced the answers of many respondents, both Muslim and Western, in a poll conducted only months later. But military confrontations that killed a lot of people were the core of the problem.

Western armies fought local insurgents in two occupied Muslim countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. Suicide bomb attacks by young British Muslims killed 52 people in London, and the nightmare images of 9/11 were never far from the surface in the United States. And the Arab-Israeli fight over the land between the Jordan river and the sea entered its seventieth bloody year.

Seventy years give or take a few, depending on whether you date that long conflict from the great Palestinian revolt against Jewish immigration in 1936 or from some other clash of that period. Without that open sore, however, the deep resentment of Muslims at having been conquered by European empires (as they all were, apart from the Turks) would probably have mostly died down by now. It is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute that has kept it alive for generations of Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia.

The US and British invasion of Iraq was a ghastly mistake that confirmed existing suspicions in the Muslim world: its declared motives were so transparently false that Muslims everywhere were driven to look for ulterior, undeclared motives — like a Western crusade against Islam. On the other hand, Muslims have remained in denial about how their own internal conflicts have spilled over into anti-Western terrorism. Majorities in most of the Muslim countries polled still refuse to believe that Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks in the United States, taking refuge in fantasies about Zionist or Central Intelligence Agency plots.

Descend from high politics to cultural stereotypes, and it starts to look like a classic family quarrel. A majority of Muslims see Westerners as violent and immoral, while the view from the reverse perspective is that Muslims are violent and fanatical. Majorities in every Western country polled see Muslims as disrespectful of women, and majorities in every Muslim country polled except Turkey see Westerners as disrespectful of women. But then, it IS a family quarrel.

You cannot have a “clash of civilisations” between Muslims and “Westerners” (Christians and Jews, by belief or at least by cultural descent) because they are members of the same civilisation. They are the twin descendants of the old classical civilisation of the Near East and the Mediterranean world. That world was divided almost fourteen centuries ago between competing but clearly related religions — the Christians of seventh-century Syria and Egypt who were the first to face Muslim armies surging out of Arabia saw Islam as a new Christian heresy — but it remains a single civilisation whose fundamental cultural values are largely shared.

The surviving half of the formerly Christian world subsequently spread its faith and its genes across the Americas and Australia, while Islam conquered much of southern Asia (and the two religions divided Africa between them). Together, they account today for more than half of the world’s population, so the old family quarrel affects a lot of people.

Muslim-Western disputes are so emotional precisely because they are between family members: neither of the estranged twin cultures brings the same amount of reproach and resentment to its occasional disputes with peoples who belong to entirely different traditions. But the fact that they do share so much history and so many values — they are all, as Muslims put it, “peoples of the Book” — means that the possibility of reconciliation is also ever present.

The most interesting statistics in the Pew survey are those about Muslim minorities living in the West, who were interviewed as a separate group for the first time this year. Muslims elsewhere may see Westerners as disrespectful of women, but Muslims who actually live among Westerners overwhelmingly say the opposite — by a 73 percent majority in Germany, a 77 percent majority in France, an 82 percent majority in Spain. Even in Britain, despite the police harassment that has alienated so many Muslims since last July’s bombs in London, a narrow majority agrees.

The same phenomenon is evident across a broad range of issues — and the huge non-Muslim majorities in Britain, France and the United States also have largely positive views of the Muslims in their midst despite all the old history and all the recent clashes and controversies. To know them may not be to love them, exactly, but it does seem to breed tolerance, and maybe even solidarity.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“Seventy…Indonesia”; and “The surviving…people”)