Ziauddin Sardar, an internationally renowned Muslim scholar and the author of Desperately Seeking Paradise: Journeys of a Sceptical Muslim, represents one of the most authoritative moderate voices in Islam. Here, in a major intervention on the controversy over the cartoons of Prophet Muhammed published in the European media, he explores both sides of the debate and calls for “reformulating” Islam in contemporary terms.

Q. Even those who understand Muslim sensitivities feel the Muslim reaction to the cartoons of Prophet Muhammed has been excessive and is likely to reinforce the perception of the community as intolerant and too prickly.

A. The Muslim response has indeed been rather excessive. Threats and burning down embassies only further enforces the image of Muslims as violent and uncivilised people. I think this is a symptom of a larger problem: we do not know how to react to instrumental modernity on its own terms. The cartoons are not about freedom of expression; they are all about naked use of power and demonisation. They are not just maligning the Prophet; they are saying that he was intrinsically violent, that the creed he preached is violent, and hence all those who follow him are violent. In other words, Muslims are inherently violent and evil. No culture or people can tolerate such a level of demonisation. Last time, Europe demonised a people to this extent we ended up with the Holocaust. As far as I am concerned, these cartoons are a reflection of racism and Islamophobia that is now running rampant in Europe. It will not stop here. So we need a more considered response; something that demonstrates Muslims are not totally powerless. That means we need to rethink and reformulate Islam as a contemporary worldview. This does not mean we need to change or modify our religious notions; but it does mean that we need to use Islamic ideas and concepts to reformulate Islam as an outlook that goes beyond instrumental modernity and fashionable postmodernism.`

Q. There is a lot of talk again of a “clash of civilisations” in the wake of the cartoons controversy. How close are we to it?

A. To have a `clash of civilisations’ you need at least two civilisations. When Gandhi was asked what he thought of western civilisation, he said `it is a good idea’. The `West’ can hardly be described as a `civilisation’ — civilised societies do not go out of their way to demean and denigrate the values and cultures of other societies. `Islam’ is a string of fragmented nation-states, largely ruled by despots. Even if Islam and the West have been clashing in history, there is no reason for us to accept the blunders of history as an inevitable course for the future. The two cultures can coexist with mutual trust and respect; and thrive together. The common ground between the two is far greater than their differences. The religious traditions of the two civilisations have a common origin in the Abrahamic traditions — both Islam and Christianity trace their lineage to the Prophet Abraham. Western liberalism and humanism, it will come as a surprise to many, has its origins in Islamic thought and philosophy. Virtually all of Greek thought came to Europe via the Muslim world. Instead of seeing Islam and the West as two opponents, we can equally well see them as two siblings of the same historic parents. But there are people out there, on both sides, who are hell-bent on a clash. Indeed, it seems to be becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Sensible people everywhere need to stand up to this madness.

Q. Why do you think Muslims are perceived the way they are — rigid, intolerant, quick to take offence? Or is there a tendency to demonise the community?

Both. A segment of our community is intolerant and rigid. But not all Muslims should be seen in this light. One of the strongest features of contemporary Islam is its truly mind-boggling diversity. But it is true to say that most Muslims have developed a victimhood mentality — something they need to transcend. The tendency to demonise the Muslim community has reached a frightening level in Europe.
Recently, I travelled through Germany, Belgium, Holland, and France looking at perceptions of Muslims in these countries. I was appalled to discover the extent of fear and loathing against the Muslims. There is little doubt in my mind that fascism is making a come back in Europe.
I think that rigidity and narrow mindedness of certain quarters amongst Muslims in Europe is fuelling the rise of extreme right wing extremism. So European Muslims have a great burden on their shoulders — they need to develop a dynamic European Islam, underpinning European Muslim identities, as an urgent social and cultural project. Now, minorities have always played a great role in shaping Islam and giving it a sense of direction. The idea of hijra — or migration that leads to the formation of a Diaspora — is central to Islam. Our calendar itself starts with the hijra of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. And when the Prophet arrived in Medina, the Muslims were a minority. Moreover, throughout Muslim history, minorities have played a major part in transforming the centre. It was the scholars and thinkers of the periphery, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, who informed and changed the classical period. Think of the immense contribution of Moorish Spain — clearly a minority in relation to the rest of the then Muslim world — in building the Muslim civilisation. So being a minority is not necessarily an impediment to developing a civilisational project. I think European Muslims are well placed to undertake this project and, through their efforts, change the rest of the Muslim world itself. This is the thesis I presented in my recent BBC film, Battle for Islam.

Q. Is there a genuine gulf of understanding between Islam and the West in the sense of their respective understanding of individual freedoms, free speech, and the role of religion in society?

A. Islam has no problem with individual freedoms or free speech. The `gulf’ between Islam and the West is the gulf of domination: western societies do not know how to handle difference and how to provide space for difference to exist as difference. The West posits this `gulf’ in terms of its liberal humanist values. But the West took these values from Islam in the first place. If Europe was true to its origins, and if it had any integrity and self-respect, it would acknowledge that it learnt how to reason, what is the difference between civilisation and barbarism, and what are the basic features of a civil society from Islam. It was thinkers like ibn Sina, ibn Rushd, ibn Khaldun, and al-Baruni who introduced humanism to Europe. Indeed, without these and other Muslim thinkers, Europe — as a civilised idea — is inconceivable. So there is nothing in humanism per se that is European or anti Islamic. But Europe’s unique role was the construction of liberal humanism as an arch ideology, as a grand narrative, into which all other narratives must be assimilated. It is this dimension of European humanism that has created a gulf not just between Islam and the West, but the West and the rest of humanity. The West must understand that freedom can be defined in a number of different ways; just as there are different ways to be modern. The world does not consist of one society, but a plethora of societies, each has the right to define itself and shape its destiny with its own notions and categories.

Q. How do Muslims get out of the “bind” in which they find themselves, partly as a result of their own conduct and partly because of anti-Muslim prejudice?

A. I think the best way to do that is for Muslim societies to discover a contemporary meaning and significance of Islam. Indeed, in my opinion, serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious attempt at ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam. Reform, in my opinion, is long overdue. It is time we made serious attempts to rethink Islam in contemporary terms.
Hasan Suroor,

The Hindu, New Delhi, Monday, Feb 13, 2006