After Abbottabad: Islam and the West

Remarks at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research Conference on Civilized Dialogue

It’s an honor to open this conference on dialogue between Islam and the West. It is entirely fitting that such a discussion take place in Abu Dhabi. This emirate and the federal state of which it is part have long exemplified the coexistence of Muslim piety with tolerance for other faiths and ways of life. The United Arab Emirates preserves a precious heritage from the Islam of bygone days that facilitates the dialogue of civilizations. The spirit of tolerance exhibited here is all too rare today. As a non-Muslim I admire it.

I once heard a story about the late ruler of Abu Dhabi and father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed Al-Nahyan (may he rest in peace), that seemed to me to encapsulate this spirit. If it isn’t true, it ought to be.

Apparently, Sheikh Zayed took an intense personal interest in the landscaping of Abu Dhabi’s lovely waterfront promenade. The Corniche was shaped by his hands and watered with his sweat as well as that of other notables of this city. It got so that his friends were afraid to drive by the construction site for fear that he would pop out of a hole he was digging and hand them a shovel. Shortly after the Corniche was finished, the story goes, Sheikh Zayed received a visit from a group of religious elders. They said to him, “Your Highness, we hardly know how to tell you this, but at the hotels on your Corniche, they are serving alcohol.” Abu Dhabi’s ruler thought for a moment, and replied, “Well, then. I guess you better not go there.”

The Emirates remain a place in which, out of respect for their Muslim friends, non-Muslims do not drink while they dine with them, but in which, out of respect for their non-Muslim friends, Muslims would be silently forgiving if they did. Piety — even the piety of a faith one does not share — is truly admirable when it is married to respect for the moral autonomy of others and the rules they obey.

By contrast with the Torah and many Christian texts, which reject the standing of other faiths, the notion of tolerance and respectful interfaith dialogue is completely integral to the message of Islam. The 67th and 68th ayat of the Surat al Hajj (Sura 22:67-68) in the Holy Qur’an advise:

“To every people have We appointed ceremonial rites (of prayer) which they observe; therefore, let them not wrangle over this matter with you, but bid them to turn to your Lord (since that is the main objective of religion). You indeed are rightly guided. But if they still dispute you in this matter, (then say,) `God best knows (the value of) what you do.”

And the 41st verse of the Surat al Zumar (39:41) says:

“Whoever guides himself by [the message of Islam] does so to his own advantage, and whoever turns away from it does so at his own loss. You [Muslims] certainly are not their keepers.”

Thanks mainly to the late Osama bin Laden and his co-conspirators, the detractors of Islam in the West are now legion. They have spilled a lot of ink and vitriol to demonstrate the obvious: that Muslims and Muslim societies often belie these messages of tolerance as well as the sacred instruction to avoid “compulsion in religion.” In places in America where no Muslim has ever trod, good folk fear the imposition of Shar`iah law — the Islamic Talmud. Their fear is all the greater since they have absolutely no idea what either the Shar`iah or the Talmud is. Western Islamophobia is one of Osama’s most loathsome legacies, if far from his only one.

By any standard of righteousness, Osama bin Laden deserved to die. His life dishonored Islam. His death in Abbottabad dishonored no one but himself. He was condemned by his own actions, which violated the moral principles of every religion. He personally incarnated the exception to the rule against the killing of human beings that is recounted in the Holy Qur’an. It recalls (5:32) that God:

“decreed for the Children of Israel that to kill any person who has not committed murder or horrendous crimes is like murdering all of humankind.”

Osama was that very murderer who directed the commission of horrendous crimes. He leaves behind him many monuments to the evil in his heart. He does not deserve them, but these monuments are both numerous and large. It will take a long time to pull them down, but this must now be done.

Osama expected to die by violence, as he did. Sadly, he probably died a satisfied man. In addition to alienating Muslims and the West from each other, as was his aim, he achieved so many other transformations of the order he sought to overthrow. Everyone who walks shoeless through a metal detector in an airport pays grudging tribute to him. His legacies include hatred and suspicion that have erected barriers to travel to and within the West and that impede the sort of dialogue you in this gathering are about to begin. He catalyzed two wars. He bears responsibility for the death of thousands in the West and hundreds of thousands in this region. The unfunded financial burden of the conflicts he ignited has come close to bankrupting the United States. Indirectly, it is upending the international monetary system. It has produced recession in the West. Osama will have been pleased.

The mass murders Osama contrived inflamed passions that spurred American political leaders to set aside the constraints of the United States constitution and laws. There has been serious erosion in American civil liberties amidst popular disdain for the rule of law both at home and abroad. This is what paved the way for the horrors of Abu Ghraib, “extraordinary rendition,” and “enhanced interrogation techniques” — otherwise known as “cruel and unusual punishment,” “kidnapping,” and “torture.”

Ironically, the manner of Osama’s death confirmed his success at having swept away much of the traditional American deference to due process of law. He was subjected to an extrajudicial execution carried out in violation of the sovereignty of another nation. This was as lawless as it was emotionally fulfilling. Few objected. For most, the end fully justified the means. Not many have taken the time to ponder the implications of the precedent his ruthless slaying may have established for the targeted killing of American and other leaders by their foreign enemies.

In short, Osama left the world a far worse place than it had been when he entered it. It is up to those of us who have outlived him to carry out the patient work of undoing as much as possible of the harm he and others of his kind have done. This will take time and much effort. The dialogue you begin here today is an invaluable part of this task. But you must know that you at the Emirates Center and the University of Maine are far from alone in your efforts to help craft a basis for enlightened coexistence between Islam and the West.

I think of the initiative of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to convoke a conversation among the many schools of Islam at Mecca. In June 2008 that gathering prepared the way for an historic meeting of leading figures from all the world’s religions a month later at Madrid. The Madrid conference reconvened under United Nations sponsorship in November 2008 in New York. King Abdullah is now engaged with others in establishing a permanent center for continuing interfaith dialogue in Vienna.

I think also of Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, who has encouraged a week-long seminar among Muslim, Christian, and Jewish scholars who specialize in conflict resolution. This is to convene at the Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut four weeks from today. I could cite other examples. Extremists on all sides have sought to prevent respectful discourse between the world’s Muslims and those of other faiths. They have done much damage, but they have not prevailed. Despite zealous apostles of bigotry on all sides, a hopeful process of mutual discovery is underway.

This is vitally important. The West (of which Israel counts itself part) and Islam have much to learn from each other and much to unlearn. The core values of all three Abrahamic faiths are the same. All are rooted in the ancient Jewish experience and consciousness. In many ways, Judaism and Islam are closer to each other both doctrinally and in their approach to dispute resolution than either is to Christianity. The invention of irreconcilable conflicts between Jews and Muslims since time immemorial is a willful distortion of history. Zionist propagandists have imposed this false narrative of age-old religious victimization on Israel’s battle with Palestinian nationalism. That is as prejudicial to peace as it is sinful.

No relationship between differing religious communities is without its tensions and its bad moments. In retrospect, however, societies like Muslim Spain and the Ottoman Empire were remarkable exemplars of tolerance. Their experience offers hope for the peaceful coexistence of moral communities in our times, not evidence of its impossibility.

The Ottoman Empire was brought down by contagion from European nationalism, followed by vivisection by European imperialists. Its violent disintegration amidst genocide and ethnic cleansing was a function of newly aroused passions for ethnic self-determination, not religious schism. Still, religion was an ideological weapon to which all sides in that mayhem resorted. One ironic result was that the religious tolerance that had distinguished Ottoman Turkey was succeeded by an extreme form of secularism, hostile to expressions of religious identity.

The gradual reemergence in today’s Turkey of a tolerant secularism that respects liberty of religious conscience is a reminder that the best elements of the past can sometimes be reborn. The evolution of Turkey offers hope for the coexistence of Islam with other religious heritages. It is an example not just to Arab countries reawakening from the darkness of Islam’s eclipse by Western imperialism but also to Europe. In Europe’s treatment of its Muslim and other minorities, Europeans are once again demonstrating a dismaying inability to coexist with religious and cultural traditions other than those of Christianity. Islamophobia is the ugly successor to anti-Semitism.

Centuries of anti-Semitism are a despicable feature of European history. This tradition of religious persecution and racism culminated in the attempted annihilation of Europe’s Jews. The lesson of that Holocaust is that religious hatred is never innocent; it is the precursor and progenitor of unspeakable crimes, and it must not be tolerated.

Neither America nor the Muslim world were complicitous in Europe’s horrors, but distance from events cannot excuse denial of them. If it is wrong to distort history to justify hatred and suspicion of other communities, it is equally wrong to withhold compassion from those who have suffered. Without empathy, there is no possibility of reconciliation. Anti-Semitism was evil when it was Western; it is evil when it infects Arabs and Muslims.

Too many of today’s conflicts have taken on the characteristics of “holy war,” in which revenge and viciousness are seen as vindications of faith, and acts of kindness are despised as heresy. The degeneration of the struggle between competing nationalisms in Palestine into one between gangster Zionism and terrorist Islamism is but one example. The inhumanity of each side to the other has brought discredit on both Judaism and Islam. In the eyes of the world’s Muslims, Christianity is also disgraced by its followers’ abetment of Israeli misdeeds. The New Testament teaches that “love worketh no ill to his neighbor: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:10). Not much love or law are in evidence in the West’s treatment of the Israel-Palestine issue.

In America’s and NATO’s several wars in the region, many Muslims see a rebirth of the Crusades — violent incursions and lethal interventions in Muslim societies by Christian warriors. They call in response for jihad against the West. Some Americans join them in the view that U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are sacred wars of religion.

The antidotes to such ignorant enmity and cruelty are to be found in the core beliefs of all three Abrahamic faiths, which are in accord: the prerequisite for peace is respect and compassion for others. Mutual understanding and empathy can only be found through considerate dialogue between minds ready to abandon prejudice, to change behavior, and to work toward policies that promote harmony rather than confrontation.

As Father Hans Kung once famously remarked, “There will be no peace among the nations without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue among the religions.” He was right. Many Muslims are now working to promote such peace through dialogue. So too are many Christians, not a few Jews, and the sizable Muslim community in the United States. This gives me hope.

But, in the end, hope is only vindicated by the results of the efforts it inspires. Arabs and Americans face challenges that cannot be met without mutual trust and confidence that only intimate reacquaintance can establish. So, too, the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim peoples of the Middle East. How, otherwise, shall we deal with the bleeding ulcer that is now the Holy Land? What shall we do about fitting a post-occupation Iraq back into its region? How shall we manage an assertive but internally divided Iran? What can we do to help Pakistan step onto a more promising path? What roles shall we play in a future, free Afghanistan? How may we benefit from the diplomatic invigoration of Egypt? How should we help the Arab Spring of North Africa not become an Arab winter elsewhere?

So many questions. So many common interests. And so little common understanding on which to base effective responses. Asked, on his arrival in London, what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi replied that he thought “it would be a good idea.” Civilized dialogue among peoples with mutually misunderstood heritages is an even better idea.

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

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