US-Islamic World Forum, Doha, Qatar,
Associated Press
Iranian students attend a demonstration at Tehran University against recently published
cartoons on May 24, 2006.

Understanding US-Muslim Relations: History and Perspective

February 13, 2009 01:38 PM
by Kate Davey
As intellectual leaders from around the globe converge at the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, many question how the relationship arrived at its current state.

(For information on the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, please visit Will the U.S.-Islamic World Forum Create a New Way Forward?)

Understanding the Culture Clash

In 2006 the Pew Global Attitudes Project published a study, “The Great Divide: How Westerners and Muslims View Each Other,” which found that both Muslims and Westerners view relations between the two groups as being generally bad. The report states, “Many in the West see Muslims as fanatical, violent, and as lacking tolerance. Meanwhile, Muslims in the Middle East and Asia generally see Westerners as selfish, immoral and greedy—as well as violent and fanatical.”

In 2001, a month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Gary Brown of the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group also reviewed these negative perceptions between the two groups. In “Mutual Misperceptions: The Historical Context of Muslim-Western Relations,” he writes that although he is not surprised by the mutual negative perceptions of both groups, he does not believe that faith is to blame, but points instead to the individuals that misuse it.

He asserts, “a simple appeal to the sacred books of both cultures immediately gives the lie to those who—ruled by hate, prejudice or secular ambition rather than by genuine religious sentiments—allege that either Islam or Christianity truly countenances the commission of atrocities or any form of inhumanity. Nominal adherents of both creeds may indeed do such things, but this is to their personal discredit, and not to that of the religions whose names they have, in effect, hijacked for their own purposes.”

Background: Significant events in Muslim-Western relations

According to Robert Wuthnow, author of Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion, the end of World War I “was the beginning of a new era in the history of Islam,” because the former Muslim political systems had ended after the war. He continues to say that between World War I and II, nationalism and radicalism sprouted in Islamic political systems, along with the rise and resurgence of “explicitly Islamic movements.”

Some of the most important events in the history of Islam have also shaped both cultures’ perceptions of each other. The Crusades and the Ottoman domination are among many that developed the relationship, for better or worse, with the West.

From 683 through the late 1090s Muslims ruled Jerusalem, and allowed Christians to make pilgrimages. But during the 11th century, the ruling Seljuk Turks prohibited such pilgrimages. In 1095, in an effort to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims, Pope Urban II called on Christians to go to battle with Muslims. This would become known as The First Crusade, and resulted in the successful capture of Jerusalem in 1099. As PBS reports, this crusade would set off fighting between the two cultures that would last for just under 200 years. PBS also notes the negative legacy from the battles: “The Crusades bear tremendous responsibility for the intolerance that develops between Christians and Muslims as well as Jews.”

In 1453, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II took Constantinople, which had been the heart of the Byzantine Empire, and renamed it Istanbul. While Mehmet slaughtered half of Constantinople’s population during his invasion, he was relatively respectful of other religions. Through successful conquests, the Ottoman Empire came to include Eastern Europe and most of the Arab world.

According to the BBC, under Suleyman the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520–1566, the Ottoman Empire reached its height of power and stability through several key conquests. By the late 1600s, Istanbul was in decline because command became less centralized, European powers began to expand and the Ottomans lost several key battles.

Later Developments: Western-Muslim relations today

Since it’s creation in 1948, the Jewish state of Israel and the neighboring Occupied Palestinian Territories have played a central role in the relationship between Western and Muslim cultures. In the recent past, Western-Muslim relations have been strained by the riots of Muslims youths in France after a Muslim teen was killed there while hiding from police. In addition, in 2006 several were killed when riots and protests broke out in the Middle East and Europe after a cartoon was produced showing Muhammad wearing a bomb in his turban.

Opinion & Analysis: Prominent figures speak

Where Western-Muslim relations stand now and where they should go is continually debated. Deceased Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci supported Islamophobia through her criticism of the Muslim world. In an editorial for The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz asks, “How should Western democracies fight against an enemy whose leaders preach a preference for death?” In addition, the head of the Catholic Church, Pope Benedict XVI, angered many when he quoted a Christian emperor and stated that Muhammad had brought only “evil and inhuman” things to the world.

Yet, many have hailed President Obama’s inaugural address, in which he stated that it was time to move forward with Muslim-Western relations, and was hopeful for what this change could mean. At a news conference in Iraq Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said, “We look positively on the slogan that Obama raised in the elections. The world has really changed.” He added: “If the American administration wants to keep up with the changes, this will be happy news. … We think these changes will provide good opportunities for the American administration in its relations with the countries of the world.”

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