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by Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad

Sadly, when many Westerners think of Islam these days, they would generally think of fanatical M-16 wielding terrorists, intent on
killing all infidels at all costs, best epitomised by the image of the 'great villain', Osama bin Laden. Many Muslims on the other hand see the 'Great Satan' when they think of the West.

Is this division inevitable? Are we destined to live in complete fear and prejudice of each other? Should we all not take the example of Dante Alighieri, a medieval Christian poet?

"I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia, And saw alone, apart, the Saladin."

Those were lines taken from his magnum opus, the Divine Comedy. While Saladin was an Islamic sultan during the Crusades where the Muslims were pitted with the Christians, he was an exemplary leader and that qualified him to be praised by Dante.

Even at a time when Christendom and the Muslim world were opposing sides in a holy war, Saladin took the Prophet's example by ordering his army not to loot or murder following their victory in Jerusalem.

He was humane and just - during his reign, Christian pilgrims were allowed into the holy city and he took Jews and Christians as his advisors. He left a legacy of tolerance and peaceful co-existence to the Muslim world for centuries.

Peaceful coexistence was also evident during the time when the Moors were ruling Spain. Muslims lived together peacefully with Jews and Christians; not in trepid isolation, but harmoniously in political, economic and intellectual fields, as well as in daily life. Together they contributed to an enlightened civilisation that attracted scholars from all corners of Europe.

Today however, tolerance and understanding is generally seen to be much more evident in Western democracies rather than in the Islamic world. In spite of the attacks against Afghanistan, Western states allow war protesters both from Muslims and non-Muslims to publicly express their outcry against violent retaliation.

Most Muslim regimes would not allow similar public denouncements of the government to take place. Democracy and civil society are something that is unfortunately lacking in the Islamic world. Jihad which means a holistic religious struggle that can be done in many ways is now being stereotyped as a holy war that Muslims wage against infidels.

The Sept 11 attacks and the following American retaliation on Afghanistan has given credence to Samuel Huntington's vision of an inevitable clash of civilisations between the West and the Islamic world.

Fear and prejudice

Images of innocent people being killed, both in the World Trade Centre and in Afghanistan; are driving a divisive and destructive wedge between Muslims and the Westerners. Both are now at risk of being driven, sine die, into two hostile camps, separated by fear and prejudice.

All of us need to understand that intolerance and fanaticism is not something that can be attributed to a particular religion or culture, although generalising seems to be a convenient thing to do.

Both Islam and the West have been responsible for reactionary intolerance - looking far back in history we have the example of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) with his 'two truths' thesis that drew ire from the Muslim establishment of his time and led to his books being burnt; while Galileo was famously arrested for believing that the earth went around the sun.

More recently we have the conservative Kaum Tua in British Malaya battling against the progressive and modernist Kaum Muda (young scholars) during the early 1920s or the murder of pro-choice Dr David Gunn and Dr John Bayard Britton by pro-life Christians.

What these fringe fanatics forget is the spirit of humane tolerance found in the scriptures of all religions. No civilisation espouses us to isolate ourselves and not learn from the strengths of other civilisations; in fact, it is through that process itself that grand civilisations were born.

Civilisations are not solid sets of values and ideals, but are a contrasting set of ideas and interpretations, rooted to a shared historical or spiritual experience.

At a time of ultimate tension as it is now, it becomes more important to advance the cause for an inter-civilisation dialogue to promote peaceful coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is a sine qua non for the future of humanity.

Universal values

Yes, there are inherent differences between the West and Islam, different values and different perspectives; but at an age where globalisation is smashing down frontiers and reducing the size of the world every day, we should all look forward for a harmonious relationship in the global village.

Islam and the West are different civilisations; but there are universal values that we all share, regardless of whether we are from the West, the Muslim world or Asia.

To say that we have nothing to learn from each other is allowing ourselves to be dictated by narrow xenophobia. Vilifying is an easy task; tolerance and understanding is difficult and needs effort from all involved.

A clash of civilisation is something that each and every one of us, you and me, Muslims and Westerners alike, can never allow to take place, for the sake of humanity. We should all seek to learn from each other, respect each others' differences, recognise our similarities and value our heritage.

As Thomas Friedman aptly puts it, the struggle for the 21st century is a struggle of making a choice between a Lexus and olive tree.

Participating in the forces of global interaction does not mean that our identity and values would totally be dissolved, the future of globalisation itself depends on striking a delicate balance between maintaining the olive tree in our attempt to get the Lexus. The West and Islam should coalesce to understand each other.

Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad is a 19-year-old student interested in current affairs. He is attached (on a part-time basis) to the Political Education Unit, Institute for Policy Research.