Muslim westerners have built - and become - a bridge

H.A. Hellyer

Muslim westerners bring something else to the Muslim world – a more sophisticated understanding of the West as a whole, which as westerners they have as their birthright. That understanding is crucial if the Muslim world – West dialogue is ever to bear fruit.

That fateful day in July of 2005 came scarcely a few days after I completed the initial draft of my book on Muslim Europeans. People from the community I had studied for years carried out that operation, which we now call “7/7”. As I look back on the last few years since then, I consider how Muslim westerners have contributed far beyond the security agenda – to the West, to their own communities there, but also to the Muslim world as a whole.

Muslim westerners certainly found themselves under the spotlight after 7/7. The attention was usually linked to fear – the mass media was concerned about the possibility that there was a “fifth column” residing in their midst. But there is another story to tell.

Some may be aware of the large number of Muslim westerners – whether they are converts, descendants of converts, or from immigrant stock – that have made the psychological shift to becoming integral parts of Western societies. All of them are Muslim and western, but they are not a monolithic community. They are, after all, second and third generation descendants of immigrants from across the Muslim world and converts from the mainstream of their society.

What is not particularly well-written about or noticed, is the large number of Muslim westerners at work within the heartland of the Muslim world. I saw the contribution of this community in the reaction to the Danish cartoon crisis. There were many reactions to the cartoons, but the most famous reaction from within the Muslim world came from a conglomerate of three public intellectuals, who travelled to Denmark with delegations of Muslims to engage in dialogue with the Danes. Amr Khaled is an Egyptian accountant who has become the most well known televangelist within the Arab world – he came to Denmark with a team led by a young Canadian Muslim woman and Tariq Suweidan, a Kuwaiti businessman who trained extensively in Western universities. The third person to join him was Habib Ali Zain al Abidin al Jifri, a Yemeni scholar of Islam who runs the Tabah Foundation in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – a foundation that has a significant Muslim western contingent of high level religious authorities.

Al Jifri hosted a dialogue in the UAE about the cartoons a few months after he had travelled to Denmark, where both Muslims and non-Muslims discussed them. He gathered an interesting set of people, many of whom were Muslim westerners, who were specifically chosen because they knew the West, Islam, and the situation of Muslim communities around the world. I observed them closely, and by all accounts, they were disproportionately successful in putting forward a vision that the West could understand and that the Muslim world could appreciate.

On the way to that conference, I found myself stopping over in the Egypt. Visiting the mosque of the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the famous Dr Ali Gomaa, I found a large group of Muslim westerners who were residents in Cairo, studying Arabic and traditional Islamic sciences. A number of them were assisting the Mufti himself – one of the most significant Muslim scholars in the world. That is a pattern: several of the Muslim world’s most noted scholars, such as Abdullah Bin Bayyah of Mauritania, or Al Habib Umar bin Hafidh of Yemen, avail themselves of the expertise of Muslim westerners.

These are all events and situations that I found to be remarkably stimulating when looking at the role and the position of Muslim westerners. It is for that reason that outfits like the Brookings Institution, a leading American think-tank, regularly holds panels on and engages with western Muslim communities – it can see the potential of those communities not only in the West, but in the Muslim world. Because it is this community that brings a unique contribution to the Muslim world’s dialogue with itself and with the West.

Muslim westerners are sons and daughters of modernity – a phenomenon that has transformed the way of life for human beings the world over. But it is a phenomenon that finds its roots in the West – and its system is still western. It is a system that the Muslim world has yet to fully understand – all too often, it simply tries to graft modernity onto itself, apparently not realising that there could be dire consequences for their own cultural development. That is something that Muslim westerners understand all too well and they are bringing that understanding to the Muslim world. It is a dire need – and ironically, it is often a Muslim westerner that warns his coreligionists in the Muslim world not to engage in blind westernisation, but to take up a more sophisticated view that allows them to come into modernity on their own terms.

Beyond that, Muslim westerners bring something else to the Muslim world – a more sophisticated understanding of the West as a whole, which as westerners they have as their birthright. That understanding is crucial if the Muslim world – West dialogue is ever to bear fruit.

They are a fascinating group, – many of whom possess a certain type of clarity of mission and purpose. As far as they are concerned, they are part of the future of Islam in the West, but they also maintain a responsibility to contribute to their predominantly non-Muslim societies. They are cultural innovators, bridges of understanding, and are involved at the highest levels of Islamic activity.

(Photo: D'arcy Vallance via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Dr HA Hellyer is a fellow of the University of Warwick, a member of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, and founder-director of the Visionary Consultants Group, a Muslim world-West relations consultancy. This article was first published in the National (UAE).

Posted March 23, 2009, Alt Muslim

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