Islam and the West: is Peaceful Coexistence Possible?

Relations between the West and Islam seem to be worsening with an increase in Islamist and far-right terrorist attacks. Why is Islamic integration in the West so difficult? How can dialogue be improved? We have interviewed Shadi Hamid, a Muslim-American who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of the book Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the Worldfor a different insight on these pressing questions.

You have worked extensively on the relationship between Islam and the West – do you think the two can co-exist peacefully in the future, even as Muslims grow in numbers in Western countries, with what appears to be a proportionate rise in intolerance towards them?

I don’t think there is a real risk of serious violent conflict or war. Citizens with different attitudes towards religion can and should try to live together with that difference. I acknowledge that there are fundamental differences in how the religions are practised, for example, 54 per cent of French Muslims think religion is very important for them, compared to only 11 per cent of French citizens overall. The biggest problem in a country like France is that the latter believe Muslims are not respecting their secular ideals – and these are people who tend to feel very strongly about secularism. So it’s an interesting question to ask if Christians in Europe were more observant, whether they would get along better with observant Muslims, but what we know in the American case is that being a conservative Christian does not necessarily make you more sympathetic towards Muslims. But maybe in Europe, because secularism is more dominant, religious Christians sympathize with Muslims since they would both, in a sense, be religious minorities trying to live within aggressively secular societies.

The main question that has risen in Europe in the last few years with mass immigration from predominantly Muslim countries, is why Western society should accommodate Islamic practices while Muslim countries would likely not accommodate ours. What would you say to the people who bring up this double standard?

The answer is that Western democracies are different – do we want to compare ourselves to repressive regimes? That is not the standard by which we should be judging this, by comparing ourselves to states like Morocco, Saudi Arabia etc., where there are fewer freedoms and dysfunctional or nonexistent democracies. But if they were to say that to me, my answer would be that I don’t have another country; I consider myself a Westerner and an American Muslim. I also don’t think Western countries are radically changing – no-one is asking them to change their constitution or basic laws. Muslim grievances in European democracies are often times about asking for more accommodation for things like work-place prayer, halal meat, wearing the headscarf etc.. I understand these practices may sometimes be in tension with secular ideals, but if it remains a personal relationship with God – it’s not too much to ask to accommodate those personal beliefs. And it’s problematic to tell them they can’t live up to their religious aspirations.

Even if individual Muslims were left to practice their faith privately and within the law, there are cases of foreign influences which threaten the sovereignty of Western nations – like that of Qatar – which funds Mosques and think tanks with a fundamentalist view of Islam. What are your thoughts on this issue, often lamented by right-wing populists?

In that case, it’s a legitimate question about sovereignty, and there are laws that can regulate that. I don’t have a problem with regulations on certain kinds of foreign funding; I just worry about assuming people become more conservative primarily because of foreign influence. Empirically that does not hold up. Foreign influence may exacerbate some of these divides, but in many countries, it’s the European children of immigrants who become more conservative than their parents, so you can’t explain that in terms of funding from the countries of their parents. I find myself in a strange place in these debates, because I think that right-wing populists are not completely wrong on some of these issues – it’s not fair to say that their concerns are solely based on bigotry and racism because there is a kernel of truth in what they say. After all, there is a difference in how Islam and Christianity are practised in Europe, but I disagree with the conclusion they reach after that. Right-wing populists ask that Muslims become the same as them, whereas I want to find a way where different groups can live together with their differences. That being said, we can’t just condemn right-wing populists, as they are speaking to a real, cultural and religious divide. There is a clash of cultures taking place.

On some issues, however, both Muslim and Christian conservatives appear to agree – for example, they both oppose progressive agendas, like the LGBTQ movement. Why then, don’t they find common cause against progressivism, instead of using these ideas as a “weapon” to show how intolerant each side is?

The right-wing in general feels a kind of insecurity towards Islam because they’re lamenting the loss of Christianity and an ideological vacuum in their own societies. Part of the reason right-wing populists are able to appeal to voters is that they speak to a sense of civilizational and cultural loss – they look at Muslims and they see a resilient, powerful, and unapologetic religion. It’s hard for them to be happy about that because that’s what they want to see in their own faith and civilization. They fear that over time Muslims are going to be more influential than even conservative Christians. So when you’re in this position of cultural decline, it’s hard to reach out to the other side from a position of weakness and insecurity. I don’t see much evidence of dialogue between the two sides– it requires one side to reach out to the other. It’s not realistic to expect Muslims to reach out to the other side when they feel under attack. I personally oppose the kind of fluffy, superficial interfaith dialogue we see sometimes, but would like to see conservative Christians, conservative Muslims, and conservative Jews in the same room and see what might happen, even if some of them deep down think the other will spend eternity in hellfire. Once I spoke to this evangelical conference in Nashville, and a guy basically said to me: “It’s the first time I shook hands with a Muslim, but I want to be clear that I still think you’re going to hell.” There was something very refreshing about that theological honesty – I don’t agree with it, but I think it can also encourage honest dialogue.

Media outlets like Al Jazeera, funded by Qatar, have an Arabic channel which supports a fundamentalist view of Islam and a Western channel which supports progressive liberalism. This appears to be a subversive way to undermine Western democracies, what would you respond to this? Why would they advocate for the same ideas in Western countries that they despise in their own?

This obsession with Muslim Brotherhood infiltration and that every Muslim in the West is a potential Trojan horse worries me – the Brotherhood has very little influence in America – someone like Ilhan Omar, the Muslim congresswoman who is a pro-LGBT Muslim is obviously not a Muslim Brotherhood member. Ilhan Omar does not have a grand plan to overthrow her country. They view their progressive activism as part of intersectional solidarity. Personally, I’m pro-gay marriage, and I don’t see how that leads to American decline. I hear that criticism of Western decadence from European Muslims, but I don’t hear it as much from American Muslims, and that reflects the shift that I’m talking about, in part because American Muslims generally feel lucky to have this level of freedom. The best place in the world to be a Muslim today, in my view, is America, even more than Muslim countries, where there are restrictions on what you can say or do religiously. This is why American Muslims don’t want to mess with the freedom of other minorities – they feel they might also lose their freedoms in the process.

Do you believe that, fundamentally, the reason why many Muslims can be hostile towards Western integration has to do with the history of Western imperialism, religious incompatibility or something else?

The hostility some European Muslims feel is mainly about socio-economic dislocation, which overlaps with the cultural and religious divide. In the Middle East and North Africa, however, it’s more about the history of Western imperialism. Also, what I would say makes integration easier in America, is that we don’t have the strong welfare component that Europe has, because we’re more sceptical of state intervention in the economy. While in Europe, this sense of hostility towards immigrants is exacerbated by the fear that they will take disproportionate welfare benefits. More immigrants put stress on that basic conception of a social contract – if you give benefits to people you don’t know, you want to feel you have something in common with them. A weak welfare system like the one we have puts more pressure on immigrants to integrate while having immigrants depend on government largess in countries that give a lot of benefits can be counter-productive because it does not encourage integration.