The ignorance of the West about the culture of Islam

Following the previous article on the cultural narcissism of the West it is interesting to view the extent of ignorance of the Western world about Islam and to understand the effort that should be made on both sides to enable the West to understand the true essence of Islam whilst having Islamic countries promoting a true image of Islam in the West, without any cultural and other stereotypes that only cause misunderstanding and misconception with disastrous results for the coexistence of cultures.

The geography, which dictates the developments for everything in nature, contributes to the cultural ignorance of the other. Both Islam and the West are possessed by ignorance about the culture of the other. Both worlds consider the other «exotic», i.e. strange, incomprehensible and mysterious to some extent. Comparatively speaking Islam knows more about the West than the West about Islam.

The knowledge of Muslims about the West is based primarily on the technological progress of the West. Already in the 19th century the modernization of the West was identified with progress in the mind of the pro-Western elites of the Muslim society in each region. Today the power of Western communication technology promotes, and at a point shapes, the image of an ideal society for the West and Europe in particular. One of the results of this non-real largely image of Europe in Muslim minds is the desire of a portion of Muslims to emigrate to the West. This partly explains the stream of illegal immigration that has overwhelmed the European area in the last decade.

Despite the aforementioned technological advances in communication, the West does not know Islam. Why? Technology has been regarded in the West as the benchmark for any comparison between cultures beyond any other features, such as culture, hospitality and a different approach to life and reality. The West builds up its narcissism based on its technological superiority, which in terms of culture is incomprehensible, because Islam, like other cultures, have contributed significantly to the formation of world culture for centuries. The demand of Muslims for the West to recognize the important cultural role of Islam in world cultural developments is constant, as stated in the recent message to the youth of northern Europe by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme spiritual leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Given today’s multicultural societies in Europe and elsewhere in the West, it is possible to recognize the cultural reciprocity and coexistence in practice and not in words. Given the existence of Muslim communities in Europe and coexistence with the majority of Europeans, the leadership of Europe is called upon to investigate and embrace the cultural and scientific contributions of Islam to European and international culture, recognizing this gift through the education system and the mass media so as the current and future generations of Europeans to have a better view of reality for the worldview of their fellow European Muslims. Only then will cultural stereotypes disappear, making way for mutual respect.

* Dr Evangelos Venetis is coordinator of the Middle East Research Project of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).