On November 6, 2007, New York University Center for
Dialogues: Islamic World–U.S.–The West hosted a panel
discussion on “Islam in the West: Source of Concern or Source of Hope?” The debate focused on the relationship
between the Islamic and Western worlds, and the need for
effective methods to deflect tensions between the two. The
panel was moderated by Mustapha Tlili, the Center for
Dialogues’ founder and director, and featured Abdullah M.
Alsaidi, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of
Yemen to the United Nations; Jon Benjamin, Deputy Consul
General of the United Kingdom in New York; Jytte Klausen,
Professor of Comparative Politics at Brandeis University;
and Piet de Klerk, Deputy Permanent Representative of the
Netherlands to the United Nations.
Mustapha Tlili began by explaining that the title of the panel had been phrased as a question to reflect the ambivalence harbored by people in the West towards Islam. He also placed the Islamic–Western relationship in historical context, acknowledging NYU University Professor of History and two time Pulitzer Prize–winner, David Levering Lewis’ new book, God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570–121 and asserting that Muslim advances in science and culture could have vastly improved the quality of European life after the demise of the Greco–Roman Empire.
Tlili attributed the current heightened awareness of Islam in the Western consciousness to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, and to political discourses surrounding the upcoming U.S. Presidential election. He cited the size of the Muslim population worldwide today—about 1.4 billion people in more than 60 countries, with two to six million people in the U.S. and 15–20 million in Europe—and asked whether these communities should be a source of concern, because of the tensions produced by extremists’ acts, or a source of hope, particularly as a source of much–needed labor in Europe.
Tlili reminded the audience of the NYU Center for Dialogues’ motto “to knock down walls of misunderstanding and replace them with bridges of knowledge and reason,” and referred them to the report on “Muslim Youth and Women in the West” produced after a recent conference in Salzburg, Austria. He then introduced the panelists for the evening.
The first question was addressed to Ambassador Alsaidi on the topic of what Muslim governments and inter–governmental organizations could do to deflect tensions and produce mutual understanding.
Ambassador Alsaidi began by welcoming Richard Bulliet, Professor of History at Columbia University, to the panel discussion. He proceeded to list some of the sources of tension between the West and the Islamic world from the perspective of the latter. These include colonialism, globalization, and the attitude of the West to such complicated issues as the Palestinian Question and the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He predicted future competition over scarce resources and warned against the debilitating consequences, particularly for the U.S., of a sustained and adversarial engagement in the Arab–Islamic world.
Ambassador Alsaidi made the claim that democracy and force are incompatible, and contrasted the Islamic world’s resentment of the Iraq invasion with its support for the toppling of the Taliban regime. Muslims in the West will feel less discontented, he said, when regional issues like the Arab–Israeli conflict are more even–handedly addressed and when immigrants stop feeling discriminated against. The Ambassador closed by urging the Arab–Islamic world to condemn terrorism, resurrect Muslim achievements in science, and inculcate in the Muslim Diaspora the fact that it is a religious duty to respect the laws of their new homelands.
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