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Islam and the West

No single phenomenon stands out so dramatically at the outset of the 1980s at the religious fervor sweeping the Muslim world. What it portends is far from clear. But it does pose a challenge to the Judeo-Christian West which, rightly or wrongly, is singled out for attack.

How will the West meet the challenge?"

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Let it be said first that the surge of Islamic fundamentalism should not be viewed as engendering or calling for a religious confrontation. Mutual respect among all religious faiths remains an earnest of peace. We are reminded in fact that Islam and Judeo-Christianity have some common elements, not least of them being a strong belief in monotheism. Rather, the questions which need to be addressed are political, economic, and moral in the broadest sense. For the ascendant Islamic movement, suffused with nationalism, seems to reflect the frustrations and bitterness of the third-world nations generally as they grope for ways out of poverty and backwardness and seek their own self-identity. To understand and respond to these legitimate aspirations must be the aim of the Western nations. Not otherwise can collisions and violence be supplanted by a spirit of cooperativeness and brotherhood not only between the Muslim and the Western countries but among all peoples.

On the economic front, the 1970s saw a healthy awakening to the need for a dialogue between the world's rich and poor nations. The oil embargo of 1973 shocked the West, which discovered the world is indeed interdependent and grows increasingly so. But a wider global perspective has yet to translate into sustained action. Are the industrialized countries providing enough aid to enable the poor nations to stay ahead of their burdensome debts, magnified now by the increased price of enery? Are they directing the aid into the right areas -- the production of food, for example? Are they willing to give the underdeveloped nations fair and stable prices for their raw materials? Are they opening up their markets to exports from the third world -- the only way many nations can bring about economic growth? (The West European nations financed their Industrial Revolution out of their colonial empires and vast imports from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Thirdworld countries today have no such advantage as they seek to modernize.)

Although appreciable gains have been made in many regions, much remains to be done just to assure a sufficiency of food for a population expected to double in the next generation, let alone make headway in providing shelter, education, and other basic necessities in the most impoverished lands. Technological advances make the goal of overcoming hunger, for instance, achievable. Required is the political -- and moral -- commitment to do something about the problem.

Politically, too, the West has some reexamining to do. Has it always responded positively to aspirations in the third world for greater national self-fulfillment and freedom? It can hardly be advocated that democratic systems be imposed on other countries. These must evolve from within, if they evolve at all. But, as the experience of Iran shows, there surely ought to be less than wholehearted Western support for autocrats who build a wall between themselves and their people. Nor need the West see every political upheaval in the context of an East-West contest. Many nations, like Nicaragua, now struggle to find their own forms of government after long years of outside interference.

Whatever feelings of inferiority and resentment they harbor vis-a-vis the West, moreover, third-world nations still often look to Western ideas as their model -- the ideas of democracy, human rights, rule of law. These are achievements of enduring universal appeal. It is in fact the West's betrayal of its highest political ideals -- as in Iran -- which has sometimes provoked such violent reaction. A temptation to forget this idealism on grounds of thwarting Soviet expansionism only invites instability in the end. The Russians, it might be added, have nothing of comparable spiritual value to offer and the West should wisely exploit rather than compromise this strength.

This brings us to another aspect of the global challenge, one which underpins all others. This is the need for a moral and spiritual self- examination and rejuvenation. The rebellion by Iranians and others in the Islamic world against Western cultural influences is in one sense timely and instructive. It is in fact not only Muslims who believe Western civilization is in decline because of a deterioration from within. Many thoughtful Western scholars also voice concern. How long, it is asked, can a society endure in which so many value profit above public service, cater to "me" and "self" rather than to others, place self- gratification above self-discipline, are preoccupied with materiality rather than a pursuit of substantive values, seem to be neglecting the spirit of democratic cooperation and consensus?

Perhaps we are beginning to see a reversal of the intensely materialistic drives of past decades. The energy crisis may prove a blessing in disguise as it forces people to rethink the meaning and purpose of life. Without abandoning a commitment to economic growth, individuals are coming to realize that more is not necessarily better. In the United States, for instance, a leading pollster finds that the vast majority today favor placing greater stress on "learning to get pleasure out of nonmaterial experiences" rather than merely pushing for more goods and services.

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We perhaps will see this emerging trend become a recommitment to the values of self- reliance, concern for others, and discipline which have played such a part in the West's history. restoring these values to their central place in national consciousness will strengthen and preserve the West in a way military might can never do. It will not only help quicken solutions to the many domestic problems which beset the Western nations as they face the decade ahead, but enable them to speak compassionately to the needs of humankind everywhere.


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