Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts The Western Encounter with Islam

The Western Encounter with Islam

Using historical evidence to provide rapid support for policy advice is all too easy in a crisis, yet it is valuable to offer a historical resonance to current problems. This has certainly been the case over the last two years, which have seen a flood of histories of terrorism, Afghanistan, Iraq, and relations between Islam and the West. Some of the work has been of high quality, but much has been superficial and plagued by serious analytical problems, as commercial opportunity plays a major role.

One of the most important problems relates to the need to distinguish between long-term perceptions of Islamic power and more short-term (but still pressing) developments. In particular, there has been a tendency to exaggerate the centrality of relations with the Western world in Islamic history and to focus too narrowly on conflict in these relations. This is at the expense of three different themes: first, the need for Islam to confront other societies; second, the importance of divisions within the Islamic world itself (with the equivalent obviously being true for the Western world); and, third, the variety of links between Islam and the West. The last point can be related, more generally, to modern revisionism on the multiple nature of Western imperialism.

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