Between East and West: Confrontation and Encounter

by Lamin Sanneh

Lamin Sanneh teaches missions and world Christianity and history at Yale Divinity School. He is an editor-at-large of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in The Christian Century November 13, l99l, pp. 1067-1073. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions may be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


The author reviews three books, which he describes as “variations on a theme,” that being the response of Muslims to the ascendancy of the West and the West’s attempt to annex or assimilate the Muslim worldview.

Debating Muslims: Cultural Dialogues in Postmodernity and Tradition by Michael M. J. Fischer and Mehdi Abedi. University of Wisconsin Press, 600 pp., $49.75; paperback, $23.50.

Striving Together: A Way Forward in Christian-Muslim Relations by Charles Kimball. Orbis, 140 pp., $10.95 paperback.

Guidelines for Dialogue Between Christians and Muslims, by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Paulist, 144 pp., $12.95 paperback.

Letter to Christendom, by Rana Kabbani. Virago Press, 80 pp., 13.99.

These books may be considered variations on a theme, that of the Muslim response to the ascendancy of the West and the West's attempt to annex or assimilate the Muslim worldview. Muslims might be seen as the exotic tusk on which Western academics cut their teeth, mastering Islamic culture and language in order to assimilate these things into pre-established social-science categories. On another level, the Muslim heritage offers a second wind for the West, as challenge or opportunity. In either case the Muslim phenomenon usually calls attention primarily to what the West might or might not do in response rather than to what Muslims themselves think and do. This is a version of the phenomenon Edward Said describes as "orientalism." Nevertheless, a strong body of literature is emerging in which Muslims are speaking for themselves, and resisting heavy-handed categories of self-reproach or self-assurance.

Debating Muslims is a puzzling book whose ambiguous title compounds the problem of understanding. It is difficult to know if "debating" is a participle or an adjective, whether debating is something we do with Muslims or something they do among themselves. The book's use of abstruse terminology seems unnecessary given that the volume is otherwise so competent on the subject matter. The rare exception to this style is the first chapter, an autobiographical piece by Mehdi Abedi that is strong on detail, evocation, historical context, political change, religious motivation and the meeting (and confrontation) of East and West. It provides precious insight into the moral springs of the Iranian revolution and a charmingly self-deprecating introduction to Muslim society and culture in the throes of momentous change. It deserves to stand by itself, but even here its brilliance shines through.

The reader is caught up in the dilemmas and traumas Abedi describes with artless candor and fidelity: his Muslim education at the hands of a female mullah and others; his attempts to obtain. a modern education; his uncertainties and ambitions; his report of his dreams in times of personal struggle; the antigovernment sentiments and activities in which he became involved on the eve of the shah's overthrow; his search for a moral purpose in life and for a cause to live and die for -- all this is described with conviction and facility. In one place he writes: "One Friday, I tried to write out all my confusions, in an effort to judge myself. I had studied enough philosophy to be thoroughly confused by all the conflicting theories; my faith had been eroded; I felt I had not achieved anything in life, and that my life had no direction. I concluded that a confused and worthless life contributes negatively to society, and that such a person should kill himself." When Abedi met someone who persuaded him to share the stranger's sorrows, thoughts of suicide got pushed aside.

He writes also of an Anglican priest in England whose account of a debate between Charles Darwin and a bishop impressed him with its nonpartisan honesty. "I asked who won the debate, fully expecting him to say the bishop. To my surprise, he answered that he thought they had not really understood one another and that each was talking about different aspects of man, the one about biological man, and the other about spiritual man. Asked a similar question, at the time, I never would have admitted a Muslim could have not won a debate....I began to think to myself, how could such a man be condemned to hell [for not being a Muslim]...I began to think of Bishop Dehgani-Tafti, the [Iranian] convert to Christianity...and for the first time felt a glimmer of understanding of how someone might come to convert to Christianity." (Dehgani-Tafti miraculously escaped assassination during the Iranian revolution, though his son, with a promising career ahead of him, was, killed.)

Moving from the first chapter to the rest of the book I felt considerably jarred, for I found I was moving from autobiographical reporting to abstract discourse about modernity and postmodernity. The authors tend to equate the 20th century with innocence, virtue and tolerance, and to define the failure or success of religious protagonists in terms of refusing or accepting to live in the "20th century." This approach conflicts, however, with considerable evidence to the contrary in the book itself, which suggests that Muslims, or their wretched Baha'i victims, might well see the 20th century as the antithesis of moral innocence, virtue and tolerance for religion..

For example, one of the most important figures in the events preceding the Iranian revolution was 'Ali Shari'ati, a French-educated modernist Iranian Muslim, a man who, though he led the opposition to the shah (in which cause he is believed to have lost his life), remained. suspect to Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts because of his articulate anticlerical views. An alleged victim of Savak, the nefarious secret police of the shah, Shari'ati has become something of a symbol for secular ideologues: he is a nationalist who stood up to imperialists -- and a modernist who took on the medieval obscurantism of the mullahs. His untimely death was a setback to his cause -- which indicates a flaw in the secular antagonism to religion. Once Shari'ati was removed from the scene, his cause faltered, while that of the mullahs he despised prospered beyond bounds. Modernism as an organized movement seemed in that instance caught in a bind between wishing to distance itself from the wrongs and failures that modernization itself brought on and believing in a future dispensation that would not be a continuation of existing conditions.

One of the chapters shifts geographically to Houston, Texas, and conceptually to postmodernism to indicate how the world of the Middle East has entered our own. In Houston the lives of Muslim and in particular Iranian exiles are examined in their American setting. The chapter looks at films and cartoons depicting Iranian life and the impact of the Iranian revolution. A good deal of screen material is produced in the U.S., mostly in Los Angeles, in the form of videos and TV films. Places where Iranians congregate are also pointed out -- restaurants, shops (particularly carpet shops) and neighborhood clubs. Iranians appear successful in maintaining community and social bonds through the observance of rituals connected with the Muslim calendar as well as with rites of birth, marriage and death. Religion continues to dominate Iranians' self-image in America, as is symbolized structurally by plans to build a mosque in Houston estimated to cost over $5 million, and ideologically by the Iranians' strict and elaborate adherence to the fast code of Ramadan. All of which suggests Iranian Muslims have placed on the "20th century" the bridle of tradition.

The chapter titled "Concluding Notes," with one more to follow, returns to the wordiness of the preface. The Iranian revolution is presented as "graphics" and "operatics" or as "hypertexts," a computer term, with themes and ideas pursued as sight and sound. Here the historian must demur: the ephemeral and glib quality of many of the popular images exists not simply to excite curious attention but to direct conviction on behalf of the truth of Islam. In this effort the U.S. and its alleged cronies bear the brunt of the attacks, with fire, smoke and death-chokes consuming the evil America represents. We need more than the stylistic sense of the art historian to appreciate why Muslims should feel so agitated about the U.S., a country that, whether in denunciation or admiration, Muslims appear unable to leave alone. Why are Hindus or Buddhists much less enraged, though no less exposed to American and its ways?

This issue burst violently into the open with the U.S. publication of Salman Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses, though its publication in London several months earlier provoked no similar outburst. Rushdie is in fact the subject of the final chapter, which offers an extended review of Satanic Verses.

I must. offer a mixed verdict on the Fischer-Abedi book. Used selectively and judiciously, it contains much to instruct the general reader. If one is able to rise above the unexamined but pervasive ideology that "tradition" and "postmodernity" are antithetical, then one would find strong evidence in the book that modernity, while by no means an unmixed blessing, has been a tonic for religious reinvigoration, affording the Ayatollah Khomeinis of .Islam an opportunity to retrieve the youthful, if at times, reckless, confidence of a bygone age.

The book cries out for sensitive Western response, for re-examination of the reigning paradigms of the academy and the idioms of our materialist consumer culture, and for a measure, of religious seriousness which Abedi alludes to as something Muslims would welcome in the West. Many Muslims see our secular indifference to religion, our own as will as that of others, as incompatible with the scale of the achievement that science, technology and instrumental politics have brought us (a point much emphasized by the Enlightenment founders of modern science, such as Bacon and Boyle). Our habit of reducing religion to a function of market forces, separating it from the state only to exploit it in self-interest, places a deep gulf between us.and other traditions. Consequently our differences from them assume negative connotations.

Charles Kimball attempts to summarize past relations with Muslims and outline future prospects. He speaks with passion about the neglect or worse that Muslims and Arabs have suffered in our society. (We might go on to ask why that should occur at a time when the Western academic study of the Middle East has grown vigorous.) Kimball recounts the history of Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle Ages before turning to the theology of pluralism and dialogue, in particular the writings of Wesley Ariarajah of the World Council of Churches and Kenneth Cracknell, formerly of the British Council of Churches. Next he looks at the Catholic (including the Vatican) understanding of and contribution to dialogue with Muslims and others. He concludes by stating his case for dialogue.

Kimball's work presents me with a problem whose source lies outside his book in that species of Protestant skepticism which says our own religion does not matter while that of others does. Kimball adopts a disarming version of this, saying that his personal involvement in dialogue has helped to deepen his own faith. No doubt that is true, as I can testify from my own experience. But is self-improvement the dividend that dialogue must yield to render it commendable? Furthermore, what are the hidden costs when the theology of dialogue requires a Copernican "shift from the dogma that Christianity is at the centre to the realization that it is God who is at the centre, and that all religions...serve and revolve around him"? The issue is an acute one since collective dialogue under these new Copernican skies is expected to increase our grasp of the Reality of which we have only partial, imperfect glimpses in our own religion. If that is how the Copernican formula works, then we are left with a melting-pot solution to religious differences.

The philosophical problem for those who promote dialogue on this basis is: what is the need for dialogue when we have discounted beforehand the distinctive claims of Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists,. Jews and others? Have we in fact abandoned the onesidedness we condemn in others when we proceed to make our own formulations -- or those of Muslims or others -- normative for all religions? If we use Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist objections to rescind Christian particularity, how is that better or worse than using Christian objections to wreak similar havoc. with Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist particularity? Whatever else may distinguish or separate us, we have in common at least the fact that we make distinctive claims, enough so that the names we bear mean something personally and historically. I laud and commend Kimball's journey in dialogue, but I have reservations about whether, beyond a sense of guilt or personal vocation, it leaves anything on the Christian side worth dialoguing about, let alone standing up for.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue has produced Guidelines for Dialogue Between Christians and Muslims. Although it was prepared by Maurice Bormans, a former Catholic missionary in North Africa, the document is in the nature of an official statement by the Roman Catholic Church and hence it carries far more weight than an individual statement. The document also breathes a confidence derived from a sense of historical continuity in church, Scripture and tradition, and it is not beset by the self-reproach that has become the Protestant litmus test of self-understanding. The document suggests a willingness to look at the world not as something we once owned and now relate to in the role of confessor, but as one in which Christian responsibility is greater than the West's racial and national criteria. Consequently, the document is not constrained by the need or desire to idealize Islam or Muslims, being quite willing, for example, to point out differences of emphases and interpretation alongside genuine Muslim aspirations and moral ideals.

I found myself deeply moved by the document's language of faith, hope and generosity, a language that spares neither our complacency nor skimps on our capacity for mutual esteem and responsibility. It is an extremely significant document, one that not only describes but achieves interreligious encounter. We should commend Marston Speight for his splendid translation from the French.

These reflections bring to mind a curious but glaring paradox in the history of encounter between Christians and Muslims: the periods of the most fertile theological and intellectual conversation also appear to be the periods of the most truculent and intransigent resistance. The contemporary period is no exception. Just at the time when the liberal West is prepared, rightly or wrongly, to abandon all matters of religious offense to Muslims -- from objectionable points of Christology such as incarnation, the cross and resurrection to issues of practice like colonialism, mission and separate claims for Christian education -- just at this time. Muslims hold tenaciously to a view of the perfidious West. In an age when we have witnessed the greatest recession of religion in the West and when the echo from the crash of a failed Christendom is all but faint in our ears, we are confronted with a deafening Muslim chorus proclaiming the West as a religious antagonist, and an equally deafening call in the West for dialogue and rejection of Christian uniqueness. This skeptical mood has clamped itself on people in the West, with divinity schools deeply scarred by it. God as the working hypothesis, as Bonhoeffer put it, remains true only for a dwindling remnant, with the majority prepared to settle for religion below cost,, so to speak -- that is to say, for religion as choice and option. What might be chosen or opted for remains an individual matter.

In effect the Muslim complaint against the West as a serious religious competitor is at least a hundred years out of date, and Western writers who respond to that complaint in literal terms risk being just as anachronistic. Either the Muslim religious instinct is sounder than the opposition it imagines exists in the West, or the Western secular option conceals a formidable alternative faith which, if unchallenged, might as export commodity intrude upon Islam. There might be something to both perceptions.

Let us begin with where the West is in its religious development. A casualty of the Enlightenment was the idea of Christendom, an idea. that gave religion a territorial expression and a cultural compatibility. The Holy Roman Empire ceased to be "holy" in the sense that territory carried any religious meaning or analogue. It was the shattering of the territorial shell that paradoxically allowed the organizing of the modern Christian missionary movement as a voluntary effort, influential certainly on numerous details of imperial policy, but organically independent enough of imperialism to conflict with it on the ground. The Christian missionary movement is in one sense the funeral of the great myth of Christendom, and in another the extension abroad of the successful separation of religion and territory. The missionary movement proved that religion can be detached from territorial identity and succeed, with colonialism reinforcing the same point by showing how colonial officials need not share the religion of their subjects to rule over them.


An important consequence of this revolution is that the term "Christian" itself has become detached from "Christendom," so that in practice one may carry the Christian name without the slightest suggestion or indication of one's territorial affiliation and, by extension, without any hint of political solidarity. Yet Western writers in the interreligious field continue to assume habits of religion that the old notion of Christendom enshrined, speaking, for example, of undogmatic solidarity as suitable penance for Christendom's conspiracy. When increasingly the vast majority of people calling themselves Christian live outside Europe and North America and, what is more, live in societies largely untainted by the offenses of Christendom, it seems obdurate to presume in all of them the territorial guilt complex.

All this complicates our relations with Muslims. The very barriers that Muslims insist must come down have never gone up, at least not in living memory or not for the vast majority of those calling themselves Christian. The acts of penitence that liberal ecumenists insist on as a precondition for dialogue leave us seeking forgiveness for sins we have no power to commit even if we wanted to. Anyone calling himself or herself a Christian in the West today has to swallow a large dose of defensive or relativistic pride to do so, and what remains scarcely warrants leaving home for, in contrast, say, to those who might call themselves Muslim in Karachi or Kano. It is no longer the same thing being religious in the two traditions, and we give Muslims a taste of that when we surprise them with our unacceptance of Islam as valid for them or anybody else. It is not that we are singling out Islam for unfair treatment, but that we as religious Westerners have in the main conceded the untenability of having territory define faith, ours or anyone else's. The exception of Israel proves the rule, though in Muslim eyes it might prove something else.

In her eloquent essay Rana Kabbani describes how the Salman Rushdie affair transformed her from being a closet and cultural Muslim to being a confessioning and even a confrontational one. She was caught between the outrage of Ayatollah Khomeini's death sentence on Rushdie and the equal outrage of the West's condemnation of Islam and Muslim culture. To remain silent as a Muslim would be to commit cultural treason. Her essay is an important statement on cross-cultural understanding and misunderstanding and on the usefulness of interreligious conversation.

There is no doubt that many intemperate things were said of Islam and Muslims in the wake of the Rushdie affair. The question is whether what was said was representative of how the West politically, economically and militarily might mobilize against Muslims. In her book Sacred Cows, Fay Weldon, for example, attacks the Qur'an as being "food for no-thought," and a manual for the thought police "who are easily set marching, and they frighten." Conor Cruise O'Brien in an article in the Times of London wrote that "Muslim society is profoundly repulsive." The tabloids had a frenzy reporting delirious scenes at the funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, all evidence, they alleged, of Islamic fanaticism. Thus, for many people like Kabbani, the West poses a challenge: assimilation or confrontation, as Rushdie so poignantly expresses it in The Satanic Verses. Kabbani's choice of confrontation, she says, is the only way not to self-destruct.

Kabbani examines her childhood in Damascus; the architecture of her Muslim home, which was situated in the ancient quarter of the city; her father's traditional Muslim ways; Muslim feminine pride; the advantages of traditional upbringing, including arranged marriages, the veil, divorce, funeral customs, inheritance and property; the regrettable rush of an earlier generation to toss out tradition and adopt Western culture, and the predictable reversal of that movement in our day. Such reversal is usually a symptom of an anti-Western backlash, with educated Arab women donning the veil to stress their repudiation of the very West in which they were educated.

Kabbani herself is Western-educated. She went to an American Christian missionary school in Jakarta, Indonesia, where her father was posted in the Syrian diplomatic service. Her parents observed a strict code of Muslim ethics which placed numerous restrictions on young Rana: she was not allowed to date or to take part in many school activities. In a salutary comment on the ethos of the missionary school, Kabbani writes that Jakarta's humidity "seemed to release the libido of the teenagers, who were only loosely disciplined by the motley collection of Western eccentrics, touched in one way or another by the confusions of the 1960s' who made up the teaching staff...The mathematics teacher was an ex-Bronx taxi driver who had done a stint on a kibbutz and had married a sexy black woman who taught us physical education." This permissive school environment, Kabbani points out, was not an isolated oriental outpost, but a symptom of the West as Muslims and others encountered it in Europe and North America.

The conflict of cultural mores could occur over the most innocuous of details. When Kabbani was chosen by her music teacher, Miss Murray -- herself the daughter of a missionary from Kansas -- to star in the school's production of The Music Man, her father would not allow her to take the role because the final scene requires the heroine and her traveling salesman lover to sing a duet ending. in a kiss. On another occasion Kabbani was invited to a party given by Miss Murray who had recently married the school's English teacher, originally from England. When the chauffeur-driven car arrived at her door carrying her escort, a Malaysian boy who was the son of the Malaysian Muslim ambassador, her father came out to ensure that the boy shared the front seat with the driver, leaving Kabbani alone in the back. When they arrived at the party they discovered that they were the only guests and that they had been invited because they were Muslims. Kabbani was further surprised to find that while she had gone out of her way to put on a miniskirt to suit the taste of Miss Murray, Miss Murray had herself recently converted to Islam and was consequently dressed in an ankle-length garment -- a dissonant note on Kabbani's assimilationist theme.

Following the Arab-Israeli war of 1973, Kabbani's father was posted to Washington, D.C. "The paradox about Washington was that here, in the American capital, I learned to hate America.... In Washington I became politicized.... I learned much of this on the Georgetown [University] campus," where she enrolled as an undergraduate. The anti-Arab, anti-Syrian atmosphere of the city eroded any confidence she might have in Western understanding and policy toward the Middle East. "Is the Western conscience not selective? ... It is not surprising that an extremist political Islam has taken root all over the Muslim world, fueled by historical grievance, by poverty, by an overriding sense of powerlessness. The West bears more than a measure of responsibility for this phenomenon. For by interfering so forcefully in Muslim affairs, by overthrowing nationalist rulers (as was done in Iran, for example, in 1953) and setting up puppets in their place, by uncritical support for Israeli excesses, by milking Muslim resources and conspiring to keep the Muslim world economically, culturally and politically enthralled, the West has made us what we are: enraged and unforgiving."

This is hard reading for many people in the West, but it is a sentiment widely shared among Muslims, and any dialogue that ignores it will get nowhere. Yet how does one come to grips with such a deep sense of injury? Or, more to the point, what is a possible Christian response to an issue requiring resources that only a privileged Christendom might be assumed to possess? Does Kabbani tip her hand by addressing her essay "to Christendom," thus hinting that such an entity would have to exist to answer Islam's "territorial" grievances?

The sentiments of Christendom have long since ceased to galvanize the West, though the habits might survive in an eccentric or nationalistic flavor (as is chillingly evident in Eastern Europe). However regrettable the unflattering comments of a Conor Cruise O'Brien or a Fay Weldon, they carry no legal, political, territorial or economic weight, as they would in a reconstituted Christendom. We thus have to reappraise whether personal prejudice, even if offensive, is a price worth paying for having legal protections against religious coercion and political repression. Such was the challenge Christians once faced and more or less survived, and is one that Muslims now face. If they can-meet it without making the unending compromises Christians committed, they might reveal to us fresh ways of being religious.