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A British View on Relations with the Muslim World
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband delivered a well-received speech at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies on May 21, 2009. Following are some excerpts.
President Obama…said simply a few weeks ago: “America is not and never will be at war with Islam.”…The fact that he feels the need to say and do these things, and the positive reception he has received around the world for his determination and candor, reveal the depth of division and distrust towards the west that has emerged in the period since 9/11. Our coalitions are too narrow and consent far from won.
To broaden the coalition and win consent, we need to understand the Muslim world better, or we will risk undermining the force of our own argument, as I have sometimes done when using the labels ‘moderate’ and ‘extremist;’ we need to hold fast to our own values and support those who seek to apply them, or we will be guilty of hypocrisy; and we need shared effort to address the grievances, socio-economic and political, that are perceived to keep Muslims down, and in fact do.
My argument starts from a recognition of difference. It is based on the belief that there can be no single answer to the question of how we should live. I do believe there are universal values that can be traced through diverse cultures and religions. I do believe there are basic human rights that must be observed by every government and every individual. But as the Prime Minister [Gordon Brown] has powerfully argued there is a global society where universal values and rights still leave room for extraordinarily rich and different ways of living.
Our challenge is to understand that while there is no single template for a good life, there must be a template – and a better template than the one we have now – for people of diverse views, that derive from different belief systems, to work together….
What I want to argue today is that the central task for foreign policy is the creation of arenas of politics, national and international, in which different values and ideas can be argued out, and in the process recourse to violence marginalized; and that the central danger is the failure to create such arenas, with consequent strengthening of those committed to violence.
The basis of my argument is that security in today’s world can no longer be guaranteed by the world’s only superpower, or even a concert of great powers. The threats from climate change, terrorism, pandemics and financial crisis are too large and too diffuse.
Security therefore depends on two indispensable features. First, we need the broadest possible coalition of states and political movements. That means being prepared to encourage reconciliation with organizations whose values we may not share but who are prepared to pursue common interests.
Second, we need the consent of citizens. In the centuries past, alliances were forged by monarchs, treaties were signed by kings and honored – or not – by the ruling elite. But power in the modern age has escaped such a firm grasp.
In setting out these two aims – building coalitions and winning consent – the tension between them is clear. The widest possible coalition will, at times, include groups whose aims we do not share, whose values we find deplorable, whose methods we think dubious. But it will be impossible to win the consent of peoples if we cannot demonstrate consistency and certainty in the application of our values. A rigidly consistent application of our values would surely exclude from the conversation organizations without whom progress is impossible. Yet if we engage all the relevant parties, with no regard for our values or theirs, we are open to the charge of the purest realism.
The way through the tension lies in our commitment to politics and the rejection of violence. It is always when silent consent for violence is withdrawn – in favor of politics – that the actions of diplomacy have the chance to stick. Even in countries which are not democratic, the actions of governments are constantly conditioned by the demands of their people. This, a deep belief in politics, is the bedrock. The nobility of politics is contained in the negotiation of conflict through conversation, the replacement of dispute by compromise and of force by persuasion….
Over the last decade the focus of the relationship between the West and the Muslim world has narrowed. Terrorism has distorted our views of each other and skewed our engagement with each other. Organizations with different aims, values and tactics were lumped together. Little or sometimes no distinction was drawn between those engaged in national territorial struggles and those pursuing global or pan-Islamic objectives; between those that could be drawn into domestic political processes and those who are essentially anti-political and violent.
The upshot was that the West came to be seen not, as we would have wished, as anti-terror, but as anti-Islam. No matter that mainstream politicians in the UK and US and in Muslim countries repeatedly rejected the notion of a clash of civilizations. That is how it came to be perceived.
If we want to rebuild relations – to forge broader coalitions – we need to show greater respect. That means rejecting the lazy stereotypes and moving beyond the binary division between moderates and extremists. We should not just see Muslims as Muslims, but as people in all the many guises they occupy in their lives – at home, at work, in all the many aspects of a rounded individual life. There is always more to life than is captured by a single label….
Gallup have surveyed representatives of 90% of the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims and they find something intriguing and heartening. What Muslims consistently say they admire most about the West are political liberties, freedom of speech and fair judicial systems. These, it appears, are universal values.
However, this is accompanied with almost complete skepticism about how, in the United States and Europe, we apply those values. The data are very clear – we are seen to apply our values so inconsistently that the application casts doubt on our sincerity. At that point, consent is impossible.
So our first task is to understand the thoughts of people in Muslim majority countries in the spirit in which they were offered. It is clear that Muslims do not want us to sponsor whichever individual happens to occupy the relevant office at any given moment, nor do they ask us to arrive with a floor-plan for democratic government….
(Elections) are not the end of the matter. Democracy requires the ballot box but is not reducible to it. It also requires a thriving civil society. So, in places where power is closely guarded we must continue our efforts to promote reform from the bottom-up – training journalists and judges, or funding civil society groups working to protect women or minority rights. At the same, we will use our influence to defend the institutions that protect freedoms and uphold justice for all and to stand up for individual rights. The accountability of power is the way to reinforce authority and legitimacy….
Max Weber once wrote that there are only two deadly sins in politics. One was a lack of objectivity, where politicians put serving themselves above serving a cause. The second was a lack of responsibility: a desire to leave a good impression rather than take responsibility for the outcomes and consequences of his or her actions.
Those words, I hope, are a reminder that compromises and trade-offs are not an abdication of our moral duty. They are a definition of them.
That imposes obligations on us, the heterogeneous and sometimes chaotic “West”. But it also places responsibilities – above all the responsibility to take risks in the drive for political structures that bring people together – on leaders in Muslim majority countries. The drive by King Abdullah of Jordan to take forward the Arab Peace Initiative is a good example. The shared commitment of President Zardari and Nawaz Sharif to defend democracy in Pakistan is another….
But I want to leave you with the best illustration of these values as they are lived in practice. Britain’s history means we have baggage that we have to acknowledge as we build coalitions and forge consent. But in our Muslim citizens, we have an enormous resource. The focus is on the minority who are a threat to us all. But the daily stories of the vast majority of our Muslim friends and neighbors combine the values that bind Britain together as a liberal democracy with their particular religious identity….
When Edward Gibbon suggested in the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that if Charles Martel had lost the battle of Poitiers, Oxford would have become an Al Azhar of the Cotswolds, he could not imagine a future in which both Islamic and Christian institutions could coexist here by consent and through toleration. It can be so. It should be so.
For generations this country has been a meeting place. A country where over a million Muslims, now two million, from all over the world, have come and made their lives. They don’t forget their roots; they plant them in the soil; and it enriches the ground on which we stand.
They join the coalition of the nation, the nation to which we all grant consent, even as we pursue our own beliefs on matters of ultimate importance. They are the best advocates of the case I have made today, that progress comes through coalition based on consent.