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Islam and Western Culture

Navigating Terra Incognita

by Allen W. Palmer, PhD, professor of communications, BYU, and Abdullahi A. Gallab, PhD,professor of international communication, Hiram College in Ohio

Islam’s relationship with the West, though it goes far into antiquity, has been overburdened with rivalries and marred by conflicts. From the Christian crusades of the Middle Ages to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie at the close of the millennium, the predominately Christian societies of Western Europe and North America have been suspicious and fearful of Muslims. Conversely, Muslim adherents of Islam find much in Western social values and practices antithetical to their tradition.

The arena of conflict between these communities is changing rapidly, primarily due to the technological innovations of the information age and the confrontation of cultures. No longer are geographical boundaries adequate to separate these cultures. Western values are propagated by TV programs via satellite into the Islamic nations of the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. At the same time, Muslims of the diaspora are creating religious and cultural enclaves using Arabsat and the Internet, as well as traditional channels.

Yet, recent Islamic migrants to Western nations face the dilemma of finding their authentic voice in popular Western culture, balanced against their fears of cultural assimilation and loss of identity. Muslims as a group have had less success compared to other religious or ethnic minorities, like the Jews or African Americans, in opening “a window on the multidimensionality of what can be called cultural ecology” (Mowlana, 1996, p. 178). They seek to know how is it possible to move toward the center of Western culture without compromising deeply-held religious beliefs and traditions.

Navigating the cultural conflicts between Islam and the West is not a trivial challenge given sharply contrasting worldviews; the two domains of knowledge are poorly matched. Islam offers a totalized worldview encompassing all spheres of community intercourse: political, economic, social, etc. The West isolates the spheres of knowledge and action and enshrines the individual. Despite overtones of “civic religion” in Western societies, they are extrinsically secular; traditional Muslims are overtly committed to the sacred as the cornerstone of community and family life.

The clash that arises from conflicting worldviews leaves emotional and psychological scars. Among recent migrants to Europe and North America, many Muslims agree with American Islam scholar Yvonne Haddad (1991) in their “frustration and dismay as they continue to experience prejudice, intimidation, discrimination, misunderstanding, and even hatred” (p. 3). Yet, in the midst of these uncertain encounters, Islam and Western society are finding ways to adapt, if incompletely, to each other’s worldviews and values.


Muslims’ compatibility with Western cultural values taps into the broader question of how they have adapted to conditions historically in all their respective host nations. The Islamic world consists of diverse ethnic, cultural, and geographic populations, and faces the challenge of uniting diverse national cultures.

There are thirty countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, with a total population of about 900 million, in which Muslims have an overall majority; many more countries have sizable Muslim minorities. The total Muslim world population is close to 1.5 billion, one-quarter of the total world population (Hoogvelt, 1997).

The Muslim population has grown rapidly in Europe and North America in the past two decades. There is a growing Islamic presence in the United States, although it is concentrated primarily in a dozen major urban centers (El-Badry, 1994). At the close of the twentieth century, there were approximately thirty-five million Muslims in Europe and North America, with about 1,250 mosques and Islamic centers in the United States.

Adaptation of Islamic peoples into a secular society depends on their resourcefulness. In the recent analysis of Islam in diaspora, there is evidence of a “tentative ascent” into Western society (Haddad, 1991; Esposito, 1992; Haddad and Smith, 1993; Lebor, 1997; Haddad & Esposito, 1998; and Haddad, 1997). Arabs in general find acculturation to be somewhat more difficult than other immigrants, especially those who are more distinctly identified as Muslims (Gordon, 1964; Tavakoliyadzi, 1981; Naff, 1983; Abou, 1997; and Faragallah, Schumm & Webb, 1997.)1

No longer satisfied to be strangers in a strange land, some Muslims are beginning to claim a kind of cultural ownership in America. They point to Black African slaves who held Islamic beliefs until as late as the early part of the twentieth century. Earlier, migration of the Melungeons came to North America prior to the 1600s. Scholars assert that Muslim groups may have preceded the Plymouth Plantation and Virginia settlements on the shores of the “new world.” Moors who were expelled from Spain made their way to the islands of the Caribbean, and from there to the southern United States. The first waves of Arabic immigrants from Lebanon and Syria occurred in the 1870s and 1880s (Haddad, 1997).

Even though Muslims embrace different religious traditions (i.e., Sunni and Shi’ite) within the broader Muslim community (umma), they share, to a significant extent, a common textual language (i.e., Arabic), and common religious beliefs based on the Koran with their basic duties expressed in the five pillars of Islam: profession of faith, prayer, alms-giving, fasting, and pilgrimage. Traditional Muslims affirm, as did Pakistani anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed, one of the leading interpreters of Islamic values for Western audiences, “Islam is essentially the religion of equilibrium and tolerance; suggesting a breadth of vision, global positions and fulfillment of human destiny in the universe” (Ahmed, 1992, p. 48).


More than two decades ago, Edward Said (1978) argued that Western values were dominating the Arab and Islamic worlds by a curious twist of global consumerism: Arabs exchanged their oil in the open world marketplace for a foreign and antagonistic Western culture. Said argued, “The Arab and Islamic world remains a second-order power in terms of the production of [global] culture, knowledge, and scholarship” (p. 323).

Muslim adherents disagree about the power of Western values to secularize Islamic culture. Traditionalists argue either for severance of Islamic nations with Western institutions, or for globalization of Islamic values. Among a new class of Muslim neo-fundamentalists—a group Oliver Roy (1994) calls lumpen intelligentsia or “Islamic new intellectuals”— there is concerted effort to counter Western science and ideology with equivalent concepts drawn from the Koran and Hadith or Sunnah, the most widely accepted authoritarian guides to the Islamic canon.

Some Islamic intellectuals are ambivalent, too, about the desirability of a “public sphere” for common discourse, and the role of democracy from which Western societies derive their base for rationalized public action. At best, Muslims have deep ambivalence about their role as “co-citizens” in the West (Hofmann, 1997). At worst, Islam’s defensiveness amounts to what has been described as “a holding operation against modernity” (Sivan, 1985, p. 3).

Simultaneously, the West has been reluctant to embrace Muslims at or near the “cultural center.” Those who distrust Islam’s collective motives point to the uneven treatment of outsiders (dhimmi) in mixed populations where Islam has been dominant (Ye’or, 1985). The history of Muslim-Christian dialogue includes periods of great hostility and open war, as well as times of uneasy toleration, peaceful coexistence, and even cooperation toward shared goals (Kimball, 1991). A growing consensus, however, suggests Islamic- Western tensions may be growing with the expanding information society (Yamani, 1994).

Among those most fearful of Islam’s designs for global expansion are writers like noted French-Catholic historian Jacques Ellul (1985), who cautioned, “Whether one likes it or not, Islam regards itself as having a universal vocation and proclaims itself to be the only true religion to which everyone must adhere. We should have no illusions about the matter: no part of the world will be excluded” (p. 28).

Some Islamic leaders do promote the goal of internationalization and globalization. Such designs have been circulating in the Islamic world at least since the days of early Islamic modernists Gamal Al-Din Al-Afagani (1839–97) and Mohamed Abdu (1849–1905). More recently, Egypt’s Sunni leader or Mufti, Nasr Fareed Wasil, affirmed that Islam should not be reticent in developing its case for globalization. He argued that Muslims should not fear globalization and should seek to benefit from all the means of progress in science, economics and wealth. In his opinion, Muslims should be careful to protect themselves from the negative effects of this kind of expansion, remaining aware of the danger of being dissolved in the world and losing their identity (“An Interview with Egypt’s Mufti,” 1998).

The dialogue between Islam and the West over fundamental disagreements in worldviews has occurred quietly, behind the controversies (Lewis, 1994). In the short term, whether Muslims find a voice in Western culture depends on the success they achieve in developing strategies to blend two radically different “cultural ecologies” (Mowlana, 1993). The Western secular model privileges a rational, reasoning mind in the pursuit of individual and collective fulfillment; and Islam’s model emphasizes justice and tradition as the basis of a legitimate community and family life.


Muslims are critical of Western media because of their invasiveness. Within Arab nations with controlled borders, the deluge of messages and images conveyed by communication technologies from around the world is perceived as a “cultural invasion” (Ghaffari-Farhangi, 1999). As Ahmed (1992) assessed, the average Muslim is “as disgusted as he is confused with his own sense of impotence in shaping reality around him; he can no longer challenge what is real or unreal, no longer separate reality from the illusion of the media” (p. 3).

Others have observed the struggle to develop a comprehensive theory for mass communication to compete with Western theories of communication (Hussain, 1986; Pasha, 1993; El-Affendi, 1993; and Al-Hajji, 1998). It is not widely appreciated, however, that very few efforts have been advanced—West or East—pertaining to the role of media in acculturation of ethnic groups (Kim, 1988, 1995; Korzenny & Ting-Toomey, 1992).

Ahmed (1992) has been especially outspoken about the role of Western media creating an inverse version of Islam’s worldview, saying, “By their consistently hammer-headed onslaught, [mass media] have succeeded in portraying a negative image of it. They may even succeed in changing Muslim character” (p. 38). The Western media offend Muslims at two levels: first, Muslims are often demonized in media programs as fundamentalists, terrorists, or religious zealots; and, second, many Western cultural practices, including drinking alcohol, gambling, and permissive sexual activities are too offensive for Islamic moral-ethical tradition.

Growing more astute to political action, Arab and Islamic action groups now address the imbalances in the negative images that have been used in media programming for at least two decades (Al-Disuqi, 1994; Ghareeb, 1983; Kamalipour, 1995). American movies that Muslims interpreted as particularly offensive were Arnold Schwartzenegger’s True Lies; 20th Century Fox’s The Siege; Hanna-Barbera’s Arabian Nights; Disney’s Aladdin; and MGM’s movie and video Not Without My Daughter.

Television has been condemned most frequently because of its invasiveness. It conveys the modernist message in the most enticing forms directly to Islamic homes. This amounts to a “destructive campaign [of] ideas diametrically opposed to Arab and Islamic concepts, encouraging loose morality and immediate satisfaction, placing love and life and its pleasures over everything else, totally oblivious of religious belief, and of punishment and reward in the hereafter” (Silvan, 1985, p. 4).

Islamic parents are offered a wide range of guidelines on American customs, mix-gendered activities, and media use. In the book titled Parents’ Manual: A Guide for Muslim Parents Living in North America (1976), Islamic parents are offered a wide range of guidelines designed to avoid conflict. Muslims are urged not to celebrate birthdays, for example, because they are an expression of an unacceptable selfishness. Even though most American holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, have essentially been secularized, they are “one more element in the mass culture which each year enables manufacturers and merchants to take in millions of dollars through an elaborate system of gift exchange” (p. 117). Mixed-gender activities, such as dating, dancing, and swimming, are regarded as sexually permissive.
Muslim attitudes toward the invasiveness of American television and movies are especially harsh:

Many (TV) programs are downright harmful and vicious in their effects. Among the harmful programs, which should be strictly avoided by Muslim children and adults, we would list the following: shows depicting illicit sex or center around sex themes, including comedies, and shows depicting crime, violence, sadism, depravity, and anything which can be considered degrading to religion, moral values, or human dignity (Parents’ Manual, 1976, pp. 139–140).

Of particular worry to conservative Muslims are the romantic subplots and vivid violence in many media programs.

Alternatives to such entertainment have been scarce until recently. One of the first in a series of Muslim-friendly productions is the children’s cartoon Salam’s Journey, a forty-minute, U.S.- produced, animated movie created by Hollywood-trained artists and producers. Using fictional characters, the film weaves a story from the Koran about the adventure of a young boy in an Ethiopian kingdom. The avowed goal was to sell at least 100,000 copies of the film. The creators sought to create a plot based on friendship, trust in God (Allah), and family values. The production scrupulously avoided un-Islamic images and messages.

Missing in the dialogue over accommodation of Islamic values in Western culture, however, are the voices of young Muslims who find new ways to invent religious traditions in a modern milieu. Perhaps their adaptation was best described by a Newsweek magazine journalist in a portrayal of Islamic youth who are caught between competing values, “American Muslims, wealthy, wired, and standing on the fault line between cultures, are well positioned to bring a 13-century-old faith into the next millennium” (16 March 1998).

Living in a cultural/religious island within American society, young Arab Muslims find America is what the consumer magazine called “a laboratory for re-examination of their faith.” They are finding ways to balance many of the tensions over traditional thought and religious practices, as well as racial and ethnic politics, economic opportunities, and religious traditions.


Islamic resistance to offending media portrayals is also achieved by increasingly well-organized political groups. Among the advocacy groups organized to protest negative stereotyping in media are the American-Arab Affairs Council, American Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

CAIR has organized twenty local chapters in major American and Canadian cities to train volunteers as monitors of local media programs and to report ethnic-religious slurs. In turn CAIR publishes national “action alerts” about media problems, such as topics on radio talk shows, magazine articles, and books.

In its response to the movie The Siege, CAIR distributed hundreds of “community response kits” to challenge the unfair portrayal of negative Arab stereotypes. CAIR suggested, “There are two kinds of Islam in America, Hollywood’s version and the real thing. We are inviting moviegoers to local mosque open houses so they may learn more about the reality of the American Muslim community” (CAIR Action Alert No. 191, 5 Nov 1998).

Management of broadcast and news operations have been targeted in order to change the persistent negative images. In a widely distributed Know Your Rights pocket guide distributed to Muslim activists, instructions were offered about how Muslims can approach newspaper editors and media managers to get favorable response:

React quickly to news of the day of negative coverage. If possible have the letter in the hands of an editor on the same day in which the negative coverage appears. Be authoritative. Speak on behalf of an organization, even if you have to create that organization. Be passionate or even controversial, but avoid rhetoric and defamation.

More abstractly, Muslim outrage over negative images can be traced historically to prohibitions in early Islam against graphic images of all types. Those most severely punished on the Day of Judgment—along with the murderer of a prophet and the seducer from true knowledge—will be the maker of images or pictures (Boorstin, 1992).


The diversity of the American Muslim community is a distinct obstacle to effective organized political and social action. One factor that contributes to this diversity is the absence of a cultural leader or spokesperson, one clearly identified as a defender of Islamic values and worldview in the mainstream media. Among the media personalities who are variously identified as representative of the Islam cultural tradition are numerous professional athletes who have changed their names (i.e., boxer Muhammad Ali).2

One of the famous “cross-over” Islamic personalities recognized by both popular Western culture and traditional Islam is former singer-songwriter “Cat” Stevens, who is a respected leader in Britain’s Islamic community. A popular recording artist and folk singer in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stevens changed his name to Yusuf Islam in 1977, after his conversion to the Islamic faith. A written account of his religious conversion outlines his emerging awareness of the incompatibility of his religious convictions with Western cultural identity:

I wanted to be a big star. All those things I saw in the films and on the media took hold of me, and perhaps I thought this was my God. I decided then that this was the life for me; to make a lot of money, have a great life. Now my examples were the pop stars. I started making songs. So, what happened was I became very famous. I was still a teenager, my name and photo were splashed in all the media. They made me larger than life, so I wanted to live larger than life, and the only way to do that was to be intoxicated with liquor and drugs (Islam, 1999).

Upon embracing an Islamic worldview, Cat Stevens/ Yusuf Islam sold his musical instruments and avoided public performances. His faith, he explained, was “religion not in the sense the West understands it, not the type for only your old age. In the West, whoever wishes to embrace a religion, and make it his only way of life, is deemed a fanatic. I was not a fanatic” (Islam, 1999).

Of particular relevance, Yusuf Islam agreed to act as a spokesperson for the Islamic community in the heat of the ideological battle over Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1988). Rushdie’s fictional version of Koranic history provoked a dramatic response from fundamentalist Islam, particularly among Imamite Shi’ites of Iran. Rushdie tested Muslim resolve with his writings, bringing notice to the collision of cultures in the new mediated global arena. What resulted was both new popular awareness and precedent to deal with such worldview conflicts. Rushdie’s offense to Islam arose from the unitary allegiance of traditional Moslems to their family and community; and, in turn, the defense of Rushdie’s artistic freedom by Western literati was rooted in the liberal values of freedom and self-expression (Palmer and Gallab, 1993).


In order to maintain their identity, Muslim individuals and groups, similar to other minority groups in Western society, have created different types of cultural and communicative strategies to main their dual cultural citizenship. Muslims have employed cultural and communicative strategies to balance their dual cultural citizenship. Through these strategies, they maintain a lifeworld that reinvigorates the religious, cultural, and social heritage with Islam. So it happens that through these processes of communication and interaction, group formation and mutual solidarity (i.e., “cultural enclaves”) are formed (Gallab, 1997).

The development of new electronic media have made global pathways even more feasible for the Islamic lifeworld, opening the realization to many adherents that Islam can maintain its spiritual center and still extend its geographic reach. To the degree Islamic leaders are committed to globalization, it is clear that they are fearful and apprehensive about the Western colonization of their life world, in Habermas’ terms. Through colonization of the electronic pathways, Western values can intervene into the religious sphere, which depends on communicative action and dialogical discourse.

One solution to this dilemma is for Muslims to further the processes of enclave building. The dynamics of enclave formation leads to a discourse of constraint and empowerment as an existential strategy to combat U.S. media offenses even while it tends to reinforce the marginalization of the Arab-Islamic voice in American culture.

Even though communication technologies played a powerful role in the globalization of Western values and images, those technologies gained acceptance more slowly in most of the Islamic world. Where they gained a foothold, Islam creates a “highly distinctive” communication system with “considerable influence on the content, production, and distribution of modern communications media” (Mowlana, 1985, p. 406).

Technology may have been an obstacle for Islam at political and management levels. Broadcast systems in Arab countries have operated without general agreement about a philosophy arising from pan-Arabic or pan-Islamic, or even national, goals (Boyd, 1982). Egypt, in particular, has become the leading source of offending programs and publications. Other non-Arab Islamic nations such as Indonesia and Malaysia have moved toward a less defensive global posture, but remain uncertain about the future challenge of communication and technology.

Vast distances, language diversity, and lack of central planning inhibited broadcasting from achieving its potential in the Middle East. Others have argued that media technologies were particularly ill-fitted for the social and cultural traditions of the Arab world. Media systems in Arab countries operated for several decades without a philosophy tied to the goals of the countries (Boyd, 1982). Further, Arab broadcasting operations seemed to have no way to accommodate a method of systematic audience feedback or research, contributing to a tradition stressing top-down programming decisions.

The development of electronic networks and individualized media has made new cultural pathways possible for enclave Muslims. Hundreds of world wide web sites have been created on Islamic topics, but such initiatives are poorly coordinated and do not contribute significantly to the advancement of institutional Islam like the older television and radio systems.

The information age has created a new communication regime enhancing a mutual process of empowerment among the ranks of Muslims through out the world. Perceived from within the daily developments in Muslim everyday life, technology is critical to this empowerment process.

The introduction of Arabsat has changed the landscape of Arab and Islamic communication. Now, as the third generation of this powerful communication device has been launched early this year, a pragmatic assessment of social, economic, and cultural change is necessary. Most Arab regimes were apprehensive of the negative political impact of direct TV broadcasting. Judging from the bitter conflict that radio had promoted in Arab political and social life during the sixties and seventies, those fears were behind the delay in utilizing Arabsat successfully. Now, satellite broadcasting is the area of pride and competition between different Arab states.

Arabsat has a dual role to play in the communication processes inside and outside the Arab World. The massive regional flows of cultural, religious, and entertainment programs through the different Arab Satellite TV channels has created a new Arabic showcase of popular culture. New waves of Arab entertainers, newscasters, intellectuals, politicians, religious speakers and reciters of the Koran, and writers from different Arab countries have become part of the new public mapping of a new terrain of complex inter-Arab discourse.

On the other hand, Arabsat has made a significant stride in feeding the Islamic and Arab Diaspora with news, information, and entertainment through direct broadcasting. By supporting local Arabic TV stations in the West, like MBC in London or ANA in the U.S., and making it easy to receive distant Arabic TV stations, Arabsat facilitated the creation of global information broadcasting which ranks alongside other major electronic media in the West. Such services provide an alternative communication system that empowers Muslims in the West, who have been living under the threat of powerful Western media and adverse cultural practices.

Taken as a whole, these social and technological developments that now accompany globalization are significantly changing the long-standing antipathy between Islam and Western nations. Even though tensions are not entirely resolved, the promise of mutual understanding is making inroads in the uncertain relations between Islam as one of the world’s great religious traditions, and the predominantly Christian West.

Source: Religion and Popular Culture; Studies on the Interaction of Worldviews, edited by Daniel Stout and Judith Buddenbaum, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2000. Used by permission of the authors.

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1. Many Muslims are not Arabs, and conversely, many Arabs are not Muslim, yet the categories persistently and incorrectly overlap in Western discourse.

2. Others who have become visible in the Western “star system” of celebrity are tangentially identified more with the Arab-American community and less with Islam. None of these persons, however, claims an overt public Muslim identity as explicitly as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakan. Regarded as a national political-religious movement, the Black Muslim movement leaves few doubts as to their distinctly Islamic national identity, but they tend to displace traditional Islamic religious discourse in the public sphere with American racial politics.