Is it possible for the Muslim and Western worlds to converge and cooperate, despite their cultural dissimilarities? The answer to this question is an emphatic "yes," but only if we stop judging others by our own norms.
When a Muslim youth criticizes a Western peer for drinking alcohol because it is prohibited by religious custom, is this an appropriate measure for evaluating this act? Obviously not, because this young man is using a yardstick that governs his own behavior as a Muslim and applying it to someone who does not share his norms and values.
Conversely, I recently met a Western, non-Muslim woman who was critical of Muslims, accusing them of being closed-minded and intolerant of premarital sex. This woman was also using her own yardstick and applying it to others, finding them morally lacking in the process.
These assessments of other people's behavior, and the ensuing criticism and/or attempts to divert them "from the road to sin," create unnecessary conflict and continuous tension. This creates suspicion and entrenches the conviction that we are threats to one other.
We all violate a common principle in our belief systems when we measure people by our own yardsticks. The Koran asserts that there is no compulsion in religion, while the West continually strives to protect freedom of belief. It seems we have come to believe that compulsion in religion and restricting the freedom of religious belief occur only through forced religious conversions or preventing others from practicing their religion.
The fact of the matter is that we also violate these shared principles when we use our own standards to judge others. We cannot, for example, subscribe genuinely to the principles of "no compulsion in religion" or "freedom of belief" while insisting, at the same time, that others conform to our norms. Even judging others by our customs - without trying to impose anything on them - would constitute a betrayal of our professed belief in these principles.
Some may insist that even if we stop judging others by our own values, the crisis in Muslim-Western relations will continue because the West has certain interests in the Muslim world that can only be protected and furthered through conflict.
But this premise is false, because all of us share common interests. It is therefore a question of placing more emphasis on our commonalities, and working to reduce tensions over time so that we can pursue our common goals in a manner that has the greatest chance of success.
Problems arise when one system tries to impose solutions on another - solutions that may make perfect sense to those who subscribe to them, but not to adherents of a different faith or culture. This is what has been happening in Muslim countries for decades. We have accepted, or were obliged to accept, solutions that were not compatible with our systems. Meanwhile, we have not assumed the responsibility of strengthening our own systems so that they become appropriate vehicles to address our problems.
An example of this can be seen in the area of women's rights. Women may have acquired the right to work outside the home in many Muslim countries, but local traditional norms and customs have not relieved them of their conventional responsibilities in the home. Western norms were only partially adopted - local societies maintained their own ideas of what is expected of a woman, some of which pertain to culture while others to religion.
In addition, women's work outside the family home, and the fact that they may now gain incomes equivalent to or exceeding those of their male counterparts, has not relieved men from responsibilities relating to the provision of a dowry prior to marriage, the expected nuptial gifts of jewellery, or the preparation of the family home to receive his new bride, and so on.
In both Western and Islamic systems, we find integral ideas of compatibility and integration. A healthy and forward-looking society must therefore refrain from judging others by its own customs and norms, while simultaneously strengthening its indigenous institutions to better meet its domestic needs. Alternatively put, our energies should point inward, rather than outward.
Only this twin approach will safeguard us from collectively indulging in comparisons of behaviors and beliefs that are inherently unalike, and from adopting imported solutions that only serve to defer today's problems until tomorrow.
* Published in Lebanon's THE DAILY STAR on November 07, 2007. Yasser Khalil is an Egyptian researcher and journalist. This article first appeared in the Middle East Times and was republished in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.