by Ben P
Wed Mar 1st, 2006 at 07:38:03 PM EST
This diary started out as a comment on the Rushdie thread, but I thought it quite well encapsulated some of my thinking on the question of democracy and liberalism, univeralism and local self-determinism, to which I do not think (at least for myself) there are easy, cut and dried answers in a fundamentally imperfect world.
Firstly, the American context, and why American liberals basically saw the cartoon controversy differently. In the US, its really very easy to live one's life - even in a major city - and never meet a Muslim, much less see visible manifestations of Islam like you do in many European countries - ie. mosques, neighborhoods with large groups of woman in veils, etc.. The Muslims that you do see tend to be middle class and "assimilated" or perhaps, in a city like Philadelphia or Chicago, the only Muslims you are likely to see are from the offshoot, American-indigenous Nation of Islam (think Malcolm X) All in all, different groups have filled the kind of migratory/labor roles that Muslims have in say, France. And this is why it is impossible to live in a major city without hearing Spanish spoken frequently.
As such, I think, with the Christian right, American liberals tend to have to deal with what they represent on a much more tangible, day-to-day basis, and thus may appear hypocritical to outsiders in terms of liberals spending more time worrying about conservative Christians than conservative Muslims. One could argue that being an atheist in Mississippi, say, or even in California, a much more immediate threat to your life is the local fundamentalist mega church than the Muslim Brotherhood. I don't think this is the case in Europe, where conservative, evangelizing Protestant is a marginal phenomenon, which is just not the case in the US (indeed, it is quite a dominant part of the public sphere in large parts of the country). Also, I think many liberals feel much more comfortable arguing and contesting fundamentalist religious values within the context of the United States and within the context of Chrisitniaty because these are communities they see themsevles as being within. Thus, it is an intercultural fight, not an imposition into a society or a cultural milieu they recognize as fundamentally foreign and which they don't know much about.
The questions in Europe are different, and as I note above also, in a European context, one has to stand foursquare in defense of basic liberal values as the foundation for the states functioning, because it does seem that there is something of a move amongst radical elements of the Muslim immigrant population to demand changes. I think this threat is exaggerated, but nevertheless one should be vigilant.
As to the larger, grand questions about univeralism, cultural imperialism and the right to local self-determination, it is a good one to which I don't have a quick or easy answer. I guess I would feel much more comfortable condemning a society in which rules are decided through non-democratic means, as was the case in apartheid South Africa, and as is in the case in (ironically) many of the ostensibly more "moderate" Arab states today. The fact of the matter is that many countries within the Islamic world are electing governments that support the imposition of some form of Islamic jurisprudence. Now, I don't necessarily see the ascendancy of Islamism as a good thing, and I think we need to provide pressure and support for those who wish not to have to live by its restrictions. But frankly, I can't get to exercised by a set of cultural mores that a country has decided to implement by popular will. At the end of the day, they live in different cultural and historical narratives and as long as they don't poke there values or try to impose their values upon me, I don't really care what they do. Indeed, I think trying to prevent the ascendancy of Islamism through democratic means within the Middle Eastmight in the end backfire. I think, along with many others in the US, that the election of Islamist governments will ultimately be positive in the long run. As such, I think one needs to understand the rise of Islamism differently in the Middle East to the potential dangers it poses within European society.
And this brings me to my final point. And that is there is something that rings not quite right about Salman Rushdie's petition and what it suggests. The basic problem is that Islamism has much deeper cultural roots than the other philosophies they want to compare it to. It is not an elitist vanguard philosophy like Communism. It is a genuinely rising popular movement that has widespread democratic support in the heart of the Islamic world. Why is that? That is the question
It assumes that somehow Islamist is an intellectual imposition and has not actually grown out of poor material conditions and that is someone be foisted on the people by a ruthless dictatorial elite. But the truth is right now somwhat the opposite. Islamism is genuinely popular, and Islamists are seen as the primary reformist force within the confines of Middle Eastern society, attacking the very corrupt and bankrupted dictatorial elite that is actually the carrier of 20th century European ideas which relate to communism and fascism.
Indeed, as I state above, I actually think the rise of democratically elected Islamist governments will in the long run turn out to be a positive good. In this sense, I actually agree with elements of the Bush administration. However misguided the Iraq War may have been, I am probably not as hostile to it as many on this site because it attempts to attack the real root of the world's problems, which are always material. It was attempting to material conditions within the Islamic world, however hamhandedly. The problem with Rushdie's petition is that it is attempting to change the world through a statement of ideas, always an ineffectual response unless the larger material conditions enable ideas to find an audience. In other words, Rushdie's petition, like much of the (allow me to generalize) European response to question of Islamism looks at the problem backwards.