Archive for March, 2007

A Very Brief Defence of Multiculturalism

There is no such thing as a functioning monocultural society. Can critics of multiculturalism show me one that does, or has, worked which is free from criticism?

Good luck.

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Disingenious Reporting

Whatever your views on the latest Iran-Britain situation, in which 15 British servicemen are being held by Iran, you have to agree that there has been some serious misreporting in the UK. Newspaper headlines constantly scream about the ‘mother’ being ‘held hostage’ in Iran. What about the fathers being held then? It is not just the typical newspapers on the right that are engaged in this. The liberal Independent has had several front page headlines about ‘the letter from the mother’.

None of this hysterionics helps the people currently detained (the correct word, not kidnapped or held hostage) by the Iranians. The best resolution would be for Britain’s allies in the EU — who do plenty of business with Iran — to make appropriate threats to cut any economic ties with the country.

And Muslims should think twice before blindly tying themselves to Iranian actions — one too many think Iran is a benevolent regional power merely because its clerical establishment uses anti-Israeli (and downright anti-Semitic) and anti-American rhetoric.

The American Right and British Intellectuals

The latest British intellectual hawking himself around the US is Andrew Roberts. Slate takes a closer look at "George Bush's favourite historian".

Jacob Weisberg, reviewing Roberts' latest offering A History of the English Speaking Peoples since 1900, is not happy with the Roberts’ "sloppy" assertions and his bizarre claim that the Irish mafia in Hollywood portray the English as villains (the Jews get a day off then). But Roberts' use of history to service Empire is hardly novel. Bernard Lewis has made this particular game his own and gets rewarded handsomely.

I also need to ask if the American (pro-war) Right really needs the approval of British intellectuals? Given the list of the Brits broadly approving of the current administration, and eargely cited by right-wingers (Bernard Lewis, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, Niall Ferguson), it would appear that way.

Orientalisms and Occidentalisms

There is plenty of material on Orientalism. Edward Said, a left-wing, secular humanist, is cited approvingly by many 'orientals' he spent his scholarly life defending (i.e. Muslims and Arabs). He helped uncover the prejudices that have shaped views on Muslim peoples in European — and American — scholarship, literature and popular culture (for examples relating to law see these posts by Mohammad Fadel: 1, 2). This is not withstanding the lazy attitude some Muslims take when criticising Orientalism. Not all Orientalists were anti-Muslim, as even Said acknowledged (although even this ‘positive Orientalism’ could be subversive). Some Orientalists were quite sympathetic to Muslim cultures (pdf link), and some even converted to Islam. (How do you think a man with the name Marmaduke Pickthall was able to learn about Islam?)

But there has been a lot less work done to understand 'Occidentalist' views, and those done are by the very people who would be the subject of 'occidentalist' attitudes (e.g. Ian Buruma). This is understandable to a large degree; it is only recently that many countries have freed themselves from colonialism and so only recently have they been able to establish credible institutions with mechanisms to fund studies. Many countries still struggle for true sovereignty in the international political and economic order.

Nonetheless, it is crucial to understand that references to "the West" were important for the self-understanding of many people in the 20th-century. Just as Westerners "created the Orient", so many people "created the West" and then put themselves in opposition to this creation. In the case of Muslims, low-brow anti-Western polemics have become fairly standard. Harun Yahya's polemics are greased with the sort of lazy anti-Western rhetoric that passes for an understanding of Western traditions amongst some Muslims. Whilst we demand others approach our traditions and texts with respect, our general understanding of Christian traditions is nothing short of comical (although an 'oriental' religion in origin and now growing outside of Europe, its major traditions are firmly linked to the self-told story of "the West"). How many Muslims hold Dietrich Bonhoeffer to be the example of a true Christian, rather than Jimmy Swaggart or George Bush? Yet, we'll (rigthfully) get offended when bin Laden is seen as the voice of Islam. I can't count the number of time times I have heard or read about "the Western gutter" and the decadence of "the West"? But of course, there are no dirty gutters in Muslim heartlands and there is no decadence amongst Muslim peoples. (And charges of "decadence" and "loose sexual mores" are slightly ironic given the European stereotype of the Muslim, in the form of an Arab or a Turk, was of a sexually active male, who was often a pederast.)

Some will bring up the power differential. Orientalism is definitive because those doing the defining have power. But my point is not to 'equate' orientalism with occidentalism, even while I can note that those with the "power" to shape individual views in Saudi, Pakistan and Iran are not "Western". My point is to suggest that it is not only those in power who have viewpoints that should be studied and understood. That just as those with the power force descriptions and ideas onto people, that those people also develop self-told stories, narratives, histories and so on which should be examined. And just as criticism of Orientalism was developed and first led by Westerners, in the form of secular academia and left-wing political activism, critiques of Occidentalist viewpoints should be developed by Muslim peoples. Muslims should also understand if they want to be understood. Especially, if we consider the claim that Islam is meant, as a faith, to transcend particularist cultures and histories.

I close with an ancillary, but very important, point. Some critics will suggest that works like Said's Orientalism are laced with "anti-Western" view points. But such comments are only made by people who are wholly ignorant of such works and of Western histories. Post-colonial and post-modern criticisms are themselves rooted in Western traditions (indeed, this is a criticism some have of such methods and discourses). That is, such works are an attempt at an internal critique of "the West", and not those belonging to an aggressive, external, coloniser.


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