Tuesday, January 06, 2009

OPINION: The great faction fiction ...

The "war of the civilisations" is nothing more than a troublesome myth.

INFLUENTIAL Harvard University politics professor Samuel Huntington, who died on Christmas Eve, is best known for his theory that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War meant future international conflict would no longer be between competing superpowers or economic ideologies but between groups of nations belonging to one of eight civilisations based loosely on culture and religion.

The principle clash would involve three civilisations — Western (the US and Europe), Confucian (based around China) and Islamic.

Huntington's thesis appeared in a journal in 1993. Since the terrorism attacks of September 11, 2001, the theory has been co-opted by extremists seeking to impose their violent sectarian prejudices on the rest of us. The intricacies and nuances of his theory have been replaced by incoherent rants.

Tabloid columnists from New York to Sydney cite Huntington in support of the ridiculous notion that Europe will necessarily become "Eurabia". Their equivalents in Karachi and Jakarta impose Osama bin Laden's logic on Huntington when writing about the existence of a "grand crusader and Jewish conspiracy against Islam".

Huntington's original voice has become the distorted echo of cultural jihad. The reality is much more complex. It is impossible to divide people into neat categories of "Muslim" or "Western" or "Sinic" (Chinese). When visiting a mosque, I'm happy to join my brothers — and, in some Australian cases, sisters — praying towards Mecca. But I would rather learn my theology from American imams at the Zaytuna Institute in California than from the Saudi religious establishment. I also understand that not everyone who listens to the same music I have on my iPod necessarily supports Western hegemony.

Those of us sitting on the civilisational fence are often in a better position to view the terrain on both sides. Perhaps the most eloquent rebuttal of Huntington's thesis (or at least its remaining echo) was written in 2004 by the man soon to be inaugurated as the next US president.

In the preface to the most recent edition of his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama writes about how ...

... the world fractured ...

... on September 11, 2001. The conventional wisdom in 2004 surely must have seen September 11 as part of a grand war between the allegedly monolithic Islam and the allegedly monolithic West.

But Obama didn't see the hijackers as representing any religious culture, let alone the Kenyan and Indonesian Islamic cultures he had been exposed to. Instead he wrote of

... the stark nihilism that drove the terrorists that day and that drives their brethren still.

Terror is ultimately nihilist, not religious or cultural.

So where is the real clash? Obama says it is between

... those who embrace our teeming, colliding, irksome diversity, while still insisting on a set of values that binds us together, and those who would seek, under whatever flag or slogan or sacred text, a certainty and simplification that justifies cruelty towards those not like us.

Extremists on both sides find pluralism almost impossible to deal with.

Then again, we all have the capacity to generalise. As I read Obama's introduction, I found it almost impossible to believe that a man who so boldly challenged the political orthodoxy of his day could within three years have won such a huge electoral victory. Perhaps I was wrong to assume America to be full of narrow-minded bigots, a people reluctant to vote for a man with Hussein as his middle name.

Much of the crude analysis emerging from Western observers of the November terrorist attacks on Mumbai reflected a similar tendency to generalise. The attacks were seen as another manifestation of some kind of monolithic "Islamic terrorism" against Hindus. Did our local "experts" bother reading Indian newspapers? Were they not aware that Hemant Karkare, the anti-terrorist squad chief in Maharashtra state gunned down with two colleagues by the terrorists, had earlier received death threats from followers of the Hindutva extremism that inspired Mahatma Gandhi's assassins.

Karkare, himself a Hindu, had earlier launched an investigation into a Hindutva cell, uncovering evidence that implicated key supporters of pro-Hindutva opposition parties and even senior figures of India's military. The Times of India on November 27 quoted one anti-terrorist squad official saying this cell "wanted to make India like what it was when it was ruled by the Aryans".

Suketu Mehta writes in Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found, that religion in the city was treated as ...
... merely a personal eccentricity, like a hairstyle.
India, like America, has what Obama calls "teeming colliding irksome pluralism".

India is also the world's largest democracy and its second most populous nation. Its recent history has shown that the most dangerous clash isn't between mythical civilisation monoliths. Rather, it is within nation states, between those who embrace pluralism, recognising it can only work with some basic shared values, and those who want to impose their narrow values on their countrymen and women.

Neither the West nor Islam can be seen as a cultural monolith. Those of us sitting on the fence should never have to choose between one or the other.

Irfan Yusuf is a Sydney lawyer and writer whose book proposal Once Were Radicals won the 2007 Allen & Unwin Iremonger Award for public issues writing. This piece was first published in The Age on Monday 5 January 2008.

LETTERS/CRIKEY: Exchange of correspondence on Afghanistan and Charlie Wilson's war ...

Some readers might recall a piece I wrote for Crikey last December (reproduced here) about the continuing conflict in Afghanistan and its historical context.

One Crikey reader, Niall Clugston, responded to that piece on 5 January 2009 as follows:

Re: Charlie Wilson's Afghan f*ck-up (19 December). Irfan Yusuf seems to admire Charlie Wilson's War but doesn't seem to recognise the movie as a masterpiece of unconscious irony, including an uncanny prediction of the Bhutto assassination. Bizarrely enough, the movie proceeds as if September 11 never happened and never mentions Osama bin Laden. And, no, I don't think the result of scrupulous historical accuracy by Hollywood! Yusuf approvingly quotes the movie's conclusion. Never mind that it asserts that the "crazies" only arrived after the well-meaning Americans left. Why can't we just be told the truth?
My response to Niall's letter, published in Crikey on 6 January 2008, is as follows:

Niall Clugston "Comments" claims that Congressman Charlie Wilson suggested that the crazies "only arrived after the well-meaning Americans left". I'm not so sure about that. And even if he did claim this, the fact is that the Afghan mujahideen and their supporters consisted of some pretty crazy people. I suggest he might consult Peter Bergen's oral history of Osama bin Laden, especially the sections where Bergen deals with bin-Laden's Arab faction and his dealings with Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. He might also do some research on the inter-factional wars that took place after the Soviets withdrew and before the Taleban took charge. Some of these crazies occupy seats in the current Afghanistan Parliament and are even ministers in the Karzai government. There are no clear goodies and badies in this war -- just lots of crazies.

COMMENT: Not all believers speak with one voice ...

I get really peeved when people assume that my view on any issue is necessarily the same as that of an official "spokesman" or self-appointed "gatekeeper" or "native informant". I can imagine my Jewish cousins must feel the same.

Not all Jews blanketly support the logic used by some self-appointed community leaders on the current conflict in Israel/Palestine. Not all Muslims support the views of their self-appointed spokespeople. There are many views and many voices.

I've been watching the conflict on Al Jazeera English. I've watched interviews with HAMAS spokesmen. I have to acknowledge that I'm not convinced by HAMAS explanations (and it seems neither are the Al Jazeera interviewers). I'd hate to live in Canberra knowing that people from Queanbeyan were firing home-made rockets into my backyard. HAMAS rocket fire was grossly irresponsible and stupid, even if it was in response to an Israeli and Egyptian blockade. I wonder why HAMAS didn't fire rockets into Egypt.

At the same time, we are all appalled by the completely disproportionate response. Information on the effects of this response on Gaza's civilian population is available in both English and Hebrew on a blog set up by eleven human rights organisations in Israel.

But there are other Jewish voices. Rabbi Levi Brackman, described on Ynet News as "author of Jewish wisdom for Business Success", dismisses Jewish criticism of Israel in these words:

There are two types of Westerners who have been critical of Israel’s defensive actions in Gaza this week: Anti-Semites and some in the so-called Jewish intellectual elite.
Brackman is particular scathing of Dr Sara Roy, much of his criticism being based on her view of Judaism as ...

... defined and practiced not so much as a religion but as a system of ethics and culture. God was present but not central.
If someone said this about Islam, I'm sure many Imams would use this as an excuse to dismiss their views also. Brackman cites Musa bin Maymun al-Qurtubi (Moses Maymonides) as authority for the proposition that:

... a deeper reading of Judaism shows that whilst Jews as a people have been defined by their capacity for compassion and tolerance of others, there are times when we are forbidden to act upon those feelings because such action would be destructive.
So there are actually times when Jewish sacred law forbids Jews from acting in a compassionate and tolerant manner. I'm no expert on Jewish sacred law, but I find it hard to believe that any religious tradition (let alone Abrahamic faiths like Judaism) would not see compassion as a basic value in and of itself. Brackman then makes this startling claim:

The liberal culture which says “follow your heart and feelings no matter what” has caused destruction on multiple levels. The high divorce rate in the West can be ascribed to that prevailing, yet erroneous, attitude.
I don't have sufficient hubris to suggest a single cause to divorce rates in any country, let alone "in the West".

Regardless of her views on Judaism, there are a number of reasons why Dr Roy's work cannot be easily dismissed. She has spent over 2 decades studying the Gaza economy. This study has not just been compiling academic papers and books from the relative safety of Harvard University's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. Dr Roy has spent much of her time in Gaza itself. Her work has focussed on the impact of Israel's occupation and then boycott of Palestinians in Gaza.

What guide's Dr Roy's work is the fact that she is a child of Holocaust survivors. Here is part of what Dr Roy said when she delivered the 2nd Annual Holocaust Remembrance Lecture at the Center for American and Jewish Studies and the George W. Truett Seminary, Baylor University:

The Holocaust has been the defining feature of my life. It could not have been otherwise. I lost over 100 members of my family and extended family in the Nazi ghettos and death camps in Poland--grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, a sibling not yet born--people about whom I have heard so much throughout my life, people I never knew. They lived in Poland in Jewish communities called shtetls.

... As a young child of four or five, I remember asking my father why he had that number on his arm. He answered that he had once painted it on but then found it would not wash off, so was left with it.My father was one of six children, and he was the only one in his family to survive the Holocaust. I know very little about his family because he could not speak about them without breaking down. I know little about my paternal grandmother, after whom I am named, and even less about my father’s sisters and brother. I know only their names. It caused me such pain to see him suffer with his memories that I stopped asking him to share them.
I reproduce these paragraphs not in some attempt to compare the suffering of Holocaust victims to victims of other conflicts. I really don't know what it's like to lose a huge chunk of my family in a death camp. Perhaps only survivors of such horrors can understand the dangers of nationalism gone mad.

Israel and the notion of a Jewish homeland were very important to my parents. After all, the remnants of our family were there. But unlike many of their friends, my parents were not uncritical of Israel, insofar as they felt they could be. Obedience to a state was not an ultimate Jewish value, not for them, not after the Holocaust. Judaism provided the context for our life and for values and beliefs that were not dependent upon national boundaries, but transcended them. For my mother and father, Judaism meant bearing witness, railing against injustice and foregoing silence. It meant compassion, tolerance, and rescue. It meant, as Ammiel Alcalay has written, ensuring to the extent possible that the memories of the past do not become the memories of the future. These were the ultimate Jewish values. My parents were not saints; they had their faults and they made mistakes. But they cared profoundly about issues of justice and fairness, and they cared profoundly about people - all people, not just their own.
The memory of past suffering should lead to feelings of sympathy and empathy with those who continue to suffer. Dr Roy's work on Gaza cannot be easily dismissed.

Words © 2009 Irfan Yusuf