Apparently, a new foray into Orientalist-style thinking is in progress in the West. Once again, a host of intellectuals, media figures, politicians and fundamentalist pundits are pronouncing sweeping judgments and pseudo-certitudes on nations of the South and East. Many of these "neo-Orientalists", some of whom are of Arab origin, have worked their way into positions of power in the political and military establishments in Western capitals, especially in the US.
Meanwhile, there appears to be a new wave of "Occidentalism" in Arab intellectual circles, and in the East in general. The proponents of this trend are particularly active in the fields of cultural affairs, foreign policy and diplomacy, and the media, and have been spurred into action by their surprise and alarm at the resurgence of Orientalist thought. A group of these has attempted to identify what has motivated the neo-Orientalists and their line of reasoning. Simultaneously, they have begun the search for a way out of what they regard as a crisis in intercultural understanding, and this has led them to appeal for a "dialogue of civilizations".
|"I do not see the need for a dialogue between civilizations which confuses religion with politics .. "|
One is struck, especially after years of observing intermittent sessions of this so-called dialogue of civilizations, by the fact that the Arabs were almost always the ones to press for these exchanges, sometimes preparing well for them in advance, though more frequently entering into them unprepared. They were certain they would be fruitful, though precisely what fruit they would bear and when was another matter. They had no idea. Soon things surfaced that they had not taken into account. It became clear that the other party to the dialogue was not Indian, Chinese, Japanese or Latin American, but the West, quite simply the West. It also turned out that the West rules; it chose the time and place, set the scene, and selected the topics, as they best suited its ends, which happened to be the same ends it hoped to achieve through a clash of civilizations, a concept it invented and put into effect. The Arabs were at another disadvantage. Very few of the dialogue conferences that have been held were conducted in Arabic, or any other eastern language, which, in all events the neo-Orientalists, whether of Western or Arab origin, and whether professionals or amateurs, do not know well enough, if at all.
As a result, most conferences held beneath the rubric of the dialogue of civilizations produced recommendations tailored to Western political and security interests, rather than to promoting better cross-cultural understanding. In fact, in some cases, conferences were effectively held with the purpose of rubber- stamping resolutions that were drafted before dialogue ever began, resolutions calling, for example, for the rewriting of religious education curricula, for closing religious schools, for preventing the promulgation of a certain fatwa, for empowering women, or for altering social institutions and traditions.
We will always have people who understand this. The dialogue between civilizations was triggered by and took place against the background of terrorist acts against Western interests, masterminded by "Islamic" groups or organizations. Consequently, enhancing mutual understanding, even if it was an objective, was shunted way down the list of priorities behind protecting the security and societies of Western nations, safeguarding their political and economic interests and, even, exacting revenge upon certain targeted groups, governments and cultures. Perhaps in conjunction, there is the long-range objective of altering the Arab or Muslim mentality to render it more susceptible and open to Western American culture, or the "universal" culture of our times.
If a frenzied hastiness has characterized dialogues over recent years, so too has a more pernicious phenomenon: the selectivity brought to bear in choosing many of the participants. Stepping up to the microphones were individuals who were clearly incompetent to discuss religious affairs or politicians pressing their own agendas amidst great media fanfare. The obfuscation between religious, political and security issues was rampant and quite possibly deliberate. Added to over-eager clergymen and superficial politicians, representatives of security and intelligence agencies, who clearly regarded religious culture - especially Islamic culture - as a source of extremism that needed to be sapped, abounded.
In conversations between people who are discussing things about which they know next to nothing the probability of error is enormous and these errors can have dire consequences. How often have participants in these dialogues classed as "civilizational clashes" ethnic or national disputes or even territorial or economic disputes. Numerous conflicts that have arisen over recent decades have been thus falsely identified due to the ignorance or opportunism of the participants. The fact is, as most participants from the West and their colleagues from the East know perfectly well, that most of the conflicts that are now described as "clashes between cultures" emerged from the residue of colonialist and imperialist policies, as is the case of the dispute over East Timor, the war in Chechnya, the wars in the Balkans and the age-old conflict in Palestine.
Similarly, Arab leaders have resorted to deliberate misnomer when it suited them. Their tendency to cite the list of conflicts involving an Arab or Muslim party, to rally their people behind them on the grounds that the Arab or Muslim nation is under siege, is not dissimilar to one of Bush's more notorious propaganda gambits; that Muslim forces are trying to create an Islamic empire stretching from Indonesia to Spain. In using such tendentious terms as "the nation is under siege" or "the drive to create an Islamic empire" both parties are guilty of fabricating a culture clash and of bending religion and the sacred towards the realization of political, ideological or imperialist ends.
Interestingly, democracy has become a permanent item on the civilizational clash/dialogue agenda. Indeed, it is probably the preferred item among many participants from the West, who regard the topic as sufficient cause - or pretext - for confrontation between Western civilization and Islamic civilization, especially in view of their certainty that the latter has nothing to offer on this front except for concessions. Add to this the current tensions and upheavals in the Arab and Islamic world and it becomes patently obvious that the Western participants hold virtually all the means to pressure their Arab counterparts into compromising their principles and interests.
So it has appeared to me as I watched successive rounds of dialogue. Democracy in the hands of the culture clash confrontationalists in the West is not so much a topic for discussion as it is an ultimatum. When Western diplomats come to dealing with countries from the Arab and Islamic civilizations they take as their premise that Islam is at the root of these countries' inability to cope with democracy, whereas they do not hold religion responsible for the failure of China or countries in Africa or Latin America to democratize. Simultaneously, in those countries, you do not find clergymen or politicians acting as self-appointed religious spokesmen bending over backwards, as Arab and Muslim clergymen and politicians do, in futile efforts to convince their American or Western interlocutors, who were never interested in improving their understanding of Arab and Muslim societies to begin with, that religion is not the cause of these societies' democratic backwardness.
It is generally the case that participants selected to face the neo-Orientalists are disciples of the "neo-Occidentalist" school. At the same time, there remains a popular culture, which also has its intellectuals and spokesmen. Among these are those whose rhetoric revolves around Holy Scripture, or ancient legacy, or reminiscence for some past golden era. For the most part, however, they give voice to the deep and widespread sense of injustice inflicted by outside forces and ideas, or by tyranny, vast income disparities, rampant unemployment and untold frustrations and defeats at home. These people do not take part in the dialogue between civilizations and their concerns are not on the agenda. Also, just as the "clash of civilizations" was fathered by political thinkers with political objectives founded upon expansionist imperialist ideals, so too is the "dialogue of civilizations" driven by politicians for whom cultural and religious concerns currently happen to be a convenient screen behind which to disguise their political designs. As a result, our eagerness to hold civilizational dialogues not only ends in disappointment but also frequently contributes to stirring profound rifts in our value systems, so readily do we lend ourselves to outside efforts to tame our institutions and ways of life.
I am not suggesting that the dialogue should be brought to an end. On the contrary, I believe it should continue, but under several conditions. Firstly, we should revive constructive and proactive foreign policies and diplomatic drives, where these existed before, or create new and innovative ones. Secondly, we should focus our discussions with others on political disputes or other controversial issues affecting the relations between nations and societies, with the purpose of forestalling the escalation, by individuals or parties bent on classifying them as something they are not, of such disputes. Thirdly, participants from Arab and Muslim countries must shed that apologetic approach and general guilt complex that puts them on the defensive, binds the hands of their governments, and hampers their authentic national will.
I, along with many others, do not see a single reason why we and our children should shoulder the historic blame for any taint on our religion, culture or society caused by a terrorist act perpetrated by a handful of individuals or a extremist group. Similarly, I do not perceive sufficient grounds for that groveling expiatory nature that has come to characterize most of the policies of Arab and Islamic states and the behavior of their diplomats, dialogue participants and a good many of their intellectuals. Above all, I do not see the need for a dialogue between civilizations which confuses religion with politics, or to which we come as supplicants and appeasers and to which they come as dictators of conditions and duties. In fact, when you come down to it, I see no need for all those dialogue of civilization meetings when we have foreign ministries.
The writer is director of the Arab Centre for Development and Futuristic Research.