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Civility and its discontents – or how not to think about pluralism

Amyn B. Sajoo
18 July 2005

Ah, the fragrance: liberalism handing out bouquets in the British House of Commons, a week after the appalling 7 July bombings in central London. Tony Blair, attacking an "ideology of evil," rather than a religion, as the virulent culprit, to the cheers of opposition parties, affirmed that the war on terrorism required further legislative measures to track and vanquish, or at least banish, the “enemy”. What more could sensible, rational citizens of all persuasions want, than a balance between "our" tolerance of religion – notably "moderate Islam" – and the need for security from what Blair called its "perverted and poisonous" forms? Foreign-trained imams and other instigators are to be targeted, to protect British Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

All this, in a week when Europe's worst mass atrocity since World War II – the Serbian killing of some 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, watched over by Dutch peacekeepers – was commemorated, and yet more graphic revelations emerged about the abuse of detainees at Guantanamo Bay (the prelude to large-scale torture by US officers at Abu Ghraib prison). The staple news of dozens of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq, from US forays against insurgents, added to the conflict's toll against all and sundry. The news of Israel's latest measures to partition further the Palestinian suburbs of Jerusalem, in flagrant disregard of international law and the ongoing peace talks, seemed still more quotidian.

Yet the post-7 July political chorus in London would have no truck with anything other than the self-congratulatory narrative of liberal values under siege from a toxic, alien ideology. For all the "shock of knowing that those who have perpetrated this were actually born and brought up in this country," said Tony Blair, "it is particularly important that we recognize the worldwide dimension of this, and the need, therefore, to tackle it internationally". Here, he is at one with George W. Bush, for whom the events of 11 September, 2001 were a unilateral assault on Western liberal democracy, by people who hated those values.

True, this year's G8 summit, prodded by Bob Geldof's global "Live 8" initiative, acknowledged the obvious premise, that mass poverty and its political upshot, at least in Africa, have plenty to do with the way the West conducts its economic and political relations. This was more than the Bush administration was prepared to concede on global climate change, which it deems – along with the Kyoto Protocol – to be an alien assault on the American way of life. The same is true of the Washington view of the 1998 Rome statute on the International Criminal Court; the cardinal liberal value of rule of law is somehow corrupted by an alien virus that demands accountability outside the safe bounds of US military norms.

It is tempting to dismiss these tensions as the warp and woof of transnational politics, whether in terms of hegemony (post-Cold War US), or simply of what fairly robust actors expect to get away with (Britain, the EU). Its bottom line is whether the self-image of liberal decency and political pluralism is intact, and shared by a strong enough majority of citizens to withstand contrarian claims at home and abroad. Or as Blair’s Commons chorus put it: hadn't the 2012 Olympic Games been awarded to London on 6 July precisely for the successful multicultural ethos that the terrorists sought to destroy the next day?

The plainest riposte is that disaffection among the young men thought to have conducted the London bombings surely has to do with how they perceive their host society’s response to information which, the chorus insists, is unrelated to the bombings. Much of it is absorbed and discussed on the internet. But its consequences are played out in daily interface with citizens, politicians and the media. The chorus expresses astonishment that local-born lads who love cricket and have seemingly normal lives are motivated to act with such hostility against their own society – which is about as perceptive as asking why "successful" cities spawn violence. Alienation has various forms, not all related to economics. Many who turn to political violence have high levels of education and stable lives.

To deny responsibility, by pointing the finger at alien infections of our liberal body politic, is as unconvincing a response to the events of 7 July as it was for those of 11 September, or the many other issues in which we prefer to avoid accountability, beyond a chosen constituency. It is to pretend that there is a cohesive "social imaginary" – the shared background picture that we have of our surroundings – when, in fact, this is sharply contested. A shared social imaginary is what underpins civility. Its wellspring is a pluralism more complex than the “tolerance” espoused by the shallow liberalism of the Blair-Bush chorus. The cost of failing to see this is born by ordinary citizens, not only in London, Madrid and New York, but also in Baghdad, Kabul and Karachi.

For the flipside of our chorus is theirs. Demagogues in the Muslim world, and its diaspora, have long inveighed against the Western material and political virus that corrupts a pristine culture, whether it comes in the guise of modernity, liberalism or hegemony. The response is cast in terms of control of one’s own destiny. The stakes are deemed high enough to justify political violence, no matter how wanton this may appear. Bin Laden and al-Qaida are all too familiar proponents of this argument, building on the earlier discourse of Sayyid Qutb and his acolytes across the middle east.

To the objection that they violate the ethical foundations of Islam, they reply that they wish to restore that ethos – that the ends justify the means. Clearly, this is politics in the guise of religion. But to dismiss it as an irrational “ideology of evil”, that can be rooted out by the usual Western weapons – arms and money – is naive and perilous. It ignores the legacy of colonialism and the Cold War that wrought havoc with the cultural and civic identities of whole societies. And it assumes that the social imaginaries that we have damaged can be patched over by offering or imposing our own.

Those inclined to give lessons in liberal democracy to the “other” would do well to consider the state of pluralism at home. If our cities are as inclusive as we wish to believe, what of the stream of homegrown hatred, discrimination and violence that is directed at visible minorities, not least Muslims, decades after their settlement within our communities? Well before the perpetrators of the 7 July bombings were identified, mosques and brown-skinned individuals had become targets in various British locales. A 48-year-old man on a visit from Pakistan was murdered in Nottingham by youths who spewed anti-Muslim abuse. White supremacist groups and football gangs, who are organising revenge attacks on Muslims, are being tracked by British police. Virulent bigotry has never been far from the surface in Britain, Europe or the US.

In the same vein, what is one to make of the indifference to the utterly predictable 1995 slaughter at Srebrenica, in the heart of Europe, where “peacekeepers” were known to spout casual anti-Muslim sentiments? The apologies tendered by European politicians at the 10th anniversary commemoration ring hollow, when NATO forces have willfully let Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic remain at large and avoid prosecution for having masterminded crimes in the Bosnian war.

Coupled with a string of dispossessions of land and sovereignty from Chechnya and Kashmir, to Mindanao and Palestine, these events invite moral conclusions beyond the facile talk of evil ideologies abroad. They fuel ways of looking at the world, in Muslim societies and often within our own, which are at odds with the civility and liberal pluralism of our preferred self-image. Doubtless this explains in significant part the sobering findings of Fares Breizat about “what counts as terrorism” in the Arab street. Still, the latest findings from the Pew Center on ordinary Muslim opinion across 17 countries, prior to the London bombings, shows growing revulsion against religious extremism.

Implicit even in the Blair-Bush chorus is the recognition that a globalised public sphere no longer affords the luxury of isolation, splendid or sordid, from the “other”. We must care about the quality of humanities education in Lahore, Basra and Jeddah – just as they have the right to be concerned about what we teach in our institutions about the history of Muslim civilizations and the cultures of the Muslim world. The truth is more complex than Bernard Lewis’s chest-beating about how early Oxford and Cambridge began teaching Arabic, or Samuel Huntington’s depiction of the uniqueness of the west. More than anything else, Orientalism made the study of Arabic a profitable tool of colonialism. And the history of the west is built on, and tangled with, the histories of Central Asian, Indo-Persian and Iraqi civilisations.

Pluralism, if it is to be more than a rhetorical cover for passive tolerance, requires a politics of engagement. That means rather more than flaunting terms like hijab, jihad, and shari’a as symbols of savoir-faire in Birmingham, Toronto and Houston. At a recent press conference on cultural education deficits in the US army, the briefing officer himself described the lingua franca in Baghdad as “Iraqi”. Enough said about the distance to be travelled in quarters in which the casual abuse of the Qur’an has become a badge of machismo.

Euro-American elites would be hard pressed to name more than a couple of novelists (Orhan Pamuk, Naguib Mahfouz), artistes (Nusrat Fateh, Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour), or film directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Samira Makhmalbaf), from a vast and diverse Muslim world of 1.3 billion people. Poets? Try Rumi and Omar Khayyam. By contrast, Muslim elites tend to be at least as familiar with western cultural products as they are with their own. This does not, of course, excuse the woeful state of public education across Muslim societies – including the failure to treat pluralist ethics as a necessary part of identity, civic and Islamic alike. Culturally informed publics are an essential condition for pluralist democracy.

The internet offers the promise of open global exchange, but the traffic tends to be asymmetrical – and the digital divide ever wider. Which points up the difference between the popular east-west term “dialogue,” in all its formal confines, as against “conversation,” which presumes a certain parity. Cultural and political hegemony set severe limits on both, but especially on the scope of bona fide conversation. By and large, the Muslim voices heard in the western public sphere are high decibel – militant or pandering. Entire conferences are organised in which non-Muslim western “experts” are the sole speakers on Islamic faith, never mind culture and politics, decades after the late Edward Said called attention to this tendency. After the events in London, Britain’s most prominent Muslim leader, Zaki Badawi, a frequent guest of Blair and Prince Charles, was denied entry to the US to speak to groups that included government officials.

It is a platitude that approaches to “security” that turn on surveillance and exclusionary barriers alone are fated to fail, practically and politically. Bullying harangues from pulpits fare no better. Military intimidation is conspicuously unsuccessful, as even Donald Rumsfeld now knows. Quick fixes are the illusion of those who fear conversations of quality, which is what social imaginaries are ultimately made of. Those conversations are the enemy of the sort of alienation that incubates young terrorists – and of the sort of detachment that feeds state terrorism. When the talking stops, civility implodes.

Further Links:

Unesco: The Different Aspects of Islamic Culture
http://www.unesco.org/culture/aic/index.html

[email protected]
http://www.salaam.co.uk/

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