Friday, March 31, 2006

Sympathy with a nutter

Hamid Dabashi is the Hagop Kevorkian professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York and is the writer of several books on Iran. He recently published an article in the Egyptian weekly Al-Ahram which I found quite an eye-opener.

It is so extraordinarily vehement that most Western media would not have considered printing it (except maybe The Independent). It is difficult to imagine a more abhorrent evil than the West that he depicts here, not just politically, but also economically ("the US and the entire industrial calamity it represents") and culturally (responsible for "endemic patriarchy, economic inequality, social injustice, and gender apartheid [!]", among others). Very curiously, he puts Jews together with Muslims as the victims of white racism, and then moves on the say that the new Islamophobia is the direct descendent of anti-semiticism and implies that it may have the same outcome. "European opinion-makers, as fully evident in their leading newspapers and magazines, are letting loose their racist bigotry in ways unprecedented since the horrid records of European pogroms that ultimately led to the Jewish Holocaust."

Well, I think you get the picture even from this brief sample of a very lengthy rant. Typical, you might think (except for the anti-anti-semiticism). And it is. But what I found useful was at about 3/4 rant he says the following , which allowed me for a moment to see with another's eyes:

What these newspapers are effectively doing is to make it impossible for Muslims to oppose violence and barbarity of all sorts, particularly those done in their name, in any way other than denouncing their collective faith, dying their hair blonde, bleaching their faces white, and thus metamorphosing into a walking denigration of themselves. Those children are the principal targets of every ghastly newspaper in Europe that reprinted those cartoons -- to make sure that they are bullied in their schools and neighbourhoods, discriminated against in their future job markets, growing up ashamed of their culture and character, and obedient to a globalised and whitewashed Eurocentricity with which the classical European anti-Semitism now wishes to mark its history.
Let's assume that your view of the world is something similar to Dabashi's. (Yes, I know that he lives in the privileged world once inhabited by Edward Said - but leave that aside for the moment. I mean, does he sound like a mandarin?) Let's assume that your education, upbringing, colour of skin, religion mean that you see yourself forever outside the outlook and benefits of the Western way of life. Its norms and traditions you accept because you have to. That's where the power is. That's where the money is. Furthermore, your innocence is questioned (it must seem at times) by every passerby, and you imagine them imagining you as a bomber, or an abuser of women, or at the very least incapable of independent thought. And you do get bullied and excluded.

I found it useful to think like that for a moment because it seems to me likely that there are a great many people out there who think like that a lot. And I'm not sure what can be done about it. Crawling along to apologise every time they (or whoever is doing the 'representative' shouting) get offended is not going to help anyone. I really believe that many of them have a view of the world that is, shall we say, ill-adapted to a constructive relationship with modernity. A few of them are truly dangerous. That few are still too few to be dangerous to a whole culture, but they can certainly influence a whole culture far beyond their merits.

Once again, I think that the real question is how we react - whether we can be steadfast or accomodating at the right moments. I worry about the mind sketched above because it is so much with us, and it could go in many directions.

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