Thursday, March 02, 2006

The Case for Nuance

When you're backed up against a wall, shades of grey disappear into stark black and white; people who feel threatened at their core rarely have an eye for nuance. This phenomenon is in full evidence in the global Muhammad cartoon crisis.

Most obviously, a number of aggrieved and disenfranchised Muslims have sought shelter in the welcoming embrace of the Islamist imams who are, like parasites, preying on the most vulnerable members of their societies. The fear that the U.S. in particular and the West in general is engaged in a "war on Islam"—a precept that some in the Muslim world have little reason to doubt—is being cynically exploited to theocratic ends.

Similarly, many in the West have fallen into what amounts to an unthinking acceptance of the Samuel Huntington thesis of a "clash of civilizations." There is, so the theory goes, something intrinsically incompatible between Western culture and Islamic (or to use the old term, Oriental) culture. One (ours, of course) is rational, progressive and dynamic. The other is irrational, tyrannical and reactionary.

The problem with the Manichean worldview is that it is almost always wrong, at least to a degree. Things never fall into neat categories, and this is especially true when you're talking about the attitudes and actions of billions of people. To draw the line between two "cultures"—as if there are only two—is nothing more than an invitation to oversimplification. In such a worldview, intra-cultural disputes (such as those between Sunnis and Shiites, or between Bill O'Reilly and the French) simply don't fit. In order to maintain the thesis, then, these disputes need to be minimized or ignored.

The statement released by moderate Muslim writers and intellectuals yesterday speaks to this point:
It is not a clash of civilisations nor an antagonism of West and East that we are witnessing, but a global struggle that confronts democrats and theocrats. Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations.
Salman Rushdie and his cohorts do an important thing by rejecting the clash of cultures argument. By focusing on an intellectual divide rather than a geocultural one, they sidestep the broad stereotyping required by the latter. If the debate we face is one between "democracy" and "theocracy", we need not lump all Muslims into the theocracy camp (nor do we need to see all Westerners as small-d democrats). Couching the debate in these terms allows for nuance. It invites thought rather than us vs. them categorization.

Part of the task for the partisans of democracy, then, is to oppose theocracy in all of its forms, with an understanding that "theocracy" can and should be distinguished from religious belief itself. The essential ingredient of theocracy is the desire to impose a specific religious belief on a population by using laws and, usually, force. You don't need to be secular to be a democrat; you just need to respect the secularism of the public sphere. A moderate Muslim, then, would be any Muslim who respects democracy, regardless of his or her own personal faith.

Perhaps with this approach it will be possible to move past the bigotry and broad stereotyping of entire populations that has so far characterized the debate. Let's hope that the statement does more than make a few people sit up and say, "oh yeah, there may be some moderate Muslims after all." It should be the new starting point for the whole discussion.

Responding to some critics of a post he wrote about a play that was facing pressure from Jewish groups in New York, Andrew Sullivan wrote, "There are fine nuances here; and I should have been more attuned to them." Perhaps, with his eager acceptance of the writers' statement, he's willing to admit as much about the so-called "cultural" clash between Islam and the West.

As fellow free-speech zealot (in the good sense) Christopher Hitchens wrote when the cartoon riots erupted, there are some in the West susceptible to the "assumption, dangerous in many ways, that the first lynch mob on the scene is actually the genuine voice of the people. There's an insult to Islam, if you like."

The problem with nuance is that it complicates matters. Then again, a simple solution to a complicated problem is, invariably, an incorrect solution. The best way to move forward is to take a step back and examine our assumptions. If we suppose to be standard-bearers of rationality and enlightenment, then we would do well not to forget Matthew Arnold's admonition, by way of Bishop Wilson, from Culture and Anarchy:
First, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness.
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