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Bridging the West-Muslim Divide

There is a big divide, important people say [1]. Muslims are furious about the treatment of Palestinians, about discrimination, humiliation, and marginalisation. To demonstrate how to treat people right, they blow them up. The West is furious about people being blown up. To demonstrate how to treat people right, they blow up mosques. And people, but always only as a regrettable side-effect. It’s not terrorism when the West does it. Remember that, or nothing will make any sense.

The West has some other issues that get less press. Oil, for instance. This is not about oil. Do not think about oil. Think about the clash of civilizations. (Are you thinking about it? Good.)

And then there’s human rights. The idea of having to live with the restrictions, uptightness, and all-around neuroticism that most Muslim societies seem to consider normal horrifies the vast majority of Westerners. But since they don’t, themselves, have to live with it, not much is said. It would be intolerant, or meddlesome, or it’s an internal affair. Sort of like wife-beating used to be something between a man and a woman. However, just because almost nobody talks about it, doesn’t stop it from being a source of hostility. Too often, it’s over-generalized hostility, as things that aren’t voiced usually are.

There’s a common thread there. The anger is about occupation, humiliation, poverty, violence, and abuse. These are not religious issues. They aren’t even cultural issues.

They are issues of justice. Nobody, whether Western, Muslim, or Western and Muslim, wants to be poor, hurt, or humiliated. A world united behind impoverishing and abusing people would be worse than our current one, not better. It is not unity anyone wants. It is justice, at least for themselves.

Let me go through a few examples, just to make my meaning clear.

Not one of these issues is anything people disagree about. The only disagreement is how much it matters when they hurt other people. Trying to find “agreement” on that is either despicable (“Okay, I won’t discuss human rights for women if you’ll stop harping on human rights for Palestinians.”) or irrelevant (“We can agree that both Christianity and Islam are great religions”).

By pretending that the problem is some kind of cultural divide instead of injustice, it’s possible to pretend that the only thing needed for a solution is a bit of talk and understanding. Interestingly enough, nobody is ever quite agreed on what to talk about first. Is it respect for religion? Or tradition? Or market forces? Or not committing acts of war without a license? Pretty soon, we’re talking about talking, and that’s even easier than not solving the problem by talking about it.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Bridging the West-Muslim Divide"

#1 Comment By Anonymous On 27 Nov, 2006 @ 14:01

As a western muslim, I find your analysis quite sensible. I have to comment, however, on your application of western sensibilities to other societies:

“And then there’s human rights. The idea of having to live with the restrictions, uptightness, and all-around neuroticism that most Muslim societies seem to consider normal horrifies the vast majority of Westerners”

While the general idea of human rights is acceptable, the western definition of it is not. The operative part of the above is “seem to consider normal”. Leaving aside the matter of actual implementation, the Organization of Islamic Conference, kind of a UN for Islamic countries, actually attempted to define their own version of Human rights declaration: CDHRI .

Now, I believe that some of the gap between western and muslim concepts and sensibilities is emerging from theoretical differences and some from practicalities. In other words, some actions by Muslims that are condemned by Westerns are in accordance with their basic beliefs, and some is due to the lack of education and the corruption typical in developing countries. Treating the two types as equal by Westerns create more problems than differentiating them, as changing the second type of behaviour will be easier than the first. Westerns should not expect their version of sensibilities to be the only one there.

Of course, I have talked mainly about what is required from westerns. You have mentioned some of the things required from muslims, but may be you or another comment will expand on what is expected from them.

#2 Comment By quixote On 06 Dec, 2006 @ 12:08

You raise a good point that there is a difference between an actual cultural variation in attitude and human rights violations due to ignorance or corruption. Also true is that only people from a given culture know where that line is. You’re absolutely right thast simply imposing western customs is no better than the reverse situation. I didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

But I’m not certain that you’re taking the principle of self-determination far enough. The right to self-determination doesn’t stop with the group, whether that’s Muslims, Christians, or lefthanded plumbers. The right to self-determination stops with the individual, and that is where some of the reasoning against “western” concepts of human rights seems to me to fall down. To put it differently, it is not up to any society or religion to tell anyone what music to listen to or with whom people may or may not have sex. These are private matters. Human rights requires that they be left up to the individual, whether that individual is in the West or anywhere.

What I’m trying to say is that you’re right, so long as arguing against “western” concepts of human rights isn’t a back door to continuing to deprive some people within the society of their own right to self-determination.

#3 Comment By quixote On 06 Dec, 2006 @ 12:11

(PS: I assume it goes without saying, but maybe not, so I’ll say it. When I’m talking about people having sex, I’m talking about consenting adults. I probably don’t need to explain that to anyone who reads this blog!)

#4 Comment By quixote On 06 Dec, 2006 @ 17:22

I should probably add one more clarification. Obviously, religions can make whatever demands they like, within the law. What I mean is that it has to be entirely and completely voluntary whether anyone follows those edicts. Legal pressure is unacceptable, but so is economic or social pressure. I mean that it has to be voluntary.