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Practices alien to the West

To a considerable extent, press coverage of the affairs of non-Western countries reflects this iron-clad demarcation in values. On December 11, 2003, about nine months after the United States invaded Iraq, the Associated Press (AP) distributed a story assessing the prospects for peace and democratic governance. The story included this summation of the obstacles: “Shiites, notably the politician Ahmad Chalabi, are among the best educated and sophisticated people in Iraq. However, the Shiite community is also strongly influenced by religious clerics, whose views and style of leadership are often alien to Western values.”

Webster’s New World Dictionary’s first two definitions of the word “alien” are “1. belonging to another country or people; foreign 2. strange; not natural.” The phrase “alien to Western values” is used or implied routinely in the coverage of non-Western countries. It is used to characterize a myriad of civic and political policies, as well as social practices and cultural beliefs. Whether it is the upheavals in the Middle East at the turn of the millennium, the post-communist transitions in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, or civic cynicism in Africa, the contrast to “Western values” is the ready reportorial device.

According to the news stories, it is alien to Western values to engage in nationalistic politics, extremism, corruption, and nepotism. It is so also to believe in mystical powers, entertain religion in public policy, curtail civil liberties, or violate constitutional provisions. In effect, everything nefarious or dubious is alien to Western values.

In the case above of Iraqi Shiites, nothing is specified regarding the views that are “alien to Western values.” The reader is left to infer the reference from the passages that follow. The first sentence states: “Shiites are divided between those favoring a prominent political role for the clergy and those who believe clerics should simply provide moral guidance.” But this division can’t possibly be “alien” to Western countries, where evangelical Christians assert that laws and policies should abide by biblical principles. And, as will be discussed in Chapter 12, they lobby and vote accordingly.

And then there is this:

As a measure of Shiite clerical power, the now abandoned U.S. plan to draft a constitution before transferring power collapsed when a leading cleric. Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, insisted the charter be written only by elected delegates—a process that the Americans feared would take too long.

The AP reporter apparently did not see the irony here that a Shiite cleric was advocating a more democratic process of drafting a constitution.

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