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Onward from the bridgehead

Evidence of Francis Fukuyama’s optimism is to be found all over the world. People in non-Western countries frequently put their lives and livelihood at risk to crusade for democracy and human rights. Despite civil wars, political upheavals, and Islamist insurgencies, surveys still show that non-Western people are strongly in favor of the democratic order—including fair elections, civil liberties, and press freedom.1

When such commitments to democratic ethos are labeled a quest for Western values, it feeds the reactionary rhetoric of Islamists, communists, and leaders invested in other forms of despotism. In 2013, for example, Iranian students took to the streets demanding political reforms, a change from the Islamic theocracy. An editorial by the Kansas City Star (November 14, 2013) approvingly cast this as a quest for Western values. “Although the Iranian people generally have shown themselves to be hungry for peace and in harmony with many Western values, the governments of Iran have promoted opposite positions in recent decades,” the editorial states.

That pervasive interpretation of the non-Western world has been discredited by scholars such as Edward Said, Ali A. Mazrui, Fawaz A. Gerges, and David Cannadine. In his book Culture and Imperialism, for example, Said writes that

we have never been as aware as we now are of how oddly hybrid historical and cultural experiences are, of how they partake of many often contradictory experiences and domains, cross national boundaries, defy the police action of simple dogma and loud patriotism.2

Said followed up on that argument with an essay titled “The clash of ignorance.”3

Similarly, in an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “Islamic and Western Values,” Mazrui painstakingly rebuts the notion of Western

Onward from the bridgehead 109 exceptionalism.4 At the time of the essay in 1997, the Ugandan-born Muslim was the director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies at the State University of New York at Binghamton. Among other things, he notes that most of what the West sees today as characteristics of Islamic culture were all features of Western societies up to the 20th century. Among them are the disenfranchisement of women, criminalization of homosexuality, societal abhorrence of sex out of wedlock, stigmatization of single motherhood, and even censorship of the press. “Westerners tend to think of Islamic societies as backward-looking, oppressed by religion, and inhumanely governed, comparing them to their own enlightened, secular democracies,’’ Mazrui writes. “But measurement of the cultural distance between the West and Islam is a complex undertaking, and that distance is narrower than they assume.”5

About six years before Appiah’s The Lies that Bind, Cannadine made very much the same points in his book The Undivided Past. From the perspective of history rather than sociology, Cannadine examined the six major dimensions of identity politics—religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization—and concluded that none of them is compellingly homogenizing or distinguishing.6 In other words, they don’t uniquely brand any group or distinguish them from others. Muslims are much more like Christians than identity politics would suggest and Westerners are much more like non-Westerners than is typically claimed, he argued.

Journalists too are increasingly echoing this argument. An essay in the Kashmir Monitor of India (October 21, 2011) took issues with the argument that Islam is incompatible with “Western values” such as tolerance, fairness, and religious freedom. The essay, which had no byline and was reprinted in the Hindustan Times, argued that the ethos was long manifested by the Muslim-run Ottoman Empire.

“The Ottomans were history’s longest-lasting major dynasty; their durability must have had some relation to their ability to rule a multi-faith empire at a time when Europe was busily hanging, drawing and quartering different varieties of Christian believer,” the writer argued. The essay characterized the notion of Western values as the “chauvinism apparent among some westerners.” It is “typically triggered by Islamic extremism,” the essay continued, extremism that is disliked by mainstream Islam no less than the West does.

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