How the West was one

Reflections of an American Muslim.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

The recent furor and celebration surrounding Irshad Manji’s visit to Brown prompted me to reflect on the larger question of cultural affiliations and multiple identities in the West. One of the chapters in Manji’s book is titled “Thank God for the West,” describing a certain savior quality of Western societies, and assuming that they represent some common cultural traits.

Indeed there has been a revival of this view of Western supremacy from different quarters. The conservative commentator Charles Murray, (in)famous for his earlier co-authored book “The Bell Curve,” has recently authored a book called “Human Accomplishment” in which the laurels and “creative explosions” of Western society are enumerated with ostensibly rigorous analysis.

Some commentators, including another of South Asian ancestry, Dinesh D’Souza, have gone so far as to congratulate Western powers for their 19th-century invasions by authoring pieces titled “Two Cheers for Colonialism.”

So what are we to make of this revisionism? First, let us not forget that the challenges facing American Muslims currently are not new to American history. What is most surprising, however, is that the fear and demonization of immigrant populations that occurred earlier on was first and foremost within Western immigrant populations in America. During World War I, German-Americans endured immense discrimination by the majority, which was of English ancestry.

The music of German composers such as Beethoven was banned in cities like Cincinnati. Italian-Americans endured similar discrimination during this period, and the racist behavior towards Irish immigrants is well-known in New England. So was the “West” ever a monolithic entity with mutual civility and values worth emulating, values that so captivate Manji and others?

I recently attended an international environmental conference that concluded with a keynote speech by an articulate and pleasantly provocative former member of the European parliament. His parliamentary pedigree shone through with comments about the upcoming elections, though not in Europe but in America. With a forceful expression of impending doom he asked the audience to consider the consequences of the election in terms of how the “West” might be divided if the current U.S. administration won: “That will be the end of the West as a united block,” he warned.

How the West was one – was this realistic nostalgia, I wondered? Indeed, when it came to environmental issues (the topic of the conference) we should perhaps be thinking globally – but the speaker dismissed this “globe think” as synonymous with “group think.” So was he for Western (Euro-American) unilateralism and not global multilateralism? As I grappled with my own maelstrom of multiple identities – a Muslim, a Pakistani-American – I responded to him with an emotional diatribe about European self-righteousness and my own pride in being an American. Perhaps this was subconsciously a response to my reading an article by him that day, which opposed Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union. The organizers quickly transitioned to a pleasant closing lest we get too acrimonious and off the topic.

What the final exchange between me and the distinguished parliamentarian revealed, though, was that certain territorial temptations always compel us to think in terms of our “tribe.” Sometimes we move from one tribe to another but still want to stay within a tribal paradigm. I was just as guilty of this with my statement about nationalistic pride as he was in being wistful about a disunited “Western” axis. We both meant well and warmly shook hands after the conference, realizing that unfettered nationalism and ethnocentrism were compelling forces that must be contained.

While communities should certainly be willing to criticize themselves, this should be done with great trepidation to avoid the prevalence of prejudice. Linear reasoning about “the West” or “the East” as primrose ways to salvation from strife is tempting but not the way to conflict resolution. The challenge we face in confronting global crises and conflicts is how to overcome these temptations.

Saleem Ali is an adjunct assistant professor at the Watson Institute for International Studies and assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont.