Friday, October 26, 2007

Culture Is Crucial : answering Kanishk Tharoor

Replying to : The Danger of Culture Talk by Kanishk Tharoor at OpenDemocracy

Culture is Crucial

Belgium's national TV currently runs a series of explorations in the world of Islam entitled 'The Road to Mecca'. As it happens, the narrator starts his trip in Cordoba, not only because the south of Spain provides the closest bridgehead to the Maghreb countries, but also because El Andalus epitomizes islamic civilization at its best. Of course, starting from the heyday sets the rest of the narrative on a definitive track : all that follows, is measured as a degree of loss, insufficiency and lack. Tragically enough however, setting off on adventures from Mecca in the center, or the Taj Mahal in the east, would tie the narrator to a similar storyline of fading resonance, and degrading signal-to-noise ratios.

It is precisely this dried-up and shrunken quality of Islam today that defines the plight of muslims, both at home and in the diaspora. Europa has a great deal to thank Islam for, but since its peak in the 10th to 12th century, Islam has not produced any viable political project to date (Hizbullah may embody a valuable oppositional force, just as the Muslim Brotherhood does in Egypt, but as a majority platform it is too reductionist to encompass the complexities of a globalized age); Islam has not produced any science of merit since its medieval contributions to mathematics (the recent divertimento about the do's and don'ts of Islam in space is telling); and the most impressive art it has produced of late is a body of literature that comes from voices who have stepped outside their native islamic frames of reference (and who often paid a high price for it).

Both materialist and ideologic/idealist readings of the problem of radical islam today, commit the vital error of absolving Islam from its own embedded possibilities and responsabilities. Both readings thus hand the potential for change either back to 'the west' or the 'good muslim' - who by default exists as the inverted image of the 'bad muslim', both of which are again defined by their relations to a Western style Enlightenment. Abdelwahab Meddeb, in his incredibly erudite and stimulating book 'La Maladie de l'Islam' (Editions du Seuil, 2002) puts it bluntly : muslims need to enroll in a refreshment course of all the historic exceptions and infringements of the islamic tradition BY the islamic tradition. He provides ample examples of creative, pro-active and universalist, mystical even, reorderings of the central beliefs in Islam. For the record, Meddeb equally appeals to the West to come to terms with its denial and denigration of Islam. I agree. But I also believe that this coming to terms will not happen while the West paternalistically refrains from criticizing Islam, or expressing its own values. In that respect, the examples of the veil and the cartoon-crisis should not be lumped together in the same boxing glove to hit Islam with. The cartoon-crisis quite pointedly demonstrated that the political will of the West to protect free speech against collective silencing is feeble at best. The subsequent juggling act surrounding an anounced (but forbidden) 'protest against islamization' in Brussels on September 11th - widely commented upon in the international press - only serves to underscore the point. The veil is a different matter. The multiplicity of meanings embedded in the wearing of the veil warrants careful deliberation. The problem here is mainly that ad hoc cases have captured a lot of media attention so far, while a fundamental judicial debate and settlement is lacking.

Apologists of Islam invariably invoke the variety of 'islams' that is being practiced worldwide. That may very well be, but this diversity exists largely behind thick curtains of conformity - at least when it comes to projecting its self-image to non-muslims. The crux of the matter is that Islam as practised by its multitude of followers worldwide, has developed only a very slim tolerance of criticism, if at all. Islam - it seems - does not know how to distinguish between ridicule, cynicism and legitimate criticism. Islam must develop its own radical critique, if it is to step out of the shadows of its own demons. To an important extent then, parasitic extremism must indeed be countered by and through the culture it feeds off.

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