Culture Talk; or, How Not to Talk About Islam and Politics
This moment in history after the Cold War is referred to as the era of globalization and is marked by the ascendancy and rapid politicizing of a single term: culture. During the Cold War, we discussed socioeconomic or political developments, such as poverty and wealth, democracy and dictatorship, as mainly local events. This new understanding of culture is less social than political, tied less to the realities of particular countries than to global political events like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall or 9/11. Unlike the culture studied by anthropologists—face-to-face, intimate, local, and lived—the talk of culture is highly politicized and comes in large geo-packages.
Culture Talk assumes that every culture has a tangible essence that defines it, and it then explains politics as a consequence of that essence. Culture Talk after 9/11, for example, qualified and explained the practice of “terrorism” as “Islamic.” “Islamic terrorism” is thus offered as both description and explanation of the events of 9/11. It is no longer the market, (capitalism) nor the state, (democracy) but culture (modernity) that is said to be the dividing line between those in favor of a peaceful, civic existence and those inclined to terror. It is said that our world is divided between those who are modern and those who are premodern. The moderns make culture and are its masters; the premoderns are said to be but conduits. But if it is true that premodern culture is no more than a rudimentary twitch, then surely premodern peoples may not be held responsible for their actions. This point of view demands that they be restrained, collectively if not individually—if necessary, held captive, even unconditionally—for the good of civilization.
In post–9/11 America, Culture Talk has come to focus on Islam and Muslims who made culture only at the beginning of creation, as some extraordinary, prophetic act. After that, it seems Muslims just conformed to culture. According to some, our culture seems to have no history, no politics, and no debates, so that all Muslims are just plain bad. According to others, there is a history, a politics, even debates, and there are good Muslims and bad Muslims. In both versions, history seems to have petrified into a lifeless custom of an antique people who inhabit antique lands. Or could it be that culture here stands for habit, for some kind of instinctive activity with rules that are inscribed in early founding texts, usually religious, and mummified in early artifacts?
We need to distinguish between two contrasting narratives of Culture Talk. One thinks of premodern peoples as those who are not yet modern, who are either lagging behind or have yet to embark on the road to modernity. The other depicts the premodern as also the antimodern. Whereas the former conception encourages relations based on philanthropy, the latter notion is productive of fear and preemptive police or military action.
The difference is clear if we contrast earlier depictions of Africans with contemporary talk about Muslims. During the Cold War, Africans were stigmatized as the prime example of peoples not capable of modernity. With the end of the Cold War, Islam and the Middle East have displaced Africa as the hard premodern core in a rapidly globalizing world. The difference in the contemporary perception of black Africa and Middle Eastern Islam is this: whereas Africa is seen as incapable of modernity, hard-core Islam is seen as not only incapable of but also resistant to modernity. Whereas Africans are said to victimize themselves, hard-core Muslims are said to be prone to taking others along to the world beyond. There is an interesting parallel between the pre–9/11 debate on terrorism in Africa and the post–9/11 debate on global terrorism. As in the current global debate, African discussions, too, looked mainly or exclusively for internal explanations for the spread of terror. In a rare but significant example that lumped African “tribalists” and Muslim “fundamentalists” together as the enemy, Aryeh Neier, former president of Human Rights Watch and now president of the George Soros–funded Open Society Institute, argued in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that the problem is larger than Islam: it lies with tribalists and fundamentalists, contemporary counterparts of Nazis, who have identified modernism as their enemy.
Premodern peoples are said to have no creative ability and antimodern fundamentalists are said to have a profound ability to be destructive. The destruction is taken as proof that they have no appreciation for human life, including their own. This is surely why Culture Talk has become the stuff of front-page news stories. Culture is now said to be a matter of life and death. This kind of thinking is deeply reminiscent of tracts from the history of modern colonization. This history stigmatizes those shut out of modernity as antimodern because they resist being shut out. It assumes that people’s public behavior, particularly their political behavior, can be read from their habits and customs, whether religious or traditional. But could it be that a person who takes his or her religion literally is a potential terrorist? And that someone who thinks of a religious text as metaphorical or figurative is better suited to civic life and the tolerance it calls for? How, one may ask, does the literal reading of sacred texts translate into hijacking, murder, and terrorism?
Two Versions of Culture Talk
Contemporary Culture Talk dates from the end of the Cold War and comes in two versions. It claims to interpret politics from culture, in the present and throughout history, but neither version of Culture Talk is substantially the work of a historian. If there is a founding father of contemporary Culture Talk, it is Bernard Lewis, the well-known Orientalist at Princeton who has been an adviser to the U.S. policy establishment. The celebrated phrase of contemporary Culture Talk—“a clash of civilizations”—is taken from the title of the closing section of Lewis’s 1990 article “The Roots of Muslim Rage.” Lewis’s text provided the inspiration for a second and cruder version, written by Samuel Huntington, a political scientist at Harvard, whose involvement with the U.S. policy establishment dates from the era of the Vietnam War. Whereas Lewis confined his thesis to historical relations between two civilizations he called “Islamic” and “Judeo-Christian,” Huntington’s reach was far more ambitious: he broadened Lewis’s thesis to cover the entire world.
“It is my hypothesis,” Huntington proclaimed in an article called “The Clash of Civilizations?” (1993) in Foreign Affairs,
that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation-states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.
Huntington’s argument was built around two ideas: that since the end of the Cold War “the iron curtain of ideology” had been replaced by a “velvet curtain of culture,” and that the velvet curtain had been drawn across “the bloody borders of Islam.” Huntington cast Islam in the role of an enemy civilization. From this point of view, Muslims could be only bad.
Huntington was not alone. Several others joined in translating his point of view into a vision broadly shared in hawkish circles of the policy and intellectual establishment. The thrust of the new vision was that the ideological war we have come to know as the Cold War was but a parochial curtain-raiser for a truly global conflict for which “the West” will need to marshal the entire range of its cultural resources. For William Lind, the Cold War was the last in a series of “Western civil wars” that started in seventeenth-century Europe; with the end of the Cold War, he argued, the lines of global conflict become cast in cultural terms. Régis Debray, himself an active participant in the ideological struggles of the Cold War, saw the new era as sharply defined by a “Green Peril”—the color green presumably standing for Islam—far more dangerous than the red scares of yesteryears because it lacks rational self-restraint: “Broadly speaking, green has replaced red as the rising force. . . . The nuclear and rational North deters the nuclear and rational North, not the conventional and mystical South.”
The idea of a clash of civilizations, with civilizations marching through history like armed battalions—with neither significant internal debates nor significant exchanges—has been widely discredited. Edward W. Said, the late Palestinian literary scholar who was University Professor at Columbia, forcefully argued for a more historical and less parochial reading of culture, one informed by the idea that the clash is more inside civilizations than between them: “To Huntington, what he calls ‘civilizational identity’ is a stable and undisturbed thing, like a room full of furniture in the back of your house.”
It is Bernard Lewis who has provided the more durable version of Culture Talk. Lewis both gestures toward history and acknowledges a clash within civilizations. Rather than claim an ahistorical global vision of a coming Armageddon, Lewis thinks of history as the movement of large cultural blocs called civilizations. But Lewis writes of Islamic civilization as if it were a veneer with its essence an unchanging doctrine in which Muslims are said to take refuge in times of crisis. “There is something in the religious culture of Islam,” Lewis noted in “The Roots of Muslim Rage,”
which inspired, in even the humblest peasant or peddler, a dignity and a courtesy toward others never exceeded and rarely equaled in other civilizations. And yet, in moments of upheaval and disruption, when the deeper passions are stirred, this dignity and courtesy toward others can give way to an explosive mixture of rage and hatred which impels even the government of an ancient and civi- lized country—even the spokesman of a great and ethical religion—to espouse kidnapping and assassination, and try to find, in the life of their Prophet, approval and indeed precedent for such actions.
From the Hardcover edition.
“Mamdani strips open the lies, stereotypes, and easy generalizations on which U.S. policy toward the Muslim world is founded. Dismaying but essential reading.” —J. M. Coetzee
“This provocative and thoughtful inquiry raises hard and serious questions. It is a valuable contribution to the understanding of some of the most important developments in the contemporary era.” —Noam Chomsky
“Good Muslim, Bad Muslim is a brief, readable plea to Americans to stop listening to the shuck and jive about a ‘clash of civilizations’ and start learning some practical political history.” —The Village Voice
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