Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Beware the Greeks bearing gifts!

The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has spoken of 'Western Values' , which must confront and win over the people of the Middle East. He argued that every effort must be made to demonstrate that 'our' values are better than 'theirs'. To the lay person the choice is clear, a nice clean and fresh 'Western' perception of the individuals life and his purpose, or the barbaric and savage ideology subscribed to by Al Qaeda. However, as always with these things, there is more to this story.

Firstly, we need to look at the context of his speech. Israel has been given the green light to demolish Lebanon, crushing both the civilians and any Hezbullah fighters. Blair and Bush have both rejected any calls for a cease-fire while constantly supporting Israel's right to 'self-defense'. Israel's assault on the Lebanese people has, contrary to popular perception, not been for two military personnel kidnapped in an operation. Rather this is part of the US and the UK's plan for a 'New Middle East', something which seems to have been in the pipeline for much longer than the last few weeks. The attempt to demolish Hezbullah is nothing more than an attempt to remove one potent capability of both Syria and Iran. Furthermore, the major outcry following Hariri's assassination was one of the first steps to isolate Syria and force it to remove its troops from Lebanon. This is just a logical next step. Incidentally, Hezbullah and Al Qaeda are not one and the same, nor do they subscribe to the same ideology. Thus lumbering all forms of Islam into one monolithic giant is extremely dangerous and ignorant.

Secondly, while there is a conflict between Al Qaeda and it's ideologues on one side and the United States and Britain on the other, the Middle Eastern project actually envelopes it and is prior to it. Historically, the Western European imperial powers, and their ideological heir the United States of America, have always favoured a client state in the Middle East to keep an eye on the situation and do their dirty work. During the Cold War this was to prevent Communist influence, but mainly it is to keep close tabs on the regions rich and easily accessible oil reserves. Strategic concerns alone however do not explain the fascination the West has had with recreating a state of Israel along Biblical lines. As Edward Said pointed out in his phenomenal book "Orientalism", the identification of Western European imperialism with the goals of its progeny Zionism, coupled with a racist and arrogant perception of Arabs and Muslims (The Orientals) as the evil other, serve as the framework within which these countries continue to operate till this day. This, Said argues, may even be a subconscious process, as many of 'Western Civilizations' adherents may not realise how their views on that area and its culture and history have been moulded and shaped by generations. This misguided hostility and aggression, coupled with a missionairy zeal to 'save' the less developed and unfortunate souls in Africa and Asia means that any alternative visions of sovereignty and political governance is seen as a threat and as 'backwards'. Western modernity and culture in all its aspects are taken to be the 'norm' and aspiration for all peoples, while other styles or views of life are labelled 'traditional','backwards', or 'barbaric'. Thus Western discourse when it comes to Middle Eastern countries and their values takes mainly two approaches, by no means exhaustive but covering broadly the attitudes between two extremes:

  1. Hostile and aggressive, talking down to these countries actions as irresponsible, breeding instability etc. (Witness recent statements by the US and the UK against Syria and Iran viz. Nuclear weapons and Lebanon.)
  2. Sympathetic, claiming a view that the peoples can be just like 'us' (the West), but just need the right guidance and development either politically or financially. This is usually coupled by Westernised, naturalised 'Orientals' who are now modern and Western who call for turning their countries into Western nations and reject 'traditional', usually Islamic cultural and ideological views.
Both attitudes are insulting, and imply a position higher and more superior to the people being addressed. I think the best analogy is that of a scolding teacher to a child who doesn't know what's good for them. The only problem is that the child is not really a child, neither is the teacher a teacher. The child has been given a pill erasing its memory, but if it would be allowed to remember, it would break out of this ridiculous cycle and the 'teacher's' spell would be broken.

I am not saying that the West and it's philosophies and schools of thought are without benefit to the much damaged political and philosophical scene in the Middle East, on the contrary there is much for us to benefit. However, rather than take for granted 'Western Values' politically, philosophically and socially, the informed Arab mind of today must remember the fluid nature of cultures and civilizations and absorb what is useful and does not compromise the sovereignty of his nation be that in a social, cultural or political plateau. Likewise, we must be wary of those who preach a return to some mythical golden age wrapped in puritanical doctrines such as Al Qaeda, these ideologies would indeed put the Arab world in a stone age and cause much harm. Recognition of the background and motives which have created these values, and then adapting or rejecting them to our benefit rather than having them dictated to us is thus of paramount importance.

So, in conclusion, when Mr. Blair talks about demonstrating that 'our Western Values' are better than theirs, spare a moments thought to what he really means, where he comes from and why he is saying this when he is saying this. You'd be surprised to find out that good old fashioned 'Western Values' are far from harmless and are offered with sinister motives.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"However, rather than take for granted 'Western Values' politically, philosophically and socially, the informed Arab mind of today must remember the fluid nature of cultures and civilizations and absorb what is useful and does not compromise the sovereignty of his nation be that in a social, cultural or political plateau."

I think this is a very important point. I can't tell you how many times in conversation with parents, relatives, or other friends, I hear a restatement of the most cliched Orientalist stereotypes, or their equivalent opposite (about Western society or other peoples). This bothers me more than hearing it from people in the West. You expect people of one identity group to be committed to proving their superiority to others; this is almost inherent to identity (excluding others). But what has come of the world when you must show your subservience to them and concede inferiority? Really, I think this is a most ironic position: if Arabs have this problem, then how can you not have it? Their very existence contradicts them...

I'm glad, by the way, that you put this in historical context and did not make the error that many people--including myself on occassion--make by pretending that history started on September 11, 2001.