Ram Manikkalingam: Culture follows Politics: Avoiding the global divide between “Islam and the West”

Ram Manikkalingam is visiting professor of political science at the University of Amsterdam.

Bilgrami’s paper is centrally located within the contemporary debate about the global divide between “Islam and the West” that is popularly called “the clash of civilisations”. This debate is motivated by the question – “why do they hate us?” – posed by some (or is it many) westerners looking askance at intensifying negative, if not hostile, feelings in the Muslim world towards the west, in general, and the United States (US), in particular. This question has led to two answers: they hate us/you because of who we/you are? (Buruma and Margalit), and 2) They hate us/you because of what we/you do? (Mahmud Mamdani). Bilgrami’s paper links “the who you are” to “what you do.” My comments will try to first unpack this linkage and then re-pack it in a way that I hope will contribute a little more to the effort made by all three works (Buruma and Margalit, Mamdani and Bilgrami) towards linking values, culture, politics and violence in order to better understand the impact of Western policies and (Islamic) terrorism on our lives.

Let me begin with a summary of my take. Bilgrami is sympathetic to the intellectual objective of Buruma and Margalit to link culture with politics. But he is dismissive of their intellectual effort at doing so, as well as hostile to the political motivation behind it. His main objection is that Buruma and Margalit slip too quickly from a cultural critique of the west to the resort to violence on the part of Islamist terrorists. He believes that the step – from culture to violence – is contingent on other political factors. The first step – sharing a set of (cultural) values need not lead to agreement on whether or not (and how) to resort to violence. However, while sympathetic to Mamdani’s effort to view violence as a response to the politics of the West, he disagrees with Mamdani’s dismissal of the cultural elements in such a linkage. But if violence is only contingently linked to politics, then why can’t politics be only contingently linked to the cultural critique.

To put it in Bilgrami’s language, Gandhi and Bin Laden can share a cultural critique of the west (and a set of values – liberal individualism and scientific rationality are bad), but differ in politics (the West may or may not be inherently bad); they can share politics (the West is imperialist), but differ in whether to resort to violence (together with Western progressives and moral suasion the West can be changed according to Gandhi, or it will only change under the threat of force according to Bin Laden); and finally it is possible to agree about resorting to violence (threat of force is necessary to change Western policies – Bin Laden and Fidel Castro), but disagree about how to resort to it (terrorism is acceptable given asymmetries of military power according to Bin Laden or terrorism is morally unacceptable according to Castro). This weakens Bilgrami’s endorsement of the effort to integrate the cultural critique with politics and violence, and appears to place him uneasily between Mamdani and Buruma and Margalit.

But Bilgrami need not sit uneasily between sharing Mamdani’s politics, but rejecting his dismissal of culture talk as tangential to it, and agreeing with Buruma and Margalit’s effort to connect culture and politics, while rejecting their embrace of its determining role in violence. He can, with Mamdani, emphasise the importance of a politics of co-existence for overcoming the “global divide” to get to a global justice. And he can, with Buruma and Margalit, concur that getting their will involve more than suspending one’s cultural values in order to live together, but actually engaging with the reasons that others may very well reject yours, even as you struggle to hold onto your own.

Let me elaborate. Buruma and Magalit believe the following sequence – dissent from Scientific Rationality and individual freedoms, leads to cultural critique of west, leads to violent terrorism. Bilgrami is not happy with this sequence, rightly. First, with the example of Gandhi, he shows that the cultural critique of west need not lead to violent terrorism. Second, he would like to insert opposition to western/US policies between critique of west and violent terrorism: “take seriously what the terrorists say, and not see it as simply a fake political front for a runaway religious fanaticism”. And I would add equally, take seriously what the terrorists say and not see it simply as a fake religious front for political fanaticism.

Buruma and Margalit can defend themselves from Bilgrami’s point about Gandhi with a slight modification of their thesis. Take the Gandhi point. Buruma & Margalit say that bad Muslims resort to violent terrorism against “us” because “they hate us” (cultural critique) and “they hate us” because they dissent from Scientific Rationality. Bilgrami says look at Gandhi. He didn’t like you, he disagreed on Scientific Rationality and he had a critique of your policies, but he did not resort to violent terrorism. Buruma & Margalit can respond, that Gandhi helps make their point. Gandhi disliked what the west did, and he may have even disliked the west (critique of culture). But when he did so, it was because of how who they were was linked to what they did. He did not simply dislike them. But on the terrorism point Buruma & Margalit can respond – just because some people who hated us because of what we did, did not resort to violent terrorism, does not mean that those who resort to violent terrorism, do not do so because they hate us.

So even when they point to some things we are doing that they do not like, the very fact that there are others (Gandhi) who also pointed to things that we did that they did not like but did not kill us, only reinforces our view that they – bad Muslims – are trying to kill us because of who we are, and not because of what we do. Therefore, changing what we do will not have much of an impact on their desire to kill us (not that we must not change what we do for other reasons).

This brings us to Bilgrami’s second response. Just because all people who hate you for what you do, do not resort to violent terrorism, does not mean that those who do resort to violent terrorism do not also hate you for what you do, and link it to who you are. So the sequence in the thesis is then: those who resort to violent terrorism do so because they disagree with western/US policies, and have a cultural critique of the west that emerges from the dissent from Scientific Rationality. It is not as Buruma & Margalit might argue, the other way round, that those who dissent from Scientific Rationality, have a cultural critique of the west, (that may or may not be related to the critique of western policies), and leads to violent terrorism. So the cultural and the political hang together (they are integrated), if you begin from the other end (violent terrorism). But they do not necessarily hang together if you begin from the dissent from Scientific Rationality. This is a key political point.

I think this point is more clear if we look at Bilgrami’s example of the Christian right and its cultural critique. Bilgrami uses this example to show that the dissent from scientific rationality/cultural critique is not just Muslim/Eastern but also comes from within the very heartland of the West. And he uses it to undermine Buruma & Margalit’s effort to link commitment to liberal democracy with Scientific Rationality, by illustrating the disdain with which these dissenters from scientific rationality are treated by their left-liberal co-citizens. I want to make a different point here that I think weakens Bilgrami’s endorsement of Bilgrami &Margalit’s effort to link the cultural and the political, even if he himself disagrees with how they do so.

Consider, the Christian right. Let us say they share with the Muslim radical the dissent from Scientific Rationality and the cultural critique of the west. But they disagree with the Muslim radical about US policy in the Middle East and violent terrorism. They would argue that US/Western policy in the Middle East is not effective enough at combating the violent terrorism of Muslim radicals and that it should go further in protecting US citizens at home and helping good Muslims abroad build democracies. Their political position here would not really allow, them to question US policy. On the other hand, there are plenty of Americans/Westerners who may not dissent from Scientific Rationality and do not share in the cultural critique, who explicitly link US/Western policies to the emergence of violent terrorism. Politically speaking they would like those policies changed. Buruma & Margalit are a good example here of those who need to be convinced.

Buruma & Margalit may disagree with US/Western policies in the Middle East, and want changes made – e.g. US must stop supporting the corrupt regime in Saudi Arabia. But they would say that this has nothing to do with why Al-Qaeda is killing Americans in Iraq. But they may concede that if the US withdrew support from Saudi Arabia, and withdrew troops from Iraq, it would be easier to marginalise and end Al-Qaeda style violent terrorism. So Buruma & Margalit would agree that these US/Western policies need to be changed for its own sake, and in addition this may help in defeating violent terrorism, by exposing Muslim radical disinterest in policy change, and isolating the terrorists from their base.

This change in policy may or may not be accompanied by a serious rethinking of received wisdom on say the West and its superiority in terns of culture and as the repository of Scientific Rationality.

But the problem with this approach implicitly shared by Buruma & Margalit, and Bilgrami – the implication that one must change one’s views on culture and rationality – in order to make the right kind of policy shift on the issues at hand that politically constitute the global divide, (whether Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Egypt, etc.) is that it simultaneously asks too much and too little of political leaders and intellectuals who are taking sides in this new divide. It asks too much because these are not issues on which whole societies, or for that matter individuals, change their minds in years, decades, (or even centuries for societies). It asks too little, because we know that political changes that save lives and prevent political disasters can be made rapidly, without these cultural changes.

So while I agree with Bilgrami that we need to take this opportunity to look at broadening our notions of the Enlightenment (by drawing in part on the radical Enlightenment in the West and critics of it from outside the West) in order to re-enchant ourselves with its possibilities that go beyond the thick form of scientific rationality and the narrow view of liberal democracy, we also need to simultaneously take the left liberals like Buruma & Margalit at their word and challenge them to fashion the policy change that they say is required in the Middle East, irrespective of whether it will have an impact on the presence of violent terrorism. To do this we need to address the particular components that have increasingly come to be seen as manifesting this global divide, even if not constituting it. This is how we may be able to address the divide without necessarily having to take sides in it, initially.

However, for policy changes to stick – for those who have held previously incompatible views – differing fundamentally on Scientific Rationality and individual freedom – to be able to sustain engagement and not just make temporary accommodation with those on the other side of the divide – they will also need to adjust their values/culture in ways that make those on the other side less incompatible with themselves. Again integrating the (non)violent, the political, and the cultural from the opposite side of Buruma and Margalit. So even engagements leading to small political accommodations with those on the opposite side of the divide can overtime work to reduce this tension between “Islam and the West”. But the opposite – engagements between the West and/or Islam that leads to a auto/mutual cultural critique, and a change in politics that enables co-existence – simultaneously expects too much and too little of both.

This political take differs from Mamdani’s avoidance of integrating culture and politics in three ways. First, it does not dismiss the presence of a cultural divide that goes beyond the political—i.e., that the whole of these different political tensions may be greater than the sum of the parts—something shared by Bilgrami and Buruma & Margalit. It only denies that we can easily get a handle on it, or need to do something about it in order to begin resolving the problems that are posed by each of the parts to begin with. Secondly, it agrees with Bilgrami that dealing with the political parts of this divide – over the long term – can only be sustained with a cultural critique that leads to engagement between the protagonists in the global divide. Thirdly, this position resists the impetus to take sides in this global divide. Not because it disagrees with Bilgrami’s articulation of the philosophical problem, but because taking sides politically (as opposed to philosophically) now forces one to choose between George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden.