Yesterday's Sunday comics section included a Doonesbury strip that I think says a lot about the relationship between the Islamic world and the West.
The strip (which is a "Flashback," meaning it ran once before, I think in 2007) shows two soldiers -- one of them American, the other Iraqi -- in an armored vehicle patrolling through a tough neighborhood in Iraq. Their dialogue begins:
American soldier: "Ready to do this, partner?"
Iraqi soldier: "ZZZ."
AS: "Great!... Okay, that's the safe house -- the big white building at the end of the street."
IS: "I know this house. The owner is Sunni scum."
AS: "Oh, yeah?... Well, intel wants us to capture the guy alive."
IS: "This will not be possible. I am sworn to vengeance!"
AS: "Why? What'd he ever do to you?"
IS: "A member of his family killed a member of mine."
AS: "What? When did this happen?"
AS: "What is the matter with you people?"
Whether or not this exchange reflects reality, Garry Trudeau is saying, within only a few frames and with only few words, that cultural differences between the Islamic world and the West are immense. Trudeau reflects not a "clash of civilizations," as so many of us want to believe exists, but rather the first-time encounter of two people who don't really know or understand one another.
The American in the strip views Muslims as one big, backward and dysfunctional family that is trapped in the past and unprepared for the present. He finds the Iraqi's talk of sectarian revenge -- based, no less, on something that happened more than 600 years ago -- incomprehensible. The Iraqi does not understand the cultural vocabulary of the American or fully grasp the reality of the moment. He sleeps through his patrol and is willing to ignore what sounds like a reasonable command, possible triggering a dangerous showdown.
For his part, the Iraqi embraces history as something truly meaningful and relevant today, even if it means ignoring the realities of the present. Americans tend not to look back too much on the past, or to understand why it stands for so much to other cultures.
I'm not knowledgeable enough to say how fair these characterizations are generally of people on both sides Muslim/Western divide. But I'm glad that Trudeau gets us thinking at least about what we all don't know. That's precisely what Akbar Ahmed, a professor of Islamic studies at American University, does, though he can fill in the gaps for us. Ahmed (about whom I have written before and for whom I have done some p.r. work) is foremost a translator between people who do not know each other and who literally and cultural speak completely different languages.
In other words, he occupies a critical role at a time when Islam and the West needs people like him the most. Through his many books, documentaries, lectures, diplomacy (he was Pakistan's High Commissioner to the U.K.) and plays, he has been a prime interpreter of Islam to the West, helping us get past the misguided shorthands we have about Muslims. At the same time, he interprets the West to the Islamic world, which swirls with myths and downright bizarre assumptions about Westerners.
If there is one message that Westerners would do well to take from Ahmed, it is that Islam is more complex than we truly comprehend. In his recent book, "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization," which was the product of anthropological visits to eight or nine Islamic countries in the Arab Middle East, South Asia and East Asia, Ahmed leaves no doubt that Islam expresses itself in countless ways, often within a single country or region and even within a single family.
Moreover, he argues that the very encounter with the West -- lately through the fast-moving, border-busting phenomenon of "globalization" -- has brought about many different challenges and responses in many parts of the Islamic world that were previously mostly insulated from the outside.
Islamic reactions to that encounter with the outside world are mixed, Ahmed shows, describing them using three broad typologies. "Islam's response to the forces of globalization... takes at least least three distinct forms: mystics reach out to other faiths, traditionalists want to preserve the purity of Islam, and modernists attempt to synthesize society with other non-Muslim systems" he writes in "Journey Into Islam." "Because most people in the West do not understand the complexity of Muslim society through models such as [these], they reduce understanding of U.S. relations with the Muslim world to good versus evil, and divide Muslims crudely into moderate versus extreme."
These three models "have been in play for the last two centuries," Ahmed told an audience at the Brookings Institution last June when discussing his book. "This is an ongoing dynamic, an ongoing dialectic within Muslim society. Since the first impact with Western colonization in the middle of the 19th Century, and you are seeing, in a sense, the drama being played out right now. 9/11 was a catalyst. It escalates the drama, but it does not create the drama."
America's and the West's failure to understand the complexities of the Islamic world, Ahmed writes in the book, has led to much of the miscalculation and disaster that is the Iraq war. The U.S., he says, "needs to quickly appreciate the nuances of these societies. Muslims widely complain of the lack of justice, widespread corruption and collapse of law and order. Too frequently, the United States backs strong military intervention, unaware of how this support encourages turmoil and how negatively this support is seen within a country."
At the Brookings event about "Journey Into Islam," scholar Stephen P. Cohen seconded Ahmed's analysis by pointing out that a "wonderful euphemism that is circulating around Washington is kinetic solution, that is, beating up somebody or shooting them. Kinetic solutions don’t work. If you have to use a kinetic solution, that is, shoot them, you have already lost the war especially the war of ideas."
"America’s great strength," Cohen continued, "its practical approach to problem-solving, has really become a weakness of ours. We don’t take the time to listen, to understand, if not to respect, at least to understand other cultures and civilizations. The policy implications here are really get out and talk, meet with people, reestablish the libraries around the world. We used to be culture centers for many countries. I know in Pakistan when I first went there I think there were eight different American centers. There are zero now. In Pakistan and other countries, the American center, the American library was often the cultural and intellectual center point of local and national dialogue about their states as well as relations with the U.S. These kinds of institutions have disappeared around the world. They are still relevant. They are still powerful. We really need to rebuild them to be able to compete in the world."
Ahmed's criticisms of the Muslim world are the mirror image of those he has of the West.
- "Muslims need to recognize that the most effective 'weapons' for addressing their grievances are knowledge and reason, rather than brute force...."
- "Muslim leaders must [also] strive to live up to their own vision of the ideal society. Too many Arab rulers use the crutch of Israel directly or indirectly to avoid working toward democracy until that 'problem' is solved."
- If Muslims had reacted to the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq with restraint rather than violence, it "would have impressed people in the West and created sympathy for Muslim causes. As it happened, the beheadings, the suicide bombings, and the hyperbolic rtheroric of violence... confirmed already existing steteotypes of Muslims. Very soon, people in the West began to equate violence and terrorism with Islam itself... and see all Muslims as inherently bloodthirsty...."
So, to paraphrase the American soldier's question in the Doonesbury strip: What is the matter with all these people? "Ignorance of other cultures leads to serious policy mistakes, whether conducting warfare of peace negotiations," Ahmed answers.
The real task, then, is to accelerate the pace with which we eliminate that ignorance among as many people on both sides of the divide as possible.