Sunday, November 07, 2004

Cultural Snobbery

I have been dumbfounded with this Administration for a while, but mostly since the war started in Iraq. I even remember finding out that it had started, feeling so confused.

I just found this article by Michael Hirsh, in the Washington Monthly, that addresses the fundamental reasons behind the Administration's war mindset. It doesn't completely clarify things for me, because I don't have strong historical background in the Middle East; but it does help sketch a better outline.

Here is an interesting excerpt about why the Administration's view, based on ideas by Bernard Lewis, is wrong:

"Modern Arab anger and frustration is, in fact, less than a hundred years old. As bin Laden knows very well, this anger is a function not of Islam's humiliation at the Treaty of Carlowitz of 1699—the sort of long-ago defeat that Lewis highlights in his bestselling What Went Wrong—but of much more recent developments. These include the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement by which the British and French agreed to divvy up the Arabic-speaking countries after World War I; the subsequent creation, by the Europeans, of corrupt, kleptocratic tyrannies in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan; the endemic poverty and underdevelopment that resulted for most of the 20th century; the U.N.-imposed creation of Israel in 1948; and finally, in recent decades, American support for the bleak status quo.
[. . .]
The administration's invasion of Iraq seems to have given bin Laden a historic gift. It has vindicated his rhetoric describing the Americans as latter-day Crusaders and Mongols, thus luring more adherents and inviting more rage and terror acts.
[. . .]
In our talk last spring, Lewis was still arguing that Iraq would follow the secular path he had laid out for it. He voiced the line that has become a favorite of Wolfowitz's, that the neocons are the most forthright champions of Arab progress, and that the Arabists of the State Department who identified with the idea of “Arab exceptionalism” are merely exhibitng veiled racism. This is the straight neocon party line, of course: If you deny that secular democracy is the destiny of every people, you are guilty of cultural snobbery."
But it is not snobbery. I would not presume to know what it is like to live in Iraq, to live in the Middle East, to live with such a strong and pervasive religious and clan system. A huge problem of the West in dealing with the world has been and is cultural snobbery - assuming that every country should have or want the same kind of government.
This mindset does not make sense to me. I have always thought that if you assume that democracy is the destiny of every people, you are guilty of cultural snobbery. I guess it is a fine line. I have that view based on the idea that cultures are equal (we are all people, after all) but not the same. I cannot assume that my way of life is best for everyone.
I guess some others, scholars and such, have had the same view based on the idea that Arab culture could not deal with a democratic system.

But, then, here is a critique of Lewis:
“This is a person who does not like the people he is purporting to have expertise about,” says [Richard] Bulliet. “He doesn't respect them, he considers them to be good and worthy only to the degree they follow a Western path.”
"The neoconservative transformationalists of the Bush administration, though informed by far less scholarship than Lewis, seemed to adopt his dismissive attitude toward the peculiar demands of Arab and Islamic culture. And now they are paying for it. The downward spiral of the U.S. occupation into bloodshed and incompetence wasn't just a matter of too few troops or other breakdowns in planning, though those were clearly part of it. In fact, the great American transformation machine never really understood much about Arab culture, and it didn't bother to try."