Not a clash of civilizations; but world culture vs. Islamist culture

Symbolic surrender, such as covering up a painting, is as bad as surrendering the hard fought rights of women not to be groped en masse.

Kashmiri Muslim women raise their arms as they pray upon seeing a relic of Prophet Mohammad being displayed during the festival of Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kashmiri Muslim women raise their arms as they pray upon seeing a relic of Prophet Mohammad being displayed during the festival of Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On January 25 Iranian President Hassan Rouhani strolled through a new modern art exhibit at Rome’s Capitoline exhibit. Gone were any nude statues – instead there were white boxes.
It turned out of course that this wasn’t a new modernist take on anti-art, but rather an attempt by Eurocrats worried about “offending” the Iranian regime to cover up artworks deemed too risqué. At the same time Rouhani was touring the Ayatollah-art installation, Morocco’s King Mohammed VI was giving a speech to a conference in Marrakesh about the “rights of minorities in Islamic lands.”
The same week the BBC presented a program on the advancement of women in Saudi Arabia, where female candidates standing in local elections wandered around clothed head to toe in black, dehumanized, while male guardians drove them to “campaign.” After all, they can’t drive themselves or dress as they want under Saudi law.
Since the 1996 publication of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, there has been a debate about whether these types of episodes represent a clash between the West and Islam. Huntington’s book postulated other “clashes” between Orthodox Christians and the West (e.g. Russia and the EU) or between Buddhists and Hindus, but the reality is that since 9/11 the real focus has always been on whether Islamic values are somehow incompatible with others. The rejoinder is always that Islamic countries are diverse. They are fighting their own civil wars between political Islam and secularism and nationalism.
The “clash” thesis is “Islamophobic,” so it shouldn’t be discussed because it’s akin to racism. It’s reductionist, since it means every Muslim is automatically different.
This debate misses the point. The “clash” thesis was wrong because Islamic “civilization” is not clashing with the West. There is no Western civilization to speak of. If there were, the nude statues in Rome wouldn’t have been covered up so as not to “offend” a theocracy whose values are better suited to the 9th century than the present one.
The clash is in fact between two different cultures, the world culture and the Islamist culture. I write “Islamist” because it is unfair to pretend that all Muslims fall under the latter banner. In fact in many places Muslims are the principle victims of a narrow-minded and increasingly intolerant, chauvinistic, extremist ideology that demands rigid conformity and uses mob violence coupled with terrorism to enforce its will.
Why is it fair to say it is a “world culture” on the other end of the spectrum? Because the world is all going one way and embracing various values, and large parts of the Muslim world, along with countries around them, are going the other way. Look at gay marriage and homosexual rights. China is hearing its first gay marriage case. Google a map of gay marriage and see where homosexual acts are illegal, where gays receive the death penalty and where countries are becoming more open.
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Northern Nigeria, Mauritania, Somalia all have the death penalty for homosexuality, and of course they are all heartlands of Islamism. Where is blasphemy illegal? Mauritania, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and other states in the Middle East, as well as Malaysia. That’s the reason a teenager cut his own hand off in Pakistan for “blasphemy.”
Basically in every country in the world women can wear whatever they please.
Whether you are in Japan or Mexico, Moscow or Cape Town, from east to west, women can wear skirts and bikinis. There is only one region where they cannot, either by law or because of oppressive cultural norms. There are only a few countries where the murder of women for “family honor” is not a prosecuted offense, where it is quietly accepted. Where in the world are Ahmadi mosques targeted for destruction because they are seen as the wrong kind of Muslim? In Germany? In America? In Brazil? In Botswana? No. In Indonesia and Pakistan. Where are Shi’ite Muslims routinely slaughtered on their holy days by suicide bombings? In Pakistan, Syria and Iraq. There is only one region in the world where ancient archaeological treasures are dynamited by groups that find them “heretical”: Afghanistan under the Taliban and Syria and Iraq under Islamic State.
There is only one set of extremist leaders for whom nude statues are covered up, for whom women diplomats are expected to cover their hair. It isn’t the Dalai Lama or Hindu priests, not Catholic prelates or even ultra-Orthodox Jews. Somehow all the world’s religions have either been completely cowed or they are sufficiently tolerant not to need others to all conform to their way of life. Except for Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s religious regimes, and their fellow travelers.
As mentioned above, Morocco is hosting a conference on the rights of minorities, but the very nature of the conference reveals the problem with it. The king had to remind attendees that “Islam prescribed jihad only for self-defense... [not to] compel people to embrace Islam... Prophet Muhammad... recommended that Jews and Christians were to be treated well.”
That’s well and good, but the very fact the king needed to remind people not to kill others illustrates that some Muslims believe that’s exactly what they should do. Do universities in Japan, South Africa, France or Canada need to host conferences on protecting minorities and remind those assembled that they shouldn’t use holy war to murder people? The clash of cultures the world is witnessing is akin to bringing back 15th-century Europe and holding conferences encouraging Catholic prelates not to torture people to death. It’s as if Pope Paul IV (1476-1559), who ordered depictions of genitalia in artworks covered up with fig leaves, ordered books banned and Jews to wear special outfits, suddenly turned up in 2016 and was allowed to run several countries. It’s as if the Salem Witch Trials were to pop up again.
The ironic problem that particularly plagues Western countries is that the values that shaped the West are the ones employed to cater to its diametric opposite.
The value of openness to the other and moral relativism and self-critique, leads to an over-acceptance of anything different under the excuse of “culture,” just decades or a century after the West banished those same cultural norms to the dustbin of history.
Which would be more likely to cause the cancellation of a gay pride parade, a right-wing fundamentalist Christian protest, or a visit by Iranian ayatollahs? The very groups in the West that are the most likely to fight against what they see as rightwing conservative Christian values are the most likely to argue for respecting those same cultural values, as long as they’re held by Saudis or Iranians. There is always something incredibly strange in seeing the same supposedly left-wing politicians who support abortion rights, women’s rights and gay rights respecting tyrants’ “right” to deny them for “cultural” and “religious” reasons – so long as that religion claims to be Islamic.
Because of this strange phenomenon, right-wing groups in the West – the same ones that not so long ago were busy supporting bans on immoral movies or being offended by attacks on their religion – are the ones championing all sorts of liberal values in the name of defending Western civilization from Islam. This creates some strange scenarios and bedfellows, especially in Europe.
This cultural conflict falls hardest on Europe. At the very lowest point of European religious attendance, at the very lowest point in birthrates, as every normative value was subjected to extreme critique, there arrived in Europe an immigration made up of the most religious group in the world. Rarely in human civilization have two more extremely opposite cultures been thrown together. The resulting oddities, such as “classes” explaining to immigrants that women should not be raped and groped just for dressing in a skirt, make a mockery of both European values and Islamic values, as if rape was a normal way of life in the Middle East.
At the same time as Europe wrestles with this new debate, many parts of the Islamic world are cannibalizing themselves. The tragic surrender of too many Muslim countries to Islamist culture has eaten away these countries and their formerly diverse cultures. While the number of minorities and diversity increases in India, in Pakistan people are slaughtered for their faith. In northern Nigeria minorities are ethnically cleansed, women kidnapped, mosques bombed; in southern Nigeria they are not.
This is a common phenomenon. In the past 50 years every European country has become home to a plethora of minority cultures, while the Middle East has succeeded in destroying its cultural and religious heritage. Writers like to talk about the cultural grandeur of Baghdad in the 8th century or Spain in the 10th, but that’s like Inquisition-era Italian writers waxing poetic about the greatness of ancient Rome.
Yes, it’s nice that Rome was diverse – but you’re too busy putting people in ghettos and chopping phalli off statues. It’s like Germans in 1942 talking about the good old days of Heinrich Heine. He’d be in your concentration camps, so don’t tell us about him until you’ve erased the fascism that currently dominates your society.
It’s under that rubric that the aggressive Islamist crusade should be approached.
Whether it is sexual harassment, the death penalty, massacres for blasphemy, terrorism, or being offended by a statue, all these things once existed in every other culture in the world. If Hindu nationalism is offensive, Islamist nationalism is offensive.
If the anti-gay rhetoric of an Evangelical pastor bothers you, so should the hanging of gays in Iran. Don’t tell us we’ve got to have diversity and democracy in India, but it’s fine not to have them in Pakistan. Mass sexual harassment of women surely existed not so long ago in many places, and still does; it can be defeated the same way every time. Were their classes for Western men explaining to them not to rape women in the street? How were they educated not to rape? Don’t coddle others based on the false cultural excuse, if you ask them to behave responsibly and enforce your values, others will respect you. There is no cultural excuse.
If you don’t accept a religious reason for the massacre of minorities in Australia, don’t accept it as natural explanation for the extermination of Ahmadi Muslims.
Much of the world made major progress in just 50 years on basic issues of human rights, democracy and individual freedoms.
The freedom not to be hacked to death like secular bloggers in Bangladesh.
The freedom not to be sold into slavery like Yazidis in Iraq. The freedom not to be stoned to death like “adulterers” in Somalia.
The freedom not to be whipped publicly as occurs in Aceh province, Indonesia.
Basic freedoms much of the world all takes for granted have been called into question in recent years, much as Nazism and Communism called them into question in recent history. The 21st century should not be the one that surrenders to the values of the 16th or 9th centuries.
Symbolic surrender, such as covering up a painting, is as bad as surrendering the hard fought rights of women not to be groped en masse.
This presents itself as a European problem, since Europe championed many of the rights the world considers normal, and Europeans have now begun to find it difficult to enforce them. Has the world been suckered into embracing values that are naturally deracinating their local culture into a world culture, so that they refuse to defend against assault by extremists? Has the world said we will enforce secularism on all groups, Hindu extremists, Buddhist extremists, Jewish extremists, Christian extremists, but not Islamic extremists? Will future generations still take for granted abortion rights, or the right not to be stoned to death, not to have a house of faith blown up? Will the world tend to look more like Syria? Will the rise of Islamist cultural chauvinism lead to a reaction of right-wing religious forces against it in other places? These are the questions that need addressing.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman