The Roots of Islamophobia (and other Western attitudes)

The Economist is different from the Daily Mail.  The standard of articles is extremely high and the anonymous writers are carefully chosen.   It is an impressive publication because there doesn’t seem to be an “editorial line” apart from commitment to free market economy and democracy.  It is never part of an unwritten code of silence about embarrassing details.

That’s why its editorial (7 September 13) about the Syrian crisis was significant.  In an attempt to explain lack of public opinion support for a US attack it told its readers: “…many Americans doubt that Muslims have much disposition for Western values like democracy and tolerance.  Why try to be the World’s policeman if it is not just a thankless task, but a hopeless one”.
My comment is that this judgement is based on ignorance.  In his excellent book “Liberalism a Counter History” (Verso 2011) Domenico Losurdo has shown the other face of democracy, which is not without blemishes.  He showed that liberalism (and democracy) have always had 2 facets.  In Greek democracy, women and slaves were not included.  The French Revolution was followed by the open call for the “extermination” of the Algerians and take-over of their land by settlers.  The US constitution was written by slave owners.  The slave trade was central in the British economy.
While we quite rightly admire Western democratic values and technological progress, which are common human heritage, we should also bear in mind that the developments in science and technology did not happen overnight. They were based on earlier contributions of Chinese, African, Arab, Indian, Iranian and other cultures.  When the fugitive Nelson Mandela visited Cairo on his way to Morocco and Algeria in the early sixties, he spent a long time at the Main Museums (which house Egyptian and Nubian artefacts).  In his memoirs, he said that he felt proud that Africa had such a civilisation at a time in which Europe was primitive.
The editorial is the product of “a deficit” in many western educational systems and public life.  An example is the “Rattle Bag”, a collection of 474 poems from around the world, many translated from other cultures and languages.  The editors of the collection (published 1982) are the eminent poets Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney (who participated in anti-apartheid demonstrations and knows about prejudice).  There isn’t a single Arabic poem in the collection.  In Arabic there are poems about love, tolerance, egalitarianism, humanitarian understanding; but they remain in the Western blind spot.
Another example is “The Feminist Papers” edited by Alice Rossi (1973).  Feminists, like Seamus Heaney, are not accused of prejudice because they are victims of prejudice; but the book contains documents from Western cultures only; neglecting the wealth of material in Arabic.
The great Nobel Laureate novelist Doris Lessing (who died a few days ago) provides another, more blatant example.  In her novel “The Golden Notebook” (first published 1962), Paul says about the Africans: “…there’s centuries of evolution between them and us, they’re nothing but baboons really”.
It is no longer fashionable or politically correct to say what Paul says openly; but the anti-Islamic prejudice of the Economist comes from the same source.  So does the Israeli Knesset member Miri Regev’s reference to the Sudanese in Israel as “cancer”, and the plans of the Israeli far-right to ethnically cleanse (transfer) the Palestinians of Israel.
The answer is more education by us.  More publication by us of the essence and values of African, Arab and other civilisations, because the roots of prejudice are sometimes not intentional or planned; but based on sheer ignorance, even in sophisticated publications like the Economist.

Khalid Al Mubarak

Date: 23/11/2013

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