The discriminatory rhetoric of the West is just as much to blame for the breakdown in the dialogue between civilisations as Islamism, argues El-Sayed Yassin*
Al-Ahram Weekly 20- 26 September 2001
How can we resume our long-term debate on the dialogue between civilisations, the importance of self- criticism, and the prospects of an Arab revival after the appalling attacks in New York and Washington of 11 September? It hardly seems possible, in view of that event that so dramatically marked a turning- point in global history. Difficult as it is to conceive, that earth-shattering event marks a radical turning point in global history and casts into relief all the cognitive and practical dilemmas that have been the focus of the dialogue of civilisations.
At the time of the attack, I was in Canterbury participating in a global conference on "The Dialogue of Civilisations in the Mediterranean," at which I had been asked to deliver the opening address. For some reason I recalled a famous poem by the well-known Greek-Alexandrian poet, Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians. The poem tells how in a fictional Hellenic city-state, rumor spread of imminent invasion by barbarian forces. The ruler donned his military uniform, heavily laden with insignia and medals, as did the members of the senate and other dignitaries, and they all rushed to the borders to await the coming tide. They waited from morning to nightfall, but the barbarians never appeared. The leader was dismayed. As he turned to lead his men back into the city he said, "The barbarians didn't come, although their arrival would have been a solution."
The events of 11 September were the reverse of Cavafy's poem. The barbarians came and the nation's guardians were utterly taken by surprise. They had been confident that their mighty shield of missiles would deter any assailant. It was inconceivable that any enemy whatsoever could pass undetected through the formidable barriers of the American empire, standing militarily, economically and political supreme following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In his famous articles on the clash of civilisations, Samuel Huntington drew a marked distinction between "the West and the rest," by which latter term he was referring to all non- Western nations, peoples and cultures. It seems as though he had accurately predicted the climate that would prevail in the 21st century. Although it is impossible to ascertain Huntington's clairvoyant capacities, he may be in a position to reveal the intricacies of the Western mind.
I was afforded a closer glimpse into the Western mindset in the course of my research for The Arab Character: between self perceptions and perceptions of others (1973, Centre for Strategic Studies, Cairo). The purpose of this book was to respond to the psychological warfare Israel had unleashed against the Arabs following the 1967 defeat and which sought to brand Arabs as passive, unable to take initiative and, therefore, unable to wage war against Israel in order to liberate their occupied territories. Part of my work entailed an examination of Western scholarly heritage regarding this part of the world, a heritage constructed with an anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias so systematic that I concluded that the spectres of the historical confrontations between the Christian West and the Muslim East still haunt the Western mind. My conclusion was confirmed by an article in Le Figaro appearing in the wake of King Faisal's decision to use the oil weapon in the 1973 war. The author remarked that the Saudi Arabian ruler was avenging himself against the Frankish leader Charles Martel, who stopped the Muslim advance into France outside Poitiers in the eighth century.
The reactions in the West that came immediately after the surprise attacks on major symbols of American political, economic and military might and prestige were an instinctive reproduction of the Western rhetoric that had prevailed since the age of the enlightenment. From Bush in Washington, to Blair and Chirac in London and France, came the glaring drawing of lines between barbarians and the civilised world.
The "civilised world," in traditional Western rhetoric, refers to those nations that emerged from the Middle Ages armed with reason, science and the technology that enabled them to develop the modern military machinery with which they launched the most extensive colonialist enterprise in history. "The white man's burden," "mission civilatrice" and other notions founded upon theories of racial superiority served as ideological cover for a Western assault upon and occupation of enormous swaths of Africa, Asia and South America. Such theories came under attack, not only from the Third World but also from Western intellectuals, and were ultimately forced to retreat before the tide of Third World liberation movements. But developments in Europe over the past few decades have led to a resurgence of racist ideology in new guises. Its exponents have ranged from the ultra- conservative Jean-Marie Le Pen, who swept to victory with a large majority in the French parliamentary elections, to neo-Nazi and other reactionary groups in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, all of whom targeted for their vehemence immigrant communities, largely of Arab, Turkish and Muslim origin.
The tide of xenophobia in Europe has had a profound impact on the policies of many governments. Laws were amended to restrict immigration and large numbers of immigrants were expelled, ostensibly for violating residence laws. The resurgence of Western racism has also manifested itself in the political and social marginalisation of immigrants and citizens of Muslim and Arab origin, and the concerted stigmatisation of Islam.
The statements of Western leaders in the immediate aftermath of 11 September couched the latent and not so latent anti- Arab and Muslim passions in no subtle terms. Take Blair and Chirac, who both said that the attack was not merely a terrorist assault but an assault on "our democratic societies," by which they clearly implied the civilised West to the exclusion of the barbaric peoples of the rest of the world and, specifically, in view of the direction the investigations were bound to take unquestioningly, of the Islamic world.
Western leaders have every right to condemn the terrorist attack for what it was: an atrocious assault on the right to life of thousands of innocent victims. So too do all world leaders, and Arab and Islamic leaders in particular, who shared their horror and condemned that act unequivocally. But Western leaders such as Blair and Chirac should have checked their impulses before labelling other peoples of the world barbaric, particularly in view of the untold crimes against humanity France and the UK perpetrated during the colonial occupation of Algeria, Egypt, India and many other Third World countries. If they have forgotten, untold others around the world have not: their countries, too, are guilty of barbaric practices of unfathomable atrocity.
The reproduction of racist rhetoric at the hands of European leaders can only serve to reopen the already lengthy records of Western colonial history and the ledger of gross injustices to the peoples of the third world. This racist tendency is precisely what the UNESCO conference held in Lithuania last April condemned as inimical to a healthy climate for the dialogue of civilisations.
* The writer is former director of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.