The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Primordial Politics

Although it's always difficult to create a generic characterization of the worldview of hundreds of millions of people, Raymond Ibrahim makes an attempt when he describes the Arab-Islamic worldview. His comments are dark, but past history seems to validate them:
This is a [Arab-Islamic] worldview typified by cynicism and stoicism: a belief that humanity is intrinsically opportunistic, selfish, and warlike; that might not only makes right, but should; that those in the right do not apologize or appease, but rather assert; a survival-of-the-fittest mentality; and, above all, sheer contempt for perceived weakness and equivocation, or in Islamic parlance, emasculate behavior. Let’s call this a worldview based on “primordial politics.”

Anyone who has spent time in the Islamic world or held sincere conversations with people from there — Muslim or Christian makes no difference — will know this to be true. In short, the worldview of the average person from the Islamic world is the antithesis of the postmodern, “therapeutic” worldview of the liberal West, where “feelings,” “mutual respect,” “toleration,” and the ability to “express oneself” are paramount. This is only natural: people bred in harsh environments (e.g., the vast majority of the Islamic world) are not impressed by soft or sublime words.

President Obama spent his early years in an Islamic country (Indonesia) under the guidance of an Islamic stepfather. Certainly he has had time to observe Islam in situ. Yet, it’s obvious that he does not share Ibrahim’s view that Primordial Politics drives the dominant Islamic mindset. It’s also obvious that he chooses to disregard hundreds, if not thousands of instances that would appear to validate Ibrahim’s view. Instead he has chosen to apply the postmodern approach uniformly throughout the Moslem world.

He speaks to the Arab-Islamic world in the language of reconciliation. He apologizes for past wrongs (perceived and actual) and asks for mutual respect and understanding. From the Western point of view, these are reasonable, even laudable, things to do. But the mindset of the majority of his Islamic audience is different. Although the words of some (I emphasize some) leaders of Islamic countries are mildly conciliatory, their actions are not.

As a case in point, consider recent events in Egypt and Israel. President Obama gave “a speech to the Muslim world” in which he applied his post-modern philosophy. He chose to apologize for our past wrongs and only alluded to egregious human rights abuses within the Arab world. He asked for mutual respect and understanding. And the Arab response was—silence. Sure, a few moderates said a few nice things, university students and intellectuals praised his effort, but at the political level, nothing changed.

His approach to Israel was somewhat different. There were no apologies (none were required) nor any soft words. Instead there was and is unrelenting pressure for concessions—all in the hope of appeasing Israel’s implacable Arab enemies.

All right—let’s assume that the President is on to something. In the West, conciliatory talk normally begets conciliatory talk. But in the Middle East, conciliatory talk is perceived as weakness, as an opening for even greater demands. Obama’s demands for Israeli concessions did not lead to Arab commensurate concessions, but rather to a hardening of Arab positions. Sure, Arab leaders will talk the talk when Western audiences are listening, but their actions belie their words.

Is it that the President does not understand this? Ibrahim comments:
Prior to the election, many hailed Obama’s Muslim roots, his “otherness,” as strategic to endearing the Muslim world to the U.S. In fact, his unique ability to appreciate the Islamic world’s epistemology — his experiences, not his name — was the real bonus. Unfortunately, not only is he not making use of this advantage; he is spearheading the reverse —apologies, concessions, and soft talk — all which will inevitably promote an even more assertive Muslim response. Yet he of all American presidents should — indeed, does — know better.

I don’t think he does.