Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Claims of 'East' and 'West'.

It is an illusion of liberal society that the language we use can ever have a neutral application, in the strictest sense, for it carries all sorts of hidden cargo - some of it intentionally so, no doubt. You only have to look at the discourse around the Middle East for a demonstration of this and that’s before we even get to the details of the various crises. The very designation of the region as the ‘Middle East’ has a historical and political significance in itself. There is no longer commonly heard talk of a ‘Near East’ or even a ‘Far East’. The days when the Balkans and Greece are seen as otherly to the rest of Europe are hopefully gone. Of course, Turkey is the exceptional case, typically viewed as a middle-passage from the West to the East. Yet the example of Turkey ought to prompt serious questions about the widely accepted and most problematic division of ‘East’ from ‘West’. The assumptions built into such statements are in dire need of a vigorous unpicking.

It’s not the case that the difference boils down to a distinction between Islamic and Christian culture. If this were the case then not only would Turkey not be European, but neither would Bosnia be considered European. We would then be led to the suspect conclusion that the level of Muslim population determines the un-European nature of a society. In contrast, many would assume that Europe ends at the borders of Greece even without Islam in mind. And this in turn would lead us back to the old colonial signifier of a ‘Near East’ from which we must be on guard. It used to be that Greece was a part of the ‘Near East’ along with the Balkans, yet it has been confined as the ‘Middle East’ to the territory ruled by the Ottoman Empire in the last century or so. The terms ‘Near’ and ‘Middle’ imply that the region is defined in relation to the rest of Europe, though not as a part of the same region. Serbia may be more near than far as with Singapore, while Syria falls in the middle from where we sit. Yet no one would draw Indonesia as Eastern with the same connotations as Syria.

No one talks about the ‘Near East’ or the ‘Far East’ with any serious today, but the 'Middle East' remains in our vocabulary as stubborn as ever. Given the hybridity of European countries, the distinction can no longer be maintained on the contours of ‘race’ and instead the language of ‘culture’ fills the breach. This is where the talk of a clash of civilisations enters, with the West is defined as civilised only negatively against the barbarism of the East. For the nationalists, Christian identity is worth emphasising because it isn’t Islamic. In the conflicts erupting from Yugoslavia’s demise in the early 90s it was the claims to civilisation which prefigured the exclusion of an Other. So-called Christian civilisation was under threat in the Balkans, as people like Karadžić claim, and therefore it was necessary to resort to ultra-violence.[1] As ethnic identity became determined by religious affiliation Orthodox Christians became Serbs while Muslims remained Bosnian regardless of the heritage they may have shared.

In light of this we’d do best to note that human civilisation has never been homogenous, nor monolithic, and certainly not ahistorical. We may reiterate these points with regard to the variety of cultures in the world. If we then accept religion and culture as socially constructed, responding to a need in human society, as well as constitutive of identities, this ought to be obvious. In this sense culture is partially determined by its material basis, while culture retains its own capacity for productivity and not all of its development can be reduced to the material.[2] It should surprise no sensible person then that the economic formations in the region have been conducive to religiously infused forms of politics. Due to the transient condition of society the interdependence of the economy and its cultural effluvia may lead to serious contradictions. The unbridled forces of the market tend towards relativism, pluralism and pragmatism, are fettered by tradition, order, cohesion and moral realism.[3]

It’s an inescapable problem for modern societies. Some, like Britain, have become increasingly secular and that has actually solved the problem to a large extent. This secularisation of Britain seems to have come about with a displacement of religion to the state. Ironically, it may be the absence of a separation of church and state in Britain which maintains its secularity in everyday life. Meanwhile the US remains as fervent as ever in spite of its formal laicism. Yet there is nothing English about the Church of England, other than its peculiar head, no Christian value which can be monopolised by the British state. More and more British society is comfortable with its relativizing economy and its religious-state establishment. The problem for those who complain of the threat of immigration to British values is that there are no such values. There is nothing uniquely British about emotional restraint, even if it is a cultural value.[4] As Eagleton points out, the moral values of  the ‘natives’ and the ‘foreigner’ hold much common ground than we might first assume when customs and beliefs differ.[5]

There may be a probability of a cultural transformation, but there are no values under threat and culture was never a unified and ahistorical continuum to begin with. Likewise, if we take Islam and Christianity as sharing a common ancestor, namely Judaism, then we shouldn’t lose sight of the common ground either. As a monotheistic tradition it lays claim to universal truth, and this was a huge advance on polytheism with its multiple truths taken for granted. It was a necessary shift for culture and civilisation to undertake, moving from particularism to universalism.[6] This laid the groundwork for the Enlightenment to come many centuries later. In this way we may understand secular society as necessarily post-monotheist, its own universalist claims holding ancient precursors.[7] The predisposition of religion towards an aversion from Enlightenment values does not necessarily amount to an incompatibility between religious conviction and a liberal society.

The British Right has long maintained that the United Kingdom is separated from Europe not just by the seas, but by its culture, language and history. Strangely, we find this view of the Anglo-Saxons can be found among the dirigiste conservatives of France and has a history of its own going back to Charles de Gaulle if not further. It rears its head in odd ways every so often in French politics, yet it is a recurrent motif of British political discourse. The paucity and anaemia of our ‘national’ identity can easily be overlooked when there is an Other within reach. Thus we once raved about turbans and now it’s the much maligned niqab. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if we can’t define our so-called ‘Western’ values - that we must protect from the hordes about to swarm across our borders - as we can reassure ourselves that we are not like the Other. Not only is this danger of xenophobia underestimated, we have overlooked the role we could play in counteracting the very presuppositions of the debate to be had.

In this way we find that the conservatives may have succeeded in defining Britain as somewhat alien to Europe then we should undo the colonialist designation of ‘Middle East’. It seems not just necessary but preferable in countering the absurd narrative of permanently clashing civilisations. The region may be better designated as West Asia, that’s including everything from the Iranian plateau to Anatolia. It includes not just Israel but Palestine and the surrounding Arab petro-states, as well as the Kurdish land in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Arab Spring should dispel all orientalist twaddle about the imperatives of the one-party state over the peoples beyond the Turkish middle-ground. If we are to take monotheism as running westward in its universal claims then we can’t pretend the claims made by the Enlightenment ends at the doorstep of Europe.

[2] Eagleton, T; Culture and Barbarism (2008):
[3] Eagleton, T; Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Kindle edition, 2010) p.142-143
[4] Eagleton, T; Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Kindle edition, 2010) p.150-152
[5] Ibid.
[6] Gray, J; Straw Dogs  (Granta, 2002) pg.125-126
[7] Ibid. pg.126-127

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