Why Westerners can’t see the self-evident truths about Islam

My sense of Barry Rubin is that he not a conservative, but a liberal who has become critical of liberalism as a result of seeing the fantastic unregenerate illusions about Islam in which liberals indulge.

His below article reminds me of a comment Jim Kalb made recently at VFR, that liberals totally misconstrue the nature of Islam because they believe that liberalism “fully realizes what’s right and just and fulfilling,” which “makes it the natural way to look at things.” Therefore all human beings, including Muslims, must be liberals—or at least aspiring liberals—just like us. That liberals in general and Americans in particular think everyone in the world is really “like us” is of course nothing new; it’s a point that I, for one, make all the time. But Mr. Kalb’s comment added interesting psychological and philosophical nuance to that idea, and, as you will see, it’s almost as though Rubin has been reading Kalb. First, here is Rubin’s article:

Why Don’t Western Elites Get the Middle East? Because They Think It’s Just Like Them (Sort of)
November 18, 2011—3:31 am—by Barry Rubin
I’ve come to realize a hitherto hidden dimension of why it is so hard for Western establishment figures (policymakers, journalists, and academics) to understand the Middle East. It is the conflict between the thirst for good news and the reality of bad news.

Being optimists (based on the relatively good course of their own societies?) and believing that positive change is really easy if people only put their minds to making it happen (ditto and also liberal thinking), they exaggerate any sign that things are getting better.

Moreover, contemporary thinking trembles in horror about saying anything critical about Third World peoples (racism, Islamophobia) while it is considered noble to criticize “ourselves.” On top of that is the assumption that no one can really be radical. They are just responding to past mistreatment and will revert to being moderate the minute the oppression is corrected.

So constantly we are led to an artificial optimism that ignores threats or even converts them into benefits.

How many examples I see every day!

A group of young Palestinians in Fatah, who explicitly say they want to wipe out Israel, form a new group and—hocus-pocus—we are informed that this is the long-awaited Palestinian equivalent of the dovish Israeli Peace Now movement!

We are told that the Libyan masses are fighting for democracy against dictator Muammar Qadhafi and suddenly we have prisoners being tortured and murdered, arms being sold to terrorists elsewhere, gun battles among factions, and a radical Islamist state emerging.

In Turkey the regime arrests hundreds of people, represses the media, pushes women out of government jobs, promotes antisemitism and, voila!, it is first called moderate Muslim (they deny it is Islamist) and then promoted (?) to moderate Islamist!

Radicals (except in the West?) are apparently representatives of backward, irrational, primitive societies and so if all Third World societies are equal to those of the West they just can’t have such people. Everyone must be a moderate, concerned about global warming and ecology; dedicated to democracy; and passionate about getting more material goods as the highest goal in life.

It never ceases to amaze me that those who most loudly proclaim Multiculturalism, diversity, and the equality of all societies simply can’t seem to comprehend that cultures and societies are different. They are in fact diverse! Living 40 years under Muammar Qadhafi in a semi-literate, tribal-based society does not create people like those on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And not even the Upper West Side for that matter.

Equally ironic, is that while Western elites are quick to look down on their own unwashed masses (bitterly clinging to their guns, religion, and hating outsiders, right?), they fail to comprehend that this is precisely the central theme throughout the Middle East and many other parts of the world.

Perhaps I should suggest an amazing new formula that would make it easy for Western elites to understand what’s going on in the Middle East:

Just think of the Islamists in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Turkey; the regimes in Iran and Syria; Hamas, Hizballah, and even the Palestinian Authority as being like the … Tea Party!

Scary, huh?

[end of Rubin article]

Now here is Jim Kalb’s reply to me in a September 2011 VFR discussion about a New York Times article which acknowledged that “Activists marching under the banner of Islam are on the verge of achieving decisive power across the region.” Notice on how many points Barry Rubin’s analysis is similar to Mr. Kalb’s:

From the stuff you’ve posted, it looks like the Times, in line with their general approach to things, has been persistently and somewhat mindlessly optimistic as to likely developments and the people involved. I don’t know if I’d call that Orwellian exactly. It does lead to distortion and incoherence when they report events, all in defense of a dominant party and its ideology. So the effect is rather similar.

What I’d say is that they are acting like secular journalists who are Conscious Of Their Responsibility. People in that position have to make instant sense of every possible event among every kind of people everywhere in the world, otherwise they couldn’t put out the morning edition, and they have to do so in a way that gives practical guidance to decisionmakers.

To do that they need a story line that applies automatically to everything. Once they have the story line they’re going to resist changing it, because then their world would fall into chaos, and this world during their lifetime is all that exists for them. In addition, they’d be unable to perform their function of providing a usable account of events for officials, concerned citizens, people who want to be part of what’s happening, etc.

The story line is that contemporary liberalism, which is the view that motivates and justifies the dominant tendencies in present-day government and intellectual life, fully realizes what’s right and just and fulfilling. That makes it the natural way to look at things. It’s not that hard a problem, so on general everybody’s going to settle into it as the way to go. Anything else would be weird, and you shouldn’t assume weirdness, so events should be interpreted as part of that process.

Views like Islam are also attempts to realize what’s right and just and fulfilling. It follows that Islam’s most intelligent, insightful, disinterested, and committed adherents are going to realize that their tradition is really just a particular way of approximating contemporary liberalism, so there’s no conflict. Ditto for the masses of Muslims. They can’t have a special ideological ax to grind, because they’re the masses and ideology is something for special interests, so they’re just trying to pursue in their own way the normal human goals fully realized in liberalism. There’s no way to keep the fundamental identity between Islam and liberalism a secret, since we have TV, Internet, etc. Now, so in the coming years people are going to realize it more and more.

Responsible journalists should do what they can to forward the process. They should encourage change, since change is generally for the better, be open to Muslims and Muslim views, since at bottom we all end up in the same place and openness makes the progression easier, and above all fight prejudice and misunderstanding, the view that the Other is other in the extraordinarily radical sense that he’s not at bottom a contemporary liberal. Because if that were so he wouldn’t be a human being at all, since contemporary liberalism is the true and perfect and obvious expression of humanity. That would be crazy and irrational. It’s the sort of thing Republicans and conservative Christians think. It would mean that Auschwitz or something like it is a good idea. Why do you think the Times should push such a view?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 19, 2011 10:40 AM | Send

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