Civilizational Attitudes

  I recommend readers research postcolonial studies – and especially the book Orientalism – after reading this. I also apologize for the abhorrently academic tone of this article; I’ve lately been reading too much of the Arab ezine Jadaliyya.

The more I think about it the more I realize that the hardest thing I find to talk about with others in genuine, constructive conversation is Islam and South Asian culture. In a broader context, theistic religions in general, Islamic civilization, and my cultural background are intensely difficult to discuss and talk about with someone from the outside. I suspect most people that have some sort of biculturalness with two different worlds have similar sentiment. I try to put my tongue on the reason frequently, but I always fail. This article will hopefully be a more successful attempt.

I like to think that I’m quite articulate with my thoughts when it comes to writing. I can organize and strategically argue most ideas that I agree with, and although others may still disagree I can take solace in the belief that I’m right. But perhaps the ability to articulate comes with a presumption that the other side will see some truth in the argument if they’re thinking clearly, and that I wouldn’t have to explain and justify prefaces.

After all, I can’t remember the last time I engaged in a lengthy conversation with someone from an entirely different civilizational attitude. There is such a thing, but most people would deny it. I would like to give a lengthy rebut to those people, but such an argument is one of the terribly difficult things to argue. To engage in such a discussion about why there are civilizational attitudes with someone who only has one would require a conversation with virtually no preconceptions, little shared ground, and few relatable experiences. The idea of civilizational attitudes is a viewpoint that takes a book just to explain, much less argue to someone who doesn’t share the idea.

Having successfully failed to justify the idea of civilizational attitudes, allow me now to explain what that has to do with my own predicament. Being an American Muslim, I am Western – which comes with its cultures, values, and modes of thinking – but I also have a very authentic relationship and identity with Islam as a whole –its cultures, values, and modes of thinking. Most people and friends of mine that experience this two world phenomenon are often stuck in situations where their civilizations collide and they are left at ultimatums. I personally don’t get this often as both a South Asian Muslim and an American, but I think the element of this article is just as intense if not deeper.

When talking about Islam with non-Muslims and even some Muslims, I’m at a loss with words. How am I to justify an idea or a concept efficiently when it was evolved from 1400 years of thought that the other has no familiarity with? Too, how am I to explain something when the other has biases that didn’t emerge just in their lifetime, but have been going on perpetually for centuries if not millennia? The word “jihad” or “Sharia” or “Allah Akbar” strikes terror in the eyes and ears and minds of many Westerners in ways I could never understand, and to even come to some sort of explanation that not just clears away misconceptions and preconceptions but actually expresses the idea in an internal light demands putting away one’s entire body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking just to understand.

It is not easy, and arguably impossible. When I try to articulate, I get caught up in the idea that the other will not understand I cease to even try to make an explanation comprehensible. And then when I try to make an explanation comprehensible, I fail miserably since, well, the explanation requires a book if not more. It requires ripping apart not just all the misconceptions and preconceptions, but one’s entire Western body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking.

Likewise, people get weirded out when I talk about “the West” and ideas that are unique to it – basically half of what postcolonial studies is about. Most Westerners are foreign to even thinking about the West from the outside. People find it hard enough to understand the idea of intrusion, hegemony, imperialism, and the like. When I discuss those words, I’m not talking about the distancing idea of the American empire, but about our everyday expression of ideas. It really is true, for me and for many of those who have this bicivilizational experience, that a friend’s idea can be hegemonic in its outcome and intent. To say, for example, – good heartedly and well intentioned – that “I want to liberate women” or “I demand religious freedom” in countries and cultures distant from one’s own can very well be a telling sign of imperialistic attitudes that are only understood when looked at from the outside.

Words fail me even then to say what is so hegemonic about exterior liberation or foreign pressure to internally change. That such expressions are oppressive in their nature is about as difficult to explain as the topic at hand, religion.

When I try in any fashion of any sort to explain my own religious beliefs or practices and why I choose them, it becomes nearly impossible for the other to see them in any empathetic light unless the other is also deeply and devoutly theistic. Then, the body of cultures, values, and modes of thinking are already shared and no immense justification is necessary. But for all the other times, the ways of thinking are so alien to the other it becomes almost pointless to try and explain.

Try I must, however, and occasionally try I do. While it usually ends in what I would describe as a disaster, some sort of mutual understanding of the “otherness” arises, which isn’t all that bad since it is an understanding at some degree. Still yet, however, there is often an unacknowledgement of the idea that humans are at very fundamental levels different. That acknowledgement unfortunately requires having differences at fundamental levels, which is something only a few of us share. Which leads back to the very beginning of the problem – expressing the idea of fundamental civilizational differences requires having them. Like many things, the problem is tragically circular.

“What do you do…

“What do you do with the past in order to construct the future? Do you forget it? Or do you face it? If you remember too much, you may be captured by it. But if you don’t remember enough, you may be erasing your origins. ” — Ariel Dorfman

Ariel Dorfman is a Chilean playwright, novelist, and activist.


I do not recall where I found the quote first, but it was used here on the Chicago Tribune.