Looking in the mirror

In a recent interview, Karen Armstrong was asked: “So, when we in the West talk about religion as the cause of this violence, how much are we letting ourselves off the hook, and using religion as a way to ignore our role in the roots of this violence?”

We’re in danger of making a scapegoat of things, and not looking at our own part in this. When we look at these states and say, “Why can’t they get their act together? Why can’t they see that secularism is the better way? Why are they so in thrall to this benighted religion of theirs? What savages they are,” and so on, we’ve forgotten to see our implication in their histories.

We came to modernity under our own steam. It was our creation. It had two characteristics. One of these was independence — your Declaration of Independence is a typical modernizing document. And you have thinkers and scientists demanding free thought and independent thinking. This was essential to our modernity. But in the Middle East, in the colonized countries, modernity was a colonial subjection, not independence.

Without a sense of independence and a driving force for innovation, however many skyscrapers and fighter jets you may possess, and computers and technological gadgets, without these qualities you don’t really have the modern spirit. That modern spirit is almost impossible to acquire in countries where modernity has been imposed from outside.

Instead, modernity is seen as a threat, a further humiliation. Fundamentalism and all its associated ills is a natural, if terribly unhappy, result. That we in turn become afraid, and angry, is equally natural. As Armstrong says “It’s also very easy to hate people we’ve wronged. If you wrong somebody there is a huge sense of resentment and distress.”

And so it goes, with each side deeply convinced of their rectitude and ever more resentful of the other’s apparent intransigence.

At a NATO conference where Armstrong had been asked to speak, a number of attendees expressed their unhappiness with the Muslim “invasion”.

Similarly, a Dutch person got up and said, “This is my culture, and these migrants are destroying and undermining our cultural achievements.” I said, “Now you, as the Netherlands, a former imperial power, are beginning to get a pinprick of the pain that happened when we went into these countries and changed them forever. They’re with us now because we went to them first; this is just the next stage of colonization. We made those countries impossible to live in, so here they are now with us.”

It’s not that these Muslim countries were inherently good while we were bad. Not at all. If anything, I would (cautiously) argue the contrary. However, ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire we’ve had the whip hand, we’ve been the ones imposing our will and such extended exercises in arrogance generally come with a heavy pricetag.

Until we understand and acknowledge our responsibility for perverting whatever course the Middle East would have taken absent our interventions, we will continue to do more harm than good.


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