Friday, May 20, 2011

Who is the 'East' in 'East and West'?

I found the article on the (In)compatibility of Human Rights and the Islamic Doctrine by Matthew Machowski conscientiously written and enlightening. My criticism towards the article is that, like the contemporary discourse on Islam, it is Middle Eastern centric. To be fair, the writer's research focus is on the Middle East, North Africa and Europe (like most scholars, journalists and commentators post 9/11 and/or the Clash of Civilisations).

I understand that the focus on Middle East is a result of a long history between the 'East and the West', international politics and power play, and, of course, oil. What I criticise is the denomination of the 'Islamic world' - as if muslims form a homogenous, unified and collective identity synonymous to Middle Eastern culture. All the more important for Asian thinkers (South, Southeast, East, Central, Asia Pacific) to write about socio-cultural practices of Islam, the implication of international politics and transnational movements in the region.

62% of the world's muslims live in Asia; Indonesia being the country with the most muslim population in the world (195.272.000) with Pakistan (160.829.450), India (154.500.000) and Bangladesh (129.681.509) coming in second, third and fourth respectively.

So why then, when one mentions Islam, the image that comes to mind is a mullah with a beard and a turban?

In spite of being home to the world's largest muslim population, Indonesia is not an Islamic state. The violent acts conducted by extremists are so far proven to be transnational movements aligned with Al Qaeda. There is a current trend of moderation done by mainstream muslim civil societies in Indonesia, relatively supported by the media and even more so with social media, to counter radicalisation. Democracy, with all its weaknesses in theory and practice, is continually being shaped by pragmatic, secular politics, a critical press, a commercial media system, idealist educational elites and a silent majority.

Yesterday, while interviewing a script writer of Islamic programmes for my thesis, he asked me why I chose this topic (Islam, national identity and the television industry). I have always been reserved towards revealing my own ideological position - perhaps for a lack of having one.

But I suppose I have revealed it pretty clearly here.

Oh, and here.


matt tavares said...

First, I think it's interesting that 9/11 impacts others around the world too. I just figured we Americans assumed it was important to the rest of the world. Your mention of it hints that it's on the minds of the world outside the states.

Secondly, to the point of your post, I think it's easier to make generalizations, like other prejudices. For instance, big news in the US now is that a particular Christian denomination is predicting the end of the world on May 21st. This makes Christianity as a whole look bad. I think things like this and the one you're getting at make it easier for people just to discount Christianity or Islam immediately. It's easier that way for the human psyche.

The problem is, people throw out a lot of beauty along with it.

It's amazing that these similarities show through different mediums despite living on the opposite side of the world from one another.

Inaya Rakhmani said...

9/11 impacted international politics and, unfortunately, gave hope to radical groups that violence could be means to the redistribution of power. So yes, it's in the minds of people all over the world, I think.

It is indeed easier for the human psyche to withdraw from anything that seems un-rational or unfavourable. Although I agree that it does make certain religions look bad, I think it goes deeper than 'image'. I think it shows an inequality of power; giving way to injustice which is the breeding ground for radicalism.

I've read about the 'Dark Ages' in Christianity, many writers compare Islam related radicalism to that period.

But I think I digress.

Ratri said...

Mba Inaya,
as always your posts on this particular issue has always been my favorite :) As you have mentioned there have been efforts by mainstream Muslims civil societies, supported by medias, to promote the concepts of moderate Islam. And the efforts to mend the relationship between the 'West' and Muslim communities are also globally conducted by world leaders and international institutions or media.

Obama through his foreign polices, has carried out events involving Muslim countries in entrepreneurship sectors by giving aids to improve their economy. Queen Rania of Jordan is an interesting one. With a Muslim and Middle-Eastern identity, she continuously promote the understanding between East-West communities.Her efforts has successfully engaged western communities, especially the media, to support her movements by appearing in Oprah, Good Morning America and other well known talk shows. She even received an award from youtube which gave her her own channel to support these goals.

My question is, with such global movements to bring down stereotypes and mend this significant relationship, why is it the acts to stereotype of others coming from different cultures and religious believes are still coming from both sides everyday? These includes east-west communities, modern-conventional societies, and so on. Could it be the years of embedded ideas on certain race and/or culture, the socio-economic imbalance, or the people's lack of trust towards these elites? After all, diplomacy theory suggests that all acts of diplomacy are always based on self interest.

I've discussed this with Matt few months ago. How the long history of colonialism by western countries towards the eastern have more/less shaped their relationship in the long run, and until today. And yes, I got this from your class Analisis Kritis :)

As always looking forward to your response,
your big fan ;)

colson said...

Though I think religion in the public sphere is getting more and more prominently present, your article itself is proof of the traditional and "current trend of moderation".

No doubt these days the perception of Islam by numerous people in the West is suffering from huge and regrettable stereotypes. Though a brave intellectuals try their utmost to keep standards of rationality, a loud bunch of writers and media-personalities have left all nuances behind them. (Actually to quite a few Westerners - including my notorious compatriot and demagogue Wilders f.i.- Muslims are their dearest bogeymen. To find their own identity, they need to have an enemy first. It's like the way communists were perceived in the age of the cold war - 'some are evil, so all them are evil.')

I can't but agree with you the stereotype is composed of a distorted perception of a Middle East, mainly Saudi Arabic, and Iranian 'reality'. However the peculiar practice of Islam PR in Pakistan and some African countries has made major contributions also.

I do think however Indonesian Muslims usually are excluded in the common stereotype. In spite of acts of terror in Bali and Jakarta the media at home (The Netherlands) maintain the general picture of a moderate Indonesian Islam.

Inaya Rakhmani said...

@Ratri: The strained relationship between the Arab world and Western Europe, and the US since WW2, goes so far back (e.g. Andalucia, Ottoman, Vald the Impaler, etc) that some experts do think the notion of 'self and other' is embedded into our collective subconscious. Although it's far fetched, it's a plausible idea.

Add that to the greater power imbalance in international politics, poverty (and a global media that is immersed with Western stereotypes); then you have a breeding ground for radicalism. When people don't have the power to speak, they speak with their hands.

The rational in me thinks that nothing will change drastically anytime soon. It's too deeply rooted for it to change with, like you mentioned, politically interested public diplomacy and/or moderation from various groups on a socio-cultural level.

But see how Said's Orientalism changed (although not singlehandedly) the public discourse and the Western approach to perceiving the East. It's an extremely slow process, but still possible.

@Colson: I use Wilders' case as an example in class to discuss about freedom of expression. The enemy, or the other, is to both ends. The Arab world responded violently as well. You also have the fatwa against figures like Hirshi Ali, Salman Rushdie, and, of course, Theo van Gogh. It's difficult to say that it's not a clash of civilisation, but amidst the dispute, the majority of moderate muslims are too docile to speak and/or provided with no tools to do so.

I also agree that Islam (though by definition, it's terrorism) is the 'anti-ideology' of toady's world. When we lack a common goal as a global society, leaders need a common enemy to undermine our fragmentation.

I agree that the portrayal of Indonesian muslims by the Dutch media and academia is relatively moderate (I studied in the Netherlands for a couple of years). There's an effort to understand more because of our shared history (to be politically correct).

ade said...

Inaya, tapi memang ada satu hal penting yang harus diingat: dengan cara penafsiran yang tidak kritis, islam memang bisa menjelma menjadi kekuatan anti HAM.
Kalau Inaya baca ayat-ayat Al Quran yang bicara tentang peperangan, memang mudah sekali digunakan untuk menjustifikasi praktek2 ketidaktoleranan dan pelanggaran HAM.
Karena itu, menurutku, yang diperlukan adalah sebuah 'renaissance' dalam islam.
Yang diubah adalah cara memahami ajaran Islam. Hanya kalau rekonstruksi ini terjadi, Islam bisa membawa kebaikan bagi dunia.