Notes From Babel

Our (Hidden) Prejudice Against the Middle East

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Almost all of my reflections on the Middle East derive one way or another from conversations with a very good friend of mine who, although Indian and not Middle Eastern, is Muslim and thus attuned to potential prejudices that his fellow Americans might have with respect to the region. During our email discussion today, he suggested I read Orientalism by William Said, and gave a very good explanation why it was important.


Honestly, that’s what I feel that most intelligent, respectable, and well-intentioned people in this country suffer from. Even you, who I think is an exception because you have known me personally, just imagine, even you in spite of knowing me for all these years, still have a slight bit of this uneasiness (I won’t call it prejudice but I’ll just say uneasiness and insecurity… ie something doesn’t sit right with you… it’s very subconscious and that’s what makes it even more dangerous in my opinion) . So if even YOU have it, then why wouldn’t most Westerners have it way more than you? And this is where I believe that fear about not letting the Islamic world flourish or thrive comes in… that fear breeds more fear and suspicion and mistrust, and then it leads to policies of continued subjugation of the people and systematic oppression of them (or simply tacit approval of continued oppression… best example being when you stated you know some US policies aren’t right but when it came down to someone talking about actually making the changes, I think it was Ron Paul, it just didn’t sit right with you for some reason).

This is an excerpt from your email to me a few months ago:

So really this turns into an anthropological issue: what do these people believe? Why do they believe it? (And I don’t mean just about Islam: a people’s presuppositions about anything stem from their geography, climate, culture, religion, not to mention their neighbors, who are in turn influenced by all those things as well.)

The principle question that is itching me is, why exactly has the Middle East has always been a such a crucible of conflict? And while I am skeptical at the heavy handed approach, I have come to also be skeptical that the answer could be as simple as having someone like Ron Paul or Barack Obama sit down “without preconditions.” Could it all be as simple as that? And wasn’t that Jimmy Carter’s approach as well?

But maybe this is what I really should have clarified: I don’t think that any people are any better or worse than us. In fact, that’s even a useless statement in my mind, because in some ways I’m kind of a relativist. “As good as” America? “As good as” anyone else? What does that mean? That one has to have technology, progress, a certain kind of culture, a certain level of wealth? No. But many people will say that our freedom makes us good, something to be looked up to. But the philosophy of freedom has many subtleties, and the American view of it is only arguably better — again, depending on what presuppositions you bring to the table. Jean Jacque Rousseau, for example, wrote the famous line “man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.” The “chains” here are his own desires for control, wealth, power. We cannot be free, truly free, without being free of our evil inclinations. Later he wrote that we must be “forced to be free.” This line has been used both to criticize and praise Rousseau — again, depending on your point of view, your presuppositions.

Also this:

Again, I know very little about Iran’s government and what policies and viewpoints it actually espouses. (I.e., a rousseau-ian/hegelian view of freedom, or the Lockean/American view of individual liberty). But my point is, where I used to just give such governments the benefit of the doubt (because I thought it was so absurd that people would give their lives over to the state), I can no longer do that, because I now see that it is quite possible.

So, how can you assure me that the vast majority of Iranian people want this?

Anyways, my impression is that you view me and other Muslims like me living here in America as some kind of enlightened minority, somehow innocently detached from the “real” majority of the Muslim world and all of its cruel and brutal realities—realities that you simply cannot take any chances on and feel extremely uneasy about changing any US foreign policy status quo on. Almost as if its like a self defense mechanism… you don’t know enough about it, but you don’t want to rock the boat because what’s been happening seems to keep you and others safe and living normally so let’s not risk anything right now even if it means taking a risk that we are keeping some injustices and evils going.

So although its not a prejudice of the sorts we are used to seeing (ie racism) its another type of prejudice that starts with ignorance of the unknown and then gets strengthened by the manipulation of ideas that you have been subjected to in certain circles, which have only fed your fears and suspicions further and further.

Can you honestly feel open enough to a Muslim and Christian co-existence the way that you have been taught by the establishment to respect the “Judeo-Christian” realm? That’s the question you have to ask yourself and if you have any qualms whatsoever therein lies my point. I don’t blame you, I just want you to recognize it’s there.


Written by Tim Kowal

January 22, 2009 at 1:07 am

Posted in Islam, Middle East

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