Interesting article by Edward Said in today’s Le Monde: Le choc de l’ignorance (the clash of ignorance):

“La these du choc des civilisations est un gadget comme ‘La Guerre des Mondes’, plus efficace pour renforcer un orgueil defensif que pour acceder a une comprehension critique de la stupefiante interdependance de notre epoque.

I am not sure if the article has already been published in English, but, essentially, this is Said’s answer to Samuel Huntington’s “The clash of civilizations.”

Huntington’s argument was that the world was now entering a new phase in which the primary sources of conflict will not be political or economic, but rather cultural, with the West on one side, and Islam on the other. That simplistic view found an astonishing resonance here in the US, and the article by Edward Said explores some of the reasons why this type of dichotomy is misguided.

Put briefly, this paradigm of the West vs. Islam is meant to be symbolic of the struggle between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” It assumes that culture is a simple construct, not the complex, heterogeneous, and multi-faceted animal it really is. It further bases itself on the fact that the Western view is the superior one, and that any other dissenting views are flawed by definition.

Said also asks why it is that the terrorist attacks are not framed in their appropriate context–that they were the actions of a small number of extremists, cultists really, similar to actions by followers of Jim Jones in Guyana, or the Branch Davidians in the US, or Aum Shinri Yo in Japan. He answers that the point of this type of contextualization is to inflame people’s indignation, not educate them. He argues that this type of thinking muddies the issues, and in the end contributes to more ignorance (hence the title).

He goes on to talk about a few articles by Eqbal Ahmad, who had, two years ago, warned about the tendency in certain Muslim milieus to focus on religious jurisprudence and how this ends up stripping Islam of its humanity, esthetism, and exegesis. He mentions Heart of Darkness (one of my favorite books, by the way) and lauds Joseph Conrad for having seen, back at the turn of the 20th century, that civilization is a varnish that is quickly cracked in extreme situations. All of this is by way of saying that we are all interconnected, that it is useless, false, and downright dangerous to claim that we are One, and that there is Another.


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