Jackson Doughart
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Learning from Islam; or, Qualifying 'West is Best'
Originally published as 'Multiculturalism teaches empty clichés instead of the real value of other cultures'

The Holy Post, 06 February 2013

The case against multiculturalism cannot be stated often or clearly enough, either from left-wing critics who see the “politics of difference” as a challenge to the universal claims of liberalism, or from right-wing ones who recognize the poisoning effects of cultural relativism upon our own sense of history, citizenship, and community. I think that both of these arguments are convincing, and are grounds for abandoning an ideology of self-abnegation. But there may be a danger in the pendulum swinging too far in the opposite direction, where blindly asserting the superiority of Western civilization can limit our genuine interest in the practices of others and the possibility of improving our own way of life through this inquiry. I have in mind two examples of Western cultural practices that have been criticised from an Islamic point of view, which are deserving of some attention.

The first involves the superficial nature of our cultural production and of the consumerism with which we occupy so much of our time and energy. These tendencies were observed by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb during his visit to the United States from 1948 to 1950. Qutb was by any definition a nasty character, having been the principal influence upon future Islamic fundamentalists such as Abdullah Azzam, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and Osama bin Laden. Yet his take on the shortcomings of the American way of life were nonetheless interesting and worthy of note. Particularly in his essay “The America that I Have Seen” (1951), Qutb articulated his dismay with an American culture that he had respected before his visit, particularly due to its innovation and industriousness. Of this feeling, he wrote that, “America’s genius in management and organization evokes wonder and admiration. America’s bounty and prosperity evokes the dreams of the Promised Land. The beauty that is manifested in its landscape, in the faces and physiques of its people is spellbinding.” But Qutb also noted that, “[A]ll of American ingenuity is concentrated in the field of work and production, so much so that no ability remains to advance the field of human values.” He believed that this inability was the root of many obscene traits in American cultural life, such as popular and trivial obsessions with celebrity culture, professional sports, automobiles, the accumulation of property, and vulgar aestheticism. One need not accede to any of Qutb’s religious or political views to recognize that the man had a point, even some sixty years on, when we continue to be inundated with junky distractions that encroach on the life of learning and cultivation.

Moving from the writings of any one Muslim, the general position of the Islamic religion about banking may also prove interesting when compared to our own practices. A sharp contrast can be observed between the well-known Islamic prohibition of interest in economic transactions and the Western attitude toward same. Despite being a preoccupation of Medieval Catholic thought, usury has ceased to be considered a dishonourable or even controversial way to earn one’s living. The existence of numerous payday-loan chains that prey upon vulnerable persons surely speaks to some degree of moral degeneration in our society. Please note that I am not chiding instrumental justifications for some interest: It stands to reason that if there were no threat of penalty, one would doubtless be less motivated to pay his credit card balance or mortgage increment on schedule. What I’m speaking of here is the dubious practice of loaning people money, often needed for legitimate purposes, on the condition that they pay disproportionate rates of interest if they are unable to repay the loan by the deadline. Many of these outfits’ customers are already in dire financial straits, which is presumably why they seek high-interest loans in the first place, meaning that the likelihood of both an eventual giant payout for the loan shark and further misery for the borrower is strong. The entire business can thus be described as a sordid enterprise that gambles with people’s lives, where the lender has a vested interest in depravity. Whatever we may think of Islam, devout Muslims seem to hold a view of this subject that is much more humane than our own.

The upshot of this discussion is not to equalize Western and Muslim societies, or to equalize secularism and Islam, but to show that we can certainly learn things from other peoples if we keep our eyes open. My worry is that trumpeting the “West is Best” thesis, while imperative to undermining the non-judgmental status quo, may inadvertently result in an unfounded societal hubris, based on the clearly mistaken view that Western cultural practices are superior by the mere fact that they are Western. What makes the West best is not simply that it is our civilisation, but that it has developed a social and political model best conducive to the ends of human happiness and freedom. Nevertheless, this does not mean that the West has a monopoly on the Truth, or that there is no mean between the extremes of relativism and triumphalism.

And far from favouring the “politics of difference”, the above observations suggest the need for an openness to cultural differences that the multicultural ideology cannot provide. This is because multiculturalism is predicated upon a racial and cultural determinism that can only value the superficial appearance of diversity, as opposed to a substantive openness to different ways of life. A good way to illustrate this is the way that many contemporary multiculturalists claim the legacy of Orientalist scholars, and particularly their belief that non-Western cultures are caricatured by the West for imperial purposes. But the Orientalists, and to a greater extent the early generation of cultural anthropologists, took this as a mere starting point in real scholarship about other societies, which involved actual field work, the learning of actual languages, and absorption in actual cultures. On the other hand, the advancement of multiculturalism requires only the empty, clichéd words of “equality”, “difference”, and “diversity”, instead of actual respect, which can only come from knowledge and the willingness to pass informed judgment. Instead of denying the common and civic way of life in Western liberal-democracies — which is the essential project of multiculturalism — the differences between our culture and others should prompt a climate of conversation, scholarship, and self-reflection that is well worth pining for.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com