In the wake of Bin Laden’s death and the Arab Spring sweeping the Middle East, academics of politics, philosophy, history and anthropology are debating the possibilities for the emerging global order of the future. One of those debates occurred right here in St Andrews last Wednesday. The subject “Islam and the West” could fairly be argued as a cheap façade for the two speakers who, both of the same political persuasion, proceeded to expound their own alarmist impressions of Islamic culture without volunteering any initiatives for combating what they perceived as the greatest problem facing Western society. However, what was so shameful about this “debate” was not their panic-mongering, but their assertion that fundamentalism is a phenomenon occurring only in Islamic States. That poverty, dictatorships, female suppression, intolerance and radicalism only exists in these places because of Islam, and as such, effectively that claiming Western society was better is superior: that such things as scholarship, art, music, social community and welfare were all concepts that only Western society was capable of achieving.
Surely, this “expert opinion” is practically the embodiment of neo-colonial style racism?! Not only were the “experts” claiming that Western culture is superior, but that its wealth and enterprise are also unattainable for non-western civilisations. Despite my agitation, it must be conceded that these men and their theories are not lone stars in the political arena. Indeed attitudes of forced integration have driven the “burqa ban” in France, and the immigration caps in Britain. However, in both cases, the people most affected are such an incredibly small minority of the perceived target group, that the legislation will almost certainly fail to have the desired effect.
I was not the only one to leave the lecture theatre feeling offended, and disbelieving that these important theorists could be influencing government policy in such a detrimentally narrow-minded way. In response to this lack-lustre debate, an open discussion hosted by STAR radio and the Foreign Affairs Society took place. The topic was broader; “Democracy and Islam”, and there were no leading thinkers present, but probably a good few leaders of tomorrow.
Most importantly what came out of this retort was establishing that the concerns of terrorism, economic hardship and autocratic rulers were indeed worldly phenomenon. In disadvantaged countries it is not Islam in particular that drives social upheaval, but a sense of disenfranchisement, of underrepresentation and repression. At many points in both ancient and modern history the idea of extremism has been pervaded as a label for protagonists, from the assassination of Caesar, to the Russian Revolution, where Brutus was called a radical republican, and Communism, for nearly a century, would be branded as a disruptive evil. Within the current wave of political change sweeping the Middle East, it is the youth and not the devout who are maintaining the front; educated, energetic people who have had access to the greatest information hub on the globe. I think theorists are grossly underestimating these people’s understanding.
In addition the Middle East is not the only place seeing a rise in youth activity: the British National Party and the German Neo-Nazis both boast overactive wings of young people. However we are not holding them up as symbolic of all European politics and culture, yet in the case of a single fundamentalist Muslim, the international impression is that their opinions and actions are representative of 1.5 billion Muslims. This is an attitude that is just as dangerous and feeds into the neo-colonial ideas above. It creates suspicion and paranoia – the kind that compels governments to proclaim ‘Wars on Terror’ even though we all know terror is a verb and therefore not strictly an object we can perpetrate battle on. If the international community cannot disassociate its fears of a small group of radicals from the majority of progressives how are the majority ever going to get a foothold on the international ladder? World media has been much in praise of the Arab Spring, until its consequences reverberate to their own doorsteps in the form of refugees and asylum seekers.
In fact migrants are the greater fear of many Western democracies, these are groups of people with mixed abilities, and purposes, with either some or no connections with the country they have moved to, sometimes barely speaking the language. For liberal governments these people have become their responsibility, but they are uncertain how to treat them. Do they integrate them into the system, but risk them becoming marginalised by the native populace, or do they provide accommodations which will invariably also mark them as different from the majority? Literally this is how “home-grown”, as the British like to call them, terrorists are created. They move from one form of ostracisation to another, feeling isolated from the national community abroad but not a part of the mainstream society of their new home. Their reaction is the same, regardless of the country they find themselves in. I am not defending terrorism but disclosing certain facts about humanity; that it is capable of the harshest actions regardless of religious, political or cultural background.
More importantly these attributes should be considered as tools for men and women to utilise. Regardless of how strongly worded a certain doctrine might be, or how strictly enforced are particular laws, it is people – individuals – who define a movement. The persuasion of their rhetoric will characterise the actions that follow, and no deed will be unique to one religion or culture, but it will be our reactions as the educated public that will dictate how our fellow citizens are globally perceived in the future.