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The Muhammad caricatures (3)
The speck and the log:
We must learn to see our
own cultural blindness


PressInfo # 235

 March 17, 2006


Jan Oberg, TFF director

Muhammad (1) Freedom of Suppression

Muhammad (2) But there is a context !

Muhammad (3) We must learn to see our own cultural blindness

Denna artikel på svenska

Denne artikel på dansk

If something leads to the worst political crisis since 1945 in an otherwise stable, democratic country such as Denmark, it should be worth asking some deeper questions: What is this about? Can those leading and living in Denmark learn something from it both as Danes and as Westerners? Can other Westerners? And can we do things differently in the future?

If we ask such questions, we also invite those who have burned Danish flags and embassies to reflect on whether there could be better methods to show their legitimate disagreement.

As things stand today, extremists on both sides do nothing but confirm the worst images of "the other" and thus an uncontrolled spiral of hate and monologue threatens civilisation. Worst images lead to worst case scenarios, to the end of civilised behaviour and - perhaps sooner rather than later - of civilisation itself.

There is enough destructive energy under the sky. But let's not forget that even a tiny positive thought can move mountains if picked up at the right time. At the end of this third article I make some very general proposals.


Two sides of the globalisation coin

The Muhammad caricatures belong to the "soft" or deeper sphere of culture. But in the heat of the debate there have been surprisingly few attempts at cultural - and civilizational - interpretations.

Should I put one word on it at that level it would be racism. Perhaps cultural blindness and lack of fundamental empathy across cultures. There is a conspicuous lack of understanding of the inter-cultural facts of the modern globalized world.

Denmark belongs to the Western world, the Occidental civilisation. Many appreciate its main features, its creativity, technological progress and cultural production; many around the world feel attracted to it, see it as a model - albeit fewer than before.

But then Western culture also exhibits the famous other side of the coin: blind dominance - often in the name of doing good - together with misguided missionary zeal and the racism-based worldview that places ourselves on top as # 1, as masters and teachers and others below us as servants and pupils. In short a remarkably blind but culturally programmed contempt for those who are not like us, are below us and less strong and worthy of our contempt only. This is the philosophy that permits us to do to "them" what we would never accept "them" doing to us - or, more softly, to only teach them and never feel that we could learn from them too.

Take the implications of the traditional division of the world into the First, Second, Third and Fourth world. It is a civilizational ladder on which we are at the top and others stand lower. Given this image, it is only natural that they look up to us and we look down to - or upon - them. And those lower will be civilised when they move up the ladder and become like us. The exchanges such as development, aid, media training, democratization, human rights, security, etc are all one-way: from "us" to "them." We are the missionaries, they are the disciples, we have the solutions - and they should be grateful.

With the West being and having the economic and military driving forces behind globalisation, it is taken for granted by the West that others want it our way too. So blind have we become that we thoughtlessly promote the view that there is only one economy possible (neo-liberal capitalism), only one way of creating security (military including nuclear and alliance membership), only one set of values - namely those Western ones we promote as universal. It may be civil liberties and human rights but never economic need satisfaction for all, social justice or employment , let alone human dignity. In contrast we seldom bother about the biggest human rights violation of all called poverty; it is built into capitalism. So while officially we offer them freedom, choice and pluralism they get actually only two option: be like us or perish, it's up to you!

We seem genuinely unable to see why our policies are met with resistance. How come, we are doing good, we are helping them, aren't we? The way others may see it is that we have exploited them, gotten richer while they got poorer. Our efforts at forced democratization (a contradiction in terms) are seen as occupation. Our nuclear weapons are seen out there as a threat by and to "them."

We even seem unable to see that it is we who have built bases, bombed and occupied them - Palestine, Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq - while they have done nothing like that to us. They are unable to. We are superior. The Americans make up a good 4 per cent of the world's people but consume 48 per cent of the world's military resources. What do we think they feel about that?

One side of the coin is what we think of ourselves. The other side is what they think of us. No one, strong or weak, can afford anymore to ignore the other side of the coin. And forcing people to share our view of ourselves is a recipe for world destruction, no less.

Is culturally based racism or cultural imperialism too strong concepts for these basic features of West's operations in the world community? Yes, undoubtedly for those who have not had a chance to see our own culture through empathetic eyes, i.e. by living themselves into the perspectives of those who are outside looking in upon the Western world.


The Danish Prime Minister

The Danish Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, may serve as an example, probably without knowing or wanting to. He is simply not trained to see the world in a broader perspective. Here is what he stated in a long personal interview in the Danish daily Berlingske Tidende on October 3, 2003: "We must have the courage to say that we believe our values are better and more valuable than other values."

The Prime Minister does not seem to have asked himself if the values and norms of different cultures can be compared. But it is philosophical nonsense to state for instance that Christian values are in and of themselves objectively better and should count more than Islamic values - or vice versa, for that matter. Even if you could compare apples and oranges, what would the criteria for "better" be? And who would be the judge?

His statement carries the seeds of racism. There are the civilised on top with their higher values, the teachers and masters. There are lower-level human beings below who must be taught how to behave themselves - i.e. like us - one way or the other. But where does this worldview - or lack of it - come from? Which books of faith, culture and global affairs has the Prime Minister read? How much of the wonderful richness of the world has he seen and learned to appreciate? To which extent has he seen his own culture from the outside, with the eyes of those who both envy it and hate it - and are the victim of it? Indeed, how much empathy does he have with those who suffer the consequences of his worldview, his words and his actions - such as on Iraq?

I find it mind-boggling that the same person makes a statement so imbued with manifest cultural superiority as the above and also seems so unable to handle his own and his country's relations with the Muslim world - for instance not knowing, as it seems, how to handle a letter to him from the Organization of the Islamic Conference that comprises 57 states and serves 1,4 billion Muslims worldwide.(See the OIC and a wider background here).

Generally, let's take the violence exercised on the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. Could the decision-makers have gone to war without ranking the citizens there as evil, under-educated, less civilised, lower-level beings not worthy of the human treatment we allot our own? We could hardly have bombed, killed and maimed about 1 million Iraqis through the sanction years and through the war if we felt that they were our equals, our brothers and sisters?

Wars become possible through various psycho-political combinations of contempt for "their" cultural and moral weakness, on the one hand, and demonization combined with projections of evil and primitiveness, on the other. In short, de-humanisation and humiliation. But we in the West do not understand the psycho-politics of humiliation, we seem to have lost both empathy and compassion for the weak. And an increasing proportion of the world's citizens feel weak in terms of power to influence the present and the future when they compare themselves with us in the West. They may feel proud and strong culturally or otherwise, but in today's world money and weapons is what counts in day-to-day affairs. It may be different tomorrow or the day after. The West will lose, the U.S.Empire go down.


Perhaps we could begin to learn something important for the future?

Perhaps we in the West could learn to be more humble, a bit more modest vis-à-vis the rest of the world?

Perhaps we could learn that others do not see us in the same bright idealistic and noble light that we tend to see ourselves in.

Perhaps we could become a bit more self-critical and be inspired by both Eric Clapton (Bo Diddley 1957) - "before you accuse me, take a look at yourself" - and Luke:

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you…

Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye?

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." (Luke 6:36-42).

Danes and other Westerners happily use products manufactured on the other side of the globe by people different from them in many ways. They want material products at the cheapest price - but want nothing to do with the people who satisfy their never-ending materialist cravings.

Denmark's immigration policy has become xenophobic in general and anti-Muslim in particular to an extent that characterizes the rogue state and the narcissist society.

Perhaps we could learn to appreciate a human, cultural and social globalization, not only a raw capitalist and military-intervention globalization?

Perhaps Westerners could show compassion for those who suffer - rather than turning them off at their borders.

Perhaps we could learn that if there is one natural law in human relations it is this: nothing good ever comes out of humiliating others.

Perhaps the Danish government could learn to build alliances with more than one country and one at that which, according to worldwide public opinion polls, is considered the largest threat to world peace (together with Israel)?

Perhaps the Danes and other Westerners could learn that we need huge reforms in the educational system to adapt to the future world society? That we should spend maximum 50% on understanding our own culture and history and religion and the rest on understanding others? That there is no point in business, law, physics, management or modern technology unless we have empathy and know how to be human and good fellow human beings.

Perhaps we could learn that there is no point in a neighbourhood ethics when the impact of our policies and day-to-day actions are global? That we need a new global ethics? That we need modesty and partnership with Nature and other cultures precisely because we have so much technical power?

Perhaps people around the world would appreciate us more if we introduced global history, teachings of all religions, peace and conflict-resolution and promoted an understanding of the importance and feasibility of non-violent politics or peace by peaceful means, the basic norm of the UN Charter?

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Perhaps the world would become a better place if our focus was not limited to our own little more or less parochial state and government policies but to the global society, that we at least tried our best to treat it with the same compassion as our own place?

Perhaps Denmark could spearhead the education of experts in genuinely free research on issues such as inter-cultural dialogue, reconciliation and forgiveness, the psychology of religions and faith-based practises. We simply all know too little about these things.

Perhaps Western governments need many more experts on the human, socio-psychological dimensions of conflict whom they could listen to before they plunge their countries and peoples into disasters such as the Iraq war or misses the likely human reactions to the publications of such drawings?

I could go on. You can go on too. We know it deep inside, don't we?

There is, in fact, so much we could learn. But sometimes it feels like our leaders have lost the willingness to learn. So convinced are they about their own unmatched excellence-cum-infallibility that they believe they can get along with just understanding their own culture - while demanding that others understand them. But in a globalizing world, it is no more possible to promote one rule for you and another for me. There is only one set of rules possible for us all.

Toward the end of his life Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western civilisation. He paused and said with a smile, "That would be a good idea."

Western civilisation needs help, urgently. But it behaves like a drunkard who refuses to see that he has a problem. And if he eventually does, blames everybody else.


Muhammad Series 1 Number 2 Number 3


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